Does Randy Fichtner’s Firing Foreshadow Change for Ben Roethlisberger?

When asked about staffing changes at his post-season press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was coy:

We haven’t had any of those discussions. Change is a part of our business. I’ll acknowledge the possibility of that. We are just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. And so, it is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.

Apparently “pretty soon” must have meant “as I speak,” because less than 24 hours later news broke that the Steelers would not be renewing the contracts of (read firing) offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.

Steelers tight ends coach James Daniels also announced his retirement. None of these moves are a shock, but one might foreshadow far bigger changes to come.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger during happier times. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

Randy Fichtner first worked with Mike Tomlin in the late 1990’s when they both coached at Arkansas State University. He joined the Steelers staff in 2007 as wide receivers coach and kept a low profile.

After the 2009 season, when Tomlin resisted pressure to fire Bruce Arians, he shifted Randy Fichtner to quarterbacks coach. At the time, he was assumed to be the offensive coordinator in waiting. But Mike Tomlin passed over Fitchner in favor of Todd Haley when Art Rooney II forced Bruce Arians out in 2011. Fichtner again faded into the background.

  • Yet in the middle of the 2017 season, an unfamiliar face appeared on the Steelers sidelines.

Who was that bearded man talking to Ben Roethlisberger when the defense was on the field? It was none other than quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner who’d come down from the booth. Word was he was there to serve as a buffer between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley.

Whether it was because of Fichtner’s presence or not, Ben Roethlisberger went from playing the worst football of his in the first half of his career to playing the best football of his career. When the season was over and Todd Haley was fired, Mike Tomlin immediately promoted Fichtner

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

Under Fichtner, the Steelers 2018 offense took some time to find its stride then enjoyed success in the middle of the season, only to falter when James Conner got injured. In 2019, Fichtner was forced to play Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges along with other 2nd line players and the unit struggled.

In 2020, the offense started strong, but the running game faltered during October, allowing defense to suffocate the short passing game.

Conspicuously enough during both 2019 and 2020 the Steelers offensive line began the season doing reasonably well in run blocking, only to see that part of their game slip well below the line by mid season.

  • That is likely the reason why Jason Sarrett also got a pink slip.

Jason Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive line assistant. In 2013, the Steelers offensive line had a horrendous start to the year, but steadily improved during the season. When offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired at season’s end Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it was Sarrett, and not Bicknell who’d mentored the young line along.

Sarrett didn’t get the offensive line coaching job during that off season, which went instead to Mike Munchak.

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

Based on performance, Tom Bradley’s dismissal is the only surprise. Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake who left after the 2017 season and the Steelers secondary has improved since his arrival.

Certainly, his tenure had its share of disappointments – Sean Davis’ shift to free safety was OK but he never recovered his rookie form; Artie Burns continued to regress and Terrell Edmunds, while improving, still hasn’t lived up to his first round potential.

But Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have blossomed under his guidance, and Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been difference makers for this defense.

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

It is no secret that the Steelers fired Todd Haley in large part to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. Nor is it a secret that he has a close relationship with Randy Fichtner, just as he had a close relationship with Bruce Arians.

But the fact that Randy Fichtner is gone indicates at the very least that the Steelers as an organization won’t bend over backwards to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy and to entice him to keep playing. Beyond that, this move could help hasten Roethlisberger’s retirement decision.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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Why Is There “Click Bait”? Start with a Lack of Respect for Steelers/NFL History

Did I lure you in with my click-bait title?

Sorry about that, but whenever I write articles that have to do with Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene or that time I went to that Steelers game in 1988, you just don’t seem to care all that much.

Dan Rooney Legacy, Super Bowl X, Steelers, Lombardi Trophy, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Pete Rozelle

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

What does seem to resonate with you? Anything to do with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Colin Kaepernick, Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback situation or anything that’s happened with the Steelers in the past five minutes or so.

And, by the way, writing an article with a headline such as: “Why it Makes Sense for the Steelers to Bring back Antonio Brown” is not click-bait — not if the article actually covers why the author thinks it would make sense for Pittsburgh to re-sign Antonio Brown.

Attention-bait? Anger-bait? Traffic-bait? Perhaps. However, if you want actual click-bait, go click on one of those links at the bottom of most websites that like to draw you in with headlines such as: “She was Enjoying Her Birthday Cake but had No Idea What was Lurking Behind Her.”

