Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Ross Cockrell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Dan Rooney’s passing might have consumed the attention of Steelers Nation for the better part of six days but the business of football continues. On Monday Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell signed his one year tender, ending any possibility that he would defect away from Pittsburgh.

  • The news comes with the proverbial glass half-empty half-full catch.

On the one hand, Ross Cockrell has made tremendous strides since the Steelers claimed him off of waviers in August 2015. So it is good that to know that he his continues on his upward trajectory the Steelers will benefit, at least for another season.

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

Ross Cockrell brings down his first interception in the Steelers September loss to the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the flip side, there’s the simple fact that 31 other NFL teams, many of which are flush with salary cap space, didn’t think enough of his current talent or “upside” to part with a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to secure his services.

  • What’s a law abiding citizen of Steelers Nation to conclude?

It says here that Ross Cockrell returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a good thing. When Ross Cockrell arrived in Pittsburgh, the common response was “Who?”

On the face of it, the fact that the Steelers picked a player who’d been waived in the first round of training cuts made it appear like the Steelers were continuing to try to fill their need at cornerback on the cheap, as they’d done with the Brice McCains, Antwon Blakes and Brandon Boykins.

  • But as Bob Labriola cautioned on Asked and Answered, its hard to judge a DB soley on tape because you don’t know what he’s being asked to do.

The wisdom came from the late Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout, and had Nunn lived to see Cockrell play, he’d have been proud, as Cockrell made two interceptions as a rookie and recovered the fumble that Ryan Shazier caused in the 2015 AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, enabling Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback.

The Steelers promoted Cockrell to starter in 2016, and while he did not come away with any interceptions, he did have 14 defensed passes, including a key one in the December win over the Bengals.

A lot of critics suggested the Steelers were low balling Ross Cockrell by only giving him an original round tender, and many suggested that this signified that they the franchise really didn’t regard him as starter material. That may be the case, but the Steelers actual risk factor was low, as they retained the right of first refusal.

The gamble they made with Cockrell really was no different than the ones they made with Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon in 2013.

  • Both men returned to start, and both men remain starters in Denver and New York.

Ross Cockrell returning to the Steelers is a decidedly half full proposition for Pittsburgh. Had the Steelers lost him, they’d almost have been forced to take a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft as Artie Burns has only played on year, William Gay is fading and newly signed Coty Sensabaugh remains unproven.  After that, the Steelers cornerback cupboard is pretty thin – unless you’re ready to count on Senquez Golson.

The Steelers should and probably will take a cornerback with one of their first 3 if not first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but having Ross Cockrell back for a year relieves Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin of the need to reach.

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

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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

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Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Cut Losses Quickly: Steelers Cut Justin Gilbert

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in cutting their loses quickly as the Steelers cut cornerback Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 2018 6th round pick to acquire Gilbert’s services from the Cleveland Browns.

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback was the Steelers most urgent area of need, and by all accounts Justin Gilbert was the player Pittsburgh’s brain trust was targeting. But the Cleveland Browns got him first, picking him 7th and making him the first defensive back drafted that year.

Justin Gilbert, Tyreek Hill, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers cut Justin Gilbert

The Steelers Justin Gilbert tries in vain to tackle Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh 247 Sports.

3 months later Justin Gilbert got infamously burned in a couple of Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton hook ups the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, that’s probably the most anyone in Pittsburgh has seen of Justin Gilbert since then.

By Pro Football Reference’s count, Justin Gilbert participated in a just 1.05% of the Steelers defensive snaps this season, suiting up in the secondary during the Steelers regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs and their regular season loss against the New England Patriots. Theoretically, Gilbert should have given the Steelers kick return game some juice, but Gilbert only 3 kicks during the regular season with those attempts coming against the Chiefs and Patriots.

Gilbert did run for long returns of 32 yards in the regular season and 26 yards during the post season, but clearly Steelers Special Teams coach Danny Smith didn’t see enough of a spark to lobby Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert into keeping him on the roster.

