Steelers Trade for J.J. Wilcox from Buccaneers, Bolstering Safety Depth

How much value can you squeeze out of a sixth round draft pick? A lot apparently.

A year ago the Steelers traded their 6th round pick of the 2018 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Justin Gilbert. When the Steelers 2017 roster was assembled, it was done in part by trading Sammie Coates to the Cleveland Browns for that self-same 6th round pick (they also gave Cleveland their 2019 7th round pick).

Steelers trade for J.J. Wilcox, J.J. Wilcox, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Cowboys

The Steelers now will hope J.J. Wilcox has better luck covering running backs not named Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

A day later we find the Pittsburgh Steelers trading their 6th round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for safety J.J. Wilcox and Tampa’s 7th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

When the Denver Broncos cut safety T.J. Ward (apparently the initial “J.” is in vogue in Pittsburgh) speculation mounted that the Steelers would sign him, but he instead signed with the Buccaneers, making J.J. Wilcox expendable.

  • The Steelers need depth at Safety.

Starting free safety Mike Mitchell has been injured all summer and his status for the season opener is unknown. Reserve safety Jordan Dangerfield injured himself in the Steelers final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. Robert Golden has been healthy, but his play at safety has been spotty at best. William Gay will also play safety some this season, but he’s untested at that position (not to mention on the wrong side of 30 for a defensive back.)

J.J. Wilcox appeared in 58 games for the Cowboys, and made 38 starts, logging 5 interceptions and forcing two fumbles by Pro Football Reference’s count. While the trade for J.J. Wilcox is official, he does not formally join the Steelers roster until Labor Day. At the time the Steelers will have to make two more roster moves, to make way for Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell.

While it is unlikely that J.J. Wilcox will start immediately, unlike Joe Haden, he could see playing time sooner rather than later. The Steelers 2017 secondary will have a very different look from its 2016 counterpart as with Ross Cockrell in New York, William Gay playing a new position, and two new faces added at the tail, tail end of the 2017 off season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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ICYMI (I Know I Did) Steelers Sign Daimion Stafford Highlighting Headline Glut

In case you weren’t paying attention (I wasn’t) the Steelers signed Daimion Stafford last week in an effort to bolster their depth at safety behind Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

  • The move highlights two rather obvious trends, the latter of which can still sneak up on you.
Daimion Stafford, Steelers sign Daimion Stafford

Steelers signed free agent safety Daimion Stafford from the Titans, ending the “Shamarko Thomas” era. Photo Credit: Titainsonline.com

First, as has been apparent for quite some time, the move drove the final nail in the coffin of the Shamarko Thomas debacle at safety. The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up on Shamarko in 2015 when the benched him in favor of Will Allen prior to the season opener vs. the Patriots. They next dispelled any remote possibility of second thoughts by playingJordan Dangerfield over Shamarko early in 2016.

  • You knew that, we knew that, but perhaps Shamarko Thomas didn’t quite know that, as he signed with the Jets a day later.

Dare we suggest Shamarko Thomas was holding out hopes that the Steelers would bring him back thanks to his special teams prowess? Maybe he did. The case for bringing back Shamarko Thomas on a veteran minimum contract to play gunner was reasonably strong. But Shamarko Thomas’ free agent profile came with a big “But” which we’ll remind everyone of here:

But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

By the look of things, this is exactly what the Steelers are getting in Daimion Stafford.

Like Shamarko Thomas (and Jarvis Jones), Daimion Stafford arrived in the NFL via the now much-maligned 2013 NFL Draft. Unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford was a 7th round draft pick. And also unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford has actually delivered some value in the secondary.

Per Pro Football Reference’s stats, Daimion Stafford has appared in 62 games as a professional for the Tennessee Titans, and even started in 6 games. That’s six more starts than Shamarko has to his name. He also has 2 interceptions, which is two more than Shamarko Thomas. He also has three sacks and three fumble recoveries.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reports, a source in Nashville characterizes Stafford as:

A decent role player who will help best on special teams. He’s a big hitter but limited in man coverage, better in zone. Not afraid to come up in run support and doesn’t mind being physical.

