Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs. Patriots, DeAngelo Williams touchdown AFC Championship, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

3 Factors that Fueled Steelers 3rd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

The Steelers 9-game winning streak skidded to a thundering halt at Gillette Stadium with Pittsburgh’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. The AFC Championship loss to the Patriots of course ends the 2016 Steelers season, their Super Bowl hopes and perhaps the last best hope of keeping Bill Belichick from breaking Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record.

  • Steelers Nation is not a pleasant place after a thorough clock cleaning at the hands of their conference rivals.

Ironically enough, 3 root causes fueled the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots: A failure to get pressure on Tom Brady, a lack of a playoff-caliber number 2 wide receiver, and a failure to control the line of scrimmage when it counted.

Cobi Hamilton, Logan Ryan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship,steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Logan Ryan breaks up a pass for Cobi Hamilton in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Champonship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Tom Brady Dictates Tempo, as Patriots Dance Around Steelers

At 39, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in the NFL, a status he seized 15 years ago in part by leading the AFC Championship upset against the Steelers at Heinz Field (with all due respect to Drew Bledsoe’s excellent relief efforts.)

  • But if Tom Brady is the greatest of this era, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time, he remains vulnerable.

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but if you succeed in getting pressure on him, you can make him look human. New York Giants did it in two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos did it last year in the AFC Championship. Houston even managed to hang with Brady for a few quarters by following the same formula. In the leadup to the game, the Steelers talked the talk of doing the same.

How well did the Steelers walk the walk?

  • Javon Hargrave forced a 3 and out by sacking Brady with the Patriots holding an 3-0 lead early in the 1st quarter.
  • Sean Davis sacked Brady late in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots held a 33-9 lead

In between, you’d be hard pressed to find a Steeler who breathed on Brady, much less touched him. (For the record, Stephon Tuitt is listed as getting a “QB hit.) It doesn’t take a football genius to predict the results.

Javon Hargrave, Tom Brady, Javon Hargrave sacks Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Sacks were spare in the Steelers latest AFC loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The New England Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, Tom Brady threw for almost 400 yards, and Chris Hogan – a former lacrosse player – caught 9 passes for 180 yards. In his post-game video commentary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette remarked that Bill Belichick observed that the Steelers chose to only 3 rush three defenders most of the night.

If video tape analysis confirms that, then Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler should be questioned as to why they didn’t try to send James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons after Brady more often. When you lose as badly as the Steeler lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, coaches open themselves to such “What iffing.”

  • But even when the Steelers went after Brady, things fell apart.

On Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, the Steelers sent the house. Yet, the Patriots’ line completely picked Pittsburgh’s blitz so perfectly, that even at age 58, Mark Malone could have left the broadcast booth and made that throw. (And yes, it helped that there wasn’t a Steeler within 10 yards of Hogan.)

And that was the story of the night. The Steelers couldn’t and wouldn’t get pressure on Brady. Instead Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler trusted their young secondary to make plays in coverage, and Tom Brady scorched the Steelers secondary.

  • Pittsburgh started off the 2016 season on pace to break the 1988 Steelers defense’s record for ineptitude in pressuring the passer.

They revved up their sack production well enough to earn themselves a spot in the AFC Championship, but unfortunately on the biggest day of the season, the Steelers defense reverted to its early season form.

Wanted: A Playoff Caliber Number 2 Wide Out in Pittsburgh

A little over a year ago, as the Steelers headed to Denver for the divisional playoff game, word was that Sammie Coates was the player to watch in the quest to compensate for Antonio Brown’s absence. Coates played well enough that day, that many coaches had him penciled in as Martavis Bryant’s replacement as soon as news of Byrant’s suspension broke.

  • Who was the target of Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass a bomb down the sidelines on 3rd and 1 the Steelers first series?

Sammie Coates of course.

IF Coates catches that ball, then he puts the Patriots on notice that the Steelers now have a multidimensional, vertical passing game, and he forces them to respect it. Instead, Coates dropped the ball and the Steelers punted.

Coates’ drop isn’t much of a surprise for those following his multiple broken fingers story and/or his latent loss of Ben Roethlisberger’s confidence which writers like Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell have alluded to. It’s telling, however, that the Steelers passing game focused so much on Coates, whom the Steelers targeted 5 times.

  • The Steelers knew they needed someone to stretch the field and divert attention from Antonio Brown.
Eli Rogers, Kyle Van Noy, Eli Rogers fumble AFC Championship game, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Eli Rogers fumbles late in the 3rd quarter in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

During the Steelers 9-game winning streak, Todd Haley has relied on reserve receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to take heat off of Antonio Brown. And the development of both of those men played a pivotal role in the Steelers late season rally.

