Will Ben Roethlisberger Rebound? A Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd Half of Season Performance

The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

  • And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.

That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 2017

Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com

Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.

Looking beyond the numbers, there’s no arguing that Roethlisberger has been helped by having an the best receiver in the NFL in the form of Antonio Brown and the best running back in form of Le’Veon Bell. And while Martavis Bryant has disappointed, JuJu Smith-Schuster has impressed.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid it out succinctly this week:

Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.

Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.

Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season

Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season

First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.

  • And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.

Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.

That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.

A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.

When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats november, Ben Roethlisberger stats december

With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.

First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.

  • But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.

While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.

  • When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.

When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.

He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.

Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.

The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.

But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.

  • Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.

First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.

  • And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.

It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.

The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.

So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.

 

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Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

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Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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The Dak Prescott-Tony Romo Decision Harks Back to Bill Cowher’s Choice on Tommy Maddox and Ben Roethlisberger

A fabled franchise flashes the greatness needed to recapture championship glory, only to fall short in the playoffs thanks to a frustratingly bad call….

The next season begins with high hopes, only to have injuries strike key starters as the franchise slides into double-digit losses….

Disaster strikes again the next season, robbing the franchise of its starting quarterback….

.…The call goes to a rookie, who struggles in his first outing, but rebounds to lead his team to 7 straight wins.

We’re of course telling the story of the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. But this story isn’t exclusive to “America’s Team,” the Pittsburgh Steelers have lived through this too. As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field its interesting to reminisce about the situation the Steelers found themselves in 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Tommy Maddox, Tommy Maddox and Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox in 2004. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Of Tommy Gun and Tony Romo….

The parallels between Tony Romo and Dak Prescott and Tommy Maddox and Ben Roethlisberger are not perfect. But the similarities are striking.

Tony Romo entered the 2014 season as the Cowboy’s established starter, with a big contract to prove it, whereas Tommy Maddox began the 2002 season as the backup to Kordell Stewart, who’d just won the Steelers MVP award the year before.

  • Few were expecting to see anything from the 2014 Cowboys; no one expected Tommy Maddox to do anything other than hold a clipboard in 2002.

A blowout during the Cowboys home opener in 2014 led one writer to speculate over whether Jerry Jones berated his son demanding: “You made me pass on Johnny Football for this….” Yet, led by Romo, the Cowboys bounced back winning 12 games. They then beat the Lions in the playoffs, and appeared to be in position to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field only to lose the game based on the “Catch-Non-catch call.”

In 2002, Tommy Maddox watched as Kordell Stewart (and to be fair, the Steelers defense) struggled during the first two games of the season. Late in their third game against Cleveland, Bill Cowher made the switch. The Steelers won the game, and Bill Cowher named Maddox his starter.

Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” led the Steelers to 10 straight wins. While threw plenty of picks, as gunslingers are wont to do, commentators wondered aloud as to whether or not Maddox was throwing touchdowns to too quickly to Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. In the playoffs, Maddox led a dramatic come from behind win over the Browns. The next week, however, the Steelers lost due to a bogus roughing the kicker call where Al Del Greco took a dive worthy of World Cup Soccer.

Unlike Romo in 2015, Maddox escaped the injury bug in 2003, but a good chunk of his offensive line did not, with Kendall Simmons struggling with diabetes and Marvel Smith getting hit with the neck injury that would ultimately end his career. Things got so bad that Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle and back again depending on the down.

The 2015 Cowboys saw Romo, Dez Bryant and several other key players seasons ruined by injuries.

Of Young Dak Prescott and the Once Young Ben Roethlisberger

The parallels of the stories diverge a bit here, as the Cowboys didn’t pick Dak Prescott to be their franchise quarterback in the 4th round. Although the Steelers had done just that with Ben Roethilisberger, Big Ben wasn’t supposed to play as a rookie.

  • Like Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger struggled in his first action, throwing a pick six vs. the Ravens.
  • But also like Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger went on a tear.

And like Jason Garrett, Bill Cowher bided his time in naming Ben Roethlisberger as his starter, waiting until he won after his fifth start, the 2004 win over New England.

Will the Steelers Tempt Garrett?

Tony Romo is back to health, and team owner/general manager Jerry Jones admits the situation is muddled, and likely to remain so. Like Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson before him, Garrett appears to content to go with the hot hand. And so he should.

