How Steelers Signing of Stefen Wisniewski Returns Pittsburgh to Its Free Agency Roots

The Cronoa Vrius (or CORVID-19 if you prefer) has turned our world upside down. The NHL and NBA have stopped cold while MLB hasn’t even started. The NFL off season is proceeding, albeit in an unusual fashion, but at least one of the Steelers free agent signings brings things “back to normal,” at least for fans who have long memories.

Given their limited salary cap space, the Steelers have perhaps been a little more active the expected, signing Derek Watt and Eric Ebron and traded for Chris Wormley. All of these moves are in character with recent practices and match with team needs.

But the Steelers signing of guard Stefen Wisniewski at once breaks from Tomlin-era tradition and brings the Steelers back to their free agency roots.

Stefen Wisniewski

The Steelers 2020 free agent Stefen Wisniewski. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

How Stefen Wisniewski Brings Steelers Back to Free Agency Roots

It is fitting that Western Pennsylvania native Stefen Wisniewski restores what was once a Steelers tradition. The Penn State grad returns to Pittsburgh with 134 NFL games, 103 starts and two Super Bowl Rings under his belt. He’s played for the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and, most recently, the Kansas City Chiefs, where he started in the Super Bowl.

  • In other words, Stefen Wisniewski gives the Steelers starter-capable offensive lineman who can play guard or center.

And that is exactly the type of free agency signing that has been rare under Kevin Colbert and rarer on Mike Tomln’s watch. Sure, the Steelers signed Ryan Harris in 2016 and Justin Hartwig in 2008. One of Mike Tomlin’s first personnel moves was to bring in Sean Mahan, but he didn’t work out.

  • That about exhausts the list of starter capable free agent lineman signed during the Tomlin era.
  • Their combined start total stands at 48.

During the 1990’s however, spring arrivals of veteran starter/starter-capable offensive lineman was a staple of free agency. More importantly, these stayed and played.

When it comes to free agency, the 1990’s are best remembered for the free agents that the team lost, as opposed to the ones that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe signed. Dan Rooney didn’t believe in building through free agency, and in those pre-Heinz Field days, the Steelers didn’t have the money to compete.

  • Yet, throughout the 1990’s, the Steelers brought in a steady stream of free agent offensive lineman.

The trend started in 1992 when the Steelers signed Duval Love as a Plan B Free Agent to replace Terry Long, Love stayed for 3 seasons, staring 48 games. Todd Kalis arrived in 1994 as a defacto replacement for Carlton Haselrig. Kalis made 11 starts in 1 season in Pittsburgh, and was replaced by Tom Newberry in 1995, who started 15 regular season games and called it quits after Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers replaced him with, Will Wolford arrived in 1996, and remained one of the team’s best lineman until he retired after the 1998 season, after making 45 starts.

  • Tom Myslinski also arrived with Wolford in 1996, and he started 13 games over the next two seasons.

The trend started to lose steam at the end of the decade, when the Steelers (at Jerome Bettis’ behest) signed Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown. Both had God-awful seasons in 1999. Gandy rebounded to turn in two honest efforts in ’00 and ’01, while Brown was done with football after ’99. Still, the two mean started a combine 74 games.

Kevin Colbert arrived in 2000, and one of his first moves was to sign Rich Tylski who immediately improved the line, making 25 starts over two years. A year later Colbert replaced Dermontti Dawson with Jeff Hartings. Hartings made 89 starts, but since his arrival starter capable offensive line signings have been rare in Pittsburgh.

By bringing Stefen Wisniewski back to Pittsburgh, the Steelers are returning to their free agency roots.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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

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Ryan Harris Retires, Steelers Depth at Offensive Tackle Just Became a Higher Priority

In a move that counts as disappointing, if not terribly surprising, Pittsburgh Steelers reserve offensive tackle Ryan Harris has announced his retirement.

Ryan Harris’ ride with the Steelers was, in a word, short.

