Another Wolverine to Pittsburgh! Steelers Draft Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan in 5th Round of 2019 NFL Draft

It must have been déjà vu all over again in the Steelers draft room during the 5th round. Except this time it wasn’t a surprise. Four years ago when it came time for the Steelers to pick, they drafted Jesse James.

  • The Steelers followed form in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Michigan’s Zack Gentry.

The move counted as a bit of a surprise, as Heath Miller was still going reasonably strong, and the team had just resigned Matt Spaeth. The move turned out to be a wise one, as Heath Miller retired in after the 2016 season, and injuries to Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald made Jesse James the defacto starter at tight end in 2016 and 2017.

  • The Steelers released 2018 practice squader Bucky Hodges just days before the draft, prompting many to think Pittsburgh would address the position sooner.

Instead, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Dointae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, and running back Benny Snell before turning to Zack Gentry in the 5th round.

Zach Gentry, Steelers draft Zach Gentry 5th round 2019

Steelers draft Zach Gentry in 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland via

Draft analyst Lance Zierlein (son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein) described Zack Gentry this way:

With his size and background at Michigan, teams might be tempted to play him as a combination tight end with run-blocking duties, but he’s much better-suited in space than in the trenches. Gentry runs pretty well and moves fluidly as a route-runner, but his hands and focus can be maddening. He showed flashes of what he could do with a more capable quarterback last year, but his disappointing workouts and testing might have pushed back and out of the draft.

Is is the case with Dontae Johnson and perhaps Benny Snell, the Steelers appear to value Zack Gentry a little more highly than do the pundits.

Zack Gentry Highlight Tape

Zack Gentry actually played quarterback during his freshman year for the Wolverines, sat out 2016 presumably due to injury, and was back as a tight end in 2017 and 2018. During that time he caught 49 passes for four touchdowns.

Here is a look at some of his highlights:

IF nothing else Zach Gentry appears to have good hands. Welcome to Steelers Nation Zach Gentry.

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Reflections on Alan Faneca’s Retirement

Former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, perhaps the franchises best player at that position, retired Tuesday ending a 13 year career.

  • Drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft, Faneca broke into the starting line up and remained a fixture at guard for a decade.

During the team’s 2003 season Faneca proved his value to the team yet again, by shifting to left tackle (on first and second downs) when injuries had decimated the team’s offensive line. Faneca’s peers nonetheless voted him to the Pro Bowl.

Alan Faneca Tom Donahoe’s Last Great First Round Pick

Tom Donahoe, whose personnel moves had a huge hand in the Steelers return to contender status of the 1990’s, is oft remembered for a series of premium picks in the late 1990’s that either “didn’t pan out” (Troy Edwards) or were outright busts (Jermaine Stephens, Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat.)

But Faneca was has last great, and arguably greatest pick, and certainly his best first round pick overall. Coming to the Steelers in 1998, Faneca got a unique vantage point into Steelers history.

Faneca participated in (although did not contribute to) the decline of the Cowher-Donahoe era, helped usher in the rebirth and subsequent “knocking on heaven’s door” phase of the early Cowher-Colbert era, basked in the glory of Super Bowl XL, and stayed on for the beginning of the Mike Tomlin era.

No Money, No Honey….

Faneca, who was drafted mere months after the Steelers 1998 AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos, would suffer through the agony of two more AFC championship losses, both at the hands of the Patriots, and both at Heinz Field.

Alas, Faneca never had the chance to exorcise those AFC Championship demons with the rest of his teammates as he had departed for the New York Jets as a free agent in the 2008 off season.

Alan Faneca’s departure was not without some acrimony. Pittsburgh wanted him back but, as is their nature, the Steelers were not ready to break the bank for Faneca.

When it became clear an agreement was not in the offing, Faneca asked for a trade, and criticized the team for failing to provide him with financial security – an odd comment from someone who’d been paid tens of millions of dollars by the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin inherited the situation, and managed it well. Faneca might not have been happy, he might not have bought into Larry Zierlein’s new blocking schemes (not that he should have) but he certainly gave his all while on the field, right up until his final game against Jacksonville.

  • Fanaca of course played for New York for two seasons and then finished his career at Pittsburgh West, aka the Cardinals.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to who will be the first pure-Cowher era Steeler to enter into the Hall of Fame. While Jerome Bettis will likely beat him there, if there is any justice Faneca will some day join him.