  • That sounds exactly like the resume of someone who can do what Shamarko did and offer more.

To the extent that a team’s number 5 safety can continue to a Super Bowl, run Daimion Stafford is the perfect kind of player for the Steelers to take a flyer on.

(And onean’t help but wonder who was Wexell’s source, given that Dick LeBeau, Desha Townsend, Lou Spanos, Nick Eason and Keith Willis are defensive coaches for the Titans, with Russ Grimm and Mike Mularkey also the offensive side.)

Steelers Daimion Stafford Signing Highlights Headline Glut

The other interesting thing about the Steelers signing Daimion Stafford is how it highlights the dangers of the headline glut we face in today’s fractured media landscape.

Had the Steelers made this type of move in the late 80’s or early 1990’s, out of town fans would have learned of it through the Steelers Digest or perhaps in the “transactions” section of their local sports page. With the mid-1990’s came the internet, and it’s a fair bet to say that the Tribune Review and/or Pittsburgh Post Gazette would have run a short article on the move. Things would have been much the same during most of the 00’s, except that fans would have had several more outlets to get the news.

  • Now of course the number of sites publishing articles announcing the Steelers signing of Daimion Stafford on the subject has exploded.

That’s important because the Steelers are making many roster moves at this time of the year, although the vast majority of them involved undrafted rookie free agents and other players who’ve been signed to “Futures Contracts.” As a consequence, when I saw the headline “Steelers Sign Stafford” I assumed he was just another one of those.

Instead, he’s a free agent signing, albeit a very low level one, but one that could have an impact in 2017.

And with so much clutter floating around, there, yours truly almost missed it…..

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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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Safety: Moderate-Low

Safety is yet another area on the Steelers depth chart where Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have put extended efforts towards renewing. For eight years, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark held down the Steelers two starting safety roles giving Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s best tandems.

The Steelers thought they had added an important piece of the puzzle when they traded up to draft Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he did not work out as planned.

However, the puzzle unquestionably began coming together for the Steelers in 2016 and the only question at this point is whether the Steelers will seek to add more pieces in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Tyler Boyd, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell team to throttle Tyler Boyd in Sept 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Steelers Depth Chart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

To give you an idea of how much turnover this unit has seen, Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is one of the old hands, and he only arrived in 2014. The Steelers of course made a rare, day one “splash” free agency signing when they signed Mitchell on the first day of free agency in 2014.

A groin injury, and a lack of familiarity with Polamalu’s free-wheeling style, limited Mike Mitchell’s effectiveness in 2014, but he came back with a vengeance in 2015, coming down with 3 clutch 4th quarter interceptions while laying in the wood with welcome regularity.

Starting opposite Mike Mitchell is 2016’s 2nd round pick Sean Davis, who came to Pittsburgh from the University of Maryland. On September 12th, playing just a few miles from Byrd Stadium, Sean Davis became the first rookie defensive back to start a season opener since fellow Terrapin Chad Scott had done so in the 1997 opening day thumping the suffered at Three Rivers Stadium by the Steelers at the hands of the Cowboys.

  • By mid-season Sean Davis was making the kind of plays that made you wonder why he wasn’t a 1st round pick.

He helped stuff out a Giants comeback with his first NFL interception, showed off his versatility by sacking Tyrod Taylor in the win over the Bills, Tyrod Taylor, played a key role in the goal line stand against the Colts on Thanksgiving, and broke up two passes against the Ravens on Christmas night. And, in the AFC Divisional playoff game, Sean Davis broke up Kansas City’s 2 point conversion attempt.

Not a bad resume, for a rookie.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

On paper, Robert Golden would appear to be the “Next man up” on the Steelers depth chart at safety, as he has the most experience and split time with Sean Davis early in 2016. But by the end of the season, Jordan Dangerfield and found his way into various sub-packages and is even listed by the Steelers as having started 2 games.