  • But ultimately, neither man is ready to be a number 2 wide receiver on a Super Bowl team.

Cobi Hamilton had a number of drops and negated his own touchdown by stepping out of bounds. Eli Rogers made some nice catches, but fumbled the ball away deep in Pittsburgh territory, when New England held a 27 to 9 lead late in the third quarter.

Jesse James played a strong game at tight end, his failure to get into the end zone notwithstanding. He might not be a true number 1 NFL tight end, but he was not a liability on the field. The same could not be said for other Steelers pass catchers not named Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams.

On a night when Le’Veon Bell was lost early the Steelers were going to need their passing game to pick up the slack. They weren’t up to the task.

Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage When It Counted

On the face of it, the Steelers offensive did a stealer job against the Patriots, while the Steelers defensive line did its part against the running game. The Patriots failed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, and only hit him once per ESPN’s statistics. Fair enough. The Steelers line protected its quarterback.

But did anyone else notice the Patriots ability to completely collapse the Steelers offensive line in the Red Zone before the first half ended? DeAngelo Williams lost yards on two consecutive carries. It’s one thing try to ram it in and fail; it is quite another to get smothered in the process.

Jamesy Harrison, LeGarrette Blount, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Jamesy Harrison tackles LeGarrette Blount in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Officially speaking the Steelers run defense “shut LeGarrett Blount down” by holding him to below 50 total yards and keeping his average below 3.

  • But Blount literally needed only 1 carry to break the back of the Steelers defense.

On 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19, LeGarrett Blount ran 18 yards rugby-maul style to the Pittsburgh’s 1 with seemingly the entire Steelers defense hanging on. One play later, and Blount was in the end zone, and the Steelers were staring down an 18-point deficit.

James Harrison argued that the Patriots didn’t dominate the Steelers physically; for the most part that’s true. But these two series provide poignant examples of how the Patriots made critical plays when it counted.

Conclusion? These Steelers Simply Aren’t Ready

Is this a harsh assessment of the Steelers performance? You bet it is. The New England Patriots were yet again superior to the Pittsburgh Steelers in another AFC Championship game. That’s a bitter pill to swallow after 9 straight wins.

  • But even a brutal loss such as this one shouldn’t overshadow the gains the Steelers have made.

All hope looked to be lost when the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside the 2-minute warning to give the Steelers their 4th straight loss. Cameron Heyward going on IR prompted this site to declare an Aliens style “Game over!” yet the defense improved during the latter half of the season. And the Steelers spent large portions of the season playing two men who, a year ago would have been charitably projected as their 5th and 6th string wide receivers.

  • At the end of the day, it was good enough to get the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but not through the AFC Championship.

In a city that measures success in Lombardis, the 2016 Steelers weren’t quite ready for a Super Bowl run. Mike Tomlin is wise to remind everyone that the Steelers will arrive at Latrobe next summer starting from zero, just like everyone else in the NFL.

Yes, they will again indeed start at zero next July. But if the Steelers internalize the lessons they learned this season, they will give themselves and excellent chance of not only returning but also winning the AFC Championship and the game that comes after it….

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

6 Changes in Pittsburgh Since the Steelers Last Win vs Ravens

The Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Day show down with the Baltimore Ravens has turned out to be everything the schedule makers hoped it to be: A contest to determine the AFC North champions.

While the Steelers are taking a superior 9-5 record and a six game winning streak into the game, they’re also fighting another inconvenient truth:

  • The Steelers last win vs Ravens came 784 days ago.

Yes, the Ravens arrive in Pittsburgh with their own four game winning streak vs. the Steelers.

For the record, the Steelers last win against the Ravens came on November 2nd, at Heinz Field on the night that Joe Greene joined Ernie Stautner as the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have his number retired. A lot has changed in Pittsburgh since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens.

james harrison sacks joe flacco, james harrison, joe flacco, steelers last win vs ravens

James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the Steelers November 2014 win over Baltimore. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Baltimore CBS Local

1. Keith Butler Replaces Dick LeBeau at Defensive Coordinator

This represents what is likely the biggest change since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. Following Super Bowl XLV, Dick LeBeau did what he could to compensate for the declining talent on defense and kept the Steelers competitive on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and 2012.

  • Yet, but 2013 the talent deficiencies could no longer be swept under the rug.

Statically the Steelers defense dropped further in 2014, although those numbers mask a late season surge by the Dick LeBeau’s defense over the final four games of the season. Mike Tomlin nonetheless decided to make a change following the season when it appeared that Keith Butler would finally accept a defensive coordinator promotion rather than wait for LeBeau to retire.