During the entire 2004 regular season, Ben Roethlisberger never once gave Bill Cowher a reason to second guess his decision to back Roethlisberger. However, Ben appeared nervous in the playoffs against the Jets, and struggled against the Patriots in the AFC Championship.

  • After the game, Bill Cowher insisted he never considered pulling Rothlisberger in favor of Tommy Maddox.

But after so many AFC Championship frustrations, the thought had to have crossed his mind at some point. No one is comparing the Keith Butler’s 2016 defense to Dick LeBeau’s 2004 version. But with Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier back, the Butler’s boys are showing signs of life.

Will that be enough to temp Jason Garrett into making a switch? Probably not, but Steelers fans can always hope….

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Was Misleading

Admit it Steelers Nation – the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece vs. New Orleans was satisfying, even if the results don’t count. And so it should. The Steelers offense, both with Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones were in mid-season form.

Often times, preseason does provide fans with a lot of valuable insight into the direction a team is headed. Not that the insight is always pleasant as a previous post 5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles reminds.

  • Yet there are times when preseason offers Steelers fans false flags.

The Steelers preseason history offers plenty of false flags, times when the action on the field in preseason failed completely to foreshadow what was to come in the regular season. Scroll down or click below for 5 Steelers preseason false flags.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers Giants preseason 2013,

Jarvis Jones recovers a fumble as Marshall McFadden looks on in the Steelers 2013 preseason. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

1. 2000 – Plaxico Burress Plays Lights Out in Preseason Debut

Going into the 2000 NFL Draft, many if not most expected Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert to make Chad Pennington their first draft pick. The Steelers opted for Plaxico Burress instead, even though they’d taken Troy Edwards a year before.

In his preseason debut Burress played like a stud, as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounted:

Burress made a smashing NFL debut, leading Steelers receivers with four catches for 60 yards, all in the first half.

He jump-started the Steelers’ offense with three big plays on their second series, one a leaping catch over the back of a 6-foot cornerback. He also caught a looping, ally-oop like touchdown pass from Kent Graham just before halftime, as the Steelers crushed the Dallas Cowboys 38-10 at Texas Stadium.

Burress wasn’t the only receiver to impress. Malcolm Johnson, the Steelers 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft, started opposite Burress. One writer, (perhaps Mike Prisuta) whose article is lost to digital oblivion went so far as to argue that Burress and Johnson were fighting to which would be the alpha-male of the Steelers wide receiving corps.

  • There’s no doubt that both men played well, and the strong overall offensive performance gave hope after the dark days of 1998 and 1999.

However, Plaxico Burress most memorable rookie play was spiking the ball after making a catch, but before he’d been ruled down, which was an immediate turnover. Overall, Burres never aught more than 4 passes as a rookie, and his catch percentage was woeful 33.8%.

As for Malcolm Johnson? He didn’t even make the 2000 Steelers final roster team.

2. 2005 – Ben Roethlisberger Struggles Mightly in Preseason

If there was ever a quarterback who made an immediate impact as a rookie, that rookie was Ben Roethlisberger. But NFL history is littered with rookie one-year wonders (think Kendrell Bell).

And so it was that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers first string offense failed to produce a touchdown in the first four preseason games. After it took Charlie Batch to rally the Steelers to victory in their final preseason game, Bill Cowher remarked: “I like this group of guys, but we’re no where near where we need to be.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2005 preseason statistics seemed to vindicate Bill Cowher’s pessimism.

Over four games, Roethlisberger completed just 16 of 36 passes, for no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 32.8. Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette quipped that the Steelers starters looked more like a team set to go 1-15 instead of the previous year’s 15-1. Indeed, it seemed like an inglorious preview to a team with Super Bowl hopes….

  • …That is, until the game started counting.

In the season opener, Ben Roethlisberger went 9-11 for 218 yards, throwing touchdowns to Antwaan Randle El and a rookie named Heath Miller. A week later he went 14 of 21 throwing a pair of TD’s to Hines Ward.

The Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL the next February proved that, if there was ever a exhibition effort that should have been written off with “Its only preseason” it was the Steelers 2005 preseason.

3. 2009 – Joystick Video Game Like Preseason Kick Return Statistics

For a defending Super Bowl Champion, the 2009 Steelers training camp and preseason would mid-wife future Steelers Nation house hold names like Isaac Redman, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky (hey, Legursky started a Super Bowl so he counts).

  • But perhaps none captivated the imagination of Steelers fans the way Stefan Logan did.

