Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Debate Ended: Steelers Should Start Benny Snell Jr. at Running Back

If you’re a Steelers fan, you have to admire all that running back James Conner has had to overcome to even be in the NFL.

A star running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2015, an injury that actually led to doctors discovering that he had cancer. Conner battled through all of that adversity to not only defeat cancer and the injury but to become a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • James Conner’s story is a great one, truly inspirational, something that should warm the hearts of even the most cynical.

But even such a heartwarming story only has so much traction in the very cynical world of sports, and Conner has said himself that he doesn’t want to be defined by his battle with cancer. He wants to be defined as an NFL running back.

Much like a lot of things about James Conner, I can respect that. But if he is sincere in that sentiment, he must respect the opinions of folks –many of whom are admirers of his — who no longer think he should be the Steelers starting running back.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

That should be Benny Snell Jr., and that should be as soon as this Sunday’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field.

Conner looked timid and unsure of himself in the early moments of Pittsburgh’s 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football. After gaining just nine yards on six carries, Conner was removed from the game and never returned. It was later revealed that he suffered an ankle injury.

In his place, Snell, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.

Back to Conner.

  • When you really get to the heart of James Conner’s professional story, his problems with injuries are at the forefront.

Conner suffered an MCL tear late in his rookie season. OK, fine, Le’Veon Bell was the bell cow running back in those days, and Conner barely saw the field on offense prior to his injury. But in 2018, after the Steelers had grown used to Conner’s tremendous production in the wake of Bell’s season-long contract holdout, the Pro Bowl-bound second-year back missed several games down the stretch due to a concussion and an ankle problem.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

And in 2019, when the Steelers really needed to lean on a workhorse running back following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner once again proved to be unreliable, as he battled a myriad of injuries and missed a total of six games.

  • As per Triblive.com reporter Chris Adamski, Conner has either been injured in or missed 17 of his past 21 games with the Steelers.

If you’re the Steelers, how can you work with that?

Conner did lead the Steelers in rushing yards a year ago with 464. But Snell finished with 424 yards and didn’t start to see an increased workload until late in the season.

Snell built on that late-season momentum by losing 12 pounds this past offseason and looked fast, quick and explosive during most of his 19 carries on Monday night. The sentiment held by many in the local Pittsburgh sports media is that Snell really is the best running back the Steelers currently have, but that Conner will get the starting nod this Sunday, provided he’s healthy.

  • That’s a mistake.

If you’re the head coach, it’s your job to put the best players on the field in-order to give your team the greatest chance to win. I don’t know how Tomlin can possibly say Conner is his best running back at the moment.

It’s so obvious that it’s Snell.

  • Benny Snell Jr. should be the starter this Sunday and for the foreseeable future.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Remembering and Honoring Ivan Cole, Friend, Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season kicks off tonight against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Thanks to COVID-19, this will already be the most unique Steelers opener in history.

  • Yet, even putting aside the specter of the pandemic, there’s something missing in the Steelers Nation.

Sure, professionals and bloggers alike have penned their Steelers pre-season previews, this site included. But this year the collective conversation is poorer for its effort, due to the absence of the voice of Ivan Cole.

Every year for at least a decade, Ivan Cole would pen his column “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in XXXX” where he’d lay out the most compelling case possible for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl during coming season.Ivan Cole

Today, Steel Curtain Rising takes time out to honor and remember a man who was a loving father and grandfather, a friend to many, and a scribe who can rightly be called conscience of Steelers Nation.

Getting to Know Ivan Cole

“Pleased to ‘meet’ you too. Thank you for sending such a long and detailed email. What a pleasant surprise for a Monday morning!”

That’s how my first interaction with Ivan Cole began sometime in the spring of 2011. Ivan had written something thought-provoking on Behind the Steel Curtain that prompted me to reach out. Even in those days, before communication was so thoroughly Twitterized, getting “thanked” for a long email was exceedingly rare.

  • Yet, that was Ivan Cole in a nutshell.

An Ivan Cole observation would get you thinking. You’d share your reaction with Ivan. A deeper conversation would evolve, almost always taking unexpected twists, and by the time it was over, you’d both be better for it. That was Ivan.