  • During his first year, Keith Butler fielded a bend but don’t break type defense.

If yardage totals rose, they were off set by an increase in sacks, turnovers, and Red Zone play. After a slow start in this season, the 2016 defense is showing a lot of similar characteristics.

Advantage: Steelers

2. Steelers Scrap Their Secondary and Start Over

When you look at the Steelers defensive backfield depth charts from 2014 and 2016 side by side, the sea change really strikes you:

steelers secondary depth chart, steelers defensive backs depth chart, steelers depth chart defensive backfield

The Steelers secondary has changed a lot since 2014…

First, the Steelers are carrying 3 fewer defensive backs now than they were 2 years ago. Some of that was dictated by age – even the most wild-eyed optimists knew that Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were nearing the end when 2014 started.

  • But it also appears that the Steelers were perhaps trying to substitute for quality with quantity.

The complete makeover says that their attempt failed. Of the 12 defensive backs the Steelers had on their roster the last time they beat the Ravens, only 3 remain. Yes, that number is three, because Shamarko Thomas is now exclusively a special teams player whereas Robert Golden occupied that role 2 years ago.

But gone or Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, Ross Ventrone, Cortez Allen, and Will Allen who the Steelers have replaced with Justin Gilbert, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and Sean Davis.

Going into the Christmas game vs. the Ravens, the Steelers secondary looks to be improved since their last win.

Advantage: Steelers

3. Le’Veon Bell Establishes Himself as an Elite Back without a Backup

OK. This one involves a little slight of hand. Le’Veon Bell’s breakout game vs. the Tennessee Titans came two weeks after the Steelers last win over the Ravens. But that is the moment he lost his backup, when LeGarrette Blount decided to go AWOL.

  • Since then, the Steelers have struggled to find someone to back up Le’Veon Bell.

No, no one is forgetting DeAngelo Williams, but due to injuries and suspensions, you can count the number of games Williams and Bell have played in together in single digits. Williams is returning from an injury and is expected to dress, but he hasn’t played since loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Advantage: Steelers, unless Bell gets hurt….

4. A Carousel of Receivers has Started Opposite Antonioy Brown

Antonio Brown was already an All Pro and then some the last time Pittsburgh beat Baltimore but injuries and suspensions have forced the Steelers to play musical wide receiver since then.

Martavis Bryant had announced his presence two games earlier and was expected to usurp Markus Wheaton as the Steelers number 2 wide receiver, but that hasn’t happened thanks to Martavis Bryant’s issues with addiction.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was basically just a special teams player when the Steelers last triumphed over the Ravens, but since then he’s emerged as a legitmate downfield threat, gotten promoted to the number 2 WR slot only to get hurt. Sammie Coates has had shots at the Steelres number 2 WR slot, but has failed to grasp them due to injuries and inefficiency.

Mike Tomlin has said that Darrius Heyward-Bey might play against the Ravens on Christmas, but at this point it looks like Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton will have serve as Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd and 3rd choices downfield.

Advantage: Ravens

5. Heath Miller Has Hung It Up

Heath Miller has since retired since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. For the record, Miller only caught one pass in that game, but it went for 14 yards, so it probably resulted in a third down.

The Steelers of course brought Ladarius Green in to replace Heath Miller but lost Green for the first half of the season due to injury. Green has been making his presence felt since then, but is in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Given his history with concussions, it is not likely he will play.

Advantage: Ravens

6. Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel Have Moved On

The fact that Brett Keisel has retired since the Steelers last victory over the Ravens surprises no one, but Steve McLendon’s departure perhaps does. By 2014 it was clear that Steve McLendon wasn’t going to be Casey Hampton, but he didn’t need to be and he appeared to have a long future in Pittsburgh ahead of him.

However, the Steelers made a salary cap calculation not to invest in a nose tackle, and moved one.

Stephon Tuitt has replaced Brett Keisel and Javon Hargrave has replaced Tuitt. Normally that would give the Steelers a strong duo, but Stephon Tuitt is nursing a knee injury. And with Cam Heyward out for the year, that is not good.

Advantage: Ravens

There you have it. Pittsburgh has seen a lot of changes since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens. Some of them offer promise for the Christmas day show down, others favor Baltimore.

What does that mean?