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Steelers Lose Shipley, Interview April

A.O. Shipley, a Pittsburgh area native and former center for Penn State, has refused a contract offer from the Steelers and instead signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, reports the Post Gazette.

It was first reported that Shipley declined to sign with the Steelers when the team could not tell him who his position coach for 2010 would be — which many took as a sign that Larry Zierlien’s days were numbered.

However, A.O. Shipley told Mike Bires of the Beaver Times that he was looking for a team that would give me the best chance to make a 53 man roster. Shipley was a 7th round draft pick for the Steelers in 2009 and spent the 2009 season on the team’s practice squad.

Tomlin Interviews Bobby April

The search to replace fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky is on and, although there is not much out there on his replacement, what little news there is, is encouraging.

Ed Bouchette reported in Post-Gazette Plus yesterday that Mike Tomlin was interviewing Bobby April. April severed as the Steelers special teams coach in 1994 and 1995. He was last seen on a Steelers sideline running up to Bill Cowher and encouraging him to call a surprise on sides kick during Super Bowl XXX.

The kicked worked, and today still forms an important part in the legened of the greatest comeback that never was…. (Thanks Neil…)

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Watch Tower: Arians’ Saga a Victory for Old School Journalism

Steeler Nation waited in pins and needles this past week, as rumors flew left and right concerning the fate of Bruce Arians, the Steelers offensive coordinator.

We heard from Jim Wexell that he was out, as a result of the changed culture brought in by the Steelers new investors. That story was confirmed by ESPN Pittsburgh, who reported several times that Arians was a goner.

Then we heard, it was from Pro Football Talk if I am not mistaken, that Arians himself had been the source of the rumor. Finally, Jim Wexell again tells us that it was Ben Roethlisberger who saved Arians’ job.

Pittsburgh’s two daily newspapers, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review, stood pat. Both papers reported the story, but refused to confirm. Ed Bouchette, writing in PG Plus, confirmed that there was pressure from the front office for Arians’ head, but went no further.

In the background of all of this noise, Bouchette did report something that was based in verifiable fact — that A.O. Shipley refused to resign with the team, in part based on the Steelers unwillingness to confirm who his position coach would be.

The Magic of Objectivity

Less than 24 hours later, the news broke that offensive line coach Larry Zierlien had been fired, but that Bruce Airans had been retained.

The one story that was based on objective facts turned out to be true; the one simply came from unnamed sources wasn’t true…. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

This should also serve as a reminder to journalists everywhere how important it is to distinguish fact from truth, to use the differientation made famous by the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee.

When the news broke that Arians was a goner, Arians apparently went to Tomlin for confirmation. Tomlin refused to speak with him according to Jim Wexell, and Arians interpreted this to mean he got the axe. He told someone who went and told some one, and soon enough, everyone knew (even Steelers fans living in Argentina.)

  • Fact: Tomlin refused to talk to Arians

Everything else was all subjective. The repoters who insisted that Arians was out bought into the subjectivity.

  • Turth: Regardless of rumor or pressure, Tomlin had apparently not made a decision

In the end, the turth was a lot less sexier, but true journalism is about letting an audience know the facts, however mundane they might be.

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Larry Zierlein Axed, Bruce Arians to Stay on as Offensive Coordinator

At the end of the day it was nothing more than a lot of sound and fury, the signified a lot less than everyone expected and many wanted.

For two days rampant rumors circulated reporting that:

  • Mike Tomlin was set to fire Bruce Arians,
  • the front office was pressuring Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians,
  • the new investors in the Steelers ownership group had led to a “changed culture” which mean Tomlin would have to fire Bruce Arians.

There was even the rumor that Bruce Arians himself had leaked the word of his own demise.

Mike Tomlin did begin the Steelers 2010 off season by making the first change of his coaching staff since arriving in 2007. But Tomlin fired offensive line coach Larry Zierlein and told Bruce Airans he would remain as offensive coordinator for another year.

Thanks for visiting. Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this later. Note to regular readers, the final installment of the Steelers 1989 series is due today, but alas it is not yet ready…. Check back soon.

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Watch Tower: Rumors Swirl Over Bruce Arian’s Fate

Two days after the Steelers finished 9-7, but out of the playoffs, the only real news thus far is that Ken Anderson has decided to retire after three years as the Steelers quarterbacks coach.

