Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.
T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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Remembering and Honoring Ivan Cole, Friend, Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season kicks off tonight against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Thanks to COVID-19, this will already be the most unique Steelers opener in history.

  • Yet, even putting aside the specter of the pandemic, there’s something missing in the Steelers Nation.

Sure, professionals and bloggers alike have penned their Steelers pre-season previews, this site included. But this year the collective conversation is poorer for its effort, due to the absence of the voice of Ivan Cole.

Every year for at least a decade, Ivan Cole would pen his column “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in XXXX” where he’d lay out the most compelling case possible for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl during coming season.Ivan Cole

Today, Steel Curtain Rising takes time out to honor and remember a man who was a loving father and grandfather, a friend to many, and a scribe who can rightly be called conscience of Steelers Nation.

Getting to Know Ivan Cole

“Pleased to ‘meet’ you too. Thank you for sending such a long and detailed email. What a pleasant surprise for a Monday morning!”

That’s how my first interaction with Ivan Cole began sometime in the spring of 2011. Ivan had written something thought-provoking on Behind the Steel Curtain that prompted me to reach out. Even in those days, before communication was so thoroughly Twitterized, getting “thanked” for a long email was exceedingly rare.

  • Yet, that was Ivan Cole in a nutshell.

An Ivan Cole observation would get you thinking. You’d share your reaction with Ivan. A deeper conversation would evolve, almost always taking unexpected twists, and by the time it was over, you’d both be better for it. That was Ivan.

  • Love for the Pittsburgh Steelers might have brought Ivan and I together, but our friendship quickly grew beyond the Black and Gold.

Today it is all too common to find people talking at each other, rather than to each other. But you always talked with Ivan. If you’d pointed this out to Ivan, it is easy to imagine offering a non-sarcastic response along the lines of “I consider myself a practitioner of the dying art of discourse.”

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Measured in material terms, Ivan Cole was a person of fairly modest material means, but his desire to understand the world in which he lived gave his personality a richness that everyone he touched could appreciate.

Ivan had a passion for advancing civil rights and social justice, and his natural curiosity led him to explore the social and political issues tied to those twin core values.

While never shy about arguing for what he believed in, Ivan was always ready to consider new information on its own merits. In the same vein, Ivan had an ability to identify and connect with people whose viewpoints differed from his – a quality that is in increasingly short supply in our world.

And Ivan’s interest was hardly limited to his immediate surroundings, so he would often question me about Argentina’s perpetual political-economic crisis. He not only volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for my “Argentine Political History for Dummies” PPT, but his insights helped sharpen the final version I used with my exhcange students at Universidad Austral.

Later in life, Ivan took an interest in combating Human Trafficking, and issue which he explained, “Found him.” I don’t know many details about his efforts there, but I can assure you with his passion and his energy, he undoubted helped make the world a more jut place with his work at LATO, Life After Trauma Organizaiton.

But Ivan was hardly an “All work and no play” type person. Quite to the contrary, Ivan was rather gregarious. I can still remember the Saturday morning when Ivan emailed telling me that the owner of the local café he frequented had told him that Jerome Bettis had stopped in earlier in the morning.

To read the email, you’d have thought that Ivan had seen The Bus himself. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Ivan Cole, Steelers Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

And of course, if you knew of Ivan’s passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’d understand why Ivan would be so giddy about almost crossing paths with Jerome Bettis (who apparently was very friendly with everyone in the establishment.)

Ivan was a Steelers scribe, writing first for Behind the Steel Curtain, during the site’s golden age under Michael Bean and later Neal Coolong, and then for Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site.

  • Ivan Cole wrote on a wide range of topics for both sites.

In doing so he never passed up an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the Steelers, whether that meant taking aim at the NCAA or discussing the role that the Pittsburgh diaspora plays in the team’s national fan base.