Probably that the Steelers-Ravens Christmas Day game will come down to who can hit the hardest – just as any good Steelers-Ravens game should.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who shies away from grading on effort but sometimes just can’t help himself, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Pittsburgh’s loss to the Patriots.

jarvis jones, steelers vs patriots, steelers report card vs. patriots, steelers grades patriots

Jarvis Jones’ play stood out vs. the Patriots, particularly early on. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

 

Quarterback
So, we ask to all of those Landry Jones skeptics out there, do you know understand why Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert kept him on the roster after rough preseasons in 2013 and 2014? No, Landry Jones did not make any forget he wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger. Yes, Landry Jones interception cost the Steelers dearly, and no he wasn’t able to rally the Steelers late. But Jones played as a competent and generally confident quarterback, and if he couldn’t carry his team, he certainly was not a liability. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Can you imagine Le’Veon Bell playing in a fully healthy Steelers offense? Less than a year removed from a serious injury, Le’Veon Bell is once again playing the type of football that could revive the concept of a “franchise running back.” Bell carried the ball 21 times for 81 yards, often times making something out of nothing. He also caught the ball 10 times and was a threat every time he touched the pigskin. Grade: A-steelers, report card, grades, steelers vs. patriots, coaching, special teams, unsung heros

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two passes on two targets and is not shying away from his blocking assignments, even if no one confuses him for Heath Miller. David Johnson had a catch. Xavier Grimble had 5 targets but only managed two catches on five targets. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught 7 passes for 106 yards despite suffering a quad injury late in the third quarter. He also ran for 13 yards on a reverse. Brown has been criticized for not making more effort on the interception in the end zone, although replays show that Malcolm Butler had pretty good positioning. Darrius Heyward-Bey had one excellent touchdown catch and another excellent touchdown catch and run that was negated by a questionable penalty. He was also penalized twice for offensive pass interference – both were questionable calls. Cobi Hamilton had 3 catches on 6 targets and if he continues to play at this level the Steelers may have difficulty putting him on the practice squad. Sammie Coates had one catch for four yards.

The Steelers wide outs made some good plays, but they didn’t make quite enough of them, evidenced in part by the fact that Landry Jones held the ball for an extremely long time at times, only to use his check off receivers. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line’s performance against the Patriots offers a mixed bag. On the one hand, the New England Patriots hardly touched Landry Jones providing him with end-to-end excellent pass protection throughout the game. Unfortunately, their run blocking was not as consistent. At times, particularly early in the game, Le’Veon Bell had plenty of room to run. At others, Bell’s tenacity and ingenuity transformed losses into 2 or 3 yard gains. While it is probably safe to say the Steelers offensive line won the battle of scrimmage, their victory fell fall short of imposing their will, which is what was needed in this game. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made his presence known by stopping LeGarrette Blount cold not once, but twice for no gain, but failed to make any impact plays beyond that and Blount gained most of his yards rushing in his direction. Ricardo Mathews staged somewhat of a comeback, if you can call it that, in that gave up far fewer yards than he did last week. The Steelers defense have now given up back to back 100 yard rushing performances, which unfortunately does not seem as out of character as it once did. And the Steelers defensive line failed to pressure the passer. Cameron Heyward might be out, but the Standard is not being upheld. Grade: D

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons led the Steelers with 12 tackles including one for a loss. However, he also made several tackles after seeing his man give up long gains. Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier split time although neither man set themselves apart. The same can be said for Anthony Chickillo, Arthur Moats and James Harrison, although Moats did get a hit in on Tom Brady. There were many plays when LeGarrette Blount reached the second level and hammered his way through to achieve long gains. The linebackers must bear responsibility for that. Grade: D

Secondary

Artie Burns had better develop Deion Sanders like coverage abilities, because right now he has a Deion Sanders like aversion and ability to tackle. This was not a good day for the Steelers secondary. Tom Brady was 7-12 on third down and New England had 21 first downs. The Steelers might have won the battle for time of possession, but it did not feel like it. Sean Davis was supposed to help Robert Golden on run coverage but failed to do so. It was a rookie mistake, and one that cost the Steelers. Likewise, William Gay had a shot at stopping Blount on his touchdown, but missed. The Steelers secondary must improve. Grade: D

Special Teams
The Steelers gave up one long punt return, but Steven Johnson negated that, and Greg Warren made a heads up play in recovering it that could have changed the course of the game. New England got no where on its single kick return. In contrast, Fitzgerald Toussanit and Justin Gilbert both made solid kick returns.

While those positives are real, the special teams grade must reflect Chris Boswell’s 3/5 on field goals. In all fairness to Chris Boswell, the wind was clearly a factor at Heinz Field and had he made his last kick, it would have set the record. But his first missed kick of 42 yards should have been made. Two successful kicks would have dramatically altered the game’s dynamic.