The Steelers signed Ryan Harris last year in free agency after losing Kelvin Beachum to the Jacksonville Jaguars to provide depth and/or competition to Alejandro Villanueva for the left tackle spot. Harris had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2007, played there for four years, spent 2 in Houston, one in Kansas City only to return to Denver in time for their Super Bowl run.

Ryan Harris, Ryan Harris retirement, Steelers vs Eagles

Ryan Harris pressed into duty at right tackle in the 2016 Steelers loss to the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Fortunately, the Steelers never got a chance to see how good of a job Ryan Harris could do protecting Ben Roethlisberger‘s blindside as Alejandro Villanueva won the starting job in training camp.

Ryan Harris did see duty in all four of the Steelers first four games in 2016, and got pressed into starting service with Marcus Gilbert got injured during the Kansas City Chiefs game.

That stint as the Steelers starting right tackle didn’t last long, however, as Ryan Harris would suffer a leg hematoma and was done for the year.

Impact of Ryan Harris’ Retirement on Steelers Free Agency & Draft Plans

Given the serious nature of Ryan Harris leg injury, the Steelers certainly knew Ryan Harris’ retirement was a possibility, if not a probability and the move explains the Steelers decision to offer a 1.85 million dollar right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

  • Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva are set as the Steelers starting tackles, with Chris Hubbard as their the swing tackle backup.

This would have likely been the case regardless of Ryan Harris’ decision to retire. The Steelers are also counting on Jerald Hawkins, their 4th round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, to return and compete for a roster spot. It is unlikely the Steelers would invest salary cap dollars into a backup offensive tackle via the free agent market, but the absence of Ryan Harris could boost the need or desire to draft an offensive tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ryan Harris Steelers Experience Had Quality, if it Lacked Quantity

While he only suited up for four games with the Steelers, that was long enough for Harris become emersed in “the Steelers way.” As Ryan Harris told Steelers Digest’s Teresa Varley:

It’s amazing to see the Rooney family multiple times a day or a week. The fact that Mr. (Dan) Rooney knows my name is incredible, especially being a fan of the game for so long. Just everything, from the medical staff, to the coaches, to everyone involved, this is a championship organization and you feel it immediately when you get here.

The culture of the Steelers and the type of character we have here makes it fuller.

That’s an incredible statement, given that Ryan Harris played in the NFL for four teams over 9 years, and his time in Pittsburgh counts for just over 3% of the games he played.

Steelers Nation thanks Ryan Harris, and wishes his well in his retirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

Just stop and think for one moment of everyone and everything that comprises the product of an team’s NFL season? It’s a process the delivers the collective sum total of the actions taken by hundreds of players, dozens of scouts and coaches and scores of front office personnel .

  • Trying to quantify that endeavor is as daunting as it is foolish.

While we’re not quite so ambitious here at Steel Curtain Rising, we have tried to single out the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season.

Antonio Brown, Zach Orr, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers 2016 season defining moments, antonio brown christmas touchdown ravens

Antonio Brown’s last second touchdown vs the Ravens on Christmas was a defining moment for the 2016 Steelers. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP.

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

This moment of course came 2 years before the 2016 season even started and, in the predigital age, only would have warranted an inch or two of column space, if even that had it not been for Alejandro Villanueva’s Army background and service in Afghanistan.

  • But Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak saw something they linked in the young man, decided to give him a shot at a new position.

Two years later that move paid dividends as Kelvin Beachum left, while Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins got hurt – yet thanks to Villanueva’s development, the Steelers offensive line played perhaps its best football of the Tomlin era.

2. Heath Miller Retires

After a highly depleted 2015 Steelers roster came SO close to upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High in the AFC Divisional playoff game, it was tempting to look to 2016 and imagine the team picking up just where it left off.

However, as Mike Tomlin reminds the media and his team at the end of every season, each year brings a new start and there is no carry over.

And Heath Miller’s retirement was the first example of this. The move, while not surprising, wasn’t anticipated and, if Heath Miller was no longer a threat to stretch the field, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger about as dependable target as a quarterback can get.

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

If Heath Miller’s retirement was a subtle but sobering reminder that the Steelers won’t field the same team in 2016 that they finished with in 2015, Martavis Bryant’s latest suspension of substance abuse made the point with shocking clarity.