  • Love for the Pittsburgh Steelers might have brought Ivan and I together, but our friendship quickly grew beyond the Black and Gold.

Today it is all too common to find people talking at each other, rather than to each other. But you always talked with Ivan. If you’d pointed this out to Ivan, it is easy to imagine offering a non-sarcastic response along the lines of “I consider myself a practitioner of the dying art of discourse.”

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Measured in material terms, Ivan Cole was a person of fairly modest material means, but his desire to understand the world in which he lived gave his personality a richness that everyone he touched could appreciate.

Ivan had a passion for advancing civil rights and social justice, and his natural curiosity led him to explore the social and political issues tied to those twin core values.

While never shy about arguing for what he believed in, Ivan was always ready to consider new information on its own merits. In the same vein, Ivan had an ability to identify and connect with people whose viewpoints differed from his – a quality that is in increasingly short supply in our world.

And Ivan’s interest was hardly limited to his immediate surroundings, so he would often question me about Argentina’s perpetual political-economic crisis. He not only volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for my “Argentine Political History for Dummies” PPT, but his insights helped sharpen the final version I used with my exhcange students at Universidad Austral.

Later in life, Ivan took an interest in combating Human Trafficking, and issue which he explained, “Found him.” I don’t know many details about his efforts there, but I can assure you with his passion and his energy, he undoubted helped make the world a more jut place with his work at LATO, Life After Trauma Organizaiton.

But Ivan was hardly an “All work and no play” type person. Quite to the contrary, Ivan was rather gregarious. I can still remember the Saturday morning when Ivan emailed telling me that the owner of the local café he frequented had told him that Jerome Bettis had stopped in earlier in the morning.

To read the email, you’d have thought that Ivan had seen The Bus himself. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Ivan Cole, Steelers Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

And of course, if you knew of Ivan’s passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’d understand why Ivan would be so giddy about almost crossing paths with Jerome Bettis (who apparently was very friendly with everyone in the establishment.)

Ivan was a Steelers scribe, writing first for Behind the Steel Curtain, during the site’s golden age under Michael Bean and later Neal Coolong, and then for Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site.

  • Ivan Cole wrote on a wide range of topics for both sites.

In doing so he never passed up an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the Steelers, whether that meant taking aim at the NCAA or discussing the role that the Pittsburgh diaspora plays in the team’s national fan base.

Ivan was as well versed in the team’s history as any professional beat writer, a knowledge which impressed Art Rooney Jr. enough to facilitat an interview between Ivan and the legendary Bill Nunn Jr.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

For a long time, Ivan Cole worte, among other items, the “Weekly Checkdown” which summarized all of the relevant Steelers news from the preceding week. If anyone wants to see just how thorough Ivan was, take a look at this article from June of 2012.

In his farewell column as editor of the site, Neal Coolong offered this:

…the Weekend Checkdown, the longest-running column on BTSC. I can count on two fingers the amount of weeks Ivan did not submit his column. Editors love that kind of thing, but only slightly less is how much they love the conversation Ivan creates.

As Coolong concludes, Ivan didn’t just offer Steelers nation consistency and quantity, but most importantly quality.

  • And when it came to analyzing the Steelers, Ivan suffered no fools.

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Ivan Cole had no time for what he labeled the “Fire everyone crowd,” the segment of fans who wished that Dan Rooney would run his team more like Daniel Snyder. If a fan argued that the locker room was “tuning Mike Tomlin out” Ivan would recount how he’d heard the same criticism leveled at Chuck Noll – just after the 1977 season and just before Noll next two Super Bowls.

To fans who complained about misfires on draft picks such as Jarvis Jones, Ivan would counter with stats on how Google was often disappointed with the results of its own recruiting efforts. When fans wanted to flail Mike Tomlin for the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore, Ivan reminded everyone that it was Mike Tomlin who cautioned that the Raven’s late week roster shuffling had made them so dangerous.

For those who wanted to go to town on Mike Tomiln and the Steelers for the ugly 2-6 start in 2013, Ivan argued that the fact that the Steelers had finished 8-8 and were a blown call away from the playoffs spoke to “the awesomeness of  the organization.”

After Ryan Shazier’s game-changing play turned the Steelers win over Cincinnati in the 2015 playoffs, Ivan quickly used it as an example to admonish fans who’d written Shazier off as a “Bust” just weeks before.