Depending on how things play out, a third name could find himself on the Steelers depth chart at safety. William Gay is losing a step at cornerback, but rumor has it the team may consider a move to safety, which would suit his ball hawking abilities.

The Steelers also have Jacob Hagen under contract at safety.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Safety

It took time, it took a little trial and error, and it took a little bit of patience, but the Steelers have renewed their depth chart at safety almost completely Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu played their final game together in 2013.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

The plan to turn things over to Shamarko Thomas never came to fruition and the Steelers certainly relied longer than they had planned to, but that page is now turned.

Like any NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers need as many good safeties as they can find, but right now the Steelers have two quality starters and two serviceable backups. If William Gay does move to safety, he’ll provide an immediate talent boost to the lower part of the depth chart.

But taking all of the variables into account, the Steelers 2017 draft need at safety must be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents Validate Mike Tomlin’s “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

The Steelers 2017 off season is already off to a little bit of a different start. Free agency remains a way away, yet there’s been a steady stream of news out of the South Side regarding Steelers free agent signings.

Instead, Kevin Colbert has been busy resigning the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agent class. What’s that? The term “Exclusive rights free agent” isn’t one you hear a lot either inside or outside of Pittsburgh. The first time I remember seeing it, in fact, was when the Steelers resigned Willie Parker after the 2005 season.

  • An NFL Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player with less than two years of accrued seniority who doesn’t have a contract.

You could look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and call them, “The fringe roster players who fueled the 9 game winning streak.” Take a little longer group, and you’ll see that the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agency is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s “No loose stone unturned philosophy” of personnel acquisition.

Here is a look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free agent class, how they got to Pittsburgh, and what they’ve contributed.

Anthony Chickillo, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo strip sack dak prescott, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, steelers vs cowboys

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Fitzgerald Toussaint
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked Fitzgerald Toussaint up as a practice squad addition after the Ravens cut him before opening day. There he stayed until late in the season when the Steelers activated him. At the time it appeared they were protecting him from practice squad poaching.
What he’s contributed: In just six week, Fitzgerald Toussaint went from practice squader to being the Steelers starting running back for their 2015 playoff win over the Bengals.

When it comes to backing up Le’Veon Bell, no one will confuse Fitzgerald Toussaint with being in DeAngelo Williams’ category, but he’s proven to be a reliable number 3 back.

Roosevelt Nix
How he got to Pittsburgh: Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and James Saxon saw something they liked, took a flyer on him a fullback and he made the 53 roster.
What he’s contributed: In 2015 Roosevelt Nix distinguished himself on special teams while working capably as a fullback. In 2016, Roosevelt Nix showed himself to be an accomplished run blocking fullback.

In less than a year, Roosevelt Nix went from being a guy the Steelers Nation’s Twitter General Manager griped about being a “wasted roster spot” to someone they questioned coaches for not playing more.

Chris Boswell
How he came to Pittsburgh: Every General Manager has a list of emergency players on it should injuries strike. But the Steelers went through not one, but two kickers when Shaun Suisham went down, making Chris Boswell their third choice.
What he’s contributed: Do we really need to ask this? Chris Boswell kicked the Steelers into the playoffs with his six kicks and shoe string tackle against the Bengals, and did it again in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chris Boswell has shown himself to be a reliable kicker who can make long kicks in the wind, in the rain and with playoff games on the line. Can’t ask for more than that.

Alejandro Villanueva
How he came to Pittsburgh: This site already recounted the Steelers decision to pick up Alejandro Villanueva from the Eagles in 2014 as one of the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 season.
What he’s contributed: It is harder to measure offensive lineman’s contributions, but going into 2016 the Steelers hedged their bets on Villanueva with Ryan Harris.

By the end of the season Alejandro Villanueva had erased all of those doubts.

Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Dee Ford, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Alejandro Villanueva in his first start as Roosevelt Nix behind him. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers, via Pittsburgh Magazine

Xavier Grimble
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Xavier Grimble in September 15 after the 49ers cut him and added him to the practice squad where he stayed until making the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was big on Xavier Grimble going into 2016, labeling him the Steelers X-Factor after Heath Miller retired he did so long before we know Matt Spaeth would get cut or Ladarius Green would have health issues.

