Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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Steelers 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Before the the ink of 7th round draft pick Derwin Grey’s draft card had time to dry, the Steelers went right to work in signing their 2019 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

James Harrison, Willie Parker, Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agents

James Harrison & Willie Parker arrived at St. Vincent’s as undrafted rookie free agents. They retired with Super Bowl rings. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Zimbo.com

These are the young men who wait in vain by the phone on draft day, only to get a call when it is all over offering their NFL dream a line line.

Here’s a quick look at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agent class:

Dravon Askew-Henry, Safety, West Virginia
Alexander Myers, Cornerback, Houston
Garrett Brumfield, Guard, LSU
Fred Johnson, Guard, Florida
Travon McMillian, Running Back, Colorado
Jay Hayes, Defensive End, Georgia
Chris Nelson, Defensive Tackle, Texas
Trevor Wood, Tight end/long snapper, Texas A&M
Matthew Wright, Kicker, Central Florida
Ian Berryman, Punter, Western Carolina

As they often do, the Steelers added bodies through the undrafted free agent rookie pool that they were unable to add in the draft. The Steelers did not pick a safety, but added Dravon Askew-Henry. They only added one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman, but added two guards and two defensive lineman undrafted rookie free agents.

  • Interestingly enough, they added Trevor Wood, a tight end with long snapping capabilities.

It is also interesting that they added two specialists, in the form of Ian Berryman, a punter out of Western Carolina, and a place kicker, Matthew Wright.

The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry in free agency, so Berryman could be just an extra leg for training camp, but they could also be bringing Berryman in to provide real competition for Berry. Matthew Wright’s signing is more interesting.

  • The Steelers of course have Chris Boswell under contract for several more years and would take a rather large salary cap hit by cutting him.

But they also have Matthew McCrane under contract to provide training camp competition. It’s been normal for the Steelers to bring two kickers to St. Vincents, but three? Time will tell.

Steelers History of Giving Undrafted Rookie Free Agents a Fair Shot

Undrafted rookie free agents face the longest of odds for realizing their NFL dream. Their the NFL version of Rudy, he of Hollywood fueled Notre Dame folklore glory.

It is a good bet that at least one of the men listed above will not make it to St. Vincents this summer. But Mike Tomlin is fond of saying that when you get to Latrobe, the Steelers stop caring about where you went to school or how you got there, and start focusing on what you do while you’re there.

  • And Mike Tomlin puts his money where his mouth is.

And the Steelers are true to their word. Ramon Foster arrived that way in 2009, and is now on his third (or perhaps 4th) NFL contract. Fellow offensive lineman Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney also arrived as UDFA’s and play pivotal roles on the unit.

And of course there’s Willie Parker and James Harrison, who both arrived in St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and both made dramatic, game changing plays in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The Pittsburgh Steelers promise to give undrafted rookie free agents a fair shot, and they mean it.

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Steelers Draft Derwin Grey in 7th Round, Close 2019 Draft with Offensive Lineman from Maryland

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Gray an offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.

While it is tempting to writer off a 7th round offensive lineman as someone whose NFL dream rides on earning a practice squad spot, it was only in the 2012 NFL Draft that the Steelers ended up picking Kelvin Beachum, who was starting games at both guard and tackle before the season was over.

  • Truth be told, the Steelers 2019 offensive line figures to be much, much deeper than its 2012 predecessor.

Indeed, at lot of thing would need to go wrong for Derwin Gray to find himself protecting Ben Roethlisberger and/or opening holes for James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers are set with David DeCastro and Ramon Foster as their starters, with B.J. Finney entrenched as their top backup on the interior of the offensive line.

Derwin Grey, Steelers draft Derwin Grey

The Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Grey from the University of Maryland. Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer, USA Today

Beyond that, the Steelers have Matt Feiler who started 11 games for the Steelers at right tackle. With Marcus Gilbert now in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona, Matt Feiler is expected to battle Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting spot there.

  • Nonetheless, word is that the Steelers coaches consider Matt Feiler to be a more natural guard than tackle.

While the Steelers depth chart appears to be loaded with both quality players from end-to-end, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers will work Derwin Grey at both at guard and tackle.

Even late round offensive lineman have their own highlight tapes, and Derwin Grey is no exception:

Welcome to Steelers Nation Derwin Gray.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Offensive Line – Can Pittsburgh Afford to Take a Pass?

The offensive line has been perhaps the most decorated and lauded unit for the Steelers over the last several seasons.