In his first preseason outing, Logan averaged 39 yards on four kick returns in a preseason loss to the Redskins. The next week in the Steelers shutout over the Bills, Logan returned four punts for 63 yards, including a 27 yarder. The following week Stefan Logan returned a punt 82 yards as the Steelers defeated the Panthers.

  • It seems like the Steelers had their first legit return threat since Antwaan Randle El had departed following Super Bowl XL.

It would be both unfair incorrect to declare Stefan Logan return efforts in 2009 as a failure.

In 2009, Stefan Logan averaged 26.7 yards per kick return, and 9.3 yards per punt return. Stefan Logan had an 83 yard kick return in the ’09 Steelers ugly loss to Oakland, and he also managed returns of 56, 51, an 49 yards in other games.

But Stefan Logan neither took a kick return nor a punt return to the house, and he was never the type of weapon as a return man who could give the Steelers offense a jolt in a season where the team cried out for one. Mike Tomlin once chided Logan when he critiqued blocking of the Steelers return teams, and often times on deep punts Tomlin had deployed Mewelde Moore’s sure hands in favor of Logan.

4. 2013 – Jarvis Jones’s Stud-Like Presason Campaign

It might seem hard to believe now, but in 2013, Jarvis Jones was the toast of the Steelers preseason. Dick LeBeau declared that Jones “Had ‘it,’” after Jones preseason debut where he recovered a fumble. Jones forced another fumble with a heads up behind the line of scrimmage play in the Steelers second game vs. the Redskins. He recorded an interception in the Steelers third preseason game vs. the Chiefs. Then Behind the Steel Curtain editor declared, “Jarvis Jones is simply making plays.”

  • The Jarvis Jones of preseason 2013 teased he might make Steelers Nation forget James Harrison.

Alas, that was not to be. Jones did get the opening day starting nod, but he would relinquish his starting role before midseason. The fact that Jones’ play turned heads in the Steelers win over New Orleans shows that Steelers fans are still wanting for Jones to realize his potential as a first round draft choice.

5. 2015 – Preseason Death of Steelers Defense Greatly Exaggerated

In the 2015 preseason the Pittsburgh Steelers did something they hadn’t done since Alonzo Jackson was a rookie – fielded a defense coordinated by someone other than Dick LeBeau. All eyes were on Keith Butler to see if the long-time understudy could reverse the downward trend of Steelers defense.

  • The early returns disheartened even faithful scribes like Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola.

During the 2015 preseason the Steelers defense gave up scores of 14, 23, and 24 points, before giving up an alarming 43 points to a no-name Buffalo Bills trio of quarterbacks, who completed 90% of their passes. Likewise, opposing teams yards-per-catch grew as the preseason wore on.

It’s true that the Steelers defense did show signs of getting more pressure on the quarterback, and eventual starters Mike Mitchell and Will Allen didn’t play much.

While no one would confuse the Steelers 2015 defense with the 2008 Steelers defense, the Blitzbrugh defenses of the ‘90’s, let alone the Steel Curtain of the 1970’s, Keith Butler did turn the unit around.

No one would have predicted that based on what they saw in preseason.

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Where to Rank Antwaan Randle El Among Steelers Wide Receivers?

Asked and Answered” is one of Steelers.com’s most popular features which sees Bob Labriola answer questions from Steelers Nation. The feature is the successor to “Overview” page of Steelers Digest, where Labriola would answer questions with equal parts wisdom and sarcasm.

Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth topped the list – no brainers there, followed by Antonio Brown and Hines Ward. Again, two more no brainers, even if it’s a little wired to have an active player on such a list. Then he offered a surprise “…and for the last spot I’m going to go with Louis Lipps over Santonio Holmes and/or Antwaan Randle El.”

Antwaan Randle El, steelers, falcons, steelers wide receiver rankings

Antwaan Randle El stretches for yard in Steelers 2010 season opener vs. Falcons; Photo credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

The choice of Louis Lipps earns the full-throated support of this site. Louis Lipps statistics might be pedestrian by 2016’s standards, but Lipps was an All-Pro Caliber receiver playing in a run-oriented offense and forced to catch most of his balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley as opposed to benefitting from having a Terry Bradshaw or a Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way.

  • Louis Lipps is also the Steelers 4th leading wide out in terms of yards and catches.

