Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

4 Survival Tips for Steelers Nation for the Start of Free Agency

In just a few hours the NFL’s 2017 free agency period will start. We’ve seen this movie before of course, but commentators still insist on trying to spice things up with a dose of extra drama.

  • Steelers Nation is not exempt.

In the course the course of just a handful of days, we’re told that Ross Cockrell, Lawrence Timmons and most likely Markus Wheaton are on the verge of selling their homes in Pittsburgh, while the Steelres signing Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall and Dre Kirkpatrick is merely a formality.

  • Or something like that.

Its inevitable I guess, but at this time of year a certain segment of Steelers Nation seems to forget all history since 1993. So what is a good blogger to do? Offer Steelers Nation advice on surviving free agency.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2017 free agency

Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert during Steelers 2015 off season. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

1. Any Steelers Free Agent Splash Likely Involves a Name You’re Not Hearing

You don’t need a long memory for this one folks. Think back to the week before free agency started in 2014. Steelers Nation was abuzz with anticipation of the Mike Mitchell signing. Behind the Steel Curtain had a full 7 or 8 articles analyzing how Mitichell’s arrival would impact Shamarko Thomas’ development, Troy Polamalu’s retirement and the Steelers salary cap….

…Except it didn’t.

If memory serves, there was little – if any – connection made between Mike Mitchell and the Steelers until the Steelers surprised everyone by signing Mike Mitchell. Ditto last year’s signing of Ladarius Green.

Unlike other teams, the Steelers aren’t concerned about winning the off season Lombardi, they’re focused on winning a real Lombardi. They’ve never telegraphed their moves before. No one in Steelers Nation should expect them to start now.

2. Watch Confluence of Steelers Words & Actions

Might the Steelers lose Lawrence Timmons? You bet. Kevin Colbert has said a number of times that he thinks Lawrence Timmons might test the free agent market. The Steelers anticipated this over a year ago when they resigned Vince Williams.

  • The Steelers want Lawrence Timmons back, but Omar Khan isn’t cutting him a blank check.

Ditto Ross Cockrell. This site perhaps underestimated the Steelers desire to bring Cockrell back in our free agent profile of the restricted free agent corner. But the low tender, combined with Jim Wexell’s reporting that the Steelers are going target cornerback in free agency shows that their some fire behind that smoke.

The door swings both ways, as the case of Antonio Brown illustrates. The Steelers just resigned Antoino Brown agreeing to pay him an average of 17 million for the next five years. Do you relly think they’re going to plunk down 12 million a year for Terrelle Pryor?

If you do, you don’t understand how the Pittsburgh Steelers work.

3. Don’t Panic. The Brain Trust in Pittsburgh Won’t

This isn’t the first rodeo for Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, nor is it for 3 or 4 score of other people employed at the South Side. As an organization, the Steelers have the institutional wisdom to both know to expect the unexpected and that smart decisions in free agency are never made out of panic.

  • A little thought exercise brings this to light.

Who is the Steelers best free agent signing ever? The answer can only be Kevin Greene. No offense to Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark or James Farrior, but Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer. But the Steelers didn’t enter the 1993 off season targeting Kevin Greene.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought the Steelers outside linebacking tandem was set with Greg Lloyd and Jerrol Williams.

Then San Diego came along and made Jerrol Williams a 1.7 million one year contract offer, in what was then an exorbitant amount for any player, let alone a 1 year contract. The Steelers really wanted to keep Williams in Pittsburgh, but there was no way they were going to pay that money.

  • So they went out and signed a future Hall of Famer instead.

During the 1997 off season, the Steelers saw their top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures all walk in free agency. When dust settled, two Kordell Stewart interceptions at the goal line in the AFC Championship where essentially all that separated the Steelers from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It doesn’t always work out so neatly, of course. After the 1997 trip to the AFC Championship, the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans grossly overpaid for the services of John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen. If the Pittsburgh was right to stick to its bottom lines, the Steelers most certainly suffered as the team struggled to find replacements for both players.

The Steelers understand that winning free agent bidding wars won’t doesn’t win Super Bowls.

4. Relax and Remember: Reality Unfolds at its Own Pace

Reading all of this “do or die” talk about free agents either coming or going reminds me of a conversation I had while in college the night before free agency began for the first time in 1993.

A friend of mine, I diehard Washington Redskins fan, called me and told me:

“Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am Reggie White’s agent is going to get a call with a big, fat contract from Redskins Park, and I predict by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be a Washington Redskin.”

To hear my friend tell it, Lombardi number 4 should already have been pressed, minted and shipped to Asburn, Virginia. To be fair, Reggie White hadn’t been happy in Philadelphia, and his name had been frequently tied to the Redskins. And Jake Kent Cooke and spent lavishly on players in the days before free agency.