Impact of the Steelers Cutting Justin Gilbert

On the face of it, Justin Gilbert’s release is a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Keith Butler’s defense struggled early during the 2016 season, but you can trace the unit’s turn around to increased playing time by Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison. Justin Gilbert remained a spectator through it all. When the Steelers needed to add a 6th defensive back, Robert Golden and/or Jordan Dangerfield got the call as opposed to Gilbert.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to cut Justin Gilbert thins out an already sparse spot on their depth chart.

Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell will return to training camp as their starting cornerbacks, with William Gay penciled in as their slot cornerback. While William Gay had a solid season in 2016, he will be 32 next season and cornerback in the NFL is a young man’s game. Senquez Golson will arrive in Latrobe with a shot at the Steelers slot corner position but, given injury history that 2015’s 2nd round pick has had, it would be a mistake to bank on contributions.

  • The Steelers also have reserve cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz who spent time on both their active rosters and practice squad in 2016.

In a nutshell, cornerback was already a Steelers priority for the 2017 NFL Draft and its priority status just got a bump.

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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

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

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

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

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

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

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

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

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

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

2. Heath Miller Retires

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

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

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

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

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

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

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

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

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

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

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

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

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

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

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

6. David Johnson Returns

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

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

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

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

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

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

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

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

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

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

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

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

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

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

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

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

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

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

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

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

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

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

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1 Lesson from Cowboys 35-30 Win over Steelers: The 2016 Steelers Simply Aren’t That Good

The Cowboys defeated the Steelers to the tune of 35-30 at Heinz Field, in a thrilling game that came down to the wire, but ultimately gave Pittsburgh its 4th straight loss. But the game revealed something about the Steelers that can’t quite be measured in numbers.

  • The Cowboys 35-30 win over the Steelers confirmed an unpleasant truth this team:

The 2016 Steelers simply are not that good and, worse yet, the process of finding out just how bad the are may not yet be over.

pittsburgh steelers, dallas cowboys, steelers vs. cowboys,

Cowboys sack Ben Roethlisbergers as Steelers self-destruct in 35-30 loss to Dallas at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Former Dynasties Heading in Opposite Directions

The history that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have authored together makes any matchup between these two NFL flagship franchises special. They are the only two Super Bowl dynasties to collide twice in contests that ended with a Lombardi Trophy presentation. A generation later, Dallas’ win in Super Bowl XXX conferred extra legitimacy to the Jerry Jones/Jimmy Johnson dynasty of the 90’s – no one could claim the Cowboys simply benefitted by beating a series of snake bitten Buffalo Bills teams.

  • The Steelers-Cowboys matchups of the 21st century haven’t been as definitive, but all of them have been revealing.

The Steelers 2004 win in Texas Stadium helped Ben Roethlisberger prove he was for real. The 2008 Steelers win showed just how resilient the eventual Super Bowl Champions were. And Pittsburgh’s 2012 loss at Jerry’s World unveiled a Steelers team in rebuilding mode, unable to summon the rebound magic of season’s past.

  • And so it is with the Dallas Cowboys win over the 2016 Steelers.

Mike Tomlin’s crew certainly made several impressive plays in all three phases of the game. But it was the plays they failed to make that defined the game and have defined the season as one where the Steelers are most certainly slipping. (The Dallas Cowboys for their part, are clearly on the rise.)

A Few Things that Went Right….

When the history books close on the 2016 Steelers season, larger events will likely relegate much of what comes in this section to footnotes. And so it should. No team ever won a Lombardi Trophy becaus of its “almosts” “could haves” or “would haves.” With that acknowledged, let’s highlight some of the things the Steelers did right on this occasion.

And there you have a flash of what the 2016 Steelers are capable of when they’re at their best. When things are clicking, the Steelers offense can play with any team in the league. But things didn’t click all of the time for the offense and, of course, there’s the matter of the defense….

