Steady and Dependable: Free Agent Linebacker Robert Spillane Seeks 2nd Contract from Steelers

The Steelers have established a pretty interesting tradition at linebacker by pairing a stud alongside a player who is “good enough.” The Steelers haven’t intended it that way. But injuries have a way of derailing those intentions.

Since stepping in for the injured Devin Bush in the middle of 2020, Spillane has shown himself to be one of those inside linebackers who is “good enough” for the Steelers defense to excel with him in the line up.

Now that Robert Spillane is about to become a free agent, will “Good enough” translate into a 2nd contract?

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Robert Spillane’s Career with the Steelers

“Who?” That’s how most Steelers fans reacted when they saw Robert Spillane’s name on the inside linebacker depth chart entering 2020. Spillane was the one player whom the Steelers could not afford to have to play.

Yet play him they did when Devin Bush tore his ACL against Cleveland. Spillane played 50% of the snaps that day in a dominating Steelers win. The next week he made a hell of a hit on the goal line. The week after he took an interception to the house against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.

When injuries kept Spillane out of the Steelers lineup during the final four games of 2020, his absence was painfully noted. Yet for all the stability he brought to the middle of the Steelers defense, the Steelers still brought in Joe Schobert via trade in 2021 and the two split time.

  • But the Steelers cut Schobert a year ago and offered Spillane a Restricted Free Agent tender.

Spillane began 2022 splitting time with Devin Bush and Myles Jack, but by the end of the year he was logging 100% of the snaps for the Steelers defense while Bush was on the bench and rookie Mark Robinson was getting his first NFL action.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane

Is Spillane an athlete in the mold of Hardy Nickerson, Chad Brown, Lawrence Timmons and/or Ryan Shazier? Heck no. But Spillane IS the type of hard hitting, contact seeking, center strengthen inside linebacker who can fill the shoes once worn by Jerry Olsavsky, Larry Foote and Vince Williams.

Foote wears two Super Bowl rings, Jerry O. was a part-time starter in another and Vince Williams helped the Steelers get to an AFC Championship. No other NFL team is going to break the bank for Spillane. Keeping him in Pittsburgh is win-win.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane

Yeah. Those “little inside linebacker that could” stories are nice. And make no mistake about it, those players did distinguish themselves.

But ask yourself:

  • How long did Larry Foote last in Detroit without James Farrior at his side?
  • How secure was the center of the Steelers defense with Vince Williams and everyone the Steelers tried after losing Ryan Shazier?
  • How confident were the Steelers in Spillane when Devin Bush was struggling back from his ACL tear?

The Steelers know what life is like with 2 down inside linebacker and they have no need to repeat it. Spillane’s success story is legit. But his story is driven by his status as an unheralded kid overplaying his rookie contracts.
Those tales rarely translate into successful second contracts, at least from the team’s perspective.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and the Steelers defensive coaches like Robert Spillane. His end of the year snap count proves it. But what happens next is a bigger question.

Devin Bush is gone, Mark Robinson is promising but unproven. Myles Jack was good but might be too expensiveS.

  • Those amount to a lot of unknowns, and signing Spillane can help provide stability.

Expect that to happen, save for the caveat that the Steelers can’t get into a bidding war to retain him. (And they won’t.)

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Omar Khan’s Right: Steelers Must Resign Cam Sutton. But Can They Keep the Cornerback in Pittsburgh?

I was fortunate enough to be in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1989 when Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My mom happened to be walking through the room when they were finishing a news segment on the ceremonies and asked, “What? Were Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount BOTH quarterbacks?”

“No mom, Terry Bradshaw was the ‘quarterback,’ Mel Blount was a ‘cornerback’” I explained.

It is easy to see how the casual listener could confuse “quarterback” and “cornerback.” And while “cornerback” might not be as hard to play as “quarterback,” good cornerbacks can be pretty damn hard to find.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t had a lot of success in finding cornerbacks via the NFL Draft.

They found one in Cam Sutton who is now set to become a free agent for the second time. Has he done enough for the Steelers to give him a third contract?

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton Career with the Steelers

Some players simply take time to develop. Cam Sutton is one of them as the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft yet didn’t see him become a full time starter until 2021.

  • But if you’re thinking that Cam Sutton looked like a disappointment in that interregnum you’re wrong.