  • But of course Reggie White never made it to Washington.

He got ticker tape parades and city keys at just about every team he visited. In the end the team that deliberately took a minimalist, football centric approach, the Green Bay Packers, landed Reggie White.

Could this afternoon bring news that the Steelers have made another day-one free agent signing? Yes it might? Could we see Lawrence Timmons announce his reunion with Dick LeBeau or Bruce Arians. Perhaps. Both are plausible possibilities.

Its also just as possible that Timmons shops his services around, makes a couple of visits, and decides to stay in Pittsburgh, just as Ryan Clark did in 2010. The Steelers could make a splash, but the could also let the initial frenzy pass, and then do that they’ve traditionally done best – bargain hunt.

At the end of the day, “Reality unfolds at its own pace,” if we’re allowed recycle a 40 year old quote from Jerry Brown.

And perhaps free agency is the best time to keep that in mind.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

As Shamarko Thomas Steelers Career Hangs in Balance, Safety Hits a Risky Precedent

Let’s get something straight: Shamarko Thomas Steelers career has not reached a crossroads. He arrived at that milestone last summer at St. Vincent’s:

  • Shamarko Thomas entered the Steelers 2015 preseason poised to fulfill his anointed role as Troy Polamalu’s successor.
shamarko thomas, steelers safety, pittsburgh steelers, tom brady,

Shamarko Thomas tries to sack Tom Brady, comes up short; Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

At the preseason’s conclusion, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas. Thomas logged 20 snaps with the defense in 2015, up from 3 in 2014 but still a far cry from the 190 he logged as a rookie in 2013. Put poetically, as Shamarko Thomas reached a crossroads last summer, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake opted to send the safety on the road less taken.

  • This summer at St. Vincents, Shamarko Thomas will likely compete with Ross Ventrone for a roster spot.

That reality made Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider’s morsel from Steelers mini camp all the more interesting:

Shamarko Thomas laid the hit of the spring on rookie receiver Demarcus Ayers over the deep middle as Ayers tried to catch up to a wide pass from Landry Jones. It was a crushing blow, the sound of which surprised onlookers who had become accustomed to what otherwise is touch football.

As Wexell confirmed in the comments section to his article, hitting during Steelers Mini Camp is supposed to be a no-no. While Shamarko Thomas’ hit of Steelers 7th round draft pick Demarcus Ayers generated no controversy, it does bring to mind past precedents of Steelers safeties attempting to make an impact with exaggerated hits in practice.

Pittsburgh’s Precedent of Safeties Taking Out Teammates in Practice

Lee Flowers paved the way at St. Vincents in 1998, when he laid out 3rd year receiver Jahine Arnold.

Pittsburgh had drafted Flowers in the 5th round of the 1995 NFL Draft, and Flowers played mostly on special teams remaining buried behind Carnell Lake and Myron Bell on the Steelers depth chart at safety, until Donnell Woolford faltered and Flowers stepped in at strong safety while Carnell Lake shifted to cornerback.

The next summer, with Chad Scott’s injury forcing Lake to again shift to corner, Flowers smashed Jahine Arnold’s collarbone and Bill Cowher tore into the safety in front of the entire team.

  • Flowers attempted to apologize but Arnold would hear none of it.

Ten years later, Anthony Smith followed in Flower’s footsteps 2008 when he took out Willie Reid with a hit so vicious that the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gene Collier accused him of “training camp thuggery.” Mike Tomlin took exception to Collier’s remarks, but kept Smith in street close for the next preseason game.

The Steelers had drafted Anthony Smith in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft has Chris Hope’s replacement . As a rookie, Smith post-interception showboating shenanigans drew a sharp sideline rebuke from Dick LeBeau. A year later, starting for the injured Ryan Clark, Smith idiotically guaranteed victory prior to the Steelers game vs. the Patriots, only to get torched by Tom Brady.

  • Intentionally or unintentionally, Shamarko Thomas is following the path blazed by Flower’s and Smith.

What result will hit have? Unfortunately, Steelers history offers little help. Bill Cowher might have been angry with Flowers, but he stuck with his plan to start Lee Flowers at safety while keeping Lake at cornerback.

As for Anthony Smith, he contributed on special teams during the 2008 season that saw the Steelers emerge as victors in Super Bowl XLIII. But the Steelers opted to let Smith go, and he bounced around between the Rams, Jaguars, Packers and Titans over the next three season.

  • Can Shamarko Thomas still salvage his career with the Steelers?

