Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Thanksgiving Honors: Chris Boswell

When the Steelers got the ball in Cleveland twice during the last five minutes in a tie game, did you ever have a doubt that Chris Boswell would boot it in if the offense could get him close enough?

No. Neither did I.

That’s because Chris Boswell has redefined what it means to be “Mr. Automatic.” And for that Chris Boswell wins 2023 Thanksgiving Honors.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Crisis Opens the Door to Opportunity

The NFL lexicon is littered with clichés. Not For Long. You’re hired to be fired (ask Matt Canada about that one.) Another is that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

  • In Chris Boswell’s case, 3 men’s misfortunes combined to open his door to opportunity.

The Steelers started the 2015 preseason thinking they were set at place kicker, behind the trusty leg of Shaun Suisham. But Suisham injured himself on the terrible truf in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio.

So the Steelers signed Garrett Hartley. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rooney family is known for their Catholicism, because Garrett Hartley is kind of the Pope John Paul I in the Steelers kicking Parthenon. We never got to know him, because he got injured at the end of free agency.

Kevin Colbert sprung into action and traded for Josh Scobee. Scobee started out OK, but missed an extra point in week 2 against San Francisco. He was OK in week two, but in week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens he missed two field goals in the last 2 and half minutes of regulation of a tie game.

The Steeler won the toss in over time, but on 4th and 2 from the Ravens 39, Mike Tomlin opted to run it with Mike Vick. The Steelers got the ball back, but again on 4th and won Tomlin opted to let Vick try to hook up with Antonio Brown.

  • The two failed to connect and 8 plays later Justin Tucker won it for the Ravens.

The Steelers sign Chris Boswell a few days later, and haven’t looked back since.

Boswell Best in Long Line of Excellent Steelers Place Kickers

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was recently asked about Chris Boswell, and responded:

Its automatic. I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially had three kickers. That continuity, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency, we don’t talk about it enough, but its appreciated.

The only issue with Mike Tomlin’s statement is that it isn’t inclusive enough.

Gary Anderson, Harry Newsome, Steelers vs Oilers, 1989 Steelers overtime upset of Oilers at Astrodome

Gary Anderson splits the uprights in overtime at the Astrodome. Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been blessed with excellent place kickers since the 1980s. In his day, Gary Anderson was known as “Mr. Automatic,” and Jerry Glanville can tell you just what that means. Norm Johnson succeeded Anderson, and his role in Steelers place kicking lineage is under rated. After an interregnum covered by Kris Brown and Todd Peterson, Jeff Reed took the mantel in the middle of 2002 and remained with the team until the middle of 2010.

  • But if you compare the numbers it wouldn’t take long to see that Chris Boswell is best of all.

Bob Labriola provided the stats on the Steelers elite place kickers and Boswell just about leads them all almost every key metric. Suisham’s career field goal percentage is still a hair higher than Boswell’s, but Boswell has improved in the 3 weeks since Labriola published his numbers.

More importantly, Boswell’s been perfect in the playoffs. Indeed, he kicked the game winner on a ucky, rainy night in Cincinnati following some late game heroics from Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Boswell’s boot that put the Steelers into the AFC Championship in 2016.

Yes, Steelers fans really should give thanks for Chris Boswell.

A Word on Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

“Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” is a home-grown award here at Steel Curtain Rising. The tradition began during 2009’s five game losing streak and the first award winner was Rashard Mendenhall, who’d picked himself up off the turf and ran nearly the length of the field to prevent an interception and a pick six.

