Achilles Heel? Jesse James Healthy but Steelers Could be in Tight Spot @ Tight End

Ah, gotta watch those June Achilles tears. On the Jesse James return to practice following his injury in Pittsburgh’s preseason win over Tennessee, but tight end could be a tight spot for the Steelers this season, and if it is it will have all started with a June Achilles injury.

Jesse James, Steelers 2018 tight ends

Jesse James after catching a high Ben Roethlisberger pass vs. Titans. Photo credit: Yahoo! Sports

Pittsburgh’s problems at the position of began during spring practice, when reserve tight end Jake McGee torn his Achilles tendon during OTAs. The Steelers had carried McGee on their practice squad during 2018 and coaches expected McGee to push Xavier Grimble for a roster spot.

The Steelers situation at tight end grew more complicated arrived at St. Vincents when Vance McDonald injured his foot after after only one day of practice. Vance McDonald has not practiced since that fateful day in July, although Mike Tomlin has publicly listed McDonald as “Day-to-day.”

The Steelers of course acquired McDonald last season in a trade, only to see him sit on the sidelines injured, although he rebounded for strong game in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

That left Xavier Grimble and Jesse James, but Grimble injured his wrist/thumb on a blocking sled on August 18th and had to have surgery. Grimble has been characterized as “Week-to-week.” If McDonald’s absence is any guide, perhaps month-to-month would be for fitting for Grimble.

Let’s hope that not the case, but as good Reimagined Battlestar Galactica fans know, “All this has happened before and [hopefully] will [not] again.”

June Misfortunes Can Set the Tone for an Entire Season

The advent of the digital age has magnified everything. Trivial, bit-sized bites of Steelers news that once would have merited 2-3 inches of newspaper column wedged in somewhere deep in the back pages of the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette now serve as feature-length click generating stories (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.)

  • In that spirit, news from OTAs and minicamp often gets taken too seriously.
  • But sometimes what events from June can end up dictating the entire narrative of the season.

Take the case of Willie Colon. In 2010 Willie Colon, the Steelers starting right tackle, tore his Achilles tendon in late June. This came after Steelers 5th round draft pick Chris Scott had already broken his leg. Those two injuries initiated a torrent of offensive line injuries that lasted the entire year.

During the Steelers 2010 win over Tampa Bay, the Steelers were force to substitute so many offensive lineman that Mike Tomlin remarked jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) that coaches didn’t even know who was in and who was out of the game.

The Steelers lost Max Starks in week 7 against Cincinnati, and in the next week against New England, Ben Roethlisberger suffered 5 sacks as the Patriots collapsed the Steelers offensive line at will. Roethlisberger’s sack rate nearly doubled with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

  • Offensive line injuries continued literally through to the taild end of the season.

After the Steelers playoff win against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger lauded Flozell Adams for wanting to come off of a gurney to return to the game, and Pittsburgh of course was forced to start Doug Legursky at center in Super Bowl XLV due to injuries to Maurkice Pouncey.

Will the same thing happen to the 2018 Steelers at tight end? Hopefully not, but with less than two weeks to go before the regular season, tight end appears to be the Steelers Achilles heel.

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Celebrate Chris Hubbard as a Steelers Success Before He Leaves Pittsburgh as a Free Agent

Times have changed. As NFL free agency turns 25, Steelers fans who remember the 1990’s will recall when Steelers routinely developed young talent only to see it leave in free agency.

  • The Rooneys kept their word when Heinz Field opened, and the Steelers have been much more competitive in retaining home-grown players.

But sometimes tough choices mean that a budding star will seek greener pastures. The conventional wisdom that Steelers free agent tackle Chris Hubbard is all but certain play 2018 somewhere other than Pittsburgh. Today our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Focus looks at whether that should and will happen.

Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts

Chris Hubbard in the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

In about five months or so we’ll be flooded with blog posts, tweets, Facebook comments and full-blown articles bemoaning preseason football that call for sharply curtailing it or perhaps eliminating it altogether.

  • When you see such rants next August remember Chris Hubbard’s story.

The Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was heavy on offensive lineman, and included the much ballyhood Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka Nik Embernasty. No one paid any attention to Chris Hubbard.

And when Steelers Nation got its first look at the undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like on one should pay attention to him. As Steel City Insider reader “Heinzsight” observed:

Hubbard was a good lesson/reminder for me. I remember his first preseason game against the Giants at LG. I thought he was so irredeemably awful that they should do everyone a favor, including Hubbard, and cut bait and not waste any more of anyone’s time on him. He really was that bad. His pass pro was nonexistent, and spent most of the run game on the ground, getting shrugged, jerked, or ragdolled. No center, always getting out over his hands, and tossed/discarded. Look at him now. Obviously wasn’t irredeemable.