What was lurking behind her? You usually never get to find out, thanks to having to click through 28 pages of ad-infested gibberish — that, my friend, is click-bait.

  • As for those reaction-baiting articles about Antonio Brown or the Steelers possibly signing Jameis Winston?

Those are usually money. Why? Because you like, no, love them. Oh, you say you don’t love them. You say you’d rather read about Ramon Foster’s retirement and/or the merits of his possible replacements — Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran free-agent signing, or Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft — but you really don’t.

  • At least not according to the numbers.

You say you don’t want to read yet another article about the controversial Rooney Rule, but traffic for such articles is through the roof. As for the comments sections? They’re fire, my friend.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

You want an article about Shaun Sarrett, who became the Steelers offensive line coach after the legendary Mike Munchak moved on to coach the Broncos’ hogs following the 2018 season? Fine. Crickets.

And that’s why there were 45,000 articles written about James Harrison, last week, and the controversial envelope head coach Mike Tomlin may or may not have given him way back in 2010. James Harrison appeared on a podcast with former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon and was very revealing about countless subjects.

However, the sexiest subject Harrison touched on regarding his time with the Steelers centered around Pittsburgh possibly covering one of the several fines he received a decade earlier, thanks to the NFL’s sudden desire to legislate head shots out of the game.

You want more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational? Read more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational.

Do you know who Don Shula is? He’s the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL. Did you know the guy who coached the Colts in Super Bowl III — the team that lost to Broadway Joe Namath and his guarantee — passed away on May 4 at the age of 90? Did you know that upset victory by the Jets may have been the most significant in the history of the NFL and paved the way for all that came after that? Did you know Shula went on to coach the Dolphins and guided them to the only undefeated season in modern NFL history in 1972?

I, and I assume many others, wrote articles about Shula’s passing. Did you bother to click on any of them? If not, maybe you should have. Maybe you should go watch some YouTube videos of Shula’s years and the impact he had on the NFL. Go learn about Chuck Noll, the Steelers legendary head coach who passed away in 2014 at the age of 82.

If you learn about Noll, and all that he accomplished in his 23 years as the Steelers head coach, maybe you’d agree that it’s ridiculous that so many people have misspelled his name over the years.

Sorry for the rant, but it was necessary, at least in a sense. If you’re on this site and have read this far, you’re probably prioritize substance over style. While some Steelers sites like Steel City Blitz and Steelers Takeaways,  or Twitter feeds like @VintageSteelers and @SteelCityStar do a fantastic job in fostering a great respect and reverence for Steelers history, many do not.

Most can’t afford to.

Maybe they would if readers started showing a little more respect and reverence for Steelers and NFL history.

 

 

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers 2019 Offensive Line Draft Needs

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

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

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Time for Steelers to Let Justin Hunter Stalk NFL Future Outside of Pittsburgh

Even if it has been repeatedly proven that winning free agency rarely results in winning a Lombardi (ask Daniel Snyder), free agency excites NFL fan bases. Fantasy Football becomes real. Real money changes hands, players switch teams in moves coaches, general managers, the players themselves and agents, especially agents, assure us are win-win.

  • Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers are never big players in free agency.

That disappoints some Steelers fans, (never mind that the Patriots aren’t very active either) who are forced to settle for under the radar signings.

  • Yet, sometimes Kevin Colbert’s bargain hunting pays big dividends.

Ryan Clark arrived as a stopgap signing in 2006 and helped cement a Super Bowl era. Mewelde Moore’s arrival barely merited mention in the press, yet he was 2008’s unsung hero. Brice McCain only stayed for a year, but punched above his weight while in Pittsburgh.

Then you have players like Justin Hunter, who arrived as a free agent and is now approaching his shot at a third contract from the Steelers…..

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter’s Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Justin Hunter relatively early in free agency in 2017, although it was clear he was only being brought in as a backup. Mike Munchack had drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft and at 6’4” 203 Justin Hunter had all the measurables.

  • The word was he feared contact.

Justin Hunter earned a roster spot, despite the star power of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster and the presence of backups like Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Justin Hunter didn’t dazzle, even in preseason, but word was he was good in practice and, perhaps more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger liked him.

In 2017 Justin Hunter saw action in 7 games and caught 4 passes of 10 thrown his way. The Steelers resigned him in 2018 and Hunter made the team again, although only appeared in 5 games and only managed to catch 3 of 13 passes thrown his way.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

Ooh, this is a toughie. Even a theoretical case for resigning Justin Hunter hardly seems plausible. If Eli Rogers had been healthy at the beginning of the season and/or if James Washington had been ready for prime time, The Turk would have visited Justin Hunter.