Ivan was as well versed in the team’s history as any professional beat writer, a knowledge which impressed Art Rooney Jr. enough to facilitat an interview between Ivan and the legendary Bill Nunn Jr.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

For a long time, Ivan Cole worte, among other items, the “Weekly Checkdown” which summarized all of the relevant Steelers news from the preceding week. If anyone wants to see just how thorough Ivan was, take a look at this article from June of 2012.

In his farewell column as editor of the site, Neal Coolong offered this:

…the Weekend Checkdown, the longest-running column on BTSC. I can count on two fingers the amount of weeks Ivan did not submit his column. Editors love that kind of thing, but only slightly less is how much they love the conversation Ivan creates.

As Coolong concludes, Ivan didn’t just offer Steelers nation consistency and quantity, but most importantly quality.

  • And when it came to analyzing the Steelers, Ivan suffered no fools.

Mike Tomlin

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

Ivan Cole had no time for what he labeled the “Fire everyone crowd,” the segment of fans who wished that Dan Rooney would run his team more like Daniel Snyder. If a fan argued that the locker room was “tuning Mike Tomlin out” Ivan would recount how he’d heard the same criticism leveled at Chuck Noll – just after the 1977 season and just before Noll next two Super Bowls.

To fans who complained about misfires on draft picks such as Jarvis Jones, Ivan would counter with stats on how Google was often disappointed with the results of its own recruiting efforts. When fans wanted to flail Mike Tomlin for the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore, Ivan reminded everyone that it was Mike Tomlin who cautioned that the Raven’s late week roster shuffling had made them so dangerous.

For those who wanted to go to town on Mike Tomiln and the Steelers for the ugly 2-6 start in 2013, Ivan argued that the fact that the Steelers had finished 8-8 and were a blown call away from the playoffs spoke to “the awesomeness of  the organization.”

After Ryan Shazier’s game-changing play turned the Steelers win over Cincinnati in the 2015 playoffs, Ivan quickly used it as an example to admonish fans who’d written Shazier off as a “Bust” just weeks before.

Ivan never shied away from taking on members of the professional press, such as his aggressive (and accurate) refutation of Colin Cowherd in early 2016.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

While it is fair to say that Ivan did border into homerism at times, but to the extent that was occasionally true it was simply because Ivan had been around long enough to appreciate just how special the Rooneys were and how special that made the Steelers culture.

  • And in that respect, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that Ivan Cole was, in many ways, the conscience of Steelers Nation.

That, in and of itself, is a reason to honor Ivan. But there are two life lessons Ivan left me that should give us all, even those who didn’t know him, to cherish his memory.

Life Lessons Left to Us by Ivan Cole

Although Ivan passed away in late April, his health troubles began before the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” entered our vernacular. I don’t know many details beyond Ivan suffering an accident late in 2020 which required hospitalization, followed by surgery, followed by post-op complications, which led to infections, more surgeries and ultimately more infections and other health complications.

In April, as Rebecca Rollett so poignantly observed, “… his body couldn’t support his great soul any more.”

  • The first lesson Ivan’s passing offers is personal and very bittersweet.

During Ivan’s final months, his daughter offered regular updates. At one point, she asked for friends and family to call her father to help keep his spirits up. I reached out to a few friends who might not have gotten the message from his daughter and a few of them connected with him.

  • Yet, I, myself, never made the call.

I’ve never been squeamish about reaching out to friends in those circumstances, but “…I was too busy with work at this very moment, there will be time later,” I told myself. To be both 100% truthful and 100% fair to myself, I honestly didn’t realize his condition was so critical or I would have made time.

Fortunately I was able to leave him a long voice mail, a positive upbeat message talking about how great it was that two people who lived 6,000 miles away could become such great friends. His daughter played that for him, and apparently this message, along with others, helped ease Ivan’s transition form this world to the next.

  • Still, I wish I’d had that one last conversation with him.

The lesson here is simple:  Always take advantages of chances to connect with people important to you. Work to do and bills to pay will always be there, but time with wives, spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends can be fleeting.