The Steelers needed a spark from their special teams, they got one with the forced fumble, but the missed kicks balance that out. Grade: C

Coaching
You do not contest a game against New England Patriots deep into the third quarter and come within 11 points of winning as short handed as the Pittsburgh Steelers were without good preparation.

Todd Haley’s game plan figured to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell, and he did not disappoint. However, the Patriots, as expected, loaded the box, and Haley was ready to take advantage. Credit both Haley and Jones for finding a way to get Antonio Brown the ball. Mike Munchak also deserves credit for preparing his offensive line, and giving Landry Jones the time he needed to throw.

Keith Butler also deserves credit for his part in ensuring the Steelers were competitive. Yes, the Steelers defense failed to contain Rob Gronkowski when it counted. Yes, they gave up far too many rushing yards. But they also forced the Patriots to punt five times, and forced a number of three and outs.

  • At the end of the day, it wasn’t enough.

The Steelers still missed too many tackles and failed to get pressure on Brady save for the first series of the second half.

Mike Tomlin’s pregame planning and assessment was right. The Steelers couldn’t rely on Landry Jones to win the game for them, and they’re game plan reflected that. When the Steelers performed well, their focus was evident. Still, too many penalties and too many missed opportunities took their toll. To win this game, the Steelers needed to stay on edge from start to finish, and too many times they fell off that edge.

Nonetheless, the Steelers comportment on the field and their comments off of the field show a team that expected to win and believed they were capable of doing so. How many teams in a similar situation would have embraced that attitude? The Steelers did, and that is to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Early on, VERY early on, their was one player who clearly showed up with an intention of winning this game. This player showed that by forcing a fumble on the Patriots first play from scrimmage, making a beautiful tackle from behind the line of scrimmage, and by flying around all over the field. While his game wasn’t flawless, Jarvis Jones set the tone early for the Steelers and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Le’Veon Bell Loses Appeal, Steelers Running Back Faces 3 Game Suspension

The Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell has lost the appeal of his failed drug test, and will be suspended for the first three games of the Steelers 2016 season.

le'veon bell, reggie nelson, steelers, bengals, steelers vs. bengals, pittsburgh cincinnati december 2014

Reggie Nelson injures Steelers Le’Veon Bell in December 2014 AFC North Show Down. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Associated Press

Le’Veon Bell first ran afoul of the NFL’s substance abuse policies in July of 2013 when he an LeGarrettee Blount were caught driving while smoking marijuana. The NFL initially suspended Bell for 4 games, a suspension which was later reduced to 2. Since then Bell has said all of the right things, and was even offered up as an example for Martavis Bryant, who is struggling with marijuana addiction.

Bell went so far as to mock the random drug tests he got in April 20th:

When Steelers OTA’s began, Le’Veon Bell assured reporters he would be ready for Pittsburgh’s season opener the focus was on the recovery from the knee injury he suffered at the hands of Cincinnati Bengals thug linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the Steelers loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field last fall.

Then in the middle of June “rumors” began:

Given that the source of the rumors was sports shock jock Mark Madden – the same Mark Madden who once labeled Ike Taylor as the “Steeler worst 4th round pick ever – and give that Bell vehemently denied the rumors, the story died.

Until Steelers training camp began, and word leaked that Bell was in fact facing a four game suspension for skipping drug tests. Bell did not disucss the incident much during preseason, although there were indications that the Steelers felt confident he might win his appeal.

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following remark when the news of Bell’s reduced suspension was announced:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has been suspended three games to start the 2016 season. We will continue to support Le’Veon, but we acknowledge this mistake has put the team in an unfortunate position. We will continue to work with Le’Veon to help him eliminate distractions in his life so he can reach his full potential as a member of our community as well as a player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In a video posted on Twitter, Bell sought to explain the situation to fans, although that video has since been deleted.

Bell’s Appeal Does Yield, “Rearguard” Variety Victory

The news was not all bad for both Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers. As Mike Garafolo of NFL.com has pointed out:

Getting his suspension reduced by 25% is a plus for both Bell and the Steelers, and Bell staying in the same stage of the NFL’s substance abuse policies is also important, as a further incident would only cost him four games, as opposed to 10.

Bell’s Loss is Toussaint and Richardson’s Gain

With Bell out for the Steelers matchups against the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles, DeAngelo Williams will once again take the helm as the Steelers starting running back.

However, Bell’s absence is a boon for Fitzgerald Toussaint and Daryl Richardson, both of whom are battling to be the Steelers number 3 running back. Both men have looked strong in training camp and in preseason and barring injury or a complete meltdown during the Steelers remaining two preseason games, should make the opening day roster.