And we’ve continued this each since. Here are previous winners:

2009 – Rashard Mendenhall
2010 – Marukice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Al Everest
2011 –  Antonio Brown
2012 – Keenan Lewis
2013 – Cam Heyward
2014 – Le’Veon Bell
2015 – “The Understudies” – Alejandro Villanueva, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace
2016 – Ryan Shazier
2017 – Ben Roethlisberger
2018 – JuJu Smith-Schuster
2019 – Kevin Colbert
2020 – T.J. Watt
2021 – Cam Heyward (second time)
2022 – Larry Ogunjobi

As always we close with a reminder that it is our hope that everyone reading this has many, many reasons to be thankful that have nothing to do with the Steelers or football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Looking Back @ Mike Tomlin Opening Day Blowout Losses & How Steelers Have Responded

Last Sunday the San Francisco 49ers kicked the Pittsburgh Steelers “in the teeth,” to borrow Mike Tomlin’s words. Perhaps a Pittsburgh loss to San Francisco wasn’t unexpected, but no one foresaw the Steelers suffering such a spanking.

But if the Steelers got knocked down in the first round of a 17 round fight, what does that first round performance tell us about their prospects for the other 16 rounds? After all, the Steelers are a franchise that lends itself to trends thanks to their stability.

Take the uncanny nature of opening day results during the Cowher Era.

For Bill Cowher teams, and an opening day ass kicking was basically a good omen. In contrast, opening day wins preceded difficult seasons (with the exceptions of 1992, 2004 and 2005.)

  • The loss San Francisco brought Mike Tomlin’s opening day record to 10-6-1.

Here we look back at those other opening day blowout to see what, if anything, we can gain from them. (The 2015 loss to the Patriots is excluded, as it wasn’t a blowout.)

Talaona Hufanga, Connor Heyward, Steelers vs 49ers

Talanoa Hufanga intercepts Kenny Pickett while Connor Heyward can only watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

2011 – The Blowout at Baltimore

September 11th 2011 @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 35, Pittsburgh 7

The Steelers entered this game as defending AFC Champions and holding a 7-3 edge over the Baltimore Ravens to start the Tomlin era, including two playoff victories. Everyone expected the good times to continue, perhaps even members of the Steelers organization.

  • The Ravens kicked the Steelers asses.

The 35 to 7 score makes this one look closer than it was. Baltimore dominated Pittsburgh in every phase of the game, prompting Warren Sapp to declare that the Steelers defense was “Old, slow and done.”

The Steelers responded the next week with a shutout of the Seattle Seahawks. The 2011 team struggled a bit after that against the Texans, but a mid-season win over the Patriots seemed to confirm that they were still contenders.

But injuries ravaged the Steelers by the time they reached the playoffs, and the loss to Tim Tebow slammed the Super Bowl window shut.

2012 – Peyton Manning Outfoxes Polamalu

September 9th @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver 31, Pittsburgh 19

The Steelers began the rebuilding process in the 2012 off season, but they still took what they felt was a strong team to Denver where Peyton Manning made his debut.

Looking back at this game, it is easy to forget that the Steelers actually held a 19-14 lead in early in the 4th quarter.

However, Peyton Manning had been engaged in a chess match all night with Troy Polamalu, and by the 4th quarter he maneuvered the Steelers defense into checkmate, leading two scoring drives for ten points while a Tracy Porter interception of Ben Roethlisberger added on another six.

  • This game, in many ways signaled the wired dynamic that defined the 2012 season.

For all that was made of the tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, the offense did fairly well in the first half of the season while the defense struggled. The defense found its footing by midseason, thanks largely to James Harrison returning to health, only to see the offense falter due to injuries to Roethlisberger and overall dysfunction.

2013 – The Titans Bring Opening Day Armageddon

September 8th 2013 @ Heinz Field
Tennessee 16, Pittsburgh 9

By the spring of 2013 the Steelers were in full rebuilding mode. They were also doing it with stuck in salary cap purgatory. Going into the game Bob Labriola described the Steelers situation at offensive line as walking a tight rope without a net (hold on to that one.)

Injuries had already taken their toll on their opening day roster as they started their number 3 and number 4 tight ends, their number 2 running back, Isaac Redman (who was already playing with a career-ending injury) and with their top backup at inside linebacker (Sean Spence) on IR.