The Steelers activated Sutton going into the 2017 road game against Cincinnati to bolster a secondary that was reeling without Joe Haden and with Artie Burns struggling. How much Sutton contributed is open to question as the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier that night, sending the defense into an total tailspin.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

For the next three seasons, Cam Sutton appeared in all but one game, playing extensively on special teams and working in as a slot cornerback.

  • At a glance, Sutton’s numbers from those three years fail to impress.

However, Sutton showed and ability to make plays at pivotal such as his interception which stopped a Browns drive and forced overtime in the ’18 opener. Or his on-sides kick recovery AND interception all within 37 seconds to  end a Charger’s rally in 2019 or his interception that helped the Steelers go up 24 to zero against the Browns in 2020.

When the Steelers entered salary cap hell thanks to COVID, one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s first moves was to cut Steven Nelson and resign Cam Sutton, and he’s started 31 of a possible 34 games since then.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

The Steelers have invested heavily in Cam Sutton’s development who has made steady improvement since his rookie year. In 2022 he made 3 interceptions and defended a record 15 passes. Is this some guy you want to let walk? The Steelers have struggled to draft and develop cornerbacks but Cam Sutton is a success story here.

10 years ago the Steelers saw Keenan Lewis develop slowly until finally establishing himself as a starter. But the Steelers let Lewis walk due salary cap complications and because they believed that they had Cortez Allen waiting in the wings.

  • Lewis walked and Allen floundered settling the franchise back immeasurably.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan must not make the same mistake with Sutton.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

Yes, Cam Sutton is a good cornerback. But is he a great one? More importantly, does he deserve to be paid like one? According to Over the Cap Cam Sutton’s annual salary ranked him as 48th in the NFL last year.

A third contract will almost certainly need to put him in the top 32. They average about 7 million dollars a year in salary, 31 million in contract guarantees and 24 million in total guaranteed money.

Are you really ready to double Cam Sutton’s salary and guarantee him an 8 figure sum?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cam Sutton

Omar Khan said “We love and think very highly of Cam,” and indicated that negotiations have already started. Good. Because resigning Cam Sutton should be the Pittsburgh Steelers number one free agent priority in 2023. Sutton’s not a super star. He’s not a “shut down corner.” He’ll never be one. But he is a solid number 2 cornerback.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell compared him to Deshea Townsend. Townsend was another mid-round cornerback who took 4 or 5 season to work himself into a starting job as the number two corner. From there he helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • The only real question mark here is Omar Khan.

Khan was decisive in getting extensions inked with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell last summer and then got creative with Diontae Johnson. He could have done the same with Sutton, but declined. He says he wants him back, and when Kevin Colbert made similar statements the player returned.

So let’s see if Khan follows suit.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors: Larry Ogunjobi

Thanksgiving 2022 has arrived, so as we’ve done every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising is naming its 2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winner.

  • Our tradition began during the middle of the 2009 Steelers ugly 5 game losing streak.

The Steelers had just dropped a very winnable game in overtime against Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs. They’d just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion. And Charlie Batch broke his wrist. Yet from the carnage of that ugly loss came a ray of hope.

Andy Studebaker had picked off a pass intended for Hines Ward. He was in his own end zone and had nothing but green in front of him. So he took off. He would have taken it the house, were it not for Rashard Mendenhall, picking himself off of the turf and coming from the complete opposite side to run 94 yards to bring him down.

If one can question the “what it” that Mendenhall displayed at other times during his Steelers career, no one can deny the heart he displayed on that play.

So Mendenhall earned our first Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, and it has been a tradition since.

2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winner Larryy Ogunjobi

This year’s honors begin with the brightest spot (thus far) of the otherwise disappointing Steelers 2022 season.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had come to Pittsburgh. Kenny Pickett had driven the Steelers down the field and gotten them on the board with a touchdown pass to Najee Harris. But the Buccaneers had gotten a field goal, and as the second quarter opened, Brady had moved Tampa Bay 2nd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s 1 yard line.

  • The Steelers meager 4 point lead seemed destined to become a distant memory.

Leonard Fournette, a man who has tortured the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium, got the call. He thought he had a hole behind the left guard.

  • Instead he got dumped for a 3 yard loss.
Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Now, you might be thinking, “Last year you used a similar example when bestowing Steelers Thanksgiving honors on Cam Heyward, you’re giving it to Cam again?” We’re not talking about Cameron Heyward. Yes, Cam tackled Forunette for a 5 yard loss on 3rd down, but someone else made the play on 2nd down.