While consistency eluded Martavis Bryant during the 2015 regular season, during the 2015 playoffs Bryant showed that he had Jerry Rice-like transformation talent.

His suspension showed that he also had Randy Moss off the field discipline issues that could prevent him from realizing his full potential.

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The Steelers decision to release Cortez Allen 2 weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft hardly ranks as a surprise, given Mike Tomlin’s comments on Allen at the 2015 season’s end. But cutting Cortez Allen, along with the decisions to let Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin depart as free agents, and not bring back safety Will Allen for yet another year, showed that Tomlin, Colbert, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake were going all in on renewing the Steelers secondary.

Artie Burns, Sean Davis, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers secondary 2016

Sean Davis and Artie Burns at Steelers rookie mini-camp. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

The Steelers need to rebuild on defense has been well documented, particularly their failure at rejuvenating the secondary.

The Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with a plan to boost the defense, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin never flinched drafting Artie Burns in the first round, Sean Davis in the second round and Javon Hargrave in the second round.

The move paid handsome dividends as each player stepped up to make important contributions to the Steelers 9 game winning streak that closed the season.

6. David Johnson Returns

In June the Steelers surprised everyone by signing David Johnson, the final pick from the 2009 Draft Class who’d spent 2014 and 2015 with the San Diego Chargers. The move telegraphed Matt Spaeth’s release, further reinforcing the turnover theme.

However, as training camp dragged on, and Ladarius Green came no closer to practicing, it was clear that David Johnson would give the Steelers a veteran presence and solid blocking ability to a very green crops of tight ends.

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

During the off season, Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly about Senquez Golson, the cornerback the Steelers took in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft who lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The Steelers were counting on Golson to do big things in 2016.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson’s 2016 season amounted to two padded practices in change as he injured his Lisfranc. The Steelers kept Golson on the active roster, but ultimately had to put him on injured reserve, further highlighting the magnitude of the risk the Steelers were taking with their secondary.

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

When the Steelers signed Cobi Hamilton on August 5th they were picking up a guy who’d bounced around to several practices squads over the last three years. By the look of it, they were doing little more than picking up another body to help them get through training camp drills.

  • But Hamilton did well enough to make the final roster.

And if Hamilton did struggle during the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, the rookie effectively functioned as the Steelers 3rd wide receiver during their 9 game winning streak.

Cobi Hamiltion, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers vs browns, steelers new years overtime win browns

Cobi Hamilton catches game winner in overtime over Browns in Steelers New Years Day win. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via Herald Star

9. Markus Wheaton Gets Hurt in Steelers Preseason win over Saints

The Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints served as their dress rehearsal for the season, and by all accounts the Pittsburgh passed with flying colors.

Steel Curtain Rising admits to being somewhat of a homer for Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton played very well down the stretch in 2015 and the Steelers sure could have used him during the second half of 2016. Alas, Wheaton did return for a 3 game stretch in early part of the season, but was lost for good in week 11.

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

Le’Veon Bell started 2013 injured, finished 2014 injured, began 2015 on suspension and finished the year on IR. Again, he began 2016 serving a suspension. So let’s remember that there WERE legitimate question as to whether this young back could deliver on the field when the Steelers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.

  • Le’Veon Bell steamrolled the Chiefs for 178 all-purpose yards.

In doing so, the young running back put the NFL on notice that stopping the Steelers would mean stopping him.

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

Its no secret that Ben Roethlisberger remains the one, indispensable player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. His injury, in addition to the coach’s decision to abandon the run early, cost the Steelers the game in Miami, and arguably cost the Steelers on the road to the Ravens. Those losses prevented the Steelers from securing a first round bye, which proved costly.

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

The naysayers in Steelers Nation have long been down on Ryan Shazier for being injury prone. The fact is that, with on disrespect to Vince Williams, the Steelers missed his athleticism during the middle portion of the season.

  • Shazier returned to his status as a full time starter against the Ravens.