Things got worse. Fast. Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season after about a half dozen plays. Inside linebacker Larry Foote would be lost for the season before too long. So would 3rd down back LaRod Stephens-Howling whose Steelers career would consist of 6 carries. Oh, and the Steelers also lost starting corner Cortez Allen during the game.

  • Despite the injuries, the Steelers were in it until the end.

But things got worse before they got better. The Steelers would lose their next 3 in route to a 2-6 start to the season. Nonetheless, they clawed their way back to respectability and an 8-8 finish and only missed the playoffs due to a blown call in another game.

2019 – Brady, Patriots Pulverize Steelers One Last Time

September 8th, 2019 @ Gillette Stadium
New England 33, Pittsburgh 3

In hindsight, we should have seen this coming. But we didn’t.

The Steelers defense had improved in 2018 enough make Tom Brady look mortal in an upset at Heinz Field. While this was the first game of the post “Killer Bees” era for the offense, but the unit had looked sharp in route to a 3-1 preseason record.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first games was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Regular season reality set in fast. Tom Brady led the Patriots to 20 unanswered first half points. The offense’s best play was a 2 yard dink from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Switzer. The lasting memory on defense is of substitute safety Kameron Kelly who seemingly forgot not only that he was supposed to try to stop the receiver from catching the ball, but also that he was supposed to chase and tackle him afterwards.

The Steelers followed this with losses to Seattle, where Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season, and San Francisco, where Mason Rudolph made his first start. Mike Tomlin coaxed a 1989-Steelersque like turn around that put Pittsburgh in contention for the playoffs.

But the rally fizzled down the stretch as the Steelers ended with three straight losses.

Take Aways from Tomlin’s Season-Opening Blowouts

The good news? In each case, Mike Tomlin’s teams improved following their season-opening blowouts.

  • The bad news? Only one of those teams made the playoffs.

And, with exception of the 2011 team, none of the teams authored dramatic, rebound wins. Instead, improvement came gradually, or in the case of the 2012 Steelers, unevenly. And the injuries suffered in those openers formed and important part of the backstories of each of those seasons.

Does that tell us something going into the Browns game at Acrisure Stadium on Monday Night Football?

Maybe. But as Mike Tomlin would retort, the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are writing their own story.

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Steelers Trade of Kendrick Green Highlights the Danger and Unavoidability of Drafting for Need

The Steelers decision to ship Kendrick Green off to the Houston Texans for a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft is a pure admission of failure on the part of the front office.

  • Third round picks are supposed to grow into starters.
Kendrick Green, Kendrick Green Fullback

Steelers guard/center takes reps at fullback. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Kendrick Green’s trajectory with the Steelers went in the opposite direction. He started immediately, got benched late in his first year, stood in street clothes his second year, and was dealt at fire sale prices in his third year.

  • NFL teams don’t give up on third round picks so easily. The Steelers offer no exception.

The Steelers gave the boot to just one year Bruce Davis after drafting him third in the 2008 NFL Draft. Two Septembers, they also cut rookie Kraig Urbik, but that move was a miscalculation on their part, forced by the need to carry Charlie Batch on the 2010 roster.

As the stories of Curtis Brown, Sean Spence and Senquez Golson reveal, the Steelers normally bend over backwards to give a third round second, third and fourth chances to make the team.

And in a sense, the Steelers did that with Green. They moved him to guard in 2022, sort of giving him a Redshirt year as he was inactive for all 17 games. In 2023 they gave him work at both center and guard and even repped him at fullback.

Mike Tomlin singled him out after the Bills game, making no bones about the fact that his errant snaps to Mason Rudolph were unacceptable. Green saw action at both center and guard in the win over the Falcons, and in this observer’s opinion he did pretty well.

  • Pat Meyer, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin reached a different conclusion.