It is believe that the Steelers will not carry more than three running backs, plus Roosevelt Nix, on their active roster once Bell returns to the team. However, both men will have a chance to prove they belong between now and then.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Le’Veon Bell Faces Four Game Suspension for Missed Drug Test

The Super Bowl-expectations are high this year for the Pittsburgh Steelers,  but unfortunately, those expectations may have to be tempered just a bit.

"<strong

According to ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano, his sources have told him that star running back Le’Veon Bell is facing a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season for missing a mandatory drug test.

Le’Veon Bell, 24, was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season, stemming from a DUI charge in August of 2014, when a vehicle he was riding in with former backup running back LeGarrette Blount was stopped by local police.

  • The two were charged with marijuana possession, and Bell, who was the driver, was subsequently charged with a DUI.

Bell was perhaps the most important cog in Todd Haley’s offensive game-plan in 2014, when he rushed for 1,361 yards and added another 854 yards through the air on 83 receptions. Sadly for the Steelers, Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee in a the regular season-finale against the Bengals at Heinz Field and was out for the wild card playoff game against Baltimore a week later.

Last season, in-addition to his two-game suspension to start the season, Bell missed the final two months after suffering a torn MCL, once again at the hands of the Bengals in a Week 8 match-up at Heinz Field on November 1.

If the reports are true, and Bell is indeed out for the first month of the season, the Steelers will have to rely heavily on veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who piled up 907 yards on the ground while filling in admirably for Bell a season ago.

While fans remember Fitzgerald Toussaint for his fumble in the AFC Divisional loss to the Broncos, Toussaint played well overall for the Steelers in the playoffs. However, beyond Williams and Toussaint, the Steelers 2016 running back depth chat is thin.

While the reports on Bell aren’t official just yet, it is factual that Martavis Bryant, who was suspended for the first four games a season ago for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, will miss all of 2016 after failing multiple drug tests earlier this offseason.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

4 Solutions for the Steelers 2016 Running Back Depth Deficiency

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Draft Class added both quantity and, on paper at least, talent to the team’s most glaring weaknesses on the depth chart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also added depth to several other key areas.

  • One area that Colbert and Tomlin failed to address was running back.

As things stand today, the Steelers 2016 running back depth promises to be dangerously thin. Here’s a look at how Colbert and Tomlin might address that need before the season.

How the Steelers Running Back Depth Got So Depleted

The Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Matrix pegged running back as the Steelers 4th most urgent area of need not because of talent issues, but because of the Steelers thin depth at running back.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has the look of a solid backup based on his playoff performances, his fumble not withstanding. After Toussaint, the Steelers have zip in terms of proven depth behind him. If Art Rooney II’s words offer any guide, the Steelers expect Le’Veon Bell to be back at full strength.

That’s fine, but in 2016 Bell will begin his fourth season on a league where the average running back’s career lasts just above three. And he’s coming off a complicated MCL, PCL injury. And he’s missed time due to injury in each of his first three seasons. running backs average less than 3. DeAngelo Williams will turn 33.

For a franchise that started its 4th string running back in 3 consecutive post-season appearances those factoids hardly encourage confidence.

  • Colbert and Tomlin know this and responded by trying to trade the 5th round.

The Steelers found no takers, at least at a reasonable asking price. So which running backs did the Steelers miss a chance to draft?

  • So which running back did the Steeler miss?

In the 5th round DeAndre Washington, Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Wendell Smallwood, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins found homes with Oakland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Seattle. In the 6th round Denver, Tampa Bay, San Diego, San Francisco, and Dallas welcomed Andy Jaovich, Dan Vitale, Derek Watt, Kelvin Taylor and Darrius Jackson (although Janovich, Vitale, Watt are listed as fullbacks.)

Surprisingly, Colorado’s Christan Powell was the only running back in the Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class, and he got cut after rookie minicamp. In contrast, the Steelers drafted no offensive lineman in the 2015 NFL Draft, yet brought 5 offensive lineman to Pittsburgh with their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class.

Steelers Could Sign a Free Agent Running Back

Yes, the best free agent running backs have long been off the market, but teams can and do make roster moves after the draft. The website Sporttrack lists 23 free agent running backs that remain unsigned, including Reggie Bush, LeGarrette Blount and Arian Foster.

If the Steelers really were interested in adding depth at running back via free agency, they likely would have done so in March instead of waiting until May. Nonetheless, on May 12 unsigned players officially become “Street Free Agents” meaning teams can sign them without impacting their compensatory picks.

The Steelers could take advantage of that to add a body, but if they do it will likely be the type of free agent who isn’t even assured a roster spot in September.