Xavier Grimble might not have lived up to the hype in 2016, but he did come down with critical touchdowns against Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Anthony Chickillo
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because he was cut and resigned to a shorter contract, he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
What he’s contributed: Anthony Chickillo split time as a starter with Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering. During that time he had 2.5 sacks.

This might be a pipe dream, but if the Steelers haven’t explored moving Anthony Chickillo to right outside linebacker under the tutelage of James Harrison, they should.

Cobi Hamilton, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Steelers vs browns, Cobi Hamilton overtime touchdown Browns, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Cobi Hamilton ends the Steelers 2016 regular season with an overtime touchdown catch. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Cobi Hamilton
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Hamilton in early August in what looked to be little more than move to fill out the training camp roster.
What he’s contributed: The AFC Championship loss might have reveled Cobi Hamilton as not quite ready for prime time, at least in the post season context, but Hamilton made 17 catches during the year, and he showed a penchant for coming down with the ball when the Steelers needed him to.

B.J. Finney
How he got to Pittsburgh: B.J. Finney was part of the Steelers 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. He didn’t make the final roster, but did hold down a practice squad spot for the entire year.
What he’s contributed: B.J. Finney started 3 games for the Steelers this year, including two starts in place of Ramon Foster. He also started the season finale in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

This is probably just idle internet chatter, but there’s talk that the Steelers might (or “should”) consider saving on the salary cap by letting Ramon Foster go an starting B.J. Finney. Not likely to happen, but the fact that it’s a rumor should tell you something.

Jordan Dangerfield
How he got to Pittsburgh: After he failed to catch on as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Bills in 2013, the Steelers signed Jordan Dangerfield to a “Futures Contract” in January 2014. He made the practice squad in 2014 and 2015 and broke the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Jordan Dangerfield’s stat sheet might not impress, but he did make two starts in 2016 and was the “Next man up” in the secondary ahead of Robert Golden and the 2013 Draft classes signature wash out, Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers remaining Exclusive Rights Free agents are guard Cole Manhart, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and linebacker Kevin Anderson all of whom finished the year on injured reserve.

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

It might not be accurate to label an NFL Exclusive Rights Free agent as “a player no one else wanted” but they are certainly players that someone else overlooked. When the Steelers 2007 season ended, Mike Tomlin promised to leave “No loose stone unturned” in his quest to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.

If you look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, some players made larger contributions than other, but it clear that without their collective efforts, the 2016 Steelers never would have knocked on the door to Super Bowl LI.

That’s a testament to Kevin Colbert’s commitment to seeking quality talent from where ever may find it and to Mike Tomlin and his staff’s commitment to give every player a fair shot regardless of what his pedigree is.

All NFL General Managers and Head Coaches certainly pay lip service to this ideal, but the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class proves they mean it in Pittsburgh.

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Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Cut Losses Quickly: Steelers Cut Justin Gilbert

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in cutting their loses quickly as the Steelers cut cornerback Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 2018 6th round pick to acquire Gilbert’s services from the Cleveland Browns.

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback was the Steelers most urgent area of need, and by all accounts Justin Gilbert was the player Pittsburgh’s brain trust was targeting. But the Cleveland Browns got him first, picking him 7th and making him the first defensive back drafted that year.

Justin Gilbert, Tyreek Hill, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers cut Justin Gilbert

The Steelers Justin Gilbert tries in vain to tackle Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh 247 Sports.

3 months later Justin Gilbert got infamously burned in a couple of Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton hook ups the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, that’s probably the most anyone in Pittsburgh has seen of Justin Gilbert since then.

By Pro Football Reference’s count, Justin Gilbert participated in a just 1.05% of the Steelers defensive snaps this season, suiting up in the secondary during the Steelers regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs and their regular season loss against the New England Patriots. Theoretically, Gilbert should have given the Steelers kick return game some juice, but Gilbert only 3 kicks during the regular season with those attempts coming against the Chiefs and Patriots.