But no one wanted to talk about Kenny A today….

Agonizing Over Arians

Yesterday freelance journalist Jim Wexell reported that his sources indicated that Bruce Arians was to be fired. The brief Twitter report revealed that Rooney had told Tomlin to resolve the situation in whatever way he saw fit, but that with the new investors “the culture was changing,” which Wexell explained to mean that Arians was out.

Steel Curtain Rising questioned the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette as about Wexell’s report during his daily chat, but Bouchette did not take the question. (He did indicate at other times that he expected Arians to stay.)

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin announced Anderson’s retirement, but refused to rule out further coaching changes.

This came on the heels of an ESPN Radio report indicating that Arians would be fired in the near future. Post Gazette blogger Bob Smizik indicated at mid-day that ESPN was backing off their report, but later he indicated ESPN was standing behind their story.

Just the Fact, Please….

Writing on PG Plus, Ed Bouchette confirmed a few facts, but not the story itself. He indicated that if Arians has in fact been fired, neither he nor the front office know this yet. Bouchette, like Smizik, went at great pains to point out that the ESPN Radio reporter who broke the story is a serious journalist and not someone to traffic in rumors.

However, Bouchette also confirmed that “the front office” wants Arians out, but Tomlin does not. Just who “front office” is remains unclear. It could be Kevin Colbert or Art Rooney II or both.

(Bouchette also reported that Tomlin has fought successfully to save the job of one of his special teams coaches following the 2007 season, a fact was not widely known before today.)

The Tribune-Review’s Scott Brown reporting paints a similar story, that Arians has not yet been fired and may not be fired, although Brown hones in on the fact that neither Tomlin nor the Steelers have issued reports affirming Arians’ continued employment with the team.

Brown also informed his readers that Tomlin was in the process of meeting with his players, one-by-one, and then would move on to meet with each coach individually.

Both Brown and Ed Bouchette informed readers that no final decision on Arians is likely until Tomlin has completed those meetings, something which might not happen until the beginning of next week.

Of Pundits and Peanut Gallaries

Regardless of whether he ultimately stays or goes, the news that Bruce Arians could be about to go has generated a firestorm.

The Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey, who was critical of many of Tomlin’s coaching hires, has written an excellent piece that about the dilemma created by Arians.

As if almost on cue, Ron Cook from the Post-Gazette is defending Arians, contending that it is simply unfair to use Arians as a scapegoat.

As expected, the internet is where the fire burns the hottest. The website Behind the Steel Curtain, one of the best, if not the best fan-run sites, post revealing the Jim Wexell news drew close to 84 comments. The post discussing the ESPN Radio report drew 134 comments, and counting.

That of course only measures the volume on one site out of hundereds, meaning this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Larry Zierlein’s Job Also in Doubt?

Bouchette also reported that the Steelers were attempting to resign several practice squad player, specifically he mentioned A.O. Shipley, the man the Steelers drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 draft. Shipley apparently would not sign until the Steelers could confirm who his position coach would be.

The Steelers were not able to make that confirmation today.

Hence, offensive line coach Larry Zierlein could also be on the chopping block.

Thanks for visiting. Time allowing, Steel Curtain Rising will weigh in soon on what should happen with Arians.

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Philly Hammers Pittsburgh as Eagles Defeat Steelers 15-6

Normally you do not think of 15-6 as a lopsided score, but Pittsburgh got its head handed to it today as the Eagles defeated the Steelers 15-6.

And this comes from someone who was traveling on business and did not even see the game….

  • Seriously, one does not need to watch a minute of action to jump to this conclusion.

As the offensive line goes, so goes Ben. And the team.

Ben Roethlisberger got sacked EIGHT TIMES! That is enough to negate the quality protection the unit afforded Ben in the first eight games.

So much for the talk of Larry Zierlien’s new techniques taking effect. So much for Chris Kemoeatu making us forget about Alan Faneca.

The Steelers one glaring question mark going into 2008 was the offensive line. The preseason and the first two games made everyone think that the line would not be an issue.

It is.

Ben is lucky not to come out of the game worse than he did.

Larry Zierlein and Mike Tomlin had better figure out what went wrong, because Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are going to be licking their chops watching today’s game films…..

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Answers the 2008 Steelers Must Provide

Mike Tomlin opened training camp declaring that he expected more from his second year veterans, noting that NFL player’s reveal their true mettle during their sophomore seasons.