Steelers Could Trade for a Running Back

Trades are rare in the NFL and until recently the Steelers rarely trade for another player. Yet, that has changed lately. In August 2013, Kevin Colbert traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones. Later that season, he traded for Levi Brown. Last summer Steelers traded for Brandon Boykin….

  • …And you can see why the Steelers prefer to avoid acquiring layers via trade.

Arguably, Felix Jones was the most productive of the three, and that’s not saying much. Levi Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. Brandon Boykin spelled Antwon Blake late in the season and perhaps provided an upgrade, but the Steelers think more of untested Senquez Golson than they do Boykin.

In terms of trading to build depth at running back, the Steelers actually traded for Patrick Cobbs when Duce Staley couldn’t dispel their doubts at the end of the 2006 preseason. Cobbs never played a down in Pittsburgh, although he did carry 37 times over five years in Miami….

Don’t expect the Steelers to trade for a running back.

Colbert Could Grab a Running Back from the Waiver Wire

Kevin Colbert ranks among the best NFL General Managers when it comes to finding players who can help the Steelers after they’ve been discarded by other teams. 2013’s cut down day saw the Turk visit Fernando Velasco in Nashville and Cody Wallace in Tampa Bay, but both made multiple starts for the Steelers at center later that season.

In terms of running backs, the Steelers picked Najeh Davenport off of waivers early 2006, and Davenport was a solid contributor in for two seasons. The Steelers picked up DuJuan Harris in 2012 during training camp, and he went on to contribute to Green Bay. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint both got pink slips at the end of training camp and ended up starting for the Steelers in the playoffs.

  • One harsh reality of the modern NFL is that proven backups get cut simply because rookies offer teams more bang for their buck.

Colbert has kept many a gem from falling though the cracks of the NFL salary cap, and you’d better believe he will closely watch for running backs who reach the waiver wire all between now and September.

Steelers Stand Pat with Their Running Back Stable

Based on what we’ve seen since the 2016 NFL Draft, this appears to be the Steelers plan. Following rookie minicamp, two of the four Steelers roster moves involved replacing running backs.

While banking on undrafted rookie free agents to provide depth at running back is a roll of the dice, remember is the same franchise that saw a little known running back who hardly played in North Carolina named Fast Willie Parker go from training camp surprise in 2004 to a run from scrimmage record setter in Super Bowl XL in January of 2006.

Both Carey Davis and Gary Russell had some NFL experience prior to joining the Steelers in 2007, and while no one will ever confuse the tandem with Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, both men helped win Super Bowl XLIII.

At the Steelers rookie minicamp, Mercyhurst’s Brandon Brown-Dukes impressed Jim Wexell, although Wexell did describe him as “diminutive.” Dale Lolley reports that Cameron Stingily, who was injured in last summer’s Hall of Fame game, is running well and looking leaner than in 2015.

  • The Steelers cut running backs Rajion Neal and Christian Powel to make room for Stingily and Brown-Dukes.

While these move come squarely at the bottom of the Steelers roster, they demonstrate that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are keenly aware Steelers running back depth needs to improve.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Running Back – A Higher Priority Than You Think…

No team has rushed for more yards since the AFL-NFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2010, Steelers President Art Rooney II described quality rushing as a “foundation of the franchise.”

In contrast to Bill Cowher, during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have looked to running back earlier and more often in the draft having used 3 premium picks on running backs. Will that trend continue or, perhaps better stated, should that trend continue in the 2016 NFL Draft?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Although he finished 2015 on injured reserve, Le’Veon Bell will enter 2016 as the Steelers starting running back, and if Art Rooney II’s statements are any guide, the Steelers will look to lock him up to a long-term contract.

  • It is easy to understand why, as Bell’s dynamic ability as a double threat teases to reestablish the concept of “franchise running back.”

Such lofty visions must be tempered with the reality that the shelf life of running backs in the NFL is short and continues to grow shorter, and Bell has already missed 16 of a 51 possible games to injury, including 3 playoff contests. The Steelers have confidence in Bell’s ability to recover, but on the outside that looks like a leap of faith.

While it almost seems quaint to acknowledge a fullback as a “starter” the Steelers chose undrafted rookie free agent Roosevelt Nix over Will Johnson.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

A year ago the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy, and many were skeptical that a 32 year old NFL running back coming off an injury and with 1432 carries on his frame could deliver.

  • Those skeptics were dead wrong.

DeAngelo Williams had his best season rushing since 2009, and showed himself a dangerous double threat, not only did Williams do damage on the ground, but he also gave Ben Roethlisberger an enticing target underneath.. Williams almost literally saved the season.