Gilbert did run for long returns of 32 yards in the regular season and 26 yards during the post season, but clearly Steelers Special Teams coach Danny Smith didn’t see enough of a spark to lobby Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert into keeping him on the roster.

Impact of the Steelers Cutting Justin Gilbert

On the face of it, Justin Gilbert’s release is a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Keith Butler’s defense struggled early during the 2016 season, but you can trace the unit’s turn around to increased playing time by Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison. Justin Gilbert remained a spectator through it all. When the Steelers needed to add a 6th defensive back, Robert Golden and/or Jordan Dangerfield got the call as opposed to Gilbert.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to cut Justin Gilbert thins out an already sparse spot on their depth chart.

Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell will return to training camp as their starting cornerbacks, with William Gay penciled in as their slot cornerback. While William Gay had a solid season in 2016, he will be 32 next season and cornerback in the NFL is a young man’s game. Senquez Golson will arrive in Latrobe with a shot at the Steelers slot corner position but, given injury history that 2015’s 2nd round pick has had, it would be a mistake to bank on contributions.

  • The Steelers also have reserve cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz who spent time on both their active rosters and practice squad in 2016.

In a nutshell, cornerback was already a Steelers priority for the 2017 NFL Draft and its priority status just got a bump.

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Sign’ em Up: Cobi Hamilton, Roosevelt Nix and Jordan Dangerfield Sign with Steelers

While there’s not a lot of drama behind the decisions, the Pittsburgh Steelers began their 2017 off season by signing their top 3 exclusive rights free agents, Cobi Hamilton, Roosevelt Nix and Jordan Dangerfield.

As exclusive rights free agents, these three players had little choice to resign with the Steelers if they want to continue playing football. However, the Steelers are under no obligation to bring them back to Pittsburgh.

  • Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have decided these 3 Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents have futures in Pittsburgh, and their assessment is a wise one.

Right now there’s not a lot of love in Steelers Nation for Cobi Hamilton, given his drops and touchdown negating penalties in the AFC Championship. And Ben Roethlisberger’s suggestion that the AFC Championship was probably a little bit big of a stage for Cobi Hamilton and counterpart Eli Rogers.

Cobi Hamilton, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Cobi Hamilton can’t hold on as Logan Ryan hits him in the end zone in the Steelers 2017 AFC Champship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

But a year ago Hamilton was a player who’d spent the better part of 3 seasons bouncing around practice squads, only joining the Steelers on August 5th during training camp. Hamilton hung on to make the final roster, and came up big with several important catches in clutch situations during the Steelers 9 game winning streak.

  • Cobi Hamilton might never develop into the man you want standing opposite Antonio Brown, but he’s a good player to have on the depth chart.

Roosevelt Nix, once a target for scorn and ridicule for being the Steelers second full back, didn’t play even play offense in college. Nonetheless, Nix has helped pave the way on a number of Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking performances. Nix has also been a special teams stand out.

  • Perhaps the only question about Nix is why he doesn’t spend more time in the backfield than he does.

Try to tell Jordan Dangerfield that preseason is unimportant. Dangerfield latched on with the Steelers practice squad in November of 2014, joined the Steelers in training camp in 2015 and spent the entire year on the practice squad.

By the end of summer 2016, Jordan Dangerfield and displaced Shamarko Thomas as the Steelers top backup at safety and by the end of the year he appeared to be at least splitting “next man up” status with Robert Golden behind starters Mike Mitchell and rookie Sean Davis.

If the Steelers are to rise from being AFC Championship pretenders to legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2017 then each of these three men figures to play a prominent role.

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Steelers Defense Holds 2016 Playoff Hopes in Its Hands

The 2016 playoffs are here and the Pittsburgh Steelers have the third seed in the AFC tournament. In other words, all of the blood, sweat, toil and tears of the last 16 games has simply opened the door for the Steelers to accomplish their real goal, winning the Super Bowl.

