In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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Steelers Streaming Preseason in Mexico. Excellent! ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de América Latina?

Tonight, Steelers fans in Mexico will watch the Steelers 4th game against the Carolina Panthers as they’ve done throughout the preseason thanks to the Steelers decision to stream preseason live in Mexico.

  • It says here, for the first of two times, that this is an excellent move and the Steelers deserve praise.

But with that said, I ask, ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de los fanáticos de los Steelers América Latina? For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, “What about the rest of us Steelers fans in Latin America?

To be clear: I’m happy that my fellow Mexican citizens of Steelers Nation can see Terrell Edmunds, James Washington, Mason Rudolph, Damoun Patterson and Olasunkanmi Adeiyi take their first steps as Steelers.

But I “complain” for one selfish reason and one business reason that the NFL should consider.

Steelers Fans Mexico

Steelers enjoy a massive following in Mexico. Photo Credit: Interceptado

Short Changing International Steelers Bloggers

I’m a self-confessed unrepentant preseason apologist (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) Preseason gives fans their best chance to evaluate young players under live-fire circumstances.

To be truthful, social media and internet video give fans new avenues for gaining insight without watching preseason games. Reading and seeing examples of Jon Bostic and Sean Davis struggling in pass coverage or seeing that James Conner running smartly is a welcome change.

  • But if you can’t watch the games, you’re still dependent on the evaluations of others.
  • And that creates a real challenge for international bloggers.

Sure, you can scrape someone someone else’s work, but the internet is literally littered with “read and regurgitate sites” and Steel Curtain Rising strives to offer something fresh.

Absent access to preseason games, one is left recycling stories of Bam Morris looking off in 1995 while Lee Flowers looked good in the ’95 and ’96 preseason campaigns, or how George Jones look unsuited as Jerome Bettis’ understudy in 1997 or how the Steelers struggled at run blocking during the 1998 preseason.

  • Writing about that gets stale fast and reading about it even faster.

It would be nice to write about the Steelers 2018 preseason campaign while referencing the preseason performances players like Antonio Brown, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier or, even going back further, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. But alas, I can’t because I never saw any of them play in preseason.

Ah, but you retort, “If you’re such a preseason purist, why don’t you plunk down your pesos and pay for NFL Game Pass?”

NFL’s Preseason Business Model Continues to Lag, Locally and Globally

Yes, I could plunk down my pesos and watch Steelers preseason games via Game Pass. Problem? I already pay for NFL Sunday Ticket on DirectTV. But, NFL Sunday Ticket only covers the regular season. Which leaves paying extra for the Game Pass as the only (legal) option for viewing Steelers preseason here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as the rest of Latin America, outside of Mexico.

To that end, the logic of the late Washington DC sports radio legend Ken Beatrice guides me:

  • Never pay major league prices to watch less than major league talent.

Seriously. It asking Sunday Ticket subscribers to pay extra to watch preseason on Game Pass is inane. Sorry Roger, you can get my money for the Sunday Ticket or for the Game Pass but you’re not getting both.

  • If you’re living outside the United States and you actually want to watch preseason football, you’re the essence of a diehard fan.

And if the NFL is serious about its global expansion, then those diehard fans are the base the league will build its global brand upon. Making it easy for them to indulge their passions by proving easy access to preseason football makes sound business sense.

We close by praising the Steelers again. Gustavo Vallegos the Vice President (really, he’s acting more like the President) of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires brought this issue to the attention of the Steelers, and the Steelers responded:

In a nutshell, Sergio tells us that the Steelers short term goal was to make preseason games available in Mexico, while he acknowledges that there are Steelers fans around the world, and that little by little, they want to reach those fans.

  • Good for them. Hey Art II, give the guy who had the idea a raise!

The Steelers showing they care about their fans in Mexico, showing that they understand that fan base is even bigger and wants to take care of them. It is the right thing to do and a smart business decision.

Why is the rest of the NFL so far behind? Jerry Jones is once again floating an idiotic 18 game season complaining that “Its difficult to get people to watch preseason football.”

Well yeah, Jerry, difficult because you don’t even let those who want to watch it, watch it.

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Steelers Resign Vince Williams Proving Opportunity + Tenacity = NFL Success

The Greeks called it “Fate.” Machiavelli used “Fortune.” But whatever term you choose, Vince Williams 4 year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers proves that NFL success is all about capitalizing on opportunity.

  • The Steelers signed Vince Williams to a 4 year contract worth a reported 20.6 million dollars that will keep the inside linebacker in Pittsburgh through 2022.

The move ensures that all projected starters form the Steelers 2018 defense will remain under contract for 2019, promising stability for a unit struggling to recover its swagger. But for Vince Williams the move marks the latest milestone in one of the more unheralded players of the Mike Tomlin era.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams Steelers contract

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in Dec 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Vince Williams: From Street Clothes to a 3rd NFL Contract

Its hard to know what the Steelers plans where when they drafted Vince Williams in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Most likely, they viewed him as an insurance policy in the event that Sean Spence couldn’t recover for the devastating injury he’d suffered in preseason the summer before.

