Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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Got the Preseason Humbug? Steelers Mike Hilton’s Story Is the Perfect Cure

The Pittsburgh Steelers preseason tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Most fans will welcome the return to the gridiron after a 2017 that ended so abruptly.

  • However, every year the “enduring preseason football” griping gets louder.

Taking our cue from the late Ken Beatrice, season ticket holders who must pay major league prices to see minor-league talent have beef. As for the rest of us? Well, that’s why we have our annual “Eat your liver and your Brussels sprouts and enjoy preseason football” article.

So if you have a case of the preseason football humbug, Mike Hilton’s story will cure what ails you.

Mike Hilton, Rashard Higgins, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers prseason

Mike Hilton breaks up a pass for Rashard Higgins. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

The Other Cornerback from Ole Miss

Unless you’ve been under a rock, cornerback has oscillated between being an urgent and major area of Steelers need since Super Bowl XLV. No need to look it up, that was in January, 2011.

Sadly, Senquez Golson never played an NFL down. But in late 2016 Kevin Colbert chanced that that Bill Belichick’s garbage might be his treasure when he signed Senquez Golson’s former teammate Mike Hilton to Pittsburgh’s practice squad.

However, Mike Hilton caught Jim Wexell’s eye during OTA’s, earning reps with the first unit with back-to-back pass breakups. Days later, Hilton ended a two minute drill by intercepting Landry Jones in the end zone, prompting praise from Ryan Shazier and landing Hilton on Wexell’s training camp dark horse list.

Here our story takes a hypothetical turn….

The Problem with Cutting (or Eliminating) Preseason Football

The conventional wisdom holds that preseason is too long. Perhaps from marketing perspective that’s true as the NFL is not showcasing its top talent.

Fearing injury, coaches are loath to play starters in preseason. And when stars do suffer injuries, the howls to shorten preseason get louder. Michael Vick’s broken leg in the 2003 preseason offers a perfect example.

  • And seeing starters injured in preseason, as happened to David DeCastro and Sean Spence, is difficult.

But that doesn’t change the fact that calls to shorten or eliminate preseason games are short sighted, and Mike Hilton shows why.

Mike Hilton’s 2017 Preseason Campaign

Doing it on the practice field and doing it under game conditions are two different things. Word was at the end of 2013 that wide receiver Justin Brown was an up and comer based on his work on the Steelers practice squad. Brown did earn a 2014 roster spot, but couldn’t produce in games and was gone before Christmas.

  • Justin Hunter is another player who practices well, but still hasn’t proven it in games.

As Mike Hilton illustrates, preseason gives coaches a live-fire antidote to curing this ill

All of this begs the question: Would Mike Hilton have gotten these chances in a shortened preseason schedule?

Maybe, maybe not.

If Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake only had two preseason game might their focus have been on getting reps for Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh, their prospective numbers 2 & 3 corners? If not, health allowing, reps for draft picks like Cam Sutton and Brian Allen would get priority over street free agents like Mike Hilton.

Fortunately, Mike Hilton got those reps, proved he belonged on Pittsburgh’s roster so much that a case could have been made that Hilton, and not T.J. Watt deserved the Steelers rookie of the… er um the Joe Greene Great Performance award.

Steelers Football’s Back – Enjoy It

Times change. A generation ago preseason served as the water fountain sitting at the end of a football desert. Today YouTube, Steelers.com, Twitter and Facebook feed us our year round football fix.

  • That doesn’t change the fact that preseason remains a valuable proving ground for young men seeking to live a dream.

Preseason projections aren’t perfect (see Jarvis Jones in 2013), and 90% of the guys playing in the 4th quarter of the 1st preseason game will never see and NFL practice squad, let alone a roster. But preseason is the place where players like Merril Hoge, Greg Lloyd, Darren Perry, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Ramon Foster and Antonio Brown began making names for themselves.

The same thing will happen tonight night against the Eagles. So watch and enjoy.

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Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs – Is Corner Finally a Low Priority for Pittsburgh?

As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.

  • Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.

While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.

Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.

After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.

Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City Insider Craig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”

People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)

  • The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.

Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.

Joe Haden’s return helped stabilize a defense reeling for the loss of Ryan Shazier, and he figures to assume a true leadership role in 2018.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.

  • Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.

After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.

Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.

Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs

Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)

The Steelers have used late round picks on players who barely became blips on the radar screen (Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne and Terrance Fredrick.)steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).

With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.

  • That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.

Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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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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Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?

…Adding new players to their roster, it would seem. Just one day after trading to acquire the San Francisco 49er’s Vance McDonald, the Steelers signed Joe Haden, the recently cut cornerback of the Cleveland Browns, and they did it to the tune of a 3 year, 27 million dollar contract that reportedly comes with 7 million in guarantees.

The Steelers are of course familiar with Joe Haden’s body of work, as Haden has played in 11games against the Steelers, covering the likes of Hines Ward, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Joe Haden, Antonio Brown, Steelers sign Joe Haden

Joe Haden will be covering Antonio Brown more frequently now that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler. Photo Credit: Ken Blaze, WKYC

While Joe Haden might not have reached “Shut Down” corner status, he quickly established himself as one of the best corners in the league as he made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. Injuries have taken their toll since then. A concussion kept Haden out of action for 10 games in 2015, and last season several groin injuries hobbled him, which required surgery in the off season.

  • During much of the 2017 both the press and the Steelers fan base made a lot of noise about Pittsburgh’s in ability to bolster their pass defense following the AFC Championship disaster.

The Steelers were rumored to be targeting Dre Kirkpatrick or some other big name corner in free agency, but no deal ever materialized. Instead, the franchise settled for Coty Sensabaugh, a mid-level cornerback at best.

The Steelers did of course draft Cam Sutton and Brian Allen in the 2017 NFL Draft, but both players have been injured for much of the summer. Likewise, this was to be the summer at St. Vincent’s when Senquez Golson finally emerged from the training room. But Sutton and Allen have been injured for most of the summer, and Senquez Golson only lasted a few practices before finding his way back to the injured cart.

  • During the preseason wins over the Falcons and losses the Colts the Steelers pass defense has struggled.

Mike Tomlin reacted by trading for Dashaun Phillips and giving Coty Sensabaugh at shot at Ross Cockrell’s starting job. Now both men will have to yield to Joe Haden, because the Steelers are paying Haden starter money.

  • Whether Haden can boost a struggling Steelers secondary remains an open question.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell quoted sources in Cleveland that described Haden as “tentative” and another who declared that Haden is no longer capable of covering number 1 NFL wide receivers. However, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey pointed out, the key isn’t whether Joe Haden can be the next Rod Woodson, Mel Blount or even Ike Taylor, its whether he’s better than Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensbaugh.

  • This is of course not the first time the Steelers have looked to a recycled Cleveland Browns cornerback to bolster their secondary late in the summer.

A year ago the Steelers traded for Justin Gilbert, whom they coveted in the 2014 NFL Draft, only to see Gilbert play a handful of snaps and then be cut in the off season.

The Steelers signing of Joe Haden will certainly have ripped effects elsewhere on the roster. Artie Burns will switch sides, and one other cornerback will find himself on the wavier wire. Salary concerns could mean that person is Ross Cockrell, which would be quite unfortunate for the young man.

It could also impact the Steelers plans to extend the contract of Stephon Tuitt, but Bob Labriola’s comments seem to indicate that the Steelers have structured his deal so that this will not happen.

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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