But it is fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers start the 2016 playoffs in the same spot that they started the 2016 regular season:  with the Steelers defense carrying their Super Bowl hopes.

James Harrison, Steelers 2016 defense

James Harrison in the huddle with the rest of the Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That was true in September and it remains true in January, and everything we’ve seen along the way confirms that equation. Certainly, the poor performances were not confined to the defense in losses to Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore. But the Steelers loss to Dallas drove home the message:

The Steelers story in the 2016 playoffs will be the same. It’s true that the offensive line must protect Ben Roethlisberger and open holes up front for Bell (or DeAngelo Williams). Likewise, someone, be it Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ladarius Green or even Sammie Coates is going to have to take pressure off of Antonio Brown.

  • But offense wins game, defense wins championships.

There’s no disputing that the Steelers offense has improve during his 7 game winning streak, but the real difference makers have come on the defensive side of the ball. After the Dallas game, Mike Tomlin ended the linebacker rotation, and started Bud Dupree and James Harrison. Has anyone missed “linebacker by committee?”

  • Sean Davis has replaced Robert Golden, and you’d have to go back 15 years to find a Steelers rookie defender who has made a bigger impact.

Things looked bleak with Cameron Heyward was lost for the season. This site went as far as to recall the “Game over, man! Game over” scene from Aliens on the day Cam Heyward went on IR. But since then Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and L.T. Walton have stepped up their games. These three gentleman must continue to deliver in the post season.

Steelers 2016 defense, stephon tuitt, steelers vs. Bills

Stephon Tuitt after sacking Tyrod Taylor earlier this season. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Ryan Shazier has stayed healthy, and the longer he plays, the better he gets. Lawrence Timmons has ended those early season rumblings about his best days being behind him.

  • IT says here that, barring injury, the Steelers linebackers and defensive line won’t wilt under postseason pressure.

So, just as it did when the regular season started, the Steelers secondary hold the primary key to success on the post season.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler boldly gambled when they tore up their 2015 defensive backfield depth chart and recreated it almost from scratch. Sean Davis has come through and Ross Cockrell has quietly become a solid starter at cornerback. Artie Burns struggled, both in coverage and in tackling, but has improved tremendously during the second half of the season.

At the end of the day, the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes are riding on these rookie’s ability to sustain their regular season success into the playoffs.

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Sean Davis Wins Joe Greene Great Performance Award, Follows in Polamalu, Lake & Perry’s Footsteps

As expected, Sean Davis won the Steelers Joe Greene Great Performance award for 2016, an honor bestowed on the Steelers top rookie via vote of the media. While Sean Davis was the obvious candidate, he doubtlessly had competition from both Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave, which is a good sign.

Sean Davis, Sean Davis 1st interception, Sean Davis Joe Greene Great Performance Award

Sean Davis returning his 1st NFL  interception in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: 247sports.com

Nice When a Steelers Draft Pick Lives up to Hype

It is really nice when a Steelers draft pick lives up to all of the advanced billing as a rookie. When the Steelers drafted Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, pundits both inside and outside Steelers Nation praised the move.

A good friend and regular reader of this site who is a huge Maryland Terrapins fan, emailed me to sign Sean Davis’ praises. And then there was the picture:

Sean Davis, Devin Smith, sean davis joe greene great performance award

Sean Davis attempts in vain to defend a pass to Devin Smith. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst, Getty Images via thecomeback.com

Honestly, when I first saw this photo, I had Devin Smith caught the ball or not and if it was a play of consequence. As it turns out, it was. Smith caught the ball and scored a touchdown. Nonetheless, the photo clearly shows Sean Davis’ superior athletic skills, and I took that as a good sign for the Steelers.

  • Since then, all arrows on Sean Davis have been pointing up.

On opening day, Sean Davis became the first rookie Steelers defensive back to start since Chad Scott, another Maryland Terrapin, in 1997. Sean Davis has appeared in all 15 of the Steelers games, and supplanted Robert Golden as the Steelers full time starter at strong safety during the middle of the season.