And while the Steelers defense didn’t pick up its performance immediately, within two weeks Ryan Shazier was back to making splash plays all over the field, and by the season’s end, he was easily the Steelers best defender.

James Harrison, James Harrison color rush, defining moments steelers 2016

James Harrison’s return to full time starter helped fuel the 2016 Steelers nine game winning streak. Photo Credit: USA Today sports via 247 Sports

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

Since James Harrison returned from retirement in 2014 the Steelers have rotated him in some form or fashion, attempting to groom Jarvis Jones to take over the role full time. But Jones flinched on the critical play of the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, and Mike Tomlin wasted little time in promoting James Harrison to a full time starter.

  • All Harrison did was lead the team in sacks in his 7 starts.

More important, James Harrison held transform the Steelers rush defense from a liability into an asset. As Mike Tomlin rhetorically questioned when he announced the move, “What are we saving James Harrison for?” A playoff run, which is what the Steelers got.

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

Yes, the Steelers needed this one to clinch the AFC North division in an all or nothing shot. Yes, this epic Christmas game was worth of narration by NFL Films legend John Facenda, yes Antonio Brown last minute stretch was an act that revealed his sheer greatness.

  • But there’s something more important that happened on Christmas 2016 for the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 5 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens with this win. And while that hardly reestablishes the Steelers as the alpha male of the division, a six straight loss would have conferred that status to the Ravens.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Le'Veon bell breaks playoff rushing record, le'veon bell dolphins

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record vs. the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via CBS Pittsburgh Local

15. Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record. Twice

When Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record the first time this, we stopped and reflected on what it meant. Then Bell went out and did it again in the following week.

On an individual level, this feat highlights just how special of talent Le’Veon Bell has. However, on a team level this also seemed to underscore that the Steelers were going to go as far as Le’Veon Bell would take them….

16. Steelers get Thumped by Patriots in AFC Championship (Again.)

…And Le’Veon Bell’s ride would end early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, where the Steelers would fall 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

For all of the growth they made and for all of the adversity they overcame, the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t Super Bowl worthy, as their latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots revealed.
We’re wrapping up coverage of the Steelers 2016 season this week. Check back for their regular season report card and season summary.

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Have Injuries Finally Caught Up with the 2016 Steelers?

When you follow a  team like the Pittsburgh Steelers on a consistent basis, it’s kind of easy to fall into a false sense of security regarding the capabilities of most players on the roster–and that includes the backups.

For example, reserve inside linebacker Vince Williams was absolutely dominant in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets. Williams combined for 25 tackles and two sacks, and as you watched him perform so well, you surely didn’t miss Ryan Shazier, the guy he replaced in the lineup.

vince williams, steelers vs. dolphins, 2016 steelers injuries, vince williams injury

Vince Williams limps off the field during the Steelers 30-15 drubbing at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla Tribune-Review

Speaking of the Jets game, Chris Hubbard went the entire way at right tackle, thanks to injuries to starter Marcus Gilbert and backup swing tackle Ryan Harris a week earlier vs. Kansas City, and did more than yeoman’s work, as part of an offensive line that hardly allowed a scratch on superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

In the game against the Jets, star defensive end Cameron Heyward left with a hamstring injury and never returned.

Maybe you didn’t notice Heyward’s absence, as Pittsburgh scored 17-unanswered second half points to run away with a 31-13 victory.

  • But here the thing about injuries:  They tend to have an accumulative effect.

As Vince Williams was flying around Heinz Field for two weeks, making tackle after tackle and playing like a man possessed, maybe you didn’t miss Shazier because:

a) Heyward was such a dominant presence along the defensive line, he gave Williams plenty of room to roam or

b) you simply didn’t know what you were missing.

For as annoying as Ryan Shazier’s injury history has been over the duration of his two-plus year career with the Steelers, the reality is, nobody on Keith Butler‘s defense is capable of being the difference-maker he is.

  • When he plays, Ryan Shazier makes things happen, whether it be a tackle for loss, a forced fumble or a key interception (Just ask Jeremy Hill of the Bengals).