Thus ends the Kendrick Green experiment, after over a little over two years and 15 games. For a franchise that boasts a lineage at center that begins in the ‘60s with Ray Mansfield, dominates the 70’s with Mike Webster, continues into throughout the 1990’s with Dermontti Dawson and extends into the 21st century with Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey, Kendrick Green represents a tremendous disappointment.

But if Kendrick Green’s footnote in the Definitive History of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be short, his story leaves a lasting lesson:

  • Drafting for need is dangerous. But sometimes its unavoidable.

Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement hit the Steelers at the worst possible time. Neither the coaches nor the front office were expecting it, particularly since Ben Roethlisberger returned for one more go.

Not only did the Steelers need to find a center, COVID-19 had plunged Pittsburgh into salary cap hell, cutting off free agency as a means to signing a new center. That left the draft. The Steelers tried to stick to their board picking Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth in the 1st and 2nd rounds (cue the arguments that the Steelers should have taken Creed Humphrey before Najee Harris) but their hand was essentially forced by the third round, when they took Green.

You can argue that they were in the same position in the 4th round, and were essentially forced to pick Dan Moore. More, like Green struggled on, but he starts his third year by keeping 2023’s first round pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

So sometimes you can get away with drafting for need. But as The Wire’s Omar Little reminded us, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Yep, the Steelers missed on Kendrick Green.

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Le’Veon Bell Should Apologize to the Man in the Mirror. Not to Steelers Fans

Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.

The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”

  • Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.

Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the gridiron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Why Bell Owes No Apology to Steelers Fans

Full disclosure. When the Steelers slapped the 2nd franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, I said it wasn’t what either side wanted, but probably what both needed. I was wrong.

And when Bell failed to show up on the first day of practice before the opener, I like many other was upset. Later, as the deadline to report loomed, I opined that Mike Tomlin should call Bell and convince him to report.

The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?

Perhaps.

But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.

That’s simply not Bell’s fault.

Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology

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

Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”

NFL players have a code.

Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.

  • And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.

Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.

The Man in the Mirror

When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.

But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.

  • In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.

The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.

The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.

And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.

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No Restrictions: Steelers Should Resign J.C. Hassenauer But Not Extend an RFA Tender

Like characters in a story, every NFL player’s career has an arc. Follow a player’s arc and most of the time it reveals a lot about the individual’s talent, dedication and character. Just think of Jerome Bettis “face of the franchise” career journey and you’ll see what I mean.

Yet sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes a player’s career arc reveals more about the team than the player. Such is the case with J.C. Hassenauer who is about to become an Restricted Free Agent.

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers

After watching undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Hassenauer spend 2018 going on an off the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad, the Steelers signed him in the spring of 2019 and he made the practice squad earning a promotion to the active roster for the season finale against Baltimore.

Hassenauer got his first start against Baltimore in November 2020 at center and started two more games at center and one at guard due to injuries to Maurkice Pouency and Matt Feiler. J.C. Hassenauer started against the Chargers in 2021 when Kendrick Green was out, and started the final two games of the season plus the playoff loss to the Chiefs.

In 2022 Hassenauer only logged 46 snaps with the offense, but he did log 71 special teams snaps, a slight increase from two years before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

The Steelers know what they have in J.C. Hassenauer. He brings position flexibility to the interior of the offensive line.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

J.C. Hassenauer isn’t going to keep any opposing defensive line coach up at night. Position flexibility is nice, but is it really worth $2.627 million? For a guy that in his third year play 46 snaps? You’re kidding right?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer

At first glance the J.C. Hassenauer’s career arch of starting 7 games at two positions in 2020 and 2021 and then failing get on the field in year 3 seems pretty damning. But in reality, this reveals more about the sorry state of those Steelers offensive lines than it does about J.C. Hassenauer.

J.C. Hassenauer has some serviceable skills and an ability to step in and play or even start of a pinch at guard or center. Kind of a modern day Doug Legursky lite.