In late November, the Steelers made a curious move – they activated a guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad. This came before DeAngelo Williams injury, and after Mike Tomlin had assured reporters he would not attempt to groom an understudy for Williams.

The move came shortly after the Ravens put Justin Forsett on season ending IR and activating Toussaint looked like a proactive move to protect him from practice squad poaching. When the playoffs arrived, Toussaint vindicated the Steelers faith in him as he collected over 120 all-purpose yards in the playoff win against the Bengals.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Abou Toure, 2015 practice squader Rajion Neal and Daryl Richardson who has experience with the Rams and Browns.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Running Back

Running back is one slot on the depth chart where Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis likely differs from much of Steelers Nation and likely Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

  • The Steelers have now been forced to start their 4th string running back in three consecutive post-season contests.

OK, 2014 is somewhat of an aberration, as LeGarrette Blount’s insubordination and Dri Archer’s total failure couldn’t have been foreseen, at least not while something could be done about it. Yet, in 2015 the Steelers essentially chose to enter the season with a running back’s depth chart that was two backs deep.

By season’s end, both Bell and Williams were hurt….

  • Sure, Jordan Todman and Toussaint played well, but do you really want pin post season hopes practice squaders and waiver wire pickups?

Sure, the days when the Steelers staffed their depth chart with three or four quality running backs may seem like an anachronistic memory of a bye gone era, but it’s no secret that the Steelers won their last Super Bowl with a depth chart that went Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell and Carey Davis – all of whom were on the opening day roster, and all of whom were at “Above the line” ball carriers.

  • It says here that drafting running back in the first round would be a mistake.

Drafting one in the second round might be too high as well. But the Steelers have rolled the dice on running back depth in two straight seasons and it has cost them in two straight post seasons which means that the Steelers 2016 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate High.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Is 2016 the Year the Steelers Make a Splash in Free Agency?

Is 2016 the year the Pittsburgh Steelers make a splash in free agency?

  • ….Probably not. The Steelers never make a significant splash in free-agency, but this doesn’t mean they can’t make some moves that fans will feel good about.

Two years ago, the signings of safety Mike Mitchell and reserve running back LeGarrette Blount were met with great enthusiasm, especially after a few off seasons of financial blood-lettings that included the departure of promising corner Keenan Lewis and the release of veteran linebacker James Harrison in 2013.

All those years of cap massaging finally left Pittsburgh with no space at all, and the 2013 offseason was certainly a depressing time, complete with the inevitability that the upcoming regular season was going to be a bit of a downer, which it was–at least the 2-6 first half.

Obviously, Mitchell, who was injured, didn’t do much in 2014 but draw the ire of fans for his underwhelming play; Blount ultimately drew the wrath of teammates, coaches and, of course, the fans for his actions that included smoking a joint with Le’Veon Bell the day before an exhibition game in August and walking off the field moments ahead of the rest of his team near the end of the Steelers Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans.

But while the moves didn’t do much to help the 2014 team, they were good in-theory, and Pittsburgh’s 2015 free-agent running back do-over that was the signing of long-time Panthers’ veteran (and good guy) DeAngelo Williams more than made up for the gamble on Blount.

Due to a suspension and season-ending knee injury, Bell wound up only playing in six regular season games. In his place, Williams, who responded to a challenge by head coach Mike Tomlin and came to training camp in the best shape in years, started 10 games and rushed for 907 yards (the third-highest total of his already accomplished career).

As for Mitchell’s 2015 regular season, it was significantly better and the kind of upgrade over the retired Ryan Clark that everyone initially envisioned when he came on board the year before.

According to to the website Over the Cap, the Steelers have approximately $11.3 million of cap space, heading into free-agency.

  • That’s a fair amount, but certainly not enough to go after one significant player. But that’s okay, because football is a team sport.

While fans and the media like to fall all over themselves this time of year, after downtrodden organizations with a lot of room like the Buccaneers and Jaguars sign big names, the fact is, the smart moves can often make the biggest difference.

For the Steelers, maybe those smart moves will simply be re-signing guard Ramon Foster and/or cornerback William Gay. Maybe it’s going out and finding a dependable, veteran tight end who, if he doesn’t start in place of the young Jesse James, could be an upgrade over Matt Spaeth. How about finding a reserve defensive lineman that is an improvement over Cam Thomas?

None of these moves would get the Steelers added to any list of free-agent “winners,” but championships are won in January and February, not March and April.

A small ripple doesn’t have the same kind of initial impact as a big splash, but, in the long run, it can often be more effective.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!