But here it goes:

Justin Hunter gives Ben Roethlisberger a tall target. He knows the system and could provide veteran stability for a unit being rocked by losing a Hall of Fame talent…

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

…The Steelers lose Antonio Brown, and its Justin Hunter to the rescue! Yeah, right.

The Steelers took a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 and there’s no shame in that. Their decision to resign him in 2018 was questionable, but understandable – to a point.

But nothing Justin Hunter has done suggests he’s worthy of taking up a training camp roster spot. Nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Taking a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 made sense. Resigning Justin Hunter last spring was a little puzzling, but more a little understandable given the way the depth chart evolved at wide receiver, although with 20/20 hindsight the extra roster spot should have gone to a running back.

  • The Steelers wide receiver corps is undergoing a seismic shift this off season.

No on really knows what the Steelers 2019 opening day wide receivers depth chart will look like, but it will be very different. And it will be poorer, on paper at least. With that understanding, there is no conceivable way that Justin Hunter’s presence makes Pittsburgh’s 2019 WR’s better.

It is time for Justin Hunter to stalk his NFL future somewhere other than Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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He’s Steelers Success Story, But Should Ramon Foster Seek a Home Outside Pittsburgh?

Everyone loves a “Rags to Riches” undrafted rookie free agent does good story. Kevin Colbert’s a knack for finding undrafted rookie free agents played a big part in adding Lombardi’s Number Five and Six to the trophy case. Think I’m exaggerating? 

The sad thing about undrafted rookie free agent success stories is that they have to end at some point. Which brings us to veteran left guard Ramon Foster. Could it be time for his story in Pittsburgh to end? Let’s take a look.

Ramon  Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

Capsule Profile of Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career

As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, Foster signed with the Steelers in 2009. He started four games during his rookie campaign including Super Bowl XLV and another eight in his second season. And in 2011, Foster started 14 games at left guard and since has become a permanent fixture at the position.

The process was not seamless, however. When the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in the 2012 NFL Draft and moved Willie Colon from tackle to guard, it appeared that the Steelers were trying to replace Ramon Foster. However, Ramon Foster continued to start in the face of injured to both Colon and DeCastro, and Ramon Foster has started 14 games or more in every season since.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

Ramon Foster not only survived the influx of offensive line talent, starting with the drafting of perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in the 2010 NFL Draft, he has emerged as one of the most consistent and durable members of the unit. Furthermore, Ramon Foster has established himself as a team leader and a calming presence in a Steelers locker room that sorely needs such things as of late.

He’s also a popular player as far as offensive linemen go and a bit of a pillar in the Pittsburgh community.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

B.J. Finney. A year ago Foster’s fellow undrafted rookie free agent signed a one-year contract extension with the Steelers. Now B.J. Finney is reaching restricted free agency. But while B.J. Finney has spent the majority of his time with the Steelers playing the role of utility lineman (he’s started games at guard and center), he’s shown more than enough potential to be promoted to the role of starter.

Furthermore, B.J. Finney, 27, is six years younger than Ramon Foster, who will be 33 by the time he plays in his next NFL game of consequence. And let’s not forget Foster, who has never really cashed in on a big deal, has gone on record to say that if the Steelers want to keep him around for a few more years, they’re going to have to pay him.

  • What that tells me is that he’s willing and eager to shop his services on the open market.

In other words, no “Home Team Discount” for Ramon Foster. Given the alternatives, the Steelers best course of action would be to lock B.J. Finney down to a long-term deal, and allow Ramon Foster to walk. 

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ramon Foster

With so many needs at so many other positions–including at wide receiver (in case you haven’t heard, Antonio Brown is headed out of town….), inside linebacker and, as always, in the secondary — keeping a player like Ramon Foster around — as consistent as he is — just seems like a luxury at this point.

That’s especially the case for an offensive line that has been able to find and then develop so many undrafted and lower round prospects into productive offensive linemen under the tutelage of the legendary Mike Munchak and his successor, Shaun Sarrett.

Therefore, I think it’s time for the Steelers to thank Ramon Foster for a wonderful 10 seasons and wish him well on his future endeavors.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Shouldn’t Tender Restricted Free Agent B.J. Finney – They Should Do a Long Term Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line has literally been a tale of two stories during the Mike Tomlin era. From 2007 to 2013 the Steelers offensive line building philosophy could best be described as “Plug and Patch.”