The same holds true of second year coaches and their teams.

Bill Cowher’s 1993 campaign clarified that 1992 was not a fluke, but Steelers fans also learned that over-confidence could be a Cowher-coached team’s Achilles heel.

The Steelers kick off in less than XX hours against the Houston Texas, embarking on a 17 week campaign that will take them through the NFL’s toughest schedule. Regardless of their ultimate won-loss record, this team is going to reveal of answers to questions left unanswered in 2007.

Can the Steelers Close?

The most disquieting trait of the 2007 Steelers was its tendency to give up games in the final moments.

Tomlin deserves judgment on his own merits, but thoughts of “that (almost) never happened under Bill Cowher” were unavoidable. How many times did we hear The Chin declare: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing… It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”

Their 10-6 record notwithstanding, the 2007 Steelers too often found ways to lose.

The exact cause of these late game let downs is unknown, but candidates are multifold:

  • Ryan Clark’s absence was far more acute than anyone anticipated
  • Tory Polamalu was out or otherwise not himself for most of the year
  • The pass rush disappeared over the course of the season
  • The offense lacked the ability to play “attrition football.”
  • Self-destruction on special teams

Another, seldom discussed, suggested cause for the Steelers late game woes goes right to the heart of the working relationship between Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau. Both men gush with mutual admiration for the other, but the defense started so strong, then wanned as the year progressed. Was it the injuries, or were teams making adjustments to the Steeler defense, and if so, why couldn’t Lebeau and Tomlin counter? Suffice to say, it was impossible to watch opposing offenses march down the field time after time without at least wondering if the head coach and defensive coordinator were on the same page.

Ryan Clark is back and Tory Polamalu is on the mend. Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons look to inject new life into the Steelers pass rush. The additions of Mewelde Moore and Rasheed Mendenhall should boost the Steelers ability to kill the clock.

It all comes down to this: Good teams win close games. That may be cliché, but clichés become clichés because they are true.

Can Ben Avoid a Beating?

For all but three seasons of his tenure, the offensive line was a team strength under Bill Cowher. So it’s easy to point to the beating Ben took last year and say, “You see, new head coach, new offensive line coach, new center, and look what happens….”

Alas, the line gave up more sacks in 2006 than it did in 2007. So we’d better say that the line was one of Cowher’s strength during all but four of his seasons.

This year Justin Hardwig replaces Sean Mahan, who was shipped back to Tampa. Marvel Smith’s back is better. Willie Colon has year under his belt as starter, and while Alan Fanaca is in New York, the word is that Chris Kemoeatu brings a nasty edge to his game.

Enough players have come forward saying that “Alan was great, but you know, its hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” for Steel Curtain Rising to admit that we perhaps criticized the “well, Larry Zierlein was installing a new blocking system” excuse/explanation too harshly. Fine.

Ditto Mike Tomlin’s argument that pass protection involves more than just the line. Ben and Santonio Holmes did seem to be developing a rapport for audible in the preseason. Excellent.

Healthier players. Comfort with a new system and new leaders. Better coordination between the QB, his backs and receivers. Fantastic.

All of it sounds so nice.

But results are what matter.

The bottom line is, Ben gets better protection, 2008 can be a special season. However, another 40 + sack season for Ben could have serious consequences that extend far beyond the season finale against Cleveland.

Should Bob Ligashesky Have Been Fired?

Special teams were appalling in 2007. Some critics have argued that the Steelers special teams, statistically speaking, actually improved from 2006 to 2007.

Yeah, right.

Football is about imposing your will, and establishing momentum. Returns for touchdowns kill momentum. You can keep your opponents return averages down all you want. Averages are irrelevant if you consistently 50 yard returns in the fourth quarter with a leads to protect, you’re still self-destructing on special teams.

Steel Curtain Rising has spoken often enough about this issue in the past. Tomlin determined that the 2007 unit failed for want of special teams aces. That appears to be changing. If special teams continue to fail in 2008, Tomlin must be ready to take the unusual step of firing Bob Ligashesky in mid-season.

The 2008 campaign will undoubtedly teach us more about Mike Tomlin and the men he leads. He knows his players, and they know him. But regardless of what other lessons present themselves, the Steelers must protect the quarterback, improve on special teams, and act with killer instinct when things get close for good things to happen in 2008.