  • The second, and final lesson Ivan offered isn’t bittersweet, but simply sweet.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

Although I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ivan Cole lived in Reston, Virginia, I got to meet him in person several times. First at my parents house during a visit in 2014. After that I got to see him at various Steelers bars in Virginia, where on one occasion I was fortunate enough to meet his daughter, grand daugherters, brother and other friends from the BTSC and Going Deep blogging communities.

  • Those meetings were great, but unfortunately on those days the Steelers weren’t.

The first time we met was the first 2015 Bengals game, the first game of the season when all four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant would take the field together. That was also the game when Le’Veon Bell was injured and lost for the season.

The next time we met was in the fall of 2017, when the Steeler played the Jaguars and Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions.

A year later, I reached out to Ivan before making a trip back to the States, asking, “Dare we tempt fate” and try to watch the game together again?” We debated the question with Clark, Bill, Mike and the rest of the gang.

There was a lot of back and forth, until Ivan settled the question definitively by insisting, “Let’s live in our hopes, instead of our fears.” The Steelers of course won that game against the Bengals, but even if they hadn’t, I can’t think of a better life lesson left to us by Ivan Cole.

Click Below to read tributes to Ivan Cole by:

Rebecca Rollett (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Michael Bean (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Medium)
Here are also links to Ivan’s best work on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site.

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Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs: Pittsburgh in an Unusual Position

“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:

  • It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.

During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers pride themselves on building through the draft, but two free agents, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, gave the franchise its best cornerback tandem since Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend lined up in Super Bowl XLIII.

Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:

In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.

  • Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.

The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.

  • Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.

Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

  • With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.

That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.

After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.

That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.

The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs

If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?

That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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The Steelers, Defensive Line & the 2020 NFL Draft: Pittsburgh’s Needs Go Deeper than Depth

“Give us a blade of grass to defend, an we’ll defend it.” Mike Tomlin believes in his mantra, and it all begins with the defensive line.

It’s no coincidence that the Steelers win Super Bowls when their defensive lineman feature the NFL’s best. Think Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith.

So, does that mean that the Steelers will or should target defensive line in the 2020 NFL Draft given that history, and given that they’ve just lost a starting defensive lineman in free agency? Let’s find out.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward & Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers 2918 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

At age 30, Cam Heyward has delivered everything the franchise hoped he would when they drafted him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, a move with Kevin Colbert instantly declared as “historic.” Cam Heyward is coming off a season where he registered 9 sacks, hit the quarterback 23 times, batted down 6 passes and otherwise served as a one-man wrecking crew.

  • The scary thing is that, for the first six games, Cam Heyward might not have been the best defensive lineman on the field.

Stephon Tuitt only played six games in 2019, but he’d already notched 3.5 sacks and 7 QB hits and was routinely blowing up his side of the offensive line. While Tuitt’s injury history must be a concern, if he can return at full health the Steelers will have be best defensive line duo in the league.

Starting nose tackle Javon Hargrave departed in free agency, opening up a slot.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

While everyone knew the Steelers had zero chance of keeping Javon Hargrave, many commentators were quick to assert that that the Steelers had pretty good defensive line depth.

  • That’s a little puzzling.

The Steelers defensive line depth is decent. In 3 years, Tyson Alualu has shown he is a capable “Next man up,” at either defensive end or nose tackle. But that’s the point. At age 33, this former 10th overall pick has found his niche in the NFL – as a 4th man on a 3 man defensive line.

A quick glance at Buggs’ tape caused this certified draft ignoramus to ask, “Why did he stay on the board so long?” The Steelers do like Buggs, who saw the field in the second half of 2019, but he failed to break the 100 snap count mark.

Daniel McCullers remains on the roster, mainly because he’s the only true nose tackle the team has and because defensive line coach Karl Dunbar sees something in McCullers that most others miss. Still, in his 6th year as a Steeler, McCullers only participated in 12% of the defensive snaps.

  • Finally, the Steelers have Chris Wormley, whom they traded to Baltimore for a 5th round draft pick.

