Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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Keeping Up with the Joneses: Keion Adams, Brain Allen & Nat Berhe Among Surprising Steeler Cuts

Landry Jones isn’t alone. The Steelers cutting Landry Jones wasn’t the only surprise cut to come out of Pittsburgh.

In addition to saying good bye to a man that many thought was untouchable as their backup quarterback, the Steelers cut safety Nat Berhe whom they’d signed as a free agent, linebacker Keion Adams whom they’d picked in the 7th round of the 2017 NFL Draft and cornerback Brian Allen a 5th round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft who held a roster spot throughout 2017.

Brian Allen, Steelers 2018 cuts

Brian Allen, Steelers 5th rounder from 2017 was a surprise cut. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Both Keion Adams and Brian Allen were seen as two players with significant “upside.” However, Adams was outplayed by undrafted rookie free agent Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. Based on how one interprets one of his tweets, Nat Berhe could be returning to the Steelers, but such a move would require them to put someone in injured reserve.

  • The Steelers also parted ways with Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was having a strong camp and played a key role on special teams.

The Steelers also placed Eli Rogers on the PUP list, and designated wide receivers Damoun Patterson and Marcus Tucker, offensive lineman Joseph Cheek, safety Malik Golden and linebacker Keith Kelsey as “injured waived” freeing them to sign with another NFL team but allowing the Steelers to retain their rights should they go unclaimed.

  • Jordan Berry, whose preseason performance had been mixed – put generously – avoided a visit from The Turk as the Steelers cut punter Matt Wile.

Joshua Frazier, whom the Steelers picked in the 7th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only member of the Pittsburgh’s draft class to get cut, and Frazier will likely return on the practice squad.

The rest of the Steelers cuts included:

Running Backs
Jarvion Franklin
James Summers

Wide Receivers
Trey Griffey
Quadree Henderson
Tevin Jones

Tight Ends
Bucky Hodges
Pharoah McKever
Christian Scotland-Williamson

Offensive Linemen
Larson Graham
Patrick Morris
Oni Omoile
R.J. Prince
Jake Rodgers
Chris Schleuger

Cornerbacks
Dashaun Phillips
Malik Reaves
Jamar Summers

Linebackers
Matt Galambos
Farrington Huguenin

Defensive Linemen
Parker Cothren
Greg Gilmore
Lavon Hooks
Casey Sayles
Kendal Vickers

The Steelers will need to make at least one additional personnel move as Le’Veon Bell is not officially part of their 53 man roster.

Tight End Health Not a Concern – Yet

Thanks to a little inductive reasoning, we can also reasonably conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are not concerned about the health of Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble or of Jesse James for that matter. McDonald has been injured all summer, and Xavier Grimble has had wrist/thumb surgery calling into question just how stable tight end would be for the Steelers in 2018.

The fact that the Steelers cut Bucky Hodges and Pharoah McKever would seem to indicate that they’re not concerned about the health of their tight ends.

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Steelers Report Card for Preseason Win over Panthers – “Joshua Dobbs Does He Stay or Go” Edition

It was a fun evening for the Steelers, who prevailed over the  Panthers, 39-24, in their fourth and final preseason game, Thursday night at Heinz Field. It was fun for the rookies and roster hopefuls, because the spotlight was on them. It was also fun for the veterans, because most didn’t have to play.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Second-year man Joshua Dobbs was the talk of the town, following Thursday’s final tuneup. “Should they keep Dobbs and get rid of backup Landry Jones?” many wondered quite vocally. And, why? Because Dobbs, who started and played most of the first half, put the finishing touches on a fine preseason, this time, completing eight of 12 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. Dobbs even added 18 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