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly says “there is hope that hope Shamarko Thomas can turn his career around…” but in the very same sentence, says that there is talk of bringing Will Allen back. Carnell Lake assured the press that “he’s improving form the neck up.”

  • The Steelers think enough of Shamarko to give him one final shot.

To take full advantage of his final chance, Shamarko would do well to figure out a way to deliver his fire power against opponents in preseason. Because Steelers safeties taking out teammates in practice is a tactic that only has had a 50/50 percent success rate in the past.

And Shamarko Thomas needs better odds than that.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Is Mike Mitchell Emerging as a Leader of the Steelers Secondary?

Steelers 2016 OTAs began yesterday, and Steelers Nation got some news, well sort of. OTA’s are “football in shorts” and little real news comes out of them or otherwise the Steelers won’t let reporters record and post footage such as this:

Nonetheless, Steelers Nation learned Ben Roethlisberger has shed weight and is looking to be in top shape. Maurkice Pouncey looks healthy and Le’Veon Bell is running, cutting and calling out Vontaze Burfict trying to hurt people.

This latter bit of information tells us that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler are not going to repeat what they did during 2014’s OTA’s when they immediately installed Ryan Shazier as the starter over veterans Vince Williams and Sean Spence. But Shamarko’s position is strong safety, and Golden is clearly ahead of him on the depth chat.

That gave Mike Mitchell the chance to talk with Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, and in doing so he praised the work of draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis, boasting of the interceptions notched by the secondary. His assessment also included phrases like, “I was happy with the overall group’s work today” and

I think when we played our best football we were definitely hitting people, we were jamming at the line of scrimmage, we had great communication and we played like a unit. That’s what I want to impart on the young guys so that way we can hit the ground running.

Assessments like that from someone like Mike Mitchell show just how far the secondary has come in such a short time. Less than three years ago, when then Tribune Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic wanted to take the temperature of a team trying to rebound from an 8-8 showing, he sought out “the souls of the franchise” Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

Kovacevic was right. Both men were such a fundamental part of the Steelers defense that most fans probably forget that it was Chris Hope, and not Clark, who started alongside Polamalu in Super Bowl XL.

  • But both men have begun their “Life’s work.”

So has Ike Taylor another leader from the defense, and another member of the secondary. Mike Mitchell’s comments give the impression that he is growing into a leadership role on the defense, which would be a welcome sight. During his first year, many fans wondered with the Steelers had stepped outside their comfort zone to make a “Splash free agency signing.” But Mitchell was injured, he quite frankly wasn’t prepared to play with Polamalu.

  • In 2015, Mitchell grew into the impact player the Steelers expected him to be.

Mitchell hauled down 3 interceptions, forced 2 fumbles and recovered two more – welcome sight on a defense suffering from a chronic turnover drought. To say that the Steelers secondary is “green” understates the fact. Other than Mitchell, only William Gay has double digit starts to his name. Ross Cockrell and Golden played well in 2015, but their sampling of work is limited. Senquez Golson, Artie Burns and Sean Davis have yet to play a snap in the NFL while Doran Grant’s snap count is measured in single digits.

Yes, Mike Mitchell’s emergence as a leader in the Steelers secondary would be a welcome occurrence.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Sign Sean Davis – Is Pittsburgh Safe at Safety?

The big “news” out of Pittsburgh last week saw the Steelers sign safety Sean Davis, their second round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft (Brandon Boykin also made other “news” but let’s save that for another post.)

Signing draft picks, even first rounders, is basically a pro forma exercise following the rookie wage scale mandated by 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, so much that some rookies are even forgoing agents. So the essential question behind the Steelers signing Sean Davis is simple:

  • Are the Steelers safe at safety with Sean Davis?

Sean Davis comes to the Steelers after a successful NCAA career with the Maryland Terrapins, where he played at both safety and cornerback. It was no secret that the Steelers needed a safety heading into the draft, and many fans wanted Pittsburgh to draft Vonn Bell out of OSU.

Matt C. Steel of Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider argues that Davis is the better pick than Vonn Bell:

…I don’t think Neal will ever be more than a solid coverage safety. He will hit you like Ronnie Lott, but Davis isn’t exactly shy when getting a ball carrier to the ground. It’s one of the reasons I wasn’t as high on Bell, who doesn’t bring the wood when tackling. Bell has the average size of a corner with average athletic measurables. If the Steelers want a safety to match-up physically with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert, Davis is the better choice.