Non-Steel City Insider subscribes will have to accept this author’s assurances that “Heinzsight” knows more about the fundamentals football than 90% of bloggers, including this one, will ever forget.

Chris Hubbard made the Steelers practice squad in 2013 and returned in 2014 to make the active roster. He saw his first professional action in the Steelers 2014 win at Carolina, one of the first truly impressive “scary good” performances of the offensive line of the entire Tomlin era.

Hubbard would see action in 7 games in 2015, saw action in 15 games in 2016 including four starts. Chris Hubbard started 10 games and appeared in 16 regular season games for the Steelers in 2017, proving himself to be that all-so-invaluable 3rd starting swing tackle charged with opening holes for Le’Veon Bell and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

You can never have too many good offensive lineman? How many times during has fate taught that lesson to the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era?

Chris Hubbard is the real deal. He’s a legitimate, quality starting tackle in league that puts a premium on this position. On top of that, he’s another guy like his counterpart Alejandro Villanueva or Kelvin Beachum who the rest of the NFL looked over, and said, “No Thanks” to. The Steelers were smarter, invested the time and effort into developing him. Why shouldn’t he stay in Pittsburgh?

  • Sentimentally doesn’t and shouldn’t drive free agent decisions.

The truth is that the will turn 27 this year, while Marcus Gilbert will turn 30, and Gilbert has more than his share of injuries on his frame having missed significant time in 2017 to injuries. The smart salary cap money says cut Gilbert, who’ll get signed in a snap, and resign Hubbard.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

It’d be easy to say that cutting Marcus Gilbert in favor of Chris Hubbard isn’t part of “The Steelers Way.” And it would give Steelers fan a warm and fuzzy feeling inside if we said it.

  • Unfortunately its not true.

The Steelers cut veterans before the end of their contracts, and during the early portion of the Tomlin era this was standard operating procedure especially on offensive line (just ask Justin Hartwig, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu.)

But the truth is the if the Steelers cut Marcus Gilbert, they’d take close to a 5 million dollar dead money salary cap hit, and this is the game that needs to get every bit of football out of its salary cap dollars as it can. And given that the Steelers extended Gilbert in 2014, Hubbard would certainly command a higher salary cap number.

You’d like to keep a guy like Chris Hubbard, but the numbers just don’t add up.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Hubbard

Kevin Colbert is a wiz a plucking gems from the undrafted rookie free agent pool, and Mike Tomlin is a coach whose dedicated to giving those young men a fair shot. You know their names. Roosevelt Nix, Ramon Foster, Willie Parker, and James Harrison. To name a few.

  • In another year, with a healthier cap situation, the Steelers might take a shot at keeping Hubbard.

But the Steelers salary cap situation simply doesn’t afford them that luxury. The Steelers gave Chris Hubbard an opportunity, he took full advantage of it, and he deserves to cash in. It won’t be in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply the way things work out.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Steelers Sign Veteran Cornerback Donald Washington

It is not unusual for the Steelers, or any NFL team, to make a couple of three roster moves following a rookie minicamp. An unsigned player on a tryout contract might catch a coach’s eye, as Terence Garvin did in 2013, or an undrafted rookie free agent blows his chance by showing up out of shape. So its nothing out of the ordinary to see the Steelers sign four players following their rookie minicamp.

It is who the Steelers signed that should turn some heads….

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/729385544359227394

  • But quartet of new Steelers signings brought a surprise with it.

Donald Washington, unlike backs Cameron Stingily and Brandon Brown-Dukes, along with wide receiver Marcus Tucker, is a veteran NFL cornerback….

That’s no misprint.

The Steelers website confirms the team signed “four try out players” from the rookie mini camp, but Donald Washington is no rookie.

The Kansas City Cheifs drafted Donald Washington in the 4th round of the 2009 NFL Draft as a safety. Per Pro Football Reference, Donald Washington saw action in 32 games for the Chiefs, and even made 5 starts from 2009 to 2011.

  • After that, Washington disappeared from football for two years, before resurfacing in the CFL in 2014 and 2015.

Washington switched to cornerback and played the 2014 CFL season for the Toronto Argonauts where he appeared in 3 games and made 14 defensive tackles and one special teams tackle. The Argonauts cut Washington before the 2015 season, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed him where he made 13 defensive tackles, 2 special teams tackles and recorded one sack.

