L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

L.J. Fort, L.J. Fort free agency, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Steelers-Jaguars Preview – Time to Measure Pittsburgh’s Progress Since Playoff Disaster

This is the one Steelers Nation has been waiting for. Today the Steelers face off against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and be honest, when the schedule came out, you saw this game and thought, “Man do I want to see this.”

  • How quickly times change. When the 2017 schedule came out, who gave the Jaguars a second thought?

I certainly didn’t. Yet it was the Jaguars, and not the Patriots, who stopped the Steelers quest to bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Yet a lot has happened in the 309 days that have passed since the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

Changes to the Steelers Since the Last Jaguars Game

Perhaps its is appropriate that so many members of the Steelers defense changed numbers during the off season, because a lot has changed.

During the September, not only did it look like these had been insufficient, but that perhaps the Steelers had further regressed. But the Steelers travel to Jacksonville riding a 5 game winning streak, that has seen the Steelers improve week in and week out.

Across the board, whether you’re looking at third down conversions, Red Zone efficiency, or Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, all of the trends Pittsburgh is taking into this big game are pointed the right way.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in taking a shot at the Team Turmoil thesis, it was just two years ago, on November 13, 2016 when the Steelers home loss to the Dallas Cowboys seemed to signal all hope had been lost.

  • Except it wasn’t, and the Steelers have gone 26-6 since then.

But story symmetry can be a tricky thing. While Jacksonville had bested the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season – with Ryan Shazier on the field – Ben Roethlisberger had played one of the worst, if not the worst game of his career. Big Ben bounced back to play the best football of his life in the second half of 2017.

Few thought Jacksonville would give the Steelers must of a test last January, but reports that Stephon Tuitt missed practice time due to an arm injury foreshadowed a flatfooted defensive response to Leonard Fournette’s fierce rushing.

  • And, as fate would have it, Stephon Tuitt will miss the rematch against the Jaguars.

So be it. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be on a 5 game losing streak, but this still is the same team that schooled the Patriots early in the year. But they were without Leonard Fournette for most of that stretch. But he will play this afternoon.

  • And that’s good in at least one sense.

Fournette’s presence means the outcome of today’s Steelers-Jaguars matchup in Jacksonville will still give Steelers Nation a true measure of how far Pittsburgh has come since that playoff defeat or, how far they still need go.

 

 

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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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Steelers Resign Vince Williams Proving Opportunity + Tenacity = NFL Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

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

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

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Kudos to Kevin Colbert for Bringing in Two Free Agents Who Can Start for Steelers

I don’t know much about the NFL’s salary cap, and chances are, neither do you.

I do know the Steelers need help at both inside linebacker and safety–or at least they did–and I was wondering how they were going to find two competent pieces in free agency.

And if they did that, would they have enough money to pay star running back Le’Veon Bell $14.5 million in 2018 (unless the two sides can reach an agreement, which seems remote at this point).

Turns out, Pittsburgh was able to address both inside linebacker and safety last week, thanks to the signing of veteran linebacker Jon Bostic on Sunday, followed by the signing of veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Tuesday.

Morgan Burnett, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Packers

Morgan Burnett late in the Steelers 2017 win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Evan Seigle, via Packers.com

According to several pieces I’ve read as well as the site, spotrac.com, Burnett’s salary will eat up just  under $2.5 million in cap space this season. Considering the Morgan Burnett’s contract is worth a reported $14.3 million over three years, that’s kind of amazing–or at least means the money is back-loaded and will account for over $5 million in cap space in 2020 (the final season of Morgan Burnett’s deal).

Morgan Burnett is a consistent veteran and was one of the best pieces on the Packers’ defense the past several seasons, so much credit has to go to the Steelers for being able to bring him to town.

As for Jon Bostic, considering his contract is for $4 million over two seasons, no extensive research is needed to know he won’t eat up much cap space this year or next.

  • But who really cares about cap space, prorated bonuses and contacts? I know I prefer to focus on football.

I do know both Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett are capable of starting for the Steelers in 2018 and, at least on paper, will make the defense stronger than it was when it was getting manhandled by the Jaguars in 45-42 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs on January 14 at Heinz Field.

They just have to make fans forget how easily the likes of Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette tore through the defense with ease at Heinz Field in the regular season and then again in the playoffs (don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff record in Pittsburgh is 2-0).

If Burnett can be a steadying back-end presence in the secondary and that always crucial last line of defense in 2018, he will be an instant upgrade over Mike Mitchell, who all too often wasn’t either of those things in 2017.

Massaging the salary cap is never an easy thing for the Steelers this time of year, but they managed to bring relief to their aching defense, and do so without wrecking the future–or so it would seem.

Maybe Burnett’s $5 million cap hit will hurt the Steelers in 2020. But, then again, maybe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be getting on with his life’s work by then (hopefully, with at least one more Super Bowl on his career resume), and the organization will find salary cap relief organically.

  • But I’m not worried about that right now.

I just feel like giving props to the Steelers front office–namely Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan–for finding a way to get the right pieces for its defense (at least on paper) and doing so at a reasonable price.

Not an easy thing, and this is why they make the big bucks.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

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