For all intents and purposes, the Steelers lost this game in the third quarter. The Steelers seemed to be making a decisive statement by starting out the second half with a 36 yard strike to Cobi Hamilton. Three plays later, a pass interference penalty put the Steelers in the Red Zone, but Pittsburgh had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Up until that point, the Steelers had been winning the time of possession battle, but on the next series, the Cowboys turned the tables, burning 7:35 and converting multiple 3rd and 1’s along the way. Dallas had to settle for a field goal, but the Cowboys were now dictating the tempo of the game.

The Steelers looked pimed to get that back when two Le’Veon Bell runs gave Pittsburgh a 3rd and 3, but protection broke down, Ben Roethlisberger got sacked, and the Steelers went 3 and out. Then, as if on cue, things began to unravel, as they do for this Steelers team:

  • Jordan Berry boomed off a spectacular punt, only to have Lucky Whitehead return it 39 yards.

Although Dallas had a short field, the Steelers defense appeared to have the Cowboys on the ropes, when a penalty transformed 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 11. What happened next shows why Keith Butler’s defense has regressed so badly this season.

Keith Butler turned around the Steelers defense in 2015 by producing sacks and turnovers. This year both have been in short supply. Butler has as much as admitted that one reason he has blitzed less frequently is because his young secondary can’t be counted on to take care of business downfield.

The Steelers next possession began at the end of the third quarter, lasted 6 plays and just 3 minutes and ended as the 4th quarter began with a punt. The Steelers began the quarter nursing a 15 to 13 lead. They ended it trailing 23 to 18. That tells you (almost) everything you need to know about the game and the 2016 Steelers.

Ezekiel Elliott Exposes 2016 Steelers Defense

Hats off to Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and/or Jason Garrett for drafting Ezekiel Elliott. Elliot is the type of blue-chip player that, if he remains healthy, could help revive the forgotten “Franchise Running back.” But the Pittsburgh Steelers defense once prided itself on shutting down players like this (see holding Emmitt Smith to under 50 yards, albeit in a loss, in the Super Bowl.)

  • Those days are over.

A lot of what is wrong with Steelers 2016 defense can be explained by the fact that Keith Butler is playing two rookies in the secondary before either is really ready. The Steelers were counting on Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson, neither of whom have played a snap. Outside of Chickillo’s strip-sack and the Stephon Tuitt James Harrison sack, the Steelers defense generated zero pass rush.

Fair enough. Pressure, tight coverage, sacks and turnovers go-hand-in-hand and the Steelers are missing many pieces they expected to have as recently as the run test in Latrobe.

  • But there’s something else amiss with this Steelers defense, as exhibited by Ezekiel Elliott.

Ezekiel Elliot logged 209 yards from scrimmage and he scored 3 touchdowns where nary a Steelers defender laid a hand on him with the last one coming when everyone knew the game was on the line.

I’ll leave it to the more educated eye to pick apart the film to finger what scheme and/or which players were at fault, but the bottom line is simple: A good defense doesn’t allow that to happen; an average defense doesn’t allow that to happy. Only bad defenses allow that to happen.

There’s no sugar coating things, the Steelers 2016 defense is bad. Very bad.

Steelers Spiral Continues, with No End in Sight.

Steel Curtain Rising opened the season arguing that the 2016 Steelers would only go as far as their defense could

take them. Nine games into the season, Steelers Nation can see this painful dynamic at work: Ben Roethlisberger getting the ball into Antonio Brown’s hands 14 times doesn’t cut it when your defense plays spectator to Ezekiel Elliott running though the secondary. That is bad enough, but right now something more insidious is at play:

  • The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are learning how to lose games.

The Steelers started down this path during the 0-4 start in 2013 and only truly broke out of it at the end of 2014. Now they’re a team headed so far in the wrong direction that even victory against the 0-9 Browns on the road is far from a sure thing.

Mike Tomlin can talk all he wants about “We own what we put on tape,” he can continue to “Accept responsibility for everything.” He needs to find a way to get his players to stop losing games, and he needs to do it fast.