Washington = Wired Signing for Steelers

At the recent NFL owners meeting, Mike Tomlin assured reporters that the Steelers had no plans to sign a veteran cornerback, however, Tomlin is wont to promise to “Leave no lose stone unturned” when it comes to finding talent that can help the Steelers.

  • The Steelers signing Donald Washington certainly qualifies as “found beneath a loose stone” discovery.

Players do sometimes disappear and then reappear. Mark Stock, a member of the 1989 Steelers draft class, and the guy who dropped a would-be late 4th quarter third down conversion pass from Bubby Brister in the 89 Steelers playoff loss to Denver, was out of football from 1990 to 1992, reappearing with the Redskins in 1993, disappearing for two more seasons and then reappearing in 1996 at as a 30 year old kick returner with the Colts.

In all fairness, Kevin Colbert’s skill at making astute “street free agent” signings and/or waiver wire pickups has been incredible.

As Steel Curtain Rising has previously recounted (at least twice), one of Colbert’s first moves upon arriving in Pittsburgh in 2000 was to sign former Detroit Lions offensive tackle Larry Tharpe, who’d sat out football in 1999.

No one will confuse Tharpe with Max Starks, let alone Larry Brown, but he did start 5 games in 2000, and was better than either of the Steelers 1999 starting right tackles Chris Conrad or Anthony Brown.

  • Perhaps Donald Washington is 2016’s Larry Tharpe.

Or maybe there’s a Todd Haley connection. Todd Haley drafted Washington and Washington left the NFL after 2011, at the same time Todd Haley joined the Steelers. Perhaps the two men have a bond, and Haley was able to get Washington a try out.

  • Or maybe Donald Washington just owes Haley money…..

Washington’s past performance suggests he’s got a greater chance of getting cut after minicamp than he does getting reps late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers first preseason game, but stranger things have happened….

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Another Experiment Ends: Steelers cut Mike Adams

Reports of a glut of depth for the Steelers at the offensive tackle position have been greatly exaggerated….” – Myron Bouchette Twain

The Pittsburgh Steelers decision to select Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft turned a few heads, given that the Steelers already had starters Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, had signed Denver Broncos Super Bowl veteran Ryan Harris, and were going to get 2012’s 1st round pick Mike Adams who was injured in 2016.

  • The Steelers depth at offensive tackle just got a little thinner.

In what amounts to a minor surprise move, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin made some roster moves including one which saw the Steelers cut Mike Adams, doing so with the designation of “Failed Physical.”

Mike Adams began 2015 on the PUP or physically unable to perform list because he needed back surgery. Theoretically, Adams could have return to the team later in the season, but reports indicated that was never a realistic possibility. Nor is his return to the team in 2016 a possibility either.

  • Exactly when, where or how Mike Adams injured his back is not clear.

Per Pro Football Reference, Mike Adams appeared in all 16 of the Steelers 2014 regular season contests, as well as in their playoff loss to the Ravens. News that he needed back surgery at the beginning of training camp amount to somewhat of a surprise.

  • Regardless, the Steelers Mike Adams experiment is now over.

Mike Adams entered the 2012 NFL Draft as a highly rated prospect, one whom many had projected as a first round pick. Then he failed a pre-scheduled drug test at the NFL Combine, prompting the Steelers to drop him from their draft board. Adams personally travled to Pittsburgh to plead his case, and the Steelers turned heads by drafting Adams in the 2nd round.

The immediate plan was to give Adams a shot at starting at left tackle, but it became clear in training camp that Adams was not ready, prompting the Steelers to turn to Max Starks one last time. Adams did start four games in relief of Marcus Gilbert in 2012 and played well. The following summer, Mike Adams earned the left tackle starting job in training camp….

…But all was not well. Adams struggled early and often. By the third game of the season, a night game on the road vs. Chicago and Ben Roethlisberger looked like his head was spinning, as Dale Lolley’s tweet suggests:

While Mike Tomlin had already begun to work Kelvin Beachum in at both tackle positions, it was Mike Adams who visibly struggled the most. Things worsened a week later, when a Steelers rally in London was stymied when Mike Adams gave up a sack near the goal line.

  • The Steelers benched Adams, and started Beachum.

Many fans gave up on Adams at that point and his getting stabbed on the South Side in June did not help Adam’s standing much in Steelers Nation. But the Steelers continued to show faith in Adams, and Adams did well in his four starts in 2014 in place of Marcus Gilbert.