And we are giving Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors to Larry Ogunjobi precisely because last year Cam Heyward was the only Steelers defensive lineman capable of making those kinds of stops, and this year he has Ogunjobi to help him.

  • And after 10 games Larry Ogunjobi is showing just how much difference one man can make.

In that same game, Ogunjobi made several stops for little or no gain. And he’s done so throughout the rest of the year.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense gave up an average of 5 yards per carry, and were the NFL’s worst run defense. The Steelers only saw 3 games were an opponent’s longest run was less than 20 yards. Opponents had long runs of over 40 yards in three games and long runs of over 30 yards in 3 more. Overall, the Steelers opponents’ longest run from scrimmage averaged at 26.5 yards.

  • The Steelers 2021 run defense was so bad, one wonders why anyone even tried to pass.

Yet in 2022 the Steelers are writing a different story. This year they’re giving up 3.9 yards per carry and that 1.1 yard difference improves them to 5th in the NFL. The longest run they’ve given up is 36 yards, and the average longest run given up is 19.5 yards.

Even Cincinnati, who rushed on the Steelers at will in 2021, struggled to run the ball in an otherwise lopsided win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

  • Does Larry Ogunjobi deserve all of the credit for this improvement?

Absolutely not. And that’s the point. Improved play from Devin Bush and Montravius Adams, the arrival of Myles Jack, the maturation of Alex Highsmith and Robert Spillane and the return of Tyson Alualu are all critical to this improvement.

But none of those men would be able to do their jobs as well as they are doing them, were it not for Larry Ogunjobi making plays on his own, tying blockers up or taking advantage of double laid on Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • Followers of our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors will note Larry Ogunjobi is a bit of an outlier.

And he is. Most past honors have gone to up and comers, think Antonio Brown in 2011 or Ryan Shazier in 2016, or an established presence in the franchise such as Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 or Kevin Colbert in 2019.

In contrast, Ogunjobi is with the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal and could easily be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2023.

But that’s one of the lessons that comes with this year’s choice – sometimes its best to be thankful for what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

As I “celebrate” my 21st Thanksgiving in Argentina, I’ll again express my hope that everyone reading this has reasons to be Thankful that go far beyond football.

So whether your spending Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh or welcoming friends and family from Pittsburgh as I did so often growing up and as a young adult or whether you’re just a Steelers fan with no ties to the Steel City, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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For Better or For Worse: Steelers Trubisky Begins Where Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl Window Closed

History keeps evolving symetrically for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last year, Ben Roethlisberger played his final regular season game on the road, against the Ravens, just where he played the first one. On Sunday September 11th 2022, the Steelers Mitch Trubisky will begin in Cincinnati, exactly where the Ben Roethlisberger’s ended or at least where his Super Bowl window closed.

  • Often times Super Bowl windows close in silence.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers returned for their 4th Lombardi in Super Bowl XIV a year later against the Rams, while the Cowboys lost in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Yet Tom Landry and Danny White had The ‘Boys back in the NFC Championship for 3 straight years. It seemed only a question of “When” Tom Landry would win his third ring, not one of “If.”

  • Alas, it would take Jimmy Johnson to bring the Lombardi back to Texas Stadium.

In contrast, the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era end the moment Ryan Shazier turned over on the turf unable to move his legs at Paul Brown Stadium (yes, I know its Paycor now) back on that dark December night in 2017. The Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and especially Ben Roethlisberger himself tried to move heaven and earth to re-open that window.

  • But Ryan Shazier proved to be irreplaceable.

And in trying to replace the irreplaceable the Steelers quite likely gave up too much, in the form of the Devin Bush and even Joe Schobert trades.

And Cincinnati adds its weight to that historical rhyme scheme in other ways. For it was in Cincinnati in 2019 that Mike Tomlin benched Mason Rudolph for Delvin Hodges — reminding everyone of just how difficulty it was going to be to replace Ben Roethlisberger. A year later at Paul Brown, Ben Roethlisberger gave his own reminder, authoring a first half of football that drove this scribe to wonder out loud if Steelers Nation hadn’t just witnessed its own Ali-Holmes moment.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Roethlisberger rebounded, playing better football the next Sunday and for the next season as well. Yet, if there was any one game that symbolized just how far the Steelers had fallen, it was the 2021 beating the Steelers suffered in their final game at the venue that was to be known as Paul Brown Stadium.