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Why the Steelers 2016 Defense is Missing Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson

Can you imagine just how more exciting and dynamic the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 defense would be today with Bud Dupree starting at left outside linebacker and Senquez Golson starting at the slot corner position?

What, you say? I can’t speak in absolutes when talking about Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 2015, and Senquez Golson, Pittsburgh’s second round pick in 2015?

Why not?

You don’t know, and neither do I. The only thing we know for sure is that the Steelers had big plans for both, hence the expensive draft picks. Pittsburgh’s defense was flawed and aging for years under Dick LeBeau, and the 2015 draft was a big old helpin’ of youth for Keith Butler‘s first year as defensive coordinator.

bud dupree, steelers 2016 defense injuries, senquez golson

The Steelers may get Bud Dupree on the field in 2016, but he’s already missed a lot of time. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports

Word was Senquez Golson, a prolific takeaway artist at Ole Miss (10 interceptions in his senior season), was ear-marked for the slot corner position right from the start. Sadly, the Steelers hopes were dashed before Golson even had a chance to take one single rep in training camp, thanks to a shoulder injury that required surgery and forced him to the Injured Reserve list for his entire rookie season.

  • As for Dupree, the first rounder out of Kentucky actually did play an active role in his rookie season, recording four sacks while splitting time with veteran Arthur Moats.

The excitement regarding Bud Dupree wasn’t on the level of what it must have been for New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor after his  rookie campaign, but as Bud Dupree prepped for his second season in black and gold, the general thought was that he could perhaps finally do what Jarvis Jones thus far has failed to provide: To be the answer to the Steelers inability to generate a pass rush from the outside linebacker position.

  • What about Senquez Golson, as he prepared for his second season?

Pretty much the same as the year before: the Steelers were really, really counting on him to play the slot corner position.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury (mid-foot sprain) very early into the 2016 training camp; much like his shoulder ailment from the previous year, it required surgery and, ultimately the IR once again, after starting the year on the active roster.

  • Dupree sat out training camp, as well, and ultimately had  sports hernia surgery right before the start of the season and was also placed on IR.

Neither Senquez Golson or Bud Dupree has played a snap this year, and only one of them can actually be activated, while the other will miss the entire season. It’s looking more and more like Bud Dupree will be the one who gets the call, which would make Golson a de facto third-year rookie as he enters 2017.

  • Regardless of who ultimately plays any snaps this season, that’s a lot of man-hours lost for two individuals the team was clearly counting on to help improve a staggering defense.

People often criticize the front office for not addressing certain areas (and in many cases, rightfully so), but it’s hard to fault Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and everyone else involved in drafting Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson.

To reiterate my original theme; we could be talking about two of the finest young defensive players in the NFL right now, but we’re not. We’re still speculating on how good either will be at the pro level.

  • The Steelers defense can’t afford speculation. It need results.

It’s hard to get results when you’re not on the football field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Stats Mislead in Steelers Victory Over Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Camerony Heyward, Steelers Clobber Kansas City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Shout Out to a Special Steelers Nation Scribe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bud Dupree Injured Reserve Designation Surprises Steelers Nation

One day after cutting down to reach the NFL’s 53 man roster limit the Pittsburgh Steelers completed their initial 2016 practice squad and followed those moves by placing an injured member of their defense in injured reserve, and resigning another defender who they cut yesterday.

  • The plan unfolded just as scripted. Except….
bud dupree, bud dupree sacks tom brady, bud dupree debut, bud dupree injured reserve

Steelers Bud Dupree sacks Tom Brady in his 2015 rookie debut. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, Associated Press.

…for the defender placed on injured reserve wasn’t Senquez Golson and the recently cut player to be resigned wasn’t Doran Grant. Everyone expected the Steelers to make this transaction as soon as they could, and the move still may be impending (no other NFL team claimed Doran Grant off of waivers, no did he rejoin the Steelers practice squad.)