In addition to cutting Mike Adams, the Steelers also cut running back Abou Toure and kicker Ty Long.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle

Offensive tackle is arguably the most important position on the offensive line, as the tackles are the players charged with defending against the defense’s edge rushers. Yet, for all the moaning about how long the Steelers have gone without draft a cornerback in the first round (last time was Chad Scott in 1997), Pittsburgh as gone longer without drafting an offensive tackle with their first round pick.

…OK, that pick didn’t work out so well, but does that mean that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should end the drought in the 2016 NFL Draft?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Marcus Gilbert has been the Steelers starting right tackle since Willie Colon injured himself in the 2011 opening day debacle vs. the Ravens. Gilbert started 13 games in 2011, but injuries limited him to four in 2012. Gilbert’s hold on a starting job was challenged in 2013 when coaches alternated Kelvin Beachum with both Gilbert and Mike Adams, but since Gilbert’s benching, he’s been the starter, although injuries did cost Gilbert 4 games in 2014.

  • Following the 2014 season Pro Football Focus rated Gilbert as the 10th best pass rushing right tackle.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had obviously come to a similar conclusion several months earlier, as they’d resigned Gilbert to a 5 year contract.

Playing on the other side of Gilbert is Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate, former US Army Ranger, and veteran of Afghanistan.

Villanueva spent 2014 on the Steelers practice squad, after the Steelers picked him up off of waivers from the Eagles, and moved him to the offensive side of the ball. While Alejandro Villanueva still must prove himself, the Steelers felt comfortable enough in his abilities that the allowed Kelvin Beachum to depart as a free agent.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

While the Steelers clearly like Alejandro Villanueva, they’re hedging their bets when it comes to protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, which was made clear by their decision to sign free agent tackle Ryan Harris from the Denver Broncos. Harris has over 70 starts to his name, and started all 16 games for the Super Bowl champions.

Oft forgotten, the Steelers also have Mike Adams who sat out 2015 on the PUP list, but will return for to play out the final year of his rookie contract. It remains to be seen if Adams can recover from the back surgery that ruined his 2015 season, but it should be noted that Adams did play well in relief of Gilbert in 2014.

The Steelers also enter the 2016 NFL Draft with Brian Mihalik and Matt Feiler, the latter of whom spent 2015 on the Steelers practice squad following stints on the Houston Texans practice squad in 2014.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Offensive Tackle

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016So, one week out from the 2016 NFL Draft the Steelers have one proven starter at offensive tackle, another starter-designate who shows a lot of potential, a Super Bowl veteran backup, and another player who will probably not live up to his billing as a second round pick, but could provide valuable depth.

  • They also have two untested NFL roster bottom feeders.

That is a good, although not great place to be in terms of depth. Starting-caliber offensive tackles do not grow on trees, as the Steelers learned in 2011 when they were forced to turn to Max Starks after Jonathan Scott proved he couldn’t cut the mustard.

  • Offensive tackle clearly isn’t a high priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft, but what priority should it take?

The Steelers have an insurance policy behind both starters, and if Mike Adams regains his health, they’ll have another one.

There is never a bad time to draft an offensive tackle with an eye towards developing him for the future, but given the Steelers depth at tackle and their other needs, the Steelers 2016 draft need at offensive tackle must be considered Moderate Low.

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Once Again, Kevin Colbert Can Play “Wait and See” with Steelers Free Agent Will Allen

Art Rooney II’s pronouncement following the 2015 season that the Steelers needed to improve their secondary was clear and unequivocal. Undoubtedly Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert already knew that, but there’s nothing like getting reinforcement from the top to ensure a sense of urgency.

The decision the Colbert and Tomlin make on Steelers free agent Will Allen will speak volumes about how the Steelers translate that urgency into action.

Capsule Profile of Will Allen Career with the Steelers

Let’s play a game. I say “Steelers safety Will Allen” and you say the first word that comes to mind.

  • How about “indispensable afterthought?”

That might sound like an oxymoron but it accurately describes the role that Will Allen has played since arriving as “the other” free agent in 2010 on the heels of Larry Foote and Antwan Randel El’s return. The Steelers signed Allen, arguable as insurance in case Ryan Clark walked (that’s how it looked, solid reporting disputed that however.)

  • Then the Steelers promptly forgot Will Allen.

Ryan Mundy was Mike Tomlin’s “next man up” when ever Troy Polamalu or Clark needed to come out, and Tomlin stuck to that plan during all of 2010, 2011, and through the Steelers 2012 loss at Oakland’s black hole. That lose got Allen into the Steeelers line up.

While Allen helped improve their defense, the Steelers let him go as a free agent in 2013, only to bring him back in after Dallas cut him. Allen again helped stabilize the Steelers defense, as the stability he provided can at the expense of getting Shamarko Thomas snaps.