Vince Williams can provide his share of tackles–even tackles for loss–but he has yet to prove he can be the impact player Shazier is.

As for Cam Heyward, his absence was a little harder to miss, what with such a drop-off in talent on the defensive line, due to the journeyman pedigree of backup Ricardo Mathews and the rookie pedigree of the otherwise utlra-talented Javon Hargrave.

Along the offensive line, while he doesn’t get the hype of a Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro, and while his story may not be as inspirational as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva‘s, fact is, Marcus Gilbert is one of the premiere right tackles in the NFL.

Gilbert may not have been everyone’s cup of tea over the first few years, when he was having hiccups that involved accidentally injuring his own teammates, but through hard work and commitment, he turned himself into a valuable member of the offensive line.

Was Marcus Gilbert an indispensable member of the line? It sure didn’t seem that way after the March signing of the veteran Ryan Harris, who started in Super Bowl 50 a year ago and began the regular season as a backup behind both Gilbert and Villanueva.

Unfortunately, after holding his own against the Jets, Chris Hubbard had a whale of a time trying to stop the Dolphins edge-rushers that included accomplished veteran linebacker Cameron Wake, as Ben Roethlisberger was harassed most of the afternoon and sacked twice.

  • Back to the Steelers defense.

Sunday’s game may have been physical, but the unit that appeared to be on the receiving end of most of the beatings was a Steelers defense that barely laid a hand on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill and allowed an astounding 222 yards rushing.

You don’t have to be a football guru to see that Sunday’s game against the Dolphins was lost at the line of scrimmage, and Pittsburgh was missing a handful of key contributors on both sides of the ball.

Head coach Mike Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” mantra is rather appealing, inspirational and catchy. But, like most backups in the NFL, the more they play, the more they get exposed.

  • And the more backups that are in at any given time, the more a team may be weakened and exposed.

This coming Sunday, when the Steelers take on the Patriots at Heinz Field with Landry Jones as their starting quarterback, you may unfortunately get to witness the immediate effect of an injury to the most important player.

But in Miami on Sunday, you witnessed the accumulative effect of several injuries to a handful of valuable players.

 

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4 Random Reflections on 2016 Steelers 4-1 Start + a Shout Out for a Steelers Nation Scribe

he boss is back with 4 random reflections on the 2016 Steelers 4-1 start, plus a shut out for a special Steelers Nation scribe.

Yes, after close to a month on the road my travels have finally brought me back to “home,” namely Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the great ironies of the global economy is that a month long trip TO the United States kept me from writing about the Steelers, save for a rebuttal of Colin Cowherd’s Mike Tomlin bashing and reflections on Le’Veon Bell’s longevity.

Still, this excurision didn’t result in a full Steelers sabbatical, as followed the news as best I could, while taking in a couple of games on the fly.

2016 steelers 4-1 start, Lawrence Timmons, Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, steelers vs. jets

Jordan Dangerfield, Lawrence Timmons, and Artie Burns gang up on Quincy Enunwa to help 2016 Steelers to 4-1 start. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. Stats Mislead in Steelers Victory Over Bengals

The Steelers much anticipated re-match with the Bengals, sans Le’Veon Bell and Vontaze Burfict was easily on of the “Can’t Miss” games when the schedule was announced. Alas, booth set up responsibilities, paired with a corporate event at a baseball game meant there was NO WAY in HELL I was going to see the game.

  • When I finally got to grab lunch at 4:00 pm or so, the headline “Ben Roethlisberger throws 3 touchdowns as Steelers beat Bengals” pleased me.

And of course I thought that Roethlisberger had been on another rampage, similar to the one he led against the Redskins in week 1. Only later did I learn that Ben Roethlisberger had struggled for much of the day, and that the Cincinnati defense has managed to contain Antonio Brown fairly well. A win is a win, but this one reminds you of how misleading stats passed on the ESPN scroll can be.

2. Wife Wins + Steelers Loss = Husband’s Right Call on Philly Game

Week 2 brought my wife’s arrival in the US and by this time I was back in Maryland. And just as fate would have it, the Steelers-Eagles game was on national TV. No need to hike a Steelers bar, giving me my first chance to watch a Steelers game in my home state since 2008 and my first in my parents’ home since, what, 1991?