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Between the Lines: Final Comment on Alan Faneca

Today’s post deals with an eyebrow raising statement Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola made in the Digest’s May edition. Our most recent Watch Tower post debated Labriola’s contention that Rashard Mendenhall’s arrival could help compensate for the Steelers (very wise) choice not to reach for an offensive lineman in the 2008 draft.

In assembling his argument, Labriola offered this snippet of insight into the Steelers offensive line woes:

With Faneca gone, the offensive line is without its lone star, but it also becomes a group without a dominating personality, without a player who has earned the stature of a superstar among his peers. Faneca was never a problem in any way during his final season here, but it’s also true he never completely bought into the new regime.

“With Faneca gone, it will be easier to change some things, to teach different techniques, to coerce everyone to do it the way it’s being taught instead of the way it used to be done. [Emphasis added.]

One of the real perks Digest readers enjoy is that you sometimes get a little peek into the inner workings of the Steelers. Labriola’s observation that Fanaca “never completely bought into the new regime” is attention grabbing.

Just what does it mean?

  • It’s hard to say. Labriola’s certainly not making the case for addition by subtraction. Faneca was too good for that.

However, it’s also true that cohesion is an important component in quality offensive line play. Labriola’s observations perhaps cast offensive line coach Larry Zierlein’s comments about new blocking techniques in a new light. (For the record, Steel Curtain Rising criticized Zierlein for those remarks.)

Anyone who has ever worked in business knows that any new system requires “user buy in” for success. Without it, things flounder quickly. (Think the metric system in the US, the Susan B. Anthony dollar.)

It is too much of a stretch to think that, lineman for lineman, the net quality of the Steelers offensive line corps will improve with Fanaca’s departure. But Labriola’s revelation makes it conceivable that, as a whole, the overall quality of play of the offensive line can improve in 2008.


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Time to Debunk Steelers Offensive Line Myths

“…A good RB can help an OLine look better, as can better receivers.”
– Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on-line chat, 4/28/08

The Steelers may very well have succeeded in making a virtue out of necessity by stockpiling offensive weapons for want of offensive (or defensive) lineman in the 2008 draft. Time will tell.

In the here and now one thing is certain: There are myths circulating about the Steelers offensive line, and they will be debunked right now.

The source of the first “Weapons vs. Protection myth” is Ed Bouchette himself. In making reference to some comment (not available on-line) by Mike Tomlin, Ed Bouchette suggested that “Yes, I thought Tomlin’s answer was a good one. A Good RB can help an OLne look better, as can better receivers.”

That sounds nice. It even has a certain, if superficial, logic to it. But the simple fact is: Winning on offense begins with the offensive line.

One need not look back too far for proof. Flash back: 2003. The Steelers offensive line is such disarray that Alan Fananca has to shift from guard to center depending on what down it is…. The Steelers finished 6-10.

Look a little farther: 1998, One year after running roughshod over the league Jerome Bettis yards per-carry drop from 4.4 to 3.8, his total yards drop by almost 500, and he scores a mere three touchdowns. The difference? John Jackson departed for San Diego, wreaking havoc with the Steelers offensive line.

1999 was worse. The offensive line was weaker, and Bettis barely cracked a 1000 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Indeed, many argued that the Bus was washed up, and that Richard Huntley was the better back.

The fact that that argument looks so foolish today is as much a testament to the improved offensive line as it is to Bettis himself.

The Steelers offensive line improved tremendously in 2000 and 2001. It’s no coincidence that the play of Bettis, Kordell Stweart, and the receiving corps dramatically improved.

Myth number two comes from offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. He recently informed the Pittsburgh media that he’d changed some blocking techniques when he arrived in 2007, and that the players should improve in 2008 as they become more comfortable.

Yeah, right.

If that is the case, then why didn’t the offensive line improve as the 2007 season progressed? Instead, the line played above expectations during the early part of the year, and only to get progressively worse as the year season wore on.

Fate did not allow the Steelers to address this area in the draft. So be it.

Solid play at center coupled with a healthier Marvel Smith continued development by Willie Colon, could result in better protection for Ben Roethlisberger and more daylight for the running backs.

But until that scenario plays itself out on the field, the Steelers offensive line remains an area of concern. And no amount sophistry from Larry Zierlein or the press will alter that reality.

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