Bud Dupree has been nursing an foot injury though out training camp, and did not appear in any of the Steelers preseason games. The Bud Dupree injured reserve designation shows that the Steelers do not anticipate Dupree contributing for the first half of the season, when he will be eligible to return. Bud Dupree had a strong start to his rookie season, but saw his performance taper off during the second half of 2015.

  • The Steelers were nonetheless expected Dupree to beefup their pass rush heading into 2016.

That will have to wait. Steven Johnson is the inside linebacker the Steelers signed after losing Sean Spence and Terence Garvin in free agency. Johnson had played extremely well in preseason and show himself to be a capable special teams contributor, but the Steelers favored linebackers L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich.

Steven Johnson will remain at inside linebacker behind starters Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and primary backup Vince Williams. The Steelers depth chart at outside linebacker will be headed by James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickillo.

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Steelers Cut Doran Grant, Steven Johnson, Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers waived 22 players to reach the NFL mandated limit of 53. Most significantly, the Steelers cut Doran Grant, former free agent Steven Johnson and their Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers, their 6th and 7th picks from the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • The Steelers also traded for Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Doran Grant, Steelers vs. Lions preseason, steelers cut doran grant

Steelers cut Doran Grant and 21 others to reach NFL’s 53 man roster limit. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA TODAY Sports used on BTSC

The Steelers Justin Gilbert trade could explain the Steelers decision to cut Doran Grant, who’d gotten extensive work with the Steelers first team defense. Assuming Doran Grant clears waivers however, the Steelers could resign him, assuming the Steelers place Senquez Golson on injured reserve.

However, Golson has vowed to return in 2016, and by putting Golson on their initial 53 man roster, Golson will be eligible to return after the 8th week of the season. Steelers decision to waive Doran Grant last season caused a major firestorm in Steelers Nation, although Grant made it back via the practice squad, and then the active roster.

  • Given Grant’s higher profile role in the Steelers preseason defense, there’s no assurance that he will go unclaimed.

So the Steelers cut Doran Grant, but take a measured risk in doing so.

Steven Johnson Caught in a Numbers Game @ Inside Linebacker

Johnson’s departure amounts to a minor surprise, as the Steelers rarely cut unrestricted free agents whom they’ve signed. The Steleers signed Steven Johnson to provide depth at inside linebacker following the free agent departures of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin.

However, with Vince Williams locked in for another 3 years, and with the emergence of rookie Tyler Matakevich aka “Dirty Red” and L.J. Fort the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker is set.

Complete List of Steelers 2016 Cuts

The complete list of Steelers roster cuts is as follows:

Wide Receivers
Demarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, and Marcus Tucker

Running Backs
Brandon Brown-Dukes and Cameron Stingily

Offensive Linemen
Shahbaz Ahmed, Antoine Everett, Matt Feiler, and Wade Hansen

Cornerbacks Montell Garner, Doran Grant, Al-Hajj Shabazz, and Donald Washington

Defensive Linemen
Lavon Hooks, Caushaud Lyons, and Johnny Maxey

Linebackers
Travis Feeney, Steven Johnson, and Jermauria Rasco

Quarterback
Bryn Renner

Safety
Ray Vinopal

The Steelers also designated tight end Paul Long as waived/injured.

Steelers 2016 Practice Squad Candidates

Travis Freeney and Demarcus Ayers could return to the Steelers via the practice squad, and so too could quarterback Bryn Renner, although the Steelers normally do not use practice squad slots on quarterbacks. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz also had strong preseasons, and remain viable practice squad candidates.

  • However, cut down day 2016 likely spells the end of the pro football dreams of Donald Washington.

The Steelers gave Donald Washington’s NFL hopes a last summer of life this spring after he impressed sufficiently at rookie mini-camp. Washington, however was no rookie, having played safety for Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2011. Washington therefore has no practice squad eligibility and the Steelers decision to waive him likely ends his last chance at NFL glory.

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