  • But even if that is true, is Hassenauer worth $2.627 million restricted free agent tender?

Probably not. Even without thinking about who the Steelers might draft, Kendrick Green brings the same position flexibility at a far lower salary cap hit. The Steelers should most certainly bring Hassenauer to St. Vincents, but they can do so for far less than 2.6 million.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Good While It Lasted… Steelers Lose Brian Flores to Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have hired Steelers Assistant Brian Flores showing that some things are not meant to last. Literally.

Brian Flores, Steelers 2022 training camp

Brian Flores at St. Vincents in the summer of ’22. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When the Steelers surprised the rest of the NFL by hiring Brian Flores as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach last spring, everyone suspected it would be a short-term relationship.

Brian Flores was head coaching material, having just been fired from the Miami Dolphins largely because – as Flores argues, he refused to tank for draft position. So there was a bit of a question over whether Flores would find a cold shoulder from the rest of the NFL.

But the Cleveland Browns leapt to interview Flores for their defensive coordinator spot. And that was followed by several other interviews, including a 2nd interview with the Arizona Cardinals.

So instead of a cold shoulder, Flores found a warm embrace. Steelers fans may have held out hope that Mike Tomlin and/or Art Rooney II could have convinced Flores to stay in Pittsburgh for another year. But the reality is that moving into the Vikings defensive coordinator chair provides Flores a better path to a head coaching job.

Flores Made an Impact in Pittsburgh

Judging the impact of an assistant coach from the outside in is difficult. Sure, when an assistant does a great job such as Mike Munchak their influence is obvious. But the reverse isn’t always true.

The 2013 Steelers opened the season 2-6 and a horrendous offensive line was the main culprit. Yet they fought back and kept their playoff hopes alive until a blown call in overtime swung victory and the final playoff spot to San Diego Chargers. Improved offensive line play had driven the ’13 Steelers surge during the 2nd half of the season.

Other times the influence of an assistant is more subtle. Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach following he 2018 season and announced that Keith Butler would take over his responsibilities. Fans snickered an jeered Butler’s apparent demotion.

  • Yet under Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally began to play like a first round draft pick.

So if it is hard to pinpoint Brian Flores’ influence on the Steelers 2022 defense, there’s no question that he made his mark. And that mark is helping turn around a unit that was one of the worst run defenses in franchise history into a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top ten.

And the arrival of veterans like Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Jack fueled that improvement, it is quite clear that Flores had a role in helping raw rookies like Mark Robinson be ready to make contributions late in the season. And Robinson played a large role in shutting down stout running offenses such as the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

Clearly, the Steelers will miss Flores.

Brian Flores’ departure marks the first coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff this off season, as Tomlin has already decided to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Jerry Olsavsky remains as inside linebackers coach while Denzel Martin is on staff as assistant outside linebackers coach.

Mike Tomlin likes to promote from within although his best coaching choices have been veterans, like Flores and Munchak, that he’s brought in from the outside.

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Could “Patience” Be the Watch Word for the Steelers 2022 Offensive Line?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Steelers’ offensive line stinks.

You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.

Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.

What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.

Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.

In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.

As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.

Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.

  • Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.

Believe it or not.

I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.

The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Last year’s line, from left to right, included Moore, Kevin Dotson, Green, veteran Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor.

Chucks Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only leftover from the mostly aging 2020 crew. As for Dotson? He was a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in 2020 who turned some heads as a spot starter during his rookie season.

What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.

Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.

  • Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.

What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.

At least youth was on its side, though, right?

Not if you were Dotson and Green.

Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.

Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.

In addition to more player personnel changes, Pat Meyer was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach, making him the fourth person to assume that role for the Steelers since 2018.

That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.

As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.

It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.

And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.

Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.

Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.

Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?

Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.

James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.

  • Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.

The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.

Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.

There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.

Hell, maybe even Kendrick Green.

 

 

 

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”

  • Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?

Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.

Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.

Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.

Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.

The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.

But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.

 

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Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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