With the help of offensive line coach (and guru) Mike Munchak, the unit has gone from one of weakness to one of great strength. In addition to taking his high-pedigreed charges to a new level, Munchak was able to flesh out the talents of projects and unrestricted free agents. Unfortunately, Mike Munchak left to take the same job with the Broncos following the 2018 season. However, Shaun Sarrett, his trusted assistant for several years, was promoted and is highly-thought of by his linemen, the guys he’ll now be teaching and instructing in 2019.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2012 first round draft pick

David DeCastro blocking for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers will be entering the 2019 season with Alejandro Villanueva starting at left tackle, Ramon Foster starting at left guard, perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey starting at center, the almost as decorated David DeCastro starting at right guard and Matt Feiler starting at right tackle. The only difference from the beginning of the 2018 campaign is the absence of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was shipped off to the Cardinals in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Fortunately for the Steelers, Feiler, an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, started 10 games in place of an injured Gilbert a year ago and more than held his own with no noticeable drop-off in performance from the right side. Therefore, the Steelers offensive line, one that has been considered among the best in the NFL for quite some time, should remain a strength in 2019, provided there are no serious injuries.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the ways Munchak earned such a great reputation in Pittsburgh was, again, his ability to take so-called lesser talents and turn them into starters–or more. Villanueva, who has made two straight Pro Bowls after entering the NFL as an undrafted defensive lineman, is one such example. Feiler is another one. How about B.J. Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Kansas State?

The jury is still out on whether or not he’ll ever be a decorated starter. But his reputation as a super-sub is well-earned after starting a combined nine games at center and guard since joining the Steelers in 2016. Speaking of super-subs, Okorafor Chukwuma, a third-round choice out of Western Michigan last year, is actually expected to challenge Feiler for the starting job at right tackle this summer.

If it’s a competitive battle, Pittsburgh figures to have a very reliable backup that can play both tackle positions in whoever comes out on the losing end. R.J. Prince, Joe Cheek, J.C. Hassenauer, Zach Banner, Patrick Morris and Jerald Hawkins make up the rest of the offensive line’s depth chart. The most notable name on that aforementioned list is Hawkins, a tackle and fourth-round pick out of LSU in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s been severely limited by injury thus far, appearing in only five games. Hawkins is a virtual unknown at this point, and the 2019 training camp figures to be his last chance to prove himself.

The Steelers 2019 Offensive Line Draft Needs

The average age of the starters is approximately 30, these days.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As for the backups, again, there are only two that inspire much confidence. Having said that, however, the needs along the offensive line don’t appear to be anywhere near dire. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Low-Moderate

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Marcus Gilbert’s Steelers Career Ends as Pittsburgh Trades Him to Arizona for 6th Round Pick

The Steelers have made the trade! No, not THAT trade, the one involving Antonio Brown. Instead the Steelers have traded offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals for a 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • Some sort of roster move involving Marcus Gilbert was expected, although a trade is a mild surprise.

Marcus Gilbert missed the last 11 games of the 2018 season due to injury after missing nine games during 2017 due to injury and suspension. Gilbert was in the final year of the contract he signed in 2015 and was due to make $4.9 million dollars, and it has been speculated that Marcus Gilbert could be a cap casualty.

That speculation turns out to be correct.

Marcus Gilbert, Marcus Gilbert trade

Marcus Gilbert starting for the Steelers vs the Chiefs in 2018. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Marcus Gilbert Trade Completes Phase of Cycle Begun in 2011

The day was September 11th, 2011, the venue was Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and the result was one of the most humiliating defeats of the Mike Tomlin era. After defeating the Baltimore Ravens in 4 straight contests, including 3 in 2010, the Ravens struck back decimating the Steelers in the Debacle in Baltimore.

  • This was the game that prompted Warren Sapp to declare the Steelers “Old, Slow and Done.”

During the game the Steelers lost Willie Colon for the year as the starting offensive tackle tore his triceps. The Steelers had played “Plug and Patch” on their offensive line up until that point in the Tomlin era. Many assumed the Steelers would look to either resign Max Starks or Flozell Adams, both of whom had been with the club in 2010 and cut during the summer.

  • Flozell Adams did in fact offer his services to the team, but the price was too steep.

The Steelers would again take the Red Phone to Max Starks, but that move came in October, when it became clear that Jonathan Scott was in over his head and woefully unable to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.