Ivan never shied away from taking on members of the professional press, such as his aggressive (and accurate) refutation of Colin Cowherd in early 2016.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

While it is fair to say that Ivan did border into homerism at times, but to the extent that was occasionally true it was simply because Ivan had been around long enough to appreciate just how special the Rooneys were and how special that made the Steelers culture.

  • And in that respect, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that Ivan Cole was, in many ways, the conscience of Steelers Nation.

That, in and of itself, is a reason to honor Ivan. But there are two life lessons Ivan left me that should give us all, even those who didn’t know him, to cherish his memory.

Life Lessons Left to Us by Ivan Cole

Although Ivan passed away in late April, his health troubles began before the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” entered our vernacular. I don’t know many details beyond Ivan suffering an accident late in 2020 which required hospitalization, followed by surgery, followed by post-op complications, which led to infections, more surgeries and ultimately more infections and other health complications.

In April, as Rebecca Rollett so poignantly observed, “… his body couldn’t support his great soul any more.”

  • The first lesson Ivan’s passing offers is personal and very bittersweet.

During Ivan’s final months, his daughter offered regular updates. At one point, she asked for friends and family to call her father to help keep his spirits up. I reached out to a few friends who might not have gotten the message from his daughter and a few of them connected with him.

  • Yet, I, myself, never made the call.

I’ve never been squeamish about reaching out to friends in those circumstances, but “…I was too busy with work at this very moment, there will be time later,” I told myself. To be both 100% truthful and 100% fair to myself, I honestly didn’t realize his condition was so critical or I would have made time.

Fortunately I was able to leave him a long voice mail, a positive upbeat message talking about how great it was that two people who lived 6,000 miles away could become such great friends. His daughter played that for him, and apparently this message, along with others, helped ease Ivan’s transition form this world to the next.

  • Still, I wish I’d had that one last conversation with him.

The lesson here is simple:  Always take advantages of chances to connect with people important to you. Work to do and bills to pay will always be there, but time with wives, spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends can be fleeting.

  • The second, and final lesson Ivan offered isn’t bittersweet, but simply sweet.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

Although I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ivan Cole lived in Reston, Virginia, I got to meet him in person several times. First at my parents house during a visit in 2014. After that I got to see him at various Steelers bars in Virginia, where on one occasion I was fortunate enough to meet his daughter, grand daugherters, brother and other friends from the BTSC and Going Deep blogging communities.

  • Those meetings were great, but unfortunately on those days the Steelers weren’t.

The first time we met was the first 2015 Bengals game, the first game of the season when all four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant would take the field together. That was also the game when Le’Veon Bell was injured and lost for the season.

The next time we met was in the fall of 2017, when the Steeler played the Jaguars and Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions.

A year later, I reached out to Ivan before making a trip back to the States, asking, “Dare we tempt fate” and try to watch the game together again?” We debated the question with Clark, Bill, Mike and the rest of the gang.

There was a lot of back and forth, until Ivan settled the question definitively by insisting, “Let’s live in our hopes, instead of our fears.” The Steelers of course won that game against the Bengals, but even if they hadn’t, I can’t think of a better life lesson left to us by Ivan Cole.

Click Below to read tributes to Ivan Cole by:

Rebecca Rollett (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Michael Bean (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Medium)
Here are also links to Ivan’s best work on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Who Cares If Bud Dupree Challenges his Outside Linebacker Status?

I don’t know when everything became a huge deal with fans of the Steelers or any professional football team.

  • Maybe it was the advent of social media.
  • Maybe it was the advent of blogs and comment sections.
  • Maybe it was the advent of the 24/7 news-cycle.

But no matter what you attribute it to, there’s no doubt everything, all the darn time, is a big deal to fans.

The latest thing that has become a big thing to fans–at least Steelers fans–was the announcement on Friday that Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who signed his $15.8 million franchise tag back in the spring, has filed a grievance for the purposes of being re-designated as a defensive end.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Why would Dupree do such a thing? To make an extra $2 million in 2020, that’s why. You see, under the rules of the NFL’s franchise tag, certain positions are considered more valuable than others and worth more under the tag. In relation to outside linebacker, defensive end is certainly that. If Dupree wins his grievance and is designated a defensive end, his 2020 salary will go from $15.828 million to $17.788 million.