  • Per the Steelers count, Sean Davis has 5 defensed passes, 1 interception, half a sack and 61 tackles.

While those numbers are nice, they don’t do justice to how well Davis has played during the second half of the season. The sight of Sean Davis stepping up at stopping a ball carrier behind or at the line of scrimmage has become more common as the Steelers 2016 season has progressed.

  • The Steelers Red Zone defense has been stout, and Sean Davis has played a big role in keeping opposing teams from scoring touchdowns.

He’s been doing it all season and, just this past weekend after Ben Roethlisberger’s second interception, he stepped up big time to prevent a catch in the end zone during prevent a touchdown on third down, forcing a Baltimore field goal.

That folks, is what you call a difference maker.

Stability at Safety for the Steelers?

This award comes to Sean Davis with just perhaps a touch of irony. Less than a week ago, Shamarko Thomas’ season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh, ended when the Steelers put the concussed safety on injured reserve.

The Steelers gave Thomas his chances, but their decision to start Jordan Dangerfield over him earlier in the season signaled that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had ended.

Recognition as the Joe Greene Great Performance award recipient seems to signal Sean Davis seems to be filling the role of Polamalu’s replacement. OK, maybe “replacing Troy Polamalu” is a little too much to put on Sean Davis shoulders.

But at the very least, the award is a good sign. 3 other Steelers safeties have won the Joe Greene rookie award – Polamalu won it in 2003, Darren Perry won it in 1992, and Carnell Lake won it in 1989. All of them went on to be long-term staples of the Steelers secondary.

Moats Wins “Chief Award” Bell Voted Steelers MVP

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year award wasn’t the only honor bestowed on the South Side this year. The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association honored Arthur Moats with the “Chief Award,” an accolade  given to the member of the Steelers who has been the most cooperative with the press.

  • Le’Veon Bell was also voted as the Steelers 2016 Most Valuable Player by his teammates.

Given Brown’s tremedous success this season, routinely running for over 100 yards from scrimmage and taking over a couple of three games, the award was hardly a surprise. (Nonetheless, no one could have argued had the honor fallen to Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.)

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6 Changes in Pittsburgh Since the Steelers Last Win vs Ravens

The Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Day show down with the Baltimore Ravens has turned out to be everything the schedule makers hoped it to be: A contest to determine the AFC North champions.

While the Steelers are taking a superior 9-5 record and a six game winning streak into the game, they’re also fighting another inconvenient truth:

  • The Steelers last win vs Ravens came 784 days ago.

Yes, the Ravens arrive in Pittsburgh with their own four game winning streak vs. the Steelers.

For the record, the Steelers last win against the Ravens came on November 2nd, at Heinz Field on the night that Joe Greene joined Ernie Stautner as the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have his number retired. A lot has changed in Pittsburgh since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens.

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James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the Steelers November 2014 win over Baltimore. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Baltimore CBS Local

1. Keith Butler Replaces Dick LeBeau at Defensive Coordinator

This represents what is likely the biggest change since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. Following Super Bowl XLV, Dick LeBeau did what he could to compensate for the declining talent on defense and kept the Steelers competitive on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and 2012.

  • Yet, but 2013 the talent deficiencies could no longer be swept under the rug.

Statically the Steelers defense dropped further in 2014, although those numbers mask a late season surge by the Dick LeBeau’s defense over the final four games of the season. Mike Tomlin nonetheless decided to make a change following the season when it appeared that Keith Butler would finally accept a defensive coordinator promotion rather than wait for LeBeau to retire.

  • During his first year, Keith Butler fielded a bend but don’t break type defense.

If yardage totals rose, they were off set by an increase in sacks, turnovers, and Red Zone play. After a slow start in this season, the 2016 defense is showing a lot of similar characteristics.