Rookie Mason Rudolph also looked sharp, connecting on five of his nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Rudolph also showed off his legs (and mean-streak) by taking it in himself on a two-point attempt and then giving the business to the linebacker who was flagged for hitting him late after he crossed the goal line. Sure, these youngsters were going up against fourth and fifth-stringers, but impressive is impressive, so….. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Veteran Stevan Ridley looked impressive as the workhorse, toting the rock eight times for 39 yards. Other than Ridley, no other Steelers running back did much. Although, unknown Jarvion Franklin perhaps fulfilled a childhood dream by scoring a touchdown under the bright lights. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for the receivers who are locks to make the team. As for those hopefuls? While it was likely too little, too late for him, Tevin Jones did put something on tape with two scores. And Pitt’s Quadree Henderson scored a seven-yard touchdown in the same venue where he had many as a college player. It was another subpar night (and perhaps final night in black-and-gold) for Trey Griffey and Damoun Patterson, who combined for one catch for 15 yards. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Can you believe a Steelers’ tight end did something? That would be Bucky Hodges, who pulled in two passes for 43 yards–including a 36-yard reception that set up a touchdown. As for Jesse James, Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble? They were all nursing injuries of varying degrees, and we can only hope that one of them will be ready for Week-1 in Cleveland. Grade: D

Offensive Linemen
As you might expect, the Steelers starting linemen used up their remaining sick days on Thursday, but those super-subs, namely Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney and rookie tackle Chuks Okorafor acquitted themselves quite well, limiting Carolina to one sack. The Steelers also rushed for 108 yards as a team, so all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad night for Pittsburgh’s notable offensive line depth. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
It was also an uneventful night for the veterans of this unit, and of those youngsters and veterans looking to crack the talented defensive line, not much stood out. Although, Lavon Hooks did record a sack. Also, Carolina only rushed for 90 yards on 22 carries. Grade: C

Linebackers
Wow, after yet another impressive showing by Matthew Thomas, who tallied 11 tackles–including six solo–and recorded a strip-sack, recovered the fumble out of the air, and then proceeded to race 75 yards down to the Carolina one-yard line, one has to wonder if the UDFA out of Florida State is already the Steelers’ most-talented inside linebacker. That opinion will be proven over time, of course, but there’s no doubt Thomas cemented his spot on the final roster. Speaking of UDFAs who cemented a roster spot, Steelers’ fans better learn how to spell Olasunkanmi Adeniyi’s name, because the youngster recorded his third preseason sack.  Grade: A

Secondary
Rookie fifth-round pick, Marcus Allen, got plenty of reps at the safety position, along with plenty of tackles (10 and six solo). Second-year corner Brian Allen likely locked up his place on the roster with nine total tackles. As for Mr. Preseason, safety Jordan Dangerfield, he added five tackles. Will this be enough for the veteran to hold onto his job? Grade: B

Special Teams
The newly-acquired Ryan Switzer returned two kickoffs for 43 yards, while Henderson had 29 yards on his lone attempt. Punter Matt Wile may have ousted veteran Jordan Berry by averaging 50 yards on three punts. As for the coverage units, nothing alarming stood out. Grade: B-

Coaching
Not much you can say about coaching in a game like this. When you have a bunch of down-the-liners going up against a bunch of down-the-liners, you can throw strategy out the window. The only thing you can really grade is whether or not the head coach protected enough key veterans from injury. And with the exception of the gruesome knee injury suffered by Malik Golden (who obviously doesn’t have the cachet to sit out a fourth preseason game), it was a job well-done. Grade: A

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Report Card for Steelers 3rd Preseason Game vs. The Titans

The Steelers took on the Titans at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon in the (say it with me) all-important third preseason. With the exception of a key superstar or two, all of the starters played for Pittsburgh, and the performance and results looked more akin to a Super Bowl contender than they did the previous week in Green Bay.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds Preseason Interception, Vince Williams