Ah, but it was a beautiful day, and my wife wanted to hit Georgetown. Good idea.

  • So I relented and slyly taped the Steelers game. Good decision.

Have the Pittsburgh Steelers ever performed so perfectly piss poorly as they did against Philadelphia during the Mike Tomlin era? Perhaps. The 2011 opening day Debacle at Baltimore would make as strong candidate. Outside of that you’d have to really search. The game started with a dropped touchdown pass followed by a blocked field goal. And things got worse from there.

In other words, it was the perfect time to take your wife down to Georgetown to do some shopping and site seeing.

3. Camerony Heyward, Steelers Clobber Kansas City

At some point we’ll have do a “Steelers history vs.” article on the Kansas City Chiefs, because those games often reveal a lot. But for now the Steelers Sunday Night Football victory over the Chiefs will remain something to relish.

Fortunately, I did get to see this one, and a shout out goes to Andrew Kipp who recommended the venue:

The Reservoir did turn out to be a good place to see the Steelers play. OK, it wasn’t the Purple Goose Saloon, but let’s not kid ourselves – they don’t make Steelers Bars like the Goose anymore. But the prices were great, there were plenty of TV’s to watch on, and the Steelers fans were friendly.

Most importantly, the Steelers bounced back from an ugly loss, and it was nice to see Jarvis Jones make a splash play and Markus Wheaton bounce back from a horrendous performance in Philly.

4. Still in NYC, but Can’t See the Steelers

My last weekend in the United States found me still in New York for the Steelers-Jets game, yet I was unable to watch the game! My wife might have been sold on this one (she was more than OK with me watching the KC game), but it was our last full day in Manhattan, and we had a number of things we wanted to do, and also some things we needed to do.

  • The Steelers won, despite an ever lengthening injury list, on a week that saw the Steelers stash not just Senquez Golson but also Ryan Harris on IR.

From what I read, it was a good game even if the Steelers didn’t start particularly strong, they closed out the game with a second half shut out. That got us to 4-1, and I will take a 4-1 start anytime I can get one.

5. Shout Out to a Special Steelers Nation Scribe

Running a truly independent Steelers blog can be a solitary experience. God knows you, my readers, give continue to come in increasing numbers and give me shout outs on Twitter and Facebook, but stark fact is that here in 2016 you can’t have a site go dark for 25% of a season and expect to be taken seriously.

  • Thanks to Tony Defeo, this was a non-issue during my month long trek.

As regular readers know, big Steelers news only breaks when yours truly is unable to write. The correlation has almost been scientifically verified. For the past several off seasons, Tony has been keeping an eye on the back door, and made sure that no important stories fall through the cracks while I’m away.

Earlier this year, Tony started contributing regular features, and I highly suggest you check out his pieces on Calvin Sweeny, Weegie Thompson, David Little, Harry Newsome, Mark Malone and/or Larry Brown. These profiles, in addition to his other features, have enriched this site in ways I could never do on my own.

  • Over the last month Tony has gone into “Above and beyond the call of duty” of a part-time contributor.

That’s to him, the updates kept coming, whether I was putting in 14 hour days at a tradeshow on the West Coast, scrambling to process leads by day and spending quality time with family at night in my stomping grounds in Maryland, or vacationing in the Big Apple.

  • I’ve thanked you in private, and now I’ll do it in public – Thanks Tony for your contributions to Steel Curtain Rising.

Tony will continue to contribute this season here, but he publishes several times a week on Behind the Steel Curtain and Cover 32. Regardless of the locale, Tony’s stuff is must read. Check him out and be sure to follow him on Twitter:

Thanks to you, readers, for continuing to read. The Steelers are off to a good start. Let’s see where they can take it.

 

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle

Offensive tackle is arguably the most important position on the offensive line, as the tackles are the players charged with defending against the defense’s edge rushers. Yet, for all the moaning about how long the Steelers have gone without draft a cornerback in the first round (last time was Chad Scott in 1997), Pittsburgh as gone longer without drafting an offensive tackle with their first round pick.