Both injuries and ineffectiveness forced the Steelers to rotate offensive lineman in and out of the lineup as if they were playing musical chairs.

That began to change in 2014, in part because of the arrival of Mike Munchak and in part because the organization made a commitment to offensive line building.

The shift has seen the Steelers field strong starting offensive lines backed by impressive depth. The 2019 free agency signing period promises to test that dynamic, and the case of restricted free agent B.J. Finney serves as a perfect example.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

Capsule Profile of B.J. Steelers Career

B.J. Finney joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015 and spent the year on the practice squad.

In 2016, B.J. Finney made the active roster and saw action in relief of injured Ramon Foster against Philadelphia and started the following week against Kansas City in a game that saw Le’Veon Bell explode for 144 yards on the ground. B.J. Finney would also start against Buffalo in the game where Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers regular season rushing record. Finney also worked at center in the season finale against Cleveland.

In 2017, B.J. Finney started again against Kansas City, Houston and in the season finale against Cleveland. In 2018, appeared in all 16 games and started the contests against the Buccaneers and the Chiefs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

As Pittsburgh painfully learned in the early part of the Tomlin era, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

And B.J. Finney is a good offensive lineman, who has proven himself as a solid starter at both guard and one who has the position flexibility to play at center if the need should arise. While the Steelers starting front five is arguably the NFL’s best, the unit’s collective age is creeping up.

  • At age 27, B.J. Finney offers Pittsburgh both youth and proven experience.

The wise move would not only to tender Finney so that he stays around in 2019, but to sign him to a long term contract to keep him in Pittsburgh long after that.

Because if the Steelers only offer B.J. Finney a restricted free agent tender, he’ll likely be too expensive to resign in a year’s time. The Steelers should take steps to keep B.J. Finney in Pittsburgh for what promises to be the prime of his career.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Art Rooney II has said he wants to see the entire Steelers offensive line return, and that would imply the team resigning Ramon Foster. And unless Ramon Foster is disposed to offer the Steelers a generous home team discount, that means that finding money to tender B.J. Finney could be prohibitive.

In that context, a long term contract would become luxury the Steelers cannot afford.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

As a restricted free agent, B.J. Finney isn’t going anywhere. The Steelers most certainly will make him a qualifying tender, the only question is at what level that tender will amount to.

The Steelers have no doubt considered offering a long-term deal to Finney, but whether they proceed along those lines likely depends on what they do with Ramon Foster.

The Steelers seem intent on breaking the stream of steady bad news created by the Antonio Brown soap opera (and his subsequent pot-shots at Ben Roethlisberger) with the feel good story that would be created by resigning Ramon Foster.

Hopefully, Kevin Colbert can find a way to ensure that an either/or situation doesn’t arise between keeping Ramon Foster and B.J. Finney, but if it does the franchise should focus on signing B.J. Finney to a long term contract.

With that said, the likely outcome is an extension for Foster and a restricted free agent tender that keeps B.J. Finney in Pittsburgh for another year.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Reminder Steelers Nation: Lombardi Trophies are an Achievement, Not an Entitlement

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived and the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing in it. And while that’s a disappointment, it hardly qualifies as an injustice.

  • Lombardi Trophies are an achievement not an entitlement.

This should be obvious, but certain segments of Steelers Nation seem to have lost sight of the fact. Many bemoan the fact that Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have only gone 1-1 in Super Bowls and haven’t sniffed the big game since 2010.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Yes, It IS Hard to Feel Good about the Steelers Right Now

Before proceeding, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room:

  • It is very hard to feel good about the Pittsburgh Steelers these days.

Heck, yours truly started in article musing about the potential for a Steelers rebound in 2019 that Tony Defeo finished while on I vacation. During that time even MORE negative news surfaced about the Antonio Brown AND Morgan Burnett publicly asked for his release.

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward have sounded off on the situation. Who knows? Before this is over, we might expect to hear from Preston Gothard. OK, we won’t, but you get the point.

All of this provides a poignant backdrop to the harsh reality that since losing the 2016 AFC Championship game to the Patriots, the Steelers have taken two successive steps backwards.

  • Why have the Steelers regressed?