Wromley’s resume from Baltimore in terms of pure number isn’t all that impressive. But he’s also buried on a deep depth chart, and is an immediate upgrade over McCullers, and until he proves himself, Buggs.

The Steelers 2020 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers are set at defensive end, but nose tackle is a different question. To understand why, look no further than the 2017 playoff debacle against Jacksonville.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

While most focus on the inadequacies of Ryan Shazier’s replacements, injuries to Hargrave and Alualu forced L.T. Walton to do time at nose tackle, and images of Leonard Fournette gouging the Steelers defense by going straight up the middle are easy to find.

  • Perhaps Isaiah Buggs or Chris Wormley can man that spot in the center of the Steelers defense.

That’s plausible, but neither man is proven. And with no clear starting nose takcle on the roster, the Steelers need at defensive line entering the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

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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Why Steelers Should Keep Sean Davis in Pittsburgh, but Won’t

How critical of a role does safety play in the Steelers defense? Its hard to say. You can find times when the Steelers defense has struggled despite quality safety play.

  • In contrast, the Steelers defense has never excelled absent strong safety play.

The Steelers history at safety is a minor study in contractions. Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell entered the league as first round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. On the flip side, premium picks like Shamarko Thomas and Anthony Smith floundered, while late rounders like Darren Perry soared.

With that backdrop, we come to Sean Davis, who played safety for the Steelers for four years and is about to become a free agent.

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’ Career with the Steelers

By the end of 2015, it was clear that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had failed and the Steelers responded by drafting Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Sean Davis looked like a steal, earning a starting spot and rookie of the year honors. Davis excelled in run support, hauled in an interception and recorded a sack. In the playoffs he atoned for a costly mistake with a key pass defense in the end zone to help seal the win against Kansas City.

  • Conventional wisdom holds that Sean Davis struggled in his sophomore year.

The truth is that Davis played reasonably well early in the season. Yet, the entire defense slipped following injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis slipped with them, taking bad angles at critical moments and by getting abused by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowkski in the Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers moved Davis from strong safety to free safety in 2018, where Davis’ steady presences helped the Steelers limit long gains which had plagued them the previous season. Unfortunately, Davis’ most memorable play of 2018 was when he KOed Joe Haden, transforming an certain end zone interception into a touchdown in the loss to the Chargers.

Sean Davis got injured during training camp in 2019, missed the season opener. He played in the home opening loss to the Seahawks, aggravated his injury and was out for the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

If Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick gets hurt in 2020, who do you want as your “Next man up?” Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen?

  • That my friends, is a black and white question.

Sean Davis isn’t going to supplant either starter, but he’s clearly a starter-capable backup and superior to any player the Steelers could find in the 2020 NFL Draft or as a veteran minimum free agent.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already signed him…?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

….The Steelers haven’t signed him because with 3 seasons of starts under his belt, Sean Davis isn’t going sign for a veteran minimum contract, nor does he have any incentive to sign any sort of “home town” discount deal. A “prove it” contract has no point because with both starting safety slots locked down, Davis figures to have little chance to prove anything.

The Steelers got good value out of Sean Davis on his rookie deal, but really, there’s no room for him in Pittsburgh now that he’s a free agent. It is time for both sides to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis

While this won’t be popular with a lot of fans, the truth is in pure football terms the Steelers resigning Sean Davis makes a lot of sense. Aside from the depth he’d deliver, the prospect of Sean Davis pushing Terrell Edmunds for playing time isn’t so far fetched.

  • Steelers lack of safety depth isn’t trivial.

Pittsburgh perhaps has less depth at safety than it does salary cap space. The disadvantage they face is great. As Bob Labriola pointed out on a recent “Asked and Answered,” if Jesse James can get 22.5 million dollar contract to catch 16 passes as a backup tight end, another NFL teams will certainly give Sean Davis a 7 figure signing bonus to play safety.

  • Sean Davis knows this, and reportedly cleaned out his locker a long time ago.

It would be great to see Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply not going to happen.

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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Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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