  • What fate will fortune deliver to the Mitch Trubisky era of Steelers football?

Will Trubsiky earn his own Super Bowl rings? Will he follow in the footsteps of Cliff Stoudt, who ushered in an era of mediocre, bad, average and above average quarterbacks? Or will he be like Tommy Maddox, serving as a bridge quarterback to a long and successful Kenny Pickett era?

No one knows at this moment. But we’re about to start finding out.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Time to Beat Around the Bush?

Perhaps no area on the Steelers roster has seen more turmoil over the last 5 years than inside linebacker. That turmoil began with Ryan Shazier’s injury which set off a series of free agent signings, draft day trades, surprise retirements, training camp trades and more free agent signings.

The question is, have the Steelers done enough to address this position, or must they again dedicate draft capital in the position in 2022?

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

3 years ago, before COVID-19 changed our world and Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery accelerated the arrival of his “Life’s Work” Kevin Colbert made a mammoth trade to get Devin Bush.

Devin Bush started his Steelers career with a bang. As a rookie he made 2 interceptions, recovered 4 fumbles and had a sack, while making 109 tackles. More importantly, he did those at critical moments in games, including his touchdown against the Chargers and his forced fumble against the Bengals that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered, turning the tide in a critical division game.

Bush was back, starting throughout 2021, but he was clearly not the same player. While he did make two sacks and forced a few fumbles, his tackle count was only 79, a sharp drop off from his rookie year.

Expected to start alongside Bush in 2022 is Myles Jack, a free agent signing the Steelers made from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jack brings the Steelers 82 starts worth of experience and should provide much needed stability.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Bush and Jack, the Steelers have Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen, both of whom are returning as restricted free agents. Robert Spillane stepped in for Devin Bush in 2020 and performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.

However, during the 2021 preseason, he struggled in pass coverage, leading the Steelers to trade for Joe Schobert, whom they’ve subsequently waived. Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker who has seen little more than spot duty at his new position. Ulysees Gilbert III is also in the mix, as the 2019 6th round pick finally got healthy enough to see some playing time in 2021.

Finally, the Steelers have Buddy Johnson. The Steelers drafted Johnson in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he only saw spot duty in 2 games.

The Steelers 2022 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL DraftWhat do the Steelers really have in Devin Bush?

Is Devin Bush’s ACL injury, like Rod Woodson’s before him, one of those ACL injuries that takes over a year to heal completely? Or did the Steelers misjudge his talent? Or is it a compilation of both?

Looking beyond Bush, the Steelers also need to ask whether Buddy Johnson can make the 2nd year leap. Given that he was a 4th round draft pick, he wouldn’t have been expected to contribute much, but the fact that Johnson didn’t play much on special teams is worrisome.

Given that Myles Jack is playing on a two year contract and that Devin Bush and Robert Spillane are playing on their final years, the Steelers need at inside linebacker should be considered Moderate-High.

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The Steelers Should Resign Joe Haden – But Only at the Right Price

Cornerback is one of the NFL’s most taxing positions to fill. So the Pittsburgh Steelers having sent cornerbacks Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson and Mel Blount to the Hall of Fame have a good track record there. Ike Taylor likely could have joined them, had he been able to hold on to interceptions (outside of his game changing pick in Super Bowl XL).

But since Taylor’s retirement the Steelers have struggled to fill their needs at cornerback, which is why they snapped up Joe Haden when the Browns cut him in August 2017.

The Steelers resigned Haden in 2019, and now that deal is up too. Will the Steelers extend his day in Pittsburgh even further?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Joe Haden’s Career with the Steelers

When Joe Haden arrived in Pittsburgh, he sustained an upswing in the Steelers defense that had begun a half season before. Haden started instantly and became an immediate leader in the locker room and in on the field.

While most people point to Ryan Shazier’s injury as the moment the Steelers defense dipped into decline, the truth is the trouble started with Joe Haden’s injury against the Colts that fall. Haden returned later that year and started for the next 3 seasons, logging 9 interceptions, defending 54 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and even dropping 11 ball carriers for losses.

  • Those statistics, while impressive don’t capture what Haden has meant to team.

To understand that look no further than the Steelers 2021 home win against the Titans, were on 4th and 6th with 0:27 at the Steelers 15, Joe Haden stoned Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for no gain sealing the Steelers win.