It doesn’t seem like a ton of money, but apparently it’s enough to ruffle the feathers of so many Steelers fans who, let’s be honest, never liked Dupree, the Steelers first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, in the first place.

My question–my very rhetorical question–is so what? Why worry about Dupree’s grievance if you’re a Steelers fan? Why get hot and bothered by it? (Speaking of which, our site editor has a very good article expressing his thoughts on the subject.) Why go online and express your desire to see Dupree gone, if not this year, then certainly next, when he will presumably be free to shop his services elsewhere, provided Pittsburgh doesn’t franchise tag him for a second straight spring?

I guess those are a lot of questions, but they all have to do with the same thing: It’s not your money. You’re not the one who is going to have to pay Bud Dupree the extra $2 million, provided he wins his grievance — an unlikely result if I were a betting man.

As a fan, all you should really concern yourself with is whether or not a player has shown up for the regular season. Maybe you need to concern yourself with a player’s availability for OTAs and training camp, because that could directly affect his ability to perform well when the regular season does begin.

As for the money side of things? Dupree isn’t going to hold out in 2020, not after signing the franchise tag. If Dupree took the same route as Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers former All-Pro running back who didn’t sign his franchise tag until the start of the season in 2017 and not at all in 2018, I could see fans being concerned and/or angry.

But it would be the height of foolishness for Dupree to sign his tag and then hold out during training camp and/or the regular season. He’d be subjected to fines and, unless I’m mistaken, the Steelers would retain his rights in 2021.

Bud Dupree, 27, had a career-year in 2019 with 11.5 sacks. He still wants that huge second contract. He still wants to cash in. He’s not going to sacrifice $15.8 million as an outside linebacker just because someone said he didn’t deserve to earn $17.8 million as a defensive end.

  • No, my guess is he’s going to put his head down and try and have the same kind of year in 2020 that he had in 2019.

If Dupree has that kind of season, he’ll probably be free to make as much money–including guaranteed money–as he wants in 2021. With the two sides reportedly far apart on a long-term contract, and with the deadline to reach a multi-year deal set to expire on July 15, it doesn’t look like Dupree will be donning the black and gold next year.

  • But he’ll be around in 2020 to be an integral part of a Steelers’ defense that was one of the most elite in the NFL last year.

That’s really all you should concern yourself with. As for that extra $2 million the Steelers may have to pay Dupree? Let them worry about that.

 

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career Helped Shape Offensive Line Transformation in Pittsburgh

All good things come to an end. And so it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ramon Foster.

While most expected this parting of the ways, Ramon Foster threw everyone a bit of a curve last week by announcing his retirement. Today we take time to step back, look at Ramon Foster’s Steelers career and the role he played during his time in Pittsburgh.

Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Ramon Foster, ever the class act and always willing to talk to the media, released this statement:

When the time comes, you just know, and now is the time for me to take a bow. I’ve made some friends for a lifetime, had some moments that I’ll never forget and seen some things I never thought I would because of this game. I’m glad to say I was a Steeler for life, and there is no other organization I would have rather played for in my career.

Ramon Foster’s retirement sets in motion a shakeup on the Steelers offensive line that has been remarkably stable for that last several seasons. With B.J. Finney having signed with the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Foster’s slot will almost certainly be taken by moving Matt Feiler from tackle to guard, opening the way for either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor to start at right tackle.

In a way, it is fitting that Ramon Foster’s departure will spark changes on the Steelers offensive line because Foster’s arrival, unhearded that it was, started the stabilization process.

Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career – From Transition to Transformation

When the book The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line is written, Ramon Foster’s name won’t earn mention alongside guards from the Super Steelers like Sam Davis and Gerry Mullins. He won’t be seen in the same light as colorful figures like Craig Wolfley, nor will he be considered a peer of should be Hall of Famer Alan Faneca. Objectively speaking, Ramon Foster probably wasn’t as good as the talented, but deeply troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • But those omissions mask the role that Ramon Foster played authoring a critical transformation of the Steelers offensive line.