Advantage: Steelers

2. Steelers Scrap Their Secondary and Start Over

When you look at the Steelers defensive backfield depth charts from 2014 and 2016 side by side, the sea change really strikes you:

steelers secondary depth chart, steelers defensive backs depth chart, steelers depth chart defensive backfield

The Steelers secondary has changed a lot since 2014…

First, the Steelers are carrying 3 fewer defensive backs now than they were 2 years ago. Some of that was dictated by age – even the most wild-eyed optimists knew that Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were nearing the end when 2014 started.

  • But it also appears that the Steelers were perhaps trying to substitute for quality with quantity.

The complete makeover says that their attempt failed. Of the 12 defensive backs the Steelers had on their roster the last time they beat the Ravens, only 3 remain. Yes, that number is three, because Shamarko Thomas is now exclusively a special teams player whereas Robert Golden occupied that role 2 years ago.

But gone or Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, Ross Ventrone, Cortez Allen, and Will Allen who the Steelers have replaced with Justin Gilbert, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and Sean Davis.

Going into the Christmas game vs. the Ravens, the Steelers secondary looks to be improved since their last win.

Advantage: Steelers

3. Le’Veon Bell Establishes Himself as an Elite Back without a Backup

OK. This one involves a little slight of hand. Le’Veon Bell’s breakout game vs. the Tennessee Titans came two weeks after the Steelers last win over the Ravens. But that is the moment he lost his backup, when LeGarrette Blount decided to go AWOL.

  • Since then, the Steelers have struggled to find someone to back up Le’Veon Bell.

No, no one is forgetting DeAngelo Williams, but due to injuries and suspensions, you can count the number of games Williams and Bell have played in together in single digits. Williams is returning from an injury and is expected to dress, but he hasn’t played since loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Advantage: Steelers, unless Bell gets hurt….

4. A Carousel of Receivers has Started Opposite Antonioy Brown

Antonio Brown was already an All Pro and then some the last time Pittsburgh beat Baltimore but injuries and suspensions have forced the Steelers to play musical wide receiver since then.

Martavis Bryant had announced his presence two games earlier and was expected to usurp Markus Wheaton as the Steelers number 2 wide receiver, but that hasn’t happened thanks to Martavis Bryant’s issues with addiction.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was basically just a special teams player when the Steelers last triumphed over the Ravens, but since then he’s emerged as a legitmate downfield threat, gotten promoted to the number 2 WR slot only to get hurt. Sammie Coates has had shots at the Steelres number 2 WR slot, but has failed to grasp them due to injuries and inefficiency.

Mike Tomlin has said that Darrius Heyward-Bey might play against the Ravens on Christmas, but at this point it looks like Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton will have serve as Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd and 3rd choices downfield.

Advantage: Ravens

5. Heath Miller Has Hung It Up

Heath Miller has since retired since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. For the record, Miller only caught one pass in that game, but it went for 14 yards, so it probably resulted in a third down.

The Steelers of course brought Ladarius Green in to replace Heath Miller but lost Green for the first half of the season due to injury. Green has been making his presence felt since then, but is in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Given his history with concussions, it is not likely he will play.

Advantage: Ravens

6. Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel Have Moved On

The fact that Brett Keisel has retired since the Steelers last victory over the Ravens surprises no one, but Steve McLendon’s departure perhaps does. By 2014 it was clear that Steve McLendon wasn’t going to be Casey Hampton, but he didn’t need to be and he appeared to have a long future in Pittsburgh ahead of him.

However, the Steelers made a salary cap calculation not to invest in a nose tackle, and moved one.

Stephon Tuitt has replaced Brett Keisel and Javon Hargrave has replaced Tuitt. Normally that would give the Steelers a strong duo, but Stephon Tuitt is nursing a knee injury. And with Cam Heyward out for the year, that is not good.

Advantage: Ravens

There you have it. Pittsburgh has seen a lot of changes since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens. Some of them offer promise for the Christmas day show down, others favor Baltimore.

What does that mean?

Probably that the Steelers-Ravens Christmas Day game will come down to who can hit the hardest – just as any good Steelers-Ravens game should.

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