If Steel’s sources are correct, the Steelers actually had Keanu Neal as the top safety of the 2016 NFL Draft, but Neal was long gone by the time the Steelers picked at 25, having been taken by the Atlanta Falcons at 17. In Steel’s view however, Pittsburgh didn’t miss much:

But there was only one safety in the draft over 6-0 with 4.4 speed, top-ranked agility, corner experience and the physicality to explode through a player’s soul with a hard hit. That was Davis. And Davis wasn’t coming off an ACL injury, either.

Those are all positives, and unlike the Steelers first round pick Artie Burns, most of the draft nics are hailing the pick of Sean Davis. Fair enough. But, as Art Rooney Sr. once cautioned, reflecting back on the franchise’s first 40 years of futility, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.”

  • To that end, Sean Davis arrives in Pittsburgh on the heels of a long Steelers search for stability at safety.

Actually, that over states things. From 2004 to 2013, the Steelers Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Chris Hope provided plenty of stability for the Steelers at safety. The problem is that the Steelers succession plan at safety has seen one miss fire after another.

The Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft with an eye towards paring him with Polamalu. Smith however preferred to showboat, make trash talk he couldn’t back up and injure his own teammates in practice. Steelers discarded Smith after his rookie contract was up, and drafted Ryan Mundy and signed Will Allen as a free agent.

Alas, that experiment ended during the Steelers 2012 self-destruction at Oakland’s black hole, when Mundy made an illegal hit on Darrius Heyward-Bey (video available as of 5/21/16).

The Steelers turned to Will Allen for the balance of the 2012 season, and let Mundy go, perhaps in err, as a free agent. Their next move was to trade up to get Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft. A year later, they let Ryan Clark depart as a free agent, and signed Mike Mitchell as a free agent.

Between injuries and unfamiliarity of playing with Polamalu, Mitchell struggled in 2014 in Pittsburgh, but Michael Mitchell played well in 2015. As for Thomas….

  • Shamarko Thomas got snaps early in his rookie season, but since then his seasonal snap counts seem best measured in single digits.

Ostensably, Sean Davis will start on the depth chart behind both Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone on the Steelers depth chart at safety, but the real man to beat is Robert Golden. The Steelers resigned Robert Golden prior to the start of free agency, and his play in 2015 shows that Golden has the skills to be a serviceable starter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Steelers are looking for Sean Davis to be far more than serviceable at this crucial position in the secondary.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Safety Second! Steelers Draft Sean Davis, Safety from Maryland in 2nd round of NFL Draft

When Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decide to focus on retooling an area on the Depth Chart, they do it all the way. Between 2010 and 2012 the Pittsburgh Steelers made 4 first or second round picks on offensive line, rebuilding a beleaguered unit.

And so it is with the secondary in 2015 and 2016.

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/726232568945774592

The Steelers drafted Miami’s Artie Burns in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and they stuck with secondary in the second round, drafting the University of Maryland’s Sean Davis. This comes after drafting Senquez Golson in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described Davis this way:

Davis was the proverbial tackling machine at Maryland. In his three seasons as a starter he made 306 tackles (including an astounding 213 solos). Last year as a cornerback Davis forced five fumbles to go along with his three interceptions.

When it comes to hard measurables too, as Wexell informs:

However, it’s Davis who stands as the supreme athlete at the position with the following numbers: 4.46 40, 2.60 20, 1.56 10, 21 reps, 37.5 vertical, 10-6 broad jump, 3.97 short shuttle and 6.64 three-cone.

Davis, by his own admission, as a safety who likes to hit, who says he patterns himself after Sean Taylor. The Steelers of course have a tradition of hard hitting safeties, form Donnie Shell, to Thomas Everett, to Darren Perry, Myron Bell, Lee Flowers, and of course Ryan Clark.

Video Highlights of Sean Davis

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, Steelers Nation can take a look at what made Sean Davis stand out for the Maryland Terrapins:

Sean Davis played for four years at the University of Maryland, appearing in 38 games. In that time he racked up over 319 tackles, made 2.5 sacks, hauled down 5 interceptions and forced 7 fumbles.

  • Those latter two numbers are a welcome sight for a secondary that is only now coming out of a four year turnover drought.

Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake explains his vision for Sean Davis:

When you have offenses that spread you out … to create mismatches they will put a player like (Rob) Gronkowski out wide and force you to match up with either a linebacker or a safety on Gronkowski. Well, you have to have a guy that has the size and can cover. He provides that coverage for us. That’s one of the exciting parts of Sean Davis that we like.

Sean Davis also has experience at cornerback, and Lake says he would not hesitate to use him at cornerback should the need arise. Sean Davis is from the Washington DC area and grew up a Redskins fan, although he says his father wanted him to play for the Steelers. For the record, Davis also speaks French and Chinese.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Sean Davis.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!