The Steelers instead announced that Marcus Gilbert would start at right tackle. The decision was important because it signaled the Steelers commitment building a sustainable offensive line. And while injures kept him off of the field for much of 2012, he’s held down the position ever since, aside from rotating with Kelvin Beachum for a bit during the beginning of 2013.

And while that commitment continues, trading Marcus Gilbert ends a phase of that cycle.

Remembering the “Gilbertings”

Marcus Gilbert deserves to be remembered as a player who provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with quality play at right tackle, helping stabilize a position and an offensive line that had under gone tremendous turmoil during Mike Tomlin’s first 4 or 5 seasons.

  • Yet fate was not always kind to those who played close to Marcus Gilbert.

During the 2012 preseason, Marcus Gilbert fell on David Johnson and David DeCastro, injuring both men and costing David Johnson the season in which he was to transition to becoming a full time fullback. Later on, during the 2015 season, Marcus Gilbert landed on Landry Jones, ending the young quarterback’s first start after just a handful of snaps.

Steelers Offensive Line Remains in Solid Shape

As the Steelers learned during the first half of the Mike Tomlin era, “You can never have enough good offensive lineman.” And $4.9 million dollars, is not a lot of money to pay a quality offensive tackle.

But Matt Feiler did an excellent job of filling in for Gilbert in 2018, as did 2018’s 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers will also bring back 2016’s 4th round pick Jerald Hawkins.

Steel Curtain Rising would like to thank Marcus Gilbert for 8 years of quality play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and wishes him well with the Arizona Cardinals.

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Steelers Resign Ramon Foster, Extend Maurkice Pouncey, Tender RFA’s and ERFA’s

Things are happening fast on the South Side as the Pittsburgh Steelers have made a flurry of moves in anticipation of the start of free agency.

  • First, the Steelers have resigned Ramon Foster to a two year contract.

This news does not come as a surprise, given Art Rooney II’s comments about keeping the offensive line together. However, the Steelers previous decision to put a 2nd round tender on B.J. Finney opened the door to speculation that Ramon Foster might be allowed to seek a home outside of Pittsburgh.

  • That will not be happening in 2019.

In a move that amounted to a minor surprise, the Steelers also extended the contract of center Maurkice Pouency, who had one year remaining on his current contract. The move is reported to be a 3 year extension, and will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season.

The two players have vocally stated their desire to continue playing together, with one hinting he’ll retire when the other does. The Steelers usually resign players who have a year remaining on their contracts to extensions during the summer. Doing so now could be part of a move to facilitate Ben Roethlisberger’s extension, or the move could be happening now for salary cap reasons.

Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger plans 2018

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey will be playing together for a while… Photo Credit: Phil Sears, USA Today, via SCI

Finney and Grimble Get Restricted Free Agent Tenders

As mentioned above, the Steelers issued a 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney who is a restricted free agent. Finney is free to negotiate with other teams, but the tender gives the Steelers the right to match any offer or otherwise will cost the other team a 2nd round pick.

  • A 2nd round tender will pay B.J. Finney over 2 million dollars, although the Steelers could work out a long-term deal with Finney.
  • The Steelers also offered an original round tender to Xavier Grimble.

Because Xavier Grimble entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent, the Steelers would not get any thing should another team sign him, but it does give the Steelers the right to match his offer. In all likelihood, the no team will make an attempt to sign Grimble. This move all but confirms speculation that the Steelers will allow Jesse James to test the free agent market.

Oops! Now Hilton and Feiler Get ERFA Tenders

Finally, the Steelers also offered exclusive rights free agent tenders to Matt Feiler and Mike Hilton effectively keeping the duo in Pittsburgh for the 2019 season.

As Exclusive Rights Free Agents either player can sign with another team, but the Steelers needed to make them qualifying offers to retain their rights. No word or mention has yet been made of tight end Jack McGee, tackle Joseph Cheek, linebacker Keith Kelsey and safety Malik Golden who are also Exclusive rights free agents.

In our profile of the Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, Steel Curtain Rising erroneously asserted that the Steelers had tendered all of their ERFAs. That was wrong. As of now, only Hilton and Feiler have tenders.

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Profiling the Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Exclusive rights free agents are a peculiar NFL breed. They may not be the lowest man on the totem pole, but they’re down there, sort of caught in the NFL CBA’s equivalent of no-man’s land. They don’t have a contract, but they don’t have enough seniority to even talk to another team, let along sign.