Throwing Santonio Holmes name into the conversation for the 5th slot makes sense, not on overall career production as a Steeler, but because he was the Steelers MVP in the 2008 playoffs, and well…

….even if he’d only made that one catch in Super Bowl XLIII, ‘Tone would belong in the discussion.

  • But does Antwaan Randle El belong in this conversation?

Steel Curtain Rising holds Antwaan Randle El in high esteem. Randle El arrived as part of the Steelers 2002 draft class, and made an immediate impact as a wide receiver and kick returner. His skill as a quarterback was Inspector Gadget aka Mike Mularkey’s dream. While most of his time was spent as a number three or slot receiver, when asked to take over the starting role, Randle El was up to it.

And no one in Steelers Nation need be reminded of how Ken Whisenhunt deployed Randle El versatility with lethal effectiveness in Super Bowl XL.

  • But does Randle El deserve consideration as the Steelers 5th, or even 6th best wide receiver of all time?

Respectfully, Steel Curtain Rising argues that there several Steelers wide receivers who should rank ahead of Antwaan Randle El. Who? The first two names that jump to mind are Plaxico Burress and Yancey Thigpen. Burress is 9th on the Steelers All-Time receiving list whereas Randle El is 23rd. Thigpen is 14th on the list and caught 3 times as many touchdowns.

What about Mike Wallace? Wallace career production is actually above ‘Tone’s, but for my money both Santonio Holmes playoff production and perhaps Antwaan Randle El puts them above Wallace.

Then there is one player who played before Chuck Noll’s time who also deserves consideration, Buddy Dial. Matthews.

Buddy Dial played in Pittsburgh from 1959 to 1963, playing 12 and 14 game seasons and in an age when a run first mentality dominated the entire league, yet he still ranks as the Steelers 8th leading receiver. Actually, Dial is sixth if you limit the list to wide receivers.

  • So where to rank Antwaan Randle El among Steelers wide receivers?

Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t honestly know. Numbers don’t like but sometime statistics deceive. Dwight Stone is ahead of Randle El on the Steelers all time receiving list, and if you were picking All-Time Draft Steelers draft, would you pick Stone over Randle El? Neither would I. Charles Johnson also ranks ahead of Randle El but I’d think twice about picking him over Randle El.

At the end of the day, I’m undecided about where Antwaan Randle El ranks among Steelers wide receivers, but I do know that I’d put at least put Plaxico Burress , Yancey Thigpen, Buddy Dial and perhaps Mike Wallace ahead of him.

Where do you think he belongs? Take a moment to leave a comment.

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Why was Martavis Bryant a Fourth Round Pick? Its Easier to Understand Now…

In the hours since it was announced that Steelers third-year receiver Martavis Bryant is facing a year-long suspension for, once again, violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the reactions among media members and fans can be paraphrased like this:

  • “How can such a talented receiver potentially throw everything away?”

But maybe the better question is: Why did Martavis Bryant, a youngster who possesses all the physical attributes you could ever want in a wide-receiver, last until the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft?

  • If you really are honest with yourself,  the best answer is because scouts and coaches knew Bryant could potentially throw all of that talent away.

Speaking of quotes about Bryant’s potential, here’s one from NFL.com’s Mike Mayock, courtesy of Bryant’s pre-draft profile: “Bryant has a crazy wide receiver skill set, but he’s a one-year wonder. The guy has some scary talent, but also some immaturity issues.”

The last part of that quote, the stuff about Bryant’s immaturity, that speaks volumes. And as Bryant’s mom, Roberta, told ESPN last year in a story that was published in the weeks following her son’s four-game drug suspension to begin the 2015 season, those immaturity issues began to surface when he was still at Clemson, and they manifested themselves by, among other things, “being around the wrong crowds.”

  • Obviously, if Bryant’s mom knew about the crowds her son was hanging out with while in college, NFL scouts, coaches and general managers certainly knew.

While it’s often a joke and kind of ridiculous what NFL personnel ask prospects during interviews at events like the just concluded NFL Combine, you can certainly understand the need for being thorough. There’s a lot of money and time invested in draft choices, and the higher they’re picked, the bigger the investment.

Just judging Bryant by his frame (6’4″) and 40 speed (4.4), you’d think it would be a no-brainer that a player with those attributes would somehow work his way into the first round, this despite a college reputation as an undisciplined route runner with suspect hands.

Heck, its not too hard to imagine, Ben Roethlisberger, lusting for a tall wide out ever since Plaxico Burress left town, making a full-throated plea to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to draft Bryant.