  • Allen was back in 2014, and while it feels disrespectful to write this, the Steelers defense was better with him in and Polamalu on the bench.

Still, the Steelers waited until Polamalu retired to resign Allen for 2015. But as always, the thinking was that Allen would back up Shamarko Thomas. Of course, Shamarko Thomas got benched, Will Allen started for the Steelers at safety.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Will Allen

In four straight years, Will Allen’s role was projected to play a secondary role in the Steelers defensive backfield, and in four straight seasons circumstances forced Allen to do more than expected and each time he delivered.

  • That’s a nice track record for someone who did little more than sit on the bench for two seasons.

When the history of Pittsburgh Steelers safeties is written, no one’s going to confuse Will Allen with Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards, Carnell Lake, or even Darren Perry. But Allen has provided consistent, competent play at a critical position and is a good man to have on your team.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Will Allen

Will Allen is going to be 34 in 2016, and while his play was solid in 2015, he did begin to show signs of losing a step. And the Steeler secondary cannot afford to lose many steps. In some ways, Will Allen’s career arch with the Steelers mirrors that of Max Starks.

  • He’s a player the Steelers have wanted to move on from, but have never been able to do so.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it makes a lot of sense. At some point management has to decide enough is enough and commit to moving on. The Steelers did it in 2013, even though Mike Adams was clearly in over his head at left tackle. There were certain growing pains, but by the end of 2013 Kelvin Beachum had silenced the calls to bring back Max Starks one more time.

  • And so it must be with Will Allen.

Will Allen has been one of the Steelers most underrated and under appreciated free agent pickups. He’s provided dependable depth and done all that has been asked of him. But it is time for the Steelers to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Will Allen

Does Will Allen even want to come back and continue playing? Will Allen considered retiring after 2014, and had to be talked into returning, if Dale Lolley is correct. If he does want to play, then the Steelers can consider bringing him back, but resigning Robert Golden and finding a younger safety in the draft take prority.

If the Steelers think that Will Allen has one more season of football left in him, and Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake are far more qualified to make that decision than yours truly, then they can do what they’ve always done – plan to fall back on Will Allen if their other plans don’t pan out.

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

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Shoring Up Secondary, Steelers Sign Ross Cockrell to 1 Year Contract

Pittsburgh took its first step towards shoring up its secondary in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ross Cockrell to a one year contract. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of the Steelers exclusive rights free agents, meaning he couldn’t negotiate with any other team, but the Steelers still needed to make him an offer.

If the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had one unquestionable weakness, it was in their secondary. For starters, the 2015 Steelers fielded an accidental secondary, as no one, save for Mike Mitchell, played in the role envisioned for him when he was acquired.

That might seem like a tautology but the Steelers secondaries from 2011-2013 were far from dominant, but played better without much of a pass rush to speak of. While Ross Cockrell might not be close to being a “shutdown corner,” bringing him back to Pittsburgh is a smart move.

Ross Cockrell 2015 Retrospective

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin turned a lot of heads when the Steelers claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers after the first wave of mandatory cuts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo saw the move as sufficiently puzzling enough to question whether the Steelers coaches and scouting teams were not on the same page, much as they had been over offensive line in general and Max Starks in particular in 2007 and 2008.

  • While not speaking directly to Ray Fittipaldo’s point, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola boosted the level of debate on the subject.

Responding to a reader’s question, Labriola cited legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who instructed younger scouts not to put too much faith into the performance of defensive backs on other teams, because you had no way of knowing what those DB’s had been instructed to do.

  • Enter Ross Cockrell, the 2014 4th rounder that Rex Ryan and company couldn’t wait to get rid of.

As a wavier wire pickups go, Ross Cockrell’s 2015 season alone makes him a success. Per the Steelers rendering, Cockrell started 7 games and suited up for 15, the only game he missed was the season opener at New England. While Ross Cockrell’s 2015 performance doesn’t project him as another Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, he did give the Steelers secondary something it sorely needed – turnovers.

The fumble recover shows some particularly good concentration and execution (available as of 1/23/16 — watch it now before Roger Goodell’s You Tube police have it taken down):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GPk3MghFHA

And without question, Cockrell’s most important play of the year came in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals. It took Jarvis Jones to stop Jeremy Hill, Ryan Shazier to strip the ball and Ross Cockrell to recover it.

The Steelers secondary needs help. Ross Cockrell might not be “The Answer” to the Steelers defensive backfield woes, but he is certainly part of the equation.

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A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 Goal Line Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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