Vince Williams looked good in preseason, but the Steelers clearly didn’t see him as game day material as he stood in street clothes during their 2013 opening loss against the Titans.

You remember that game, the one that cost the Steelers Maurkice Pouncey, LaRod Stephens-Howling and yes – Larry Foote. Both the Steelers, and Vince Williams could do no more than watch as Kion Wilson entered alongside Lawrence Timmons.

But Williams saw action the next week against the Bengals, and by the time the Steelers played the Vikings in London, he was making his first start. But Williams struggled and often times was a liability in a Steelers defense that was slipping.

  • By the end of the year, Williams had improved, particularly against the run.

Fate, however, refused to deal Williams an easy hand. Sean Spence recovered, and the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Instead of returning as a starter, Vince Williams would have to again earn a roster spot at St. Vincents.

Vince Williams proved his worth, and while Ryan Shazier started, Williams and Spence split time while Shazier was out with injury for much of his rookie season. Williams continued to see regular action in 2015, and the Steelers, in what amounted to minor surprise, offered him a three year extension in the summer of 2016.

The Steelers let Lawrence Timmons walk to Miami and Vince Williams took over his spot in the defense. While it may be hard to remember, the Steelers 2017 actually carried the team during the first half of the season and even flashing greatness prior to the Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden injuries.

  • One Steelers blogger privately suggested that replacing Timmons for Vince Williams might have been one of the prime reasons.

Other fans will beg to differ and still see Vince Williams as a liability. Clearly, the Steelers view Vince Williams differently.

If the data on the site Sportrac is reliable, Vince Williams new contract makes him the 16th highest paid inside linebacker, as measured by contract average. That puts him in about the middle of the back in terms of NFL starters, which sounds about right, if perhaps a little high.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

In 2017 Vince Williams was third on the team in tackles, and second in sacks behind Cam Heyward with 7. Inside linebackers in the Steelers defense only put up those kinds of sack numbers when they’re doing something right.

Vince Williams is never going to offer the athleticism that Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons or even James Farrior brought to the position. He’s much more of a player in the Larry Foote mold, a bruiser, a guy who makes contact, and a guy who can be counted on to bring down a running back at or behind the line of scrimmage.

  • And Vince Williams is at his best when paired with an athlete of Shazier’s pedigree.
  • It remains to be seen if how well Williams will play alongside Jon Bostic.

Regardless, Vince Williams is a player who brings it all on every down and uses the full force of his physicality to oblige the offense to earn every yard it advances. And the Steleers have made it clear the want to keep that in Pittsburgh for the next four years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Cornerback from Ole Miss

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

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

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

Here our story takes a hypothetical turn….

The Problem with Cutting (or Eliminating) Preseason Football

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

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

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

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

Mike Hilton’s 2017 Preseason Campaign

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

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

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

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

Maybe, maybe not.

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

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

Steelers Football’s Back – Enjoy It

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

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

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

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

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One Positive for Steelers 2018 Training Camp Thus Far? A Short PUP List

Steelers 2018 training camp only two days old, but already there’s a piece of positive news: Pittsburgh’s PUP list is short. That’s something that is easy to take for granted and injuries can alter an entire team’s fortune in a blink of an eye. But for now it is a good thing.

  • The only player who begins training camp on the PUP list is Eli Rogers.
Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers of course signed Eli Rogers Wednesday and will keep him on the PUP list until he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars. But other than that, there’s no injury of note.

Too often in recent past, training camp has arrived with surprise injury announcements.

In 2008, Casey Hampton began on the PUP list, although that was more tied to conditioning issues than injury. Back in 2015 the Steelers started training camp with 5 players on the PUP listMaurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, Bruce Gradkowski, Shawn Lemon and Senquez Golson.

  • To fans at least, each of these announcements was a surprise, and all of them turned out to be ominous.

Maurkice Pouncey’s stint on the PUP list was short, but he fell injured in the Steelers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Mike Adams injury hadn’t been known, and he stayed on the PUP list all season and never returned to Pittsburgh.

Bruce Gradkowski’s injury came as a total surprise, as he’d last been seen playing very well in brief relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens. Like Pouncey, Gradkowski earned his PUP activation, only to injure himself in preseason leading to Mike Vick’s signing. Shawn Lemon was of course the CFL pass rusher the Steelers signed earlier. He made it of PUP only to get cut.

  • And then of course there’s Senquez Golson, whom the coaching staff had known was nursing an injured shoulder.

Senquez Golson went on IR, then got injured in both 2016 and 2017 training camp, and the second round pick has never spent a day on an active NFL roster.

  • In 2016 the Steelers PUP list was short, but made up for “quality” for what it lacked in quantity.

Ladarius Green headlined the list, as he was both nursing an ankle injury and still fighting lingering effects of a concussion from the previous season. People will forget, but Ladarius Green actually did prove to be a fairly effective weapon in his limited action, but he suffered concussion against in December, and has never played since.