One fact that the “Mike Tomlin only won with Bill Cowher’s players” crowd conveniently ignores is that Tomlin didn’t enjoy continuity of Cowher’s offensive line. Jeff Hartings retired in 2006, and Tomlin enjoyed a one year rental from Alan Faneca. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons performed well in 2007, but both men’s bodies fell apart in 2008.

  • You can best describe the Steelers strategy on offensive line at that point as “Plug and Patch.”

Opportunity would grant 15 minutes of fame to obscure players like Darnell Stapelton and Doug Legursky, who started in Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

Out of both necessity and choice, the Steelers would sign players, guys like Justin Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex and Max Starks to multi-year deals, only to cut them midway through the contract. Indeed, when the Steelers signed Willie Colon in 2011, La Toalla Terrible joked that the Steelers planned to cut him in two years.

Ramon Foster, who arrived in Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was very much a piece in that plug and patch offensive line strategy. Foster started four games as a rookie, then started another 8 in his second year including Super Bowl XLV.

  • By the 2011 season, Ramon Foster was starting 14 of 15 games.

Yet, the Steelers still saw Foster as a transitional figure, as evidenced by their simultaneous decisions to draft David DeCastro in 2012 and move Willie Colon to guard.

But injuries to both men allowed Foster to stake his claim as permanent starter, and since 2012 Ramon Foster has started 119 regular season and 7 playoff games for the Steelers. And during that time, the offensive line has transformed itself from being a perennial liability, to an area of undisputed strength. And make no mistake about it:

  • Ramon Foster wasn’t simply present for that transition, he actively participated in authoring the the transformation.

And through it all, Ramon Foster has served as a source of stability, helping protect Ben Roethlisberger while opening holes for Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and James Conner. Through it all, Ramon Foster was a locker room leader, whose work ethic on the field and commitment to physical football set an example for all.

  • That’s not a bad resume for an undrafted rookie free agent out of Tennessee.

Suffice to say, Ramon Foster will be missed as he beings his “Life’s Work.” Steel Curtain Rising thanks Ramon Foster for his service and wishes him the best.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Win Compensatory Pick Gamble. Now They Must Spend Winnings Wisely

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert have never “lived in their fears” when it comes to making personnel decisions. They also haven’t hesitated to play the long game, even when it comes to gambles.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

On Tuesday, the NFL awarded the Pittsburgh Steelers a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft bringing one of Colbert and Tomlin’s longest gambles to a close.

Devin Bush‘s price was steep. The Steelers first and second round picks from 2019, plus their third round pick in 2020. But the Steelers made that pick in part based on their calculations that they’d get a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing Le’Veon Bell.

  • While the logic was sound, the NFL has never revealed the formula it uses for compensatory picks so a third rounder was never certain.

Uncertainty shifted to despair when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort. Due to a little known rule, for player to count on a team’s signed/lost ledger for compensatory picks, he needed to be on his destination team’s roster by week 10 of the season.

  • The move prompted the Steelers to cut Donte Moncrief whom they’d signed as a free agent.

Granted, Moncrief had not exactly played well for the Steelers in his two outings, and he failed to log a single catch in his three games with the Carolina Panthers. However, by cutting Moncrief the Steelers were essentially giving the nod to Tevin Jones who would only last until the Steelers loss to the Bills.

Nonetheless, the Steelers gamble paid off, ensuring them two premium picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now they must spend their winnings wisely.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe the ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

  • A generation ago the Steelers getting a third round compensatory pick meant a bonanza.

The third round was Tom Donahoe’s money round. Players such as Jon Witman, Mike Vrabel, Hines Ward, and Amos Zereoue arrived in Pittsburgh as third round compensatory selections.

Kevin Colbert hasn’t had as many third round compensatory selections, but his picks have been hit or miss. James Conner was a hit in 2017. Dri Archer was a huge miss in 2014. The Steelers need Colbert’s 2020 3rd round compensatory pick to be more of a James Conner than a Dri Archer.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

1 Quick Post-Season Lesson for Steelers Fans? Defense Ain’t As Sexy As We Thought

Maybe you’re one of those Steelers/football fans that likes to say things like, “I’d much rather watch a low-scoring defensive-battle than a shootout.”