  • For Bryant to fall so far, tells you all you need to know. There’s a reason scouts and coaches are thorough when vetting a potential draft choice.

Can you imagine if some team had taken a chance on Bryant and drafted him in the first round?

Look at what the Browns are going through right now, just two years after selecting quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round. Manziel had a chance to perhaps take the Browns’ organization to places it hadn’t been since it came back into the NFL as an expansion team in 1999; he could have been a hero, a savior. Instead of that, however, Manziel’s many off-the-field troubles have made him just another punchline for the joke that the Browns’ franchise continues to be.

You look at Bryant’s stats in his very short time in the league, and they just scream breakout star:

  • 76 receptions for 1,314 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 21 games.

But the rub is that he has only played in 21 of a possible 32 games, and, unless some miracle happens, a year from now, you will be able to change that to 21 out of 48.

  • In other words, he is totally unreliable, and his career-arc is the perfect example of what Mayock meant by his quote.

Martavis Bryant does have some scary talent–good enough to be a first round pick. However, his immaturity issues were a concern for a reason, and that’s why he fell so far, and that’s why his career could be cut short before it even has a chance to blossom.

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Steelers Tight End Heath Miller Retires – Pittsburgh Will Never See Another Like Him

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller retires in a move that comes as a total shock both inside and outside of the South Side. The Steelers drafted Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft and, although he became and instant starter, he remained one of the most consistent yet underrated players at his position.

  • It is a testament to Heath Miller’s greatness that even in the most hostile of environments, a catch by 83 resulted in chats of “Heath!”

It is ironic that he would garner such fan fair, because Miiller never sought the attention or the limelight for himself. Heath Miller is the classic defenition of a player who came to work, buckled his chin strap, and simply made plays.

  • As the Steelers 2016 off season began, there was speculation that Miller would become a cap casualty.

Some argued that Miller was losing a step, and no longer warranted his nearly 8 million dollar salary cap value. Such talk was little more than nonsense. It is true that Miller’s yard’s per catch were down in 2015, but that may have been due as much to Le’Veon Bell’s absence and the need for Miller to work closer to the line of scrimmage.

Heath Miller, a Model of Consistency

As Jim Wexell reports on Steel City Insider, Heath Miller started 167 of 168 regular season games and 15 of 15 post season contests. He has played the most games of any Steelers tight end. Heath Miller retires as the Steelers leading tight end in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

  • But numbers cannot capture Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers in 2015 or any other year.

The 2015 Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland illustrates why. Miller’s stat line for the game was 3-18 for 1 touchdown. On the surface that looks pretty pedestrian. But the truth is that Miller out muscled defenders to get to the ball both on the touchdown, and on another key 11 yard pass.

Under both Bruce Arians and Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger has made no secret of his desire for a vertical, gun slinging style offense and that tendency has served both him and the Steelers well. But when whenever Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton or Martavis Bryant couldn’t get open downfield, Heath Miller was there in the middle.

  • Miller might have been the least vocal member of the Steelers offense, but he was very much a leader.

As Dale Lolley reported, it was Miller who quietly took Antonio Brown aside and dressed him down for not giving Landry Jones the proper respect he deserved. And as Lolley recounts, it was Brown who shared the story about Miller.

Heath Miller’s Retirement Leaves Gaping Hole in Steelers Offense

Looking towards the 2016 season the Steelers offense figured to be unstoppable. Now that equation changes. The Steelers knew Heath Miller was nearing the end, but had not attempted to groom a replacement. Heath Miller’s retirement leaves a gaping hold in the Steelers offense that the team will now struggle to fill.

The Steeler will now have to find a new tight end via the 2016 NFL Draft or free agency.
Expect the Steelers to make some sort of move. But don’t expect the Steelers to find a replacement for Heath Miller. They don’t make players like Heath Miller any more.

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Vote Steelers Nation on Steelers 2015 Roster Needs Heading into Training Camp

The real Steelers 2015 off season has arrived. Since the Steelers season-ending playoff loss to Baltimore, the Steelers have weathered free agency and the retirements and releases of franchise pillars like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel in addition to saying goodbye to Dick LeBeau.

No NFL team intentionally weakens itself during the off season, but the salary cap and the draft force tough choices that carry opportunity costs.

The Steelers have done a lot to strengthen the roster holes were exposed at various times in 2014, but the operative questions are has Pittsburgh done enough and where are the Steelers still weak? Got idea of your own, well….