They’re kinda like the freshman guys who, even if they can crack the varsity starting lineup, know better than to even look at the hot senior cheerleaders.

The Steelers have a six person 2019 Exclusive Rights Free agent class this year which we profile today.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Mike Hilton was the guy that wasn’t good enough for Bill Belichick yet came in during Steelers 2017 training camp and earned the job as a starting nickel back. Mike Hilton authored a strong rookie campaign, and although T.J. Watt deserved rookie of the year honors (Joe Greene Great Performance Award, if you insist), Mike Hilton could have been in the conversation.

  • Mike Hilton perhaps plateaued a bit in 2018, as he made fewer splash plays.
  • But the Steelers resigned him in mid January, which was a no brainer.

Ditto Matt Feiler. With Chris Hubbard in Cleveland a bit of panic set in when Marcus Gilbert was injured early in the season. However, Matt Feiler stepped in and started 10 of 11 games, and the line didn’t miss a beat. Plus Filer has position flexibility as he can play guard.

  • Give that man a contract! (The Steelers did that on January 31st.)

Jake McGee is a wild card. After spending 2017 on the practice squad, word was he was set to make a serious run at Xavier Grimble’s roster spot in 2018. Unfortunately, he got injured in OTAs and was lost for the year. Still, with Jesse James reaching unrestricted free agency, and Grimble a restricted free agent, the Steelers moved smartly in bringing McGee back.

Keion Adams is another interesting choice. Outside of T.J. Watt, the Steelers could upgrade at any of the other outside linebacker positions as Bud Dupree isn’t going to turn heads, and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi remains untested. Kion Adams is just as untested, having spent his rookie year on IR and 2018 on the practice squad, but the Steelers have resigned him, and he’ll get another a shot at St. Vincent’s this summer.

Linebacker Keith Kelsey, spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad and 2018 on injured reserve. The Louisville linebacker will get another shot at NFL glory this summer at St. Vincents.

Malik Golden spent 2017 and 2018 on injured reserve. He’ll get another shot this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

The Steelers 2019 free agent class has two guys who’ve already proven themselves to be if not starters, certainly starter capable. It would be a stretch to suggest that Jake McGee and Kion Adams will reach that far, but both could provide valuable depth.

  • As for Kelsey and Golden?

Well, Greg Lloyd arrived in Pittsburgh as an unheralded 6th round pick and lost his rookie season to injury and shortened his sophomore campaign. Just Say’in….
Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2019 Free Agency Tracker – Change Sweeping Through Pittsburgh

The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.

  • The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Signings

3/13/2019 – Steelers sign Steven Nelson, Cornerback from Kansas City to 3 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Anthony Chickillo to 2 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Jordan Berry to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers resign Eli Rogers to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Donte Moncrief to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Daniel McCullers to 2 year contract
3/19/2019 – Steelers sign Mark Barron to 2 year contract

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Losses

3/13/2019 – Jesse James signs with Detroit Lions
3/13/2019 – Le’Veon Bell signs with New York Jets (for less money than the Steelers offered. Just say’n)
3/13/2019 – Steelers trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for a $3 Starbucks card and 5 box tops (er, um a 3rd and 5th round pick
3/14/2019 – L.J. Fort signs 3 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers 2019 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a feature length free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
Ramon Foster
Steelers resigned Ramon Foster to 2 year contract 3/8/2019
Tyson Alualu
Steelers resigned Tyson Alualu to 2 year contract 2/22/19
Jordan Berry
Ryan Shazier
Anthony Chickillo
Coty Sensabaugh
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Daniel McCullers
Justin Hunter
Nat Berhe
Stevan Ridley
L.J. Fort
Eli Rogers
Jesse James
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2019 Restricted Free Agents

Xavier Grimble
Steelers offered original round tender to Xavier Grimble, 3/8/2019
B.J. Finney
Steelers offered 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney 3/8/2019

Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Mike Hilton
Steelers offer ERFA tender to Mike Hilton, 3/8/2019
Matt Feiler
– Steelers offer ERFA tender to Matt Feiler, 3/8/2019
Jake McGee
Keith Kelsey
Malik Golden
Keion Adams

The Steelers have already been busy in free agency, signing Tyson Alualu to a 2 year contract extension and informing Le’Veon Bell that they will not place the transition tag on him.

  • In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.

We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.

You’ll be able to access all Steelers 2019 Free Agent profiles by clicking on our Steelers 2019 free agent focus category tag.

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Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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