First of all, no you wouldn’t. And, second, even if you think you would, I encourage you to go back and watch some old NFL games from the early-’70s, back when bump-and-run coverage was still a thing. And I’m not talking about old highlights provided by NFL Films, complete with the iconic music as a backdrop and John Facenda’s heavenly voice doing the narration. Go back and watch some old network broadcasts on NBC, CBS or ABC–they’re usually readily available on YouTube.

  • I guarantee you, you won’t make it through one of those 13-10 snooze-fests before, well, dosing off.

Speaking of 13-10 snooze-fests, maybe that will be the title of the Steelers NFL Films-produced highlight show that’s released to the public each and every summer. It would be fitting, since most of Pittsburgh’s games ended with scores in the teens–and they were just so hard to get through.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see the resurgence of the Steelers defense. It was encouraging to watch the unit carry the team for most of the year, following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a lot of fun watching T.J. Watt wreak havoc on quarterbacks week after week, to the tune of 14.5 sacks. How about his bookend at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who had a career year with 11.5?

  • As a unit, Pittsburgh’s defense once again eclipsed the 50-sack mark, posting a suffocating total of 54.

How about all of those takeaways? What suddenly brought those on?

  • How did they go from a paltry 15 a year earlier, to a whopping 38 this past season?

And perhaps the most important new element to the Steelers defense in 2019: an ability to close out a game while holding a slim lead, something the unit did multiple times–including in one-score wins over the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals, games where the opposing offenses had the football late in the fourth quarter and a chance to either win or tie.

Yes, the return to defensive dominance really was a lot of fun and helped make fans believe the impossible could happen:

  • Pittsburgh could make the playoffs with an offense that was a founding member of the “One Touchdown a Game” club.

But hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see now that people were just getting swept up in the fun times the defense was providing. Because “lousy” may be too kind when describing the Steelers offensive struggles in 2019.

It was painful to see. Even at their best, it was hard to watch quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges perform without cringing just a little. And at their worst? Let’s just say it’s a good thing those little “bricks” they sell down at the Strip District are made of foam and not the stuff they use for the ones that build houses.

  • The Steelers offense finished near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistic–including total yards and points per game.

But what could you do? Even before Roethlisberger’s injury, the other two “Killer BeesAntonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell had departed. And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner looked more than capable of filling the voids created at both the receiver and running back position, they were either too injured or too compromised due to quarterback play to really be of much help last year.

But if we’re being honest, while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are fine players, the odds of them ever reaching the levels of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were fairly long to begin with, Big Ben or no Big Ben.

It’s quite popular in this day and age of social media for fans to demand their favorite teams clean house and get rid of the divas and the troublemakers. Such was the case in recent years when it came to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and even Ben due to his advancing age.

  • But be careful what you wish for.

I went to a Penguins game recently and, in addition to the absence of center Sidney Crosby (long-term injury) and winger Phil Kessel (traded this past offseason), the team was missing center Evgeni Malkin due to an illness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the game went into overtime tied at zero. The Penguins won, but it was quite obvious that they were a different team while missing so much fire power on offense.

Maybe the Penguins are a bad example, considering they’ve managed to remain in playoff contention despite the loss of so much offense. But I wonder what their 2019/2020 campaign would look right now if Malkin were out with some sort of long-term ailment. Instead, he’s carried the team on his back and is playing some of the best hockey of his life. It helps that he’s one of the best hockey players in the entire world.

Imagine if, along with Kessel, Malkin was traded away–something many fans have called for in recent years?

  • It’s easy to talk about getting rid of a bunch of players. It’s quite another to replace them.

Not only did the Steelers offense lose All Pros, they spent a good bit of 2019 dealing with the absences of the Pro Bowlers who were entrusted with replacing those All Pros.

Obviously, the best teams don’t just dominate on one side of the ball, they find success through balance. But if I had my choice, I think I’d much rather have a potent offense and a struggling defense than the other way around.

  • You can always out-score your opponents, but it’s just so hard to totally shut them down.

That’s what Pittsburgh’s defense was tasked with in 2019, and while it held up better than most units would have, it couldn’t perform miracles.

Finally, the Steelers may have helped you fall in-love with defense again in 2019. But I hope they also forced you to appreciate the importance of a really good offense.

 

 

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.