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-06-2014 18:49:27
end_date 07-30-2015 21:51:51
Poll Results:
The Steelers strengthened themselves during the 2015 off season. Heading towards training camp, what in area(s) do you think the Steelers could still use improvement?

The Steelers will answer these questions themselves come July 25th at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, but Steel Curtain Rising is giving you a chance to answer the questions now.

Steelers Roster Needs Heading Into Training Camp

The Pittsburgh Steelers have made their choices. As the Steelers June Curse has shown, things could still happen that impact the roster between now and July 25th (think Willie Colon’s injury or worse yet Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident), but barring a return of Julian bad luck, the 2015 Steelers will win and lose with their current roster.

The Steelers chose part ways with Lance Moore, to let Brice McCain become a Dolphin, but made sure that Arthur Moats, Matt Spaeth, Will Allen, and James Harrison remain in the Black and Gold. They drafted 2 corners, two outside linebackers, one defensive end, a wide receiver, a tight end and a safety in 2015 draft.

steelers, draft, needs, depth chart, pecking order, priority, 2015

Pecking order of the Steelers 2015 Draft Needs

But the Steelers ignored offensive line and running back in the draft and free agency, and these were areas where lack of depth stung the team in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

And while they’ve added numbers at cornerback and outside linebacker there’s no guarantee that the Steelers can find quality in all of that quantity.

  • Objectively speaking the 2015 Steelers will arrive at St. Vincents a stronger unit than they have in the past.

Just two years ago in 2013 the Steelers commenced training camp depth so thin that they knew they were essentially one injury away from disaster at inside linebacker or offensive line. And as fate would have it, both Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote were lost on opening day. In 2014 the Steelers rolled the dice that they could get through the season with Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, and Jason Worilds at outside linebacker and of course they were unretiring James Harrison three weeks into the season.

Other than quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger remains indispensable, there’s no roster area depth is so precariously thin that a single injury would leave the team in dire straits. In that sense, the Steelers have given themselves a better shot at success.

But training camp is all about transforming potential into reality. Someone will fall injured, perhaps even ending his NFL dream (think Plaxico Burress rotator cuff tear in 2013.) There will be surprises and disappointments.  But for that we’ll have to wait until the Steelers start training camp on July 25th.

Until then, you have your chance to make your voice heard in our poll.

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Can Debo Do for Steelers What Jerome Bettis Did?

Ten springs ago Jerome Bettis faced a decision. The Steelers had just signed Duce Staley. Pittsburgh had no problem platooning the two, but could not afford two high-priced veterans in the backfield. Bettis could either retire, play outside of Pittsburgh, or take a pay cut.

  • Bettis opted to take less money, and 1309 yards 22 touchdowns and one Lombardi Trophy later, the Bus parked at Super Bowl XL

Last summer James Harrison faced a similar choice. The Steelers wanted him back, but not at an 8 figure cap it. The Steelers were willing to put their money where their mouth was. The salary cut gave Harrison the chance to earn it all back with incentives.

However, Harrison found the free agent market to be soft for a 35 year old linebacker coming off of multiple surgeries and declining production.

  • At one point, Harrison gave signaled he’d be open to returning to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers however, said thanks but no thanks, we’re moving on. And seemingly that, combined with the decision to draft Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft ended the story.

Steelers Harrison, Ending, Alternative B

Once upon a time, thanks to Hollywood, our stories ended in a neat bow-tied package. By happenstance, the world of sports followed this model

  • Franco Harris finished his last year in Seattle, and that was it – no scholarship year or even Three Rivers Stadium retirement press conference
  • Terry Bradshaw had his surgery and skipped town, not even to return for Art Rooney Sr.’s funeral

But times change.

The rise of digital technology has once again made the shape of our stories malleable, just as they were in the age of Homer (the ancient Greek poet that is, not Simpson.)

You no longer have to travel to Japan to see Glen Close commit suicide to end Fatal Attraction – you just press a button on your DVD. Greedo, not Han Solo, fires first. If actors of an orginal franchise get too old or die, well just do a reboot.

  • And something similar is happening in sports, at least with the Steelers. 

Rapid roster turnover and player movement became the norm 1990’s with the Freeman McNeil trial and the rise of free agency. The Steelers 20th and 21st century approaches here could not be more different. When a player either left or ask to leave:

  • Tom Donahoe’s response was “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”
  • Kevin Colbert’s is, “You can come home again.”