…OK, that pick didn’t work out so well, but does that mean that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should end the drought in the 2016 NFL Draft?

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Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Marcus Gilbert has been the Steelers starting right tackle since Willie Colon injured himself in the 2011 opening day debacle vs. the Ravens. Gilbert started 13 games in 2011, but injuries limited him to four in 2012. Gilbert’s hold on a starting job was challenged in 2013 when coaches alternated Kelvin Beachum with both Gilbert and Mike Adams, but since Gilbert’s benching, he’s been the starter, although injuries did cost Gilbert 4 games in 2014.

  • Following the 2014 season Pro Football Focus rated Gilbert as the 10th best pass rushing right tackle.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had obviously come to a similar conclusion several months earlier, as they’d resigned Gilbert to a 5 year contract.

Playing on the other side of Gilbert is Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate, former US Army Ranger, and veteran of Afghanistan.

Villanueva spent 2014 on the Steelers practice squad, after the Steelers picked him up off of waivers from the Eagles, and moved him to the offensive side of the ball. While Alejandro Villanueva still must prove himself, the Steelers felt comfortable enough in his abilities that the allowed Kelvin Beachum to depart as a free agent.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

While the Steelers clearly like Alejandro Villanueva, they’re hedging their bets when it comes to protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, which was made clear by their decision to sign free agent tackle Ryan Harris from the Denver Broncos. Harris has over 70 starts to his name, and started all 16 games for the Super Bowl champions.

Oft forgotten, the Steelers also have Mike Adams who sat out 2015 on the PUP list, but will return for to play out the final year of his rookie contract. It remains to be seen if Adams can recover from the back surgery that ruined his 2015 season, but it should be noted that Adams did play well in relief of Gilbert in 2014.

The Steelers also enter the 2016 NFL Draft with Brian Mihalik and Matt Feiler, the latter of whom spent 2015 on the Steelers practice squad following stints on the Houston Texans practice squad in 2014.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Offensive Tackle

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016So, one week out from the 2016 NFL Draft the Steelers have one proven starter at offensive tackle, another starter-designate who shows a lot of potential, a Super Bowl veteran backup, and another player who will probably not live up to his billing as a second round pick, but could provide valuable depth.

  • They also have two untested NFL roster bottom feeders.

That is a good, although not great place to be in terms of depth. Starting-caliber offensive tackles do not grow on trees, as the Steelers learned in 2011 when they were forced to turn to Max Starks after Jonathan Scott proved he couldn’t cut the mustard.

  • Offensive tackle clearly isn’t a high priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft, but what priority should it take?

The Steelers have an insurance policy behind both starters, and if Mike Adams regains his health, they’ll have another one.

There is never a bad time to draft an offensive tackle with an eye towards developing him for the future, but given the Steelers depth at tackle and their other needs, the Steelers 2016 draft need at offensive tackle must be considered Moderate Low.

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Steelers ex-lineman Byron Stingily Signs with Giants

Perhaps you can file this under “Didn’t even know he was still around,” but the Pittsburgh Steelers lost another free-agent on Monday when reserve offensive tackle Byron Stingily signed with the Giants. 

Stingily, who played four years with the Titans before being cut prior to the start of the 2015 regular season, was signed by Pittsburgh last October following the season-ending ACL tear suffered by starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum in a Week 6 victory over the Cardinals at Heinz Field.

However, after starting five games for Tennessee in 2014, Stingily didn’t appear in any action for the Steelers upon his arrival. Instead, Alejandro Villanueva, a bit of a project who was originally signed by the Eagles to play defensive end after playing tight end in college, stepped in for Beachum and never missed a beat. Villanueva started 10 games down the stretch and helped the Steelers make the playoffs and win their first postseason game in five years.

Villanueva’s emergence coupled with the signing of veteran Broncos swing-tackle Ryan Harris in March made Stingily expendable.

The details of Stingily’s contract with the Giants were not disclosed.

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