As noted at the outset, a short PUP offers no guarantee. Last year the Steelers began training camp with a relative clean bill of health, but ended up seeing Joe Haden, Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier suffer injuries at the worst possible moment.

But I’ll take the Steelers starting the summer at St. Vincents at close to full health any time I can!

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Steelers 2018 Training Camp to Test Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert’s Defensive Talent Evaluations

All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.

  • Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:

It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.

But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.

  • But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.

And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.

Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:

  • The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
  • Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
  • Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge

Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.

The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.

  • As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.

It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.

  • By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.

If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.

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Watch Tower: Gabe Rivera-Ryan Shazier Connection, 2018 & 2003 Draft, OLB Swap & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.

Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.

But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.

Gabe Rivera, Gabriel Rivera, Steelers 1983 draft

Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com

Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers

Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.

  • And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.

Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.

  • However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.

Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.

The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Who Is Mike Tomlin?

Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”

Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live feed notwithstanding.)

  • But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.

In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.

  • Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.

During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”

  • Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.

Junod traveled to Pittsburgh three times and was with the team training prior to the Pro Bowl. During that time Junod talked to, or at least secured quotes from strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont, Pittsburgh pastor Ed Glover, former Tomlin coach Bill Stewart, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Tony Dungy, Joe Haden, Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Mitchell, Cam Heyward and Ryan Clark.

  • Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”

Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.

Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present

Is ESPN’s Jermey Fowler a Watch Tower reader? The odds are against it, but he has nonetheless been answering our pleas. Three years ago, the Watch Tower lamented the dearth of stories that provided insight into the Steelers draft process, drawing a contrast with the rich narrative that surrounds the Steelers drafts of the 70’s.

Troy Polamalu, touchdown, AFC Championship, pick six, touchdown

Troy Polamalu’s AFC Championship Touchdown

This year Fowler delivered again with an article on the Troy Polamalu trade. As with his article on Brown, Fowler didn’t have much luck getting current Steelers employees to discuss the trade, but he still shed new light on one of the most consequential draft-day trades in Steelers history.

  • Once again, Fowler wins Watch Tower kudos.

Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.

Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.

So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.

Split on OLB Shift Story

The decision to swap Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from right to left OLB is the few bits of true news to come out of Steelers OTAs. Dale Lolley had Jim Wexell had indicated to their readers that this move was coming early in the off season, and addition reporting by Wexell during OTA’s suggests the move is permanent.

  • Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.

Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.

Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee

In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.

  • As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.

Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?

Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.

Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.

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Why the Steelers T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree Outside Linebacker Swap Could Be Good News

Perhaps the biggest news, if not only piece of true news coming out of the Steelers first OTAs last week was that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the Steelers twin first round draft pick outside linebackers, were switching sides.

A lot of the “news” that comes out of OTA’s, or football in shorts, doesn’t amount to much (remember the Dallas Baker OTA breakout in 2008? Nope, neither did I), but if Jim Wexell’s reporting is correct, the Steelers outside linebacker swap is permanent.

  • Such a shift might sound crazy for a player like T.J. Watt, perhaps the more promising stud outside linebacker coming off a tremendous first year.

On the surface, this might seem kind of silly. Why would a defense that’s been struggling to find its way the past few seasons mettle with perhaps its best young asset and someone who could develop into its best splash-player?

  • Maybe because that defense needs T.J. Watt to make splashes in other areas, like while covering the tight end, a job Dupree was often tasked with a season ago.

With the unfortunate spinal injury suffered by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier late last year, the Steelers defense lost its best athlete, a player the unit relied on to do many things.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joey Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joey Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

T.J. Watt may not be on Ryan Shazier‘s athletic level, but judging by his ability to switch from tight end to outside linebacker in college, along with his ability to quickly grasp the Steelers defense in his very first season, he may actually be pretty darn close.

In addition to his seven sacks, T.J. Watt recorded 54 tackles, seven passes defensed and an interception in 2017. And for good measure, he even blocked a field goal.

Like Ryan Shazier, T.J. Watt certainly has the ability–both physically and mentally–to do a lot of things on the football field, and perhaps those abilities are needed in other areas of the defense.

  • Will this hurt the Steelers pass rush? It says it here that it won’t.

For starters, Pittsburgh recorded a franchise record 56 sacks a season ago, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree accounting for only 13 of those. Second, while Bud  Dupree has struggled to get over the hump, he’s clearly shown a more explosive pass-rushing gear that, say, Jarvis Jones. Put over on a side where rushing the passer is a bigger part of his job requirement, Bud Dupree might actually excel and turn into the player many thought he was tantalizingly close to becoming even a year ago at this time.

  • The whole key in this potential switch, of course, is T.J. Watt.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler obviously don’t want to make its defense weaker by putting such a young stud in a position where his skills won’t flourish.

But while it is a small sample size, T.J. Watt has shown nothing but the ability to be a stud no matter where he plays on a football field.

In today’s Steelers defense where outside linebackers are asked to do so much more than just rush the passer, the left side just might be where T.J. Watt can do the most good.

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