Donahoe turned a cold shoulder to the likes of Jerry Olsavsky and Rod Woodson when they wished to return. Colbert has kept the welcome mat out.

Yet as recently as two years ago, Colbert espoused a different philosophy when it came to players the Steelers had released, when he all but ruled out a return of James Farrior and/or Hines Ward during  the 2012 off season.

Now it seems like James Harrison would like to follow in their foot steps.

The Case for and Against Harrison’s Return

The case against bringing Harrison back would seem to be self evident. This is a defense in need of youth and renewal. While the process has been underway for two years, it is picking up steam with the departures of Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley.

  • Why take a step back with a 36 year old linebacker?

The case for bringing Harrison back is more muddled. He played very little in 2013, and while strong against the run he wasn’t much of a force in pass rushing.

  • Nonetheless, an objective, cold-hard numbers case for Harrison can be made.

The James Harrison of 2014 won’t be the James Harrison of 2012 let alone 2010 or 2008. But the James Harrison of 2014 is better than Chris Carter or any other body the Steelers might bring in to back up at outside linebacker. Moreover, this James Harrison will add more value than is revealed on the stat sheet.

Harrison’s workout regime and game preparation are legendary. And in that right, he can set an example for a young defense, much the way that Hines Ward mentored Plaxico Burress and Bettis mentored Ben Roethlisberger.

Assuming that Harrison will take the veteran minimum, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to take him up on his offer to return.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

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Steelers Sign Lance Moore; How do Moore and Cotchery Stack Up Side-by-Side?

Jerricho Cotchery’s seat in Pittsburgh didn’t have much time to cool. Less than 24 hours after Cotchery cu and ran for Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved to replace him with Lance Moore, free agent wide out from New Orleans.

When Cotchery left, Steel Curtain Rising indicated that Pittsburgh was losing more than your average 3rd NFL wide receiver.

  • It appears that they might have replaced him with someone who is at least above average at the position.

Lance Moore broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2006. He didn’t make the team, but New Orleans picked him up. He had one reception in his rookie year, but steadily worked his way into a significant part of one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.

Moore comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 346 catches to his name for 4281 yards and 38 touchdowns. He also worked as an accomplished punt returner in 2010, although at age 31 those days would figure to be behind him.

But Moore also figures to bring something else to Pittsburgh beyond  the numbers, as Jack Finn of Behind the Steel Curtain observes:

His experience playing in a prolific offense with a Hall of Fame level quarterback should be of great use to the Steelers, not only on game days but in helping develop second year receivers Justin Brown and Marcus Wheaton, as well as third year receiver Derek Moye. A proven veteran in the film room and on the practice field can do a lot for the development of young players in terms of teaching and leadership.

As Neal Coolong, also of BTSC pointed out, Moore’s 2013 season in New Orleans was ruined by injuries and he found himself overlooked by Drew Brees when he got on the field, seeing his production drop by 60%.

But the Steeler s need both experience and depth at wide receiver, and Moore brings both.

Moore and Cotchery Compared

So how do Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore match up, side by side. Well, here’s a look:

cotchery moore career statistics receptions touchdowns yards
Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore Side by Side

In pure quantitative terms, Cotchery has the edge. But Cotchery also has two more seasons of experience on Moore and 43 more starts. In qualitative terms the comparison gets more interesting. Moore’s career yards per catch is 12.4 a hair lower that Cotchery’s who clocks in at 12.7. Moore has average 3.4 catches per game and 42.4 yards per game, which edges out Cotchery’s 3.0 catches per game and 38.3.

And, for some armature saber metrics.

  • Lance Moore has scored a touchdown in 37% of his games and 10% of his catches have been for TD’s
  • Jerricho Cotchery has scored a touchdown in 20% of his games and 7% of his catches have been for TD’s

These numbers don’t carry the depth that Pro Football Focus’s does, but then again, those guys get paid to do what they do.

So what do they really mean? Well, Cotchery’s role for the Steelers in 2013 was as “The guy who scores touchdowns.” Perhaps these numbers suggest that Moore is uniquely suited to take his place.

Ben Roethlisberger is said to covet another tall wide receiver. Another Plaxico Burress. Moore only stands 5’9″ so he doesn’t fit the bill.

But here’s betting that Ben will be happy with someone who comes up with it in the end zone.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.
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