That one play is Joe Haden’s Steelers career in a nutshell. When the game is on the line, you can count on Joe Haden to make a play.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

1-9. That’s the Steelers record in games that Joe Haden has missed since 2018. Since Ike Taylor’s “Life’s Work” arrived the Steelers have tried finding corners on the waiver wire, rummaging in through the free agent bargain basement, making trades, drafting them late and developing them or drafting them early.

None of it has worked. The only thing that worked was bringing back departed free agents (see William Gay), and even that was sort of an accident.

Joe Haden changed all of that. His value to the team is clear and he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

Cornerback is a young man’s game. Joe Haden will be 33 next year. 33 is not young in the NFL and is positively old in defensive back years. The Steelers have Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong late in the season.

  • Who are you going to spend your salary cap space on?

The 33 year old corner who missed 5 games last year? Or the 27 year old cornerback who had 2 interceptions in his second start and 3 picks in a five game span (oh, and he also tied for the team lead in passes defensed.)

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joe Haden

Joe Haden wanted a contract extensions before the season and wasn’t happy when he didn’t get one. He even thanked “Pittsburg” before Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, clearly communicating his impression of where he is headed.

Yet, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette indicates that his sources are telling him that the door is open for Haden’s return.

  • It might be, but only at the right price.

The Steelers would be wise to prioritize signing Ahkello Witherspoon while letting Joe Haden test the market, to see who is ready to pony up for a 33-year-old corner. If no takers can be found, the Steeler would be wise to bring him back at a reasonable third contract, and allow him to serve as a 3rd corner.

He’d be a strong presence off of the bench and in the defensive backs room.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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Steelers Draft Buddy Johnson with 4th Round Compensatory Pick, Two ‘n a Row for Texas A&M

Last year it was Terrapins from the University of Maryland. This year its Aggies from Texas A&M. At least in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

12 picks after calling Don Moore Jr.’s name with their own 4th round pick the Steelers went to the Texas A&M well a second time when they picked Aggies inside linebacker Buddy Johnson.

The decision to look to inside linebacker departs from the (definitive) Steelers Draft Needs Matrix which rated cornerback as a higher need, which in no way suggests that this move is a mistake. While a best case scenario for both Buddy Johnson and the team will be for Johnson to shine on special teams this year, the Steelers certainly need depth at inside linebacker.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski pointed out, Buddy Johnson was the leading tackler on the best defense in what is considered to be the NCAA’s toughest conference. But, Adamski reminds us that none of those statistics meant anything to Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers inside linebackers coach.

Jerry Olsavsky, himself a former Steelers inside linebacker taken as a 10th round pick out of Pitt in the 1989 NFL Draft, explains his attraction to Johnson:

I don’t look at the production numbers, OK” I look at the film and I see production, and I say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a good player.’ I didn’t know (about Johnson’s stat superlatives). … The SEC is great football. But if you watch one game, you would be like, ‘Wow, this guy is active.’ And that’s what I’m looking for.

One would expect no less from Jerry Olsvasky. While Olsvasky has worked with superior athletes such as Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush, he was once described by the Monday Night Football broadcast team as “One of those players who isn’t big enough, isn’t fast enough, but just simply good enough.”

Buddy Johnson, Steelers 4th round pick 2021 NFL Draft

Buddy Johnson during the LSU-Texas A&M game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Buddy Johnson Video Highlights

So just what is that that Jerry Olsvasky sees when he looks at the tape of this 6’, 229 pound, 23 game starter for the Aggies who led Texas A&M in tackles for the last two years? Well, let’s take a look:

That’s a nice tape. What is particularly encouraging is that Buddy Johnson appears to have sound tackling technique. While the Steelers tackling has been better of late, failure on this fundamental skill has been at issue in the not too distant past.

How Buddy Johnson Fits In

The Steelers obviously have a lot invested in Devin Bush’s development, but with Vince Williams and Robert Spillane playing on one year deals, Pittsburgh clearly needs to think of the future. While Johnson will get a fair shake and a reasonable shot at earning a helmet on game day, he doesn’t need to come in and made an immediate impact.

That can change in a hurry, as Vince Williams learned during his rookie year, but for now Buddy Johnson adds depth in the present, offers potential for the future and hopefully can begin contributing on special teams immediately.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Buddy Johnson.

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