There are many reasons. The hand of fate has been felt acutely. Think Ryan Shazier’s injury or even the injuries that ruined Senquez Golson’s NFL career before it began.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all made mistakes. None of what follows absolves them of their errors. But it should remind us of just how hard their job is.

Winning a Super Bowl Is Hard

The Pittsburgh Steelers have appeared in 8 of 53 Super Bowls. You’ll find no better example of institutional excellence, but spoils Steelers fans into forgetting just how hard it is to bring home a Lombardi.
Just how hard is it to win a Super Bowl?

Well, let’s begin with the fact that the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have never appeared in a Super Bowl. While the Jaguars and Texans joined the league as expansion teams in the ‘90’s and 00’s, Lions and Browns fans are waiting ½ century and counting for their first shot at a Lombardi.

  • The Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 and 1979 World Series wins practically qualify Bucos as a dynasty by comparison.

Super Bowl appearances are nice, but it is the wins that really count. Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills fans can attest. Those two franchises lead the league in lost Super Bowls with 4 apiece. In total, there are 12 teams that have never won a Super Bowl in the 53 year history of the event.

  • In other words, 37.5% of NFL teams have never hoisted a Lombardi.

And that percentage does not control for timeliness.

The Jets, Chiefs and Dolphins all have Lombardi’s to display. New York’s arrived as to product of one of the greatest upsets in the history of North American sports.

  • That upset also happened 8 days before Richard Nixon put his hand on the Bible to be sworn in as President.

Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs also pulled off an upset of their own in Super Bowl IV, a victory which came three months before the Beatles officially broke up.

The Miami Dolphins won their last Super Bowl in January 1974, back when Star Trek seemed condemned to be forgotten as a cult series relegated to perpetual re-run status on UHF channels.

Going 1-1 in Super Bowls over an 11 year period doesn’t sound quite has bad, does it? (Special nod to Ivan Cole who pointed many of these stats out via email.)

Building Back-to-Back Super Bowl Eras Is Harder Yet

If winning a Super Bowl is difficult, then stitching together back-to-back Super Bowl eras is harder yet. Think of the franchises fortunate enough to field successive franchise quarterbacks.

George Seifert replaced Joe Montana with Steve Young. He also had Jerry Rice, arguably giving him a better quarterback, wide receiver combos than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. He only won one Super Bowl with Joe Montana and one with Steve Young.

The Green Bay Packers had Brett Farve for 16 years and went 1-1 in Super Bowls. succeeded him with Aaron Rodgers, yet have only added 1 more Lombardi to the case under his watch.

  • The Colts of course followed Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck but are still waiting on their latest Lombardi.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have indeed authored a Super Bowl era that has lasted 18 years an counting, an incredible achievement which they very well might add to this evening.

But even the vaunted Patriots went 10 years between Lombardi Trophies. And while we’re at it, just how many trophies did Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom bag?

Hum, going 1-1 in Super Bowls and never dropping below .500 seems a little more appealing now, doesn’t it?

Yeah, But the Steelers Have Had a Franchise Quarterback….

True. And, given what was discussed above, the familiar refrain that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are squandering Ben Roethlisberger’s prime years certainly rings true.

  • But how does sentiment stand up to logic?

Let’s see. Don Shula had Dan Marino and only managed one Super Bowl appearance and zero wins. Dan Reeves lost 3 Super Bowls with John Elway. Marv Levy lost 4 Super Bowls with Jim Kelly. Sean Payton and Drew Brees only have one Lombardi to their credit, and have endured 4 losing seasons since winning a Super Bowl.

  • Franchise quarterbacks come with a sort of Catch 22.

Today, a franchise quarterback is (almost) essential to winning a Super Bowl. Yet a franchise quarterback sucks up salary cap space and all but ensures that his team will draft late in every round. That means a franchise quarterback can take you to the Mountain Top, maybe more than once, but his presence also makes it hard to mount a serious comeback should you get knocked off the top.

Steelers Still Have a Shot at a Third Ring

To repeat:  It is hard to feel good about the direction the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading in. As I have said before and will again, it is entirely possible that the window to Lombardi Number Three for the Ben Roethlisberger era closed the moment Ryan Shazier suffered his spinal contusion.

But the emergence of T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald and James Conner alongside stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Joe Haden at least give the Steelers a chance to keep the window open.

  • Will the Steelers walk through the window before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work?”

Time will tell. But let’s enjoy the ride that might still take us back to the Mountain Top while we still can.

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