Terrell Edmunds returning a preseason interception. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger made his preseason debut and played three series, completing 11 of 18 passes for 114 yards and a 32-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter. He looked a bit rusty, as the many high passes to  Jesse James — including one that left the big tight end with a back contusion–illustrated. All-in-all, it was about what you’ve come to expect this time of year from the 15-year veteran. Landry Jones completed six of his nine pass attempts for 69 yards and an interception that was more on the receiver than on him. Mason Rudolph played the entire second half and completed seven of 11 passes for 65 yards, as he often utilized short, underneath passes to running backs out of the backfield. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner started, and while his rushing performance left a lot to be desired (just 18 yards on 10 carries), he was very Le’Veon Bell-like, as he compiled 52 receiving yards on six catches. Rookie Jaylen Samuels was the workhorse on the day and a mighty fine one that that, tallying 41 rushing yards on 11 carries, along with 36 receiving yards on four catches out of the backfield. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Second-year man JuJu Smith-Schuster led the way with six receptions for 46 yards, but he did have a couple of notable drops. Other than Smith-Schuster and Hunter’s aforementioned 32-yard score, it was a rather quiet day for the receivers.  Rookie James Washington was targeted twice on the day and left with zero catches after suffering an oblique injury. After standing out in the first preseason game, Damoun Patterson’s workload continued to decline, as did, one would think, his chances of making the final 53-man roster. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
It was another day without Vance McDonald and another quiet game for the Steelers tight ends. James left with two receptions for 17 yards after suffering his aforementioned back injury, while no other tight end did anything of significance. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen
With the exception of Ramon Foster, the Steelers star-studded offensive line played as a unit for the first time this preseason, and while the big guys had to shake off some rust, they afforded Roethlisberger with the suburb protection he’s become accustomed to in the latter stages of his career. In-fact. even when super-subs such as Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney were in the game, holes were being opened, and quarterbacks were being protected. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
Perhaps for the first time since suffering a torn biceps in Week 1 of the 2017 season, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man possessed, as he continuously found his way in the Titans’ backfield and came away with one sack and two quarterback hits on the day. Cam Heyward also returned to his 2017 All-Pro form, recording one sack and two tackles for loss. Javon Hargrave looked decent, as did Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton in their usual reserve roles. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to sit out with a hamstring injury, and it was a quiet afternoon for Bud Dupree. However, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi continued to make a strong case to make the final cut, as he recorded yet another sack this preseason. Fellow outside linebacker-hopeful, Farrington Huguenin, was also pretty active and contributed with a sack of his own. As for the inside linebacker spot, Vince Williams celebrated his new contract by tallying three tackles and a sack before exiting for the afternoon. As has become the case in recent seasons, L.J. Fort looked solid when given playing time.

But perhaps the biggest story of this preseason–one that will likely continue to grow if his exceptional play continues–was undrafted free agent, Matthew Thomas, who led all Steelers defenders with nine tackles–including five solo. Grade: A

Secondary
Artie Burns‘ name was hardly mentioned, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback. Rookie first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, created a turnover for the second week in a row, when he intercepted a pass in the first half and then proceeded to turn on the jets as he returned it 30 yards into Tennessee territory. The Titans never made it beyond midfield the entire first half, which means the secondary didn’t allow any big plays. Grade: A-

Special Teams
It was a decent day for veteran punter Jordan Berry, as he averaged 43.5 yards on two punts. But it was an even better day for backup Matt Wile, who averaged 48.7 yards on three boots. As for the kicking situation, Chris Boswell continued his ascension to the top of the NFL at his position, making all three of his field goal attempts–including a 45-yarder.

As for the coverage unit, if he can’t find his way to the top of the inside linebacker depth chart, Tyler Matakevich might one day find himself in Honolulu for his ability to be a special teams demon, as he was the first one downfield to stymie Titan punt returners on more than one occasion. Nat Berhe, who was brought in for that specific purpose, made a play that drew drew a congratulatory helmet slap from head coach Mike Tomlin immediately afterward.

Unfortunately, it continued to be a quiet day for the return game, which likely means the end is near for Pitt’s Quadree Henderson. Grade: B-

Coaching
Coming off an alarming performance against the Packers nine days earlier, the Steelers responded well in all phases of the game. Given that it was the regular season dress-rehearsal, that spoke volumes for the preparation heading into Saturday. Grade: B+

 

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