Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Steelers Draft TJ Watt in 1st Round of 2017 NFL Draft. Is He “Unicorn” 3-4 OLB Pittsburgh Seeks?

While it took an inordinate amount of time, especially for those of us who live 1 hour ahead of Eastern time, but Pittsburgh got its man in the 2017 NFL Draft as the 30th pick saw the Steelers draft T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker out of Wisconsin.

T.J. Watt is of course the younger brother of the Houston Texan’s JJ Watt.

Steelers draft TJ Watt, Mike Tomlin, TJ Watt, Art Rooney II, Steelers 2017 1st Round Draft

Mike Tomlin, with T.J. Watt and Art Rooney II

When asked about coming to Pittsburgh Watt offered this:

The Steelers are a hardworking organization that does it the right way. They have a great bond within the locker room and with the coaches as well. I am really looking forward to it. It’s a great fit for me. It will be a great transition coming from Wisconsin to here and that is why I am so excited.

Based on TJ Watt’s highlights from his junior year at Wisconsin, the Steelers are excited too.

You can be forgiven if you conclude that T.J. Watt brings an extensive resume to Pittsburgh. He doesn’t. After sitting out his Red Shirt Freshman year at tight end, he moved to defense, and then had difficulty making the transition to defense, only playing 8 games as a sophomore.

  • However, his junior year was impressive, as he recorded 11 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and made 63 tackles with one interception.

However, that experience didn’t deter the Steelers as Mike Tomlin explained:

T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He’s just a quality guy and a quality pick for us.

Although several names mocked to the Steelers were gone by the time they picked 30th, In picking Watt, the Steelers passed on an number of cornerbacks who will probably no longer be there late in the second round.

Is T.J. Watt the “Unicorn” OLB the Steelers have Been Seeking?

While outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” was seen as a major Steelers need heading into the draft, a strong sentiment existed that favored the Steelers drafting secondary first (pun intended), given edge rushers are not as effective against quick release quarterbacks.

This is nothing new.

Prior to the Steelers picking Cameron Heyward with their first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Tim Gleason, aka “Mary Rose” from Behind the Steel Curtain lobbied for the Steelers to take a cornerback, arguing that “Tom Brady will get rid of the ball before Cameron Heyward can even touch him.”

  • What has changed, however, is that the Steelers play in their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

That has led some writers, such as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, to suggest that the Steelers abandon their search for a quality 3-4 linebacker, who can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, AND drop into coverage and focus on getting a player who more closely matches a 4-3 defensive end.

However, a few days before the draft, Wexell’s colleague at Steel City Insider, Matt C. Steel rated T.J. Watt as 3rd best overall fit for the Steelers in the draft explaining:

This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.

T.J. Watt himself seems to be aware that he’s being brought in Pittsburgh to play just that role, as he told Jim Wexell:

That’s something I’ve been doing at Wisconin [sic] these past two years and I think that’s why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense. I’ve shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that’s ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what’s going to make us a great team.

And so it is. Four years ago the Steelers went down this route in their first attempt to replace James Harrison when they drafted Jarvisy Jones with the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. As we know, the Jarvis Jones experiment failed miserably.

  • Jarvis Jones had a great college track record, but poor mesaurables.

In contrast, T.J. Watt seems has measurables but not a lot of college production. So the Steelers are taking the opposite tact in trying to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Let’s hope they have better luck.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, T.J. Watt.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Jarvis Jones Signs with Cardinals, Highlights Dangers of Drafting for Need

Former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and first round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed with Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, closing the book on what must be considered as Kevin Colbert’s first failure with a first round draft pick.

Jarvis Jones’ failure as a Steelers first round pick has been official for a while, but to understand why he failed one needs to look back to how he arrived in Pittsburgh.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs, Mitch Morse, Jarvis Jones Pittsburgh West, Jarvis Jones Interception

Jarvis Jones returning an interception during the Steelers 2016 win over Kansas City as Mitch Morse tries to stop him. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 off season with a problem. The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement had flattened the salary cap for the first several season it was to be in force, and the Steelers had several contracts that they’d negotiated prior to the 2011 CBA.

On top of that, James Harrison’s body appeared to be breaking down, as he missed time in both 2011 and 2012 due to injuries. His play also seemed to be leveling off, although we now know that James Harrison was far from done.

The Steelers needed some extra salary cap room, they asked Harrison to renegotiate but James Harrison declined, so the Steelers cut him.

  • That left the Steelers with a glaring need for an outside linebacker.

Chris Carter had been given chances to show he might be worthy of the job, but experience showed Chris Carter clearly wasn’t the answer. Jason Worilds had flashed, but hadn’t shown he could deliver with the consistency that the Steelers needed at the outside linebacker or “edge rusher” position.

On top of that LaMarr Woodley had seen his last two seasons ruined by hamstring injuries, and members of the Steelers locker room questioned his commitment to staying in shape. All of that meant that the Steelers needed to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a starter-capable outside linebacker. And you generally find those in the first round.

Years later Jim Wexell would comment that Jones got the starting job for “political reasons,” although to be fair to everyone involved, Jarvis Jones actually had a pretty impressive rookie preseason campaign. But we know how the story ended. The Steelers stuck with Jarvis Jones for 3 and a half years as Jones flashed at times but was never consistent, and never could pressure the passer as Pittsburgh needed him to.

Even after Jones’ limitations as a pass rusher became painfully evident, word was he still contributed in other ways. Then came the Steelers loss to the Cowboys:

Yes, we’ve shared this clip on the site 2 times before, but we do it because if ever there was one play for Jarvis Jones to prove his mettle as a run stuffer, it was this it and Jarvis Jones came up short.

  • Steel Curtain Rising neither claims knowledge of the Steelers 2013 Draft Board nor are we privy to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s evaluation process.

It is indeed possible that Jarvis Jones wasn’t just the best pass rusher, but the best player the Steelers had on their board when it came time for the Steelers to select with the 2013 NFL Draft’s 18th pick. Jarvis Jones after all had terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his final two years playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. A recent column by Bob Labriola suggest that the Steelers trusted in what they saw on tape, rather than on the stop watch.

  • Clearly there was an error in the Steelers talent evaluation process with Jarvis Jones.

But in some respects, that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart at Outside Linebacker all but obligated them to draft an outside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” is also a chief need for the Steelers entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but contrast their situation in 2013 with their current depth chart which features Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. Yes, Aurther Moats and Anthony Chickillo start on the left side, but at least theoretically one of them could be moved to the right in a pinch.

  • The Steelers need to get an outside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, but their depth doesn’t dictate that they reach for one.

And that’s a good position to be in. You never want to be forced to draft for need. Because as we’ve long said, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.” Now we can add “And so does Jarvis Jones.”

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Sad Day in Pittsburgh: Miami Dolphins Sign Lawrence Timmons, Law Dog Leaves Steelers

All good things come to an end. And so it is with Lawrence Timmons time as a Pittsburgh Steeler, as the free agent inside linebacker  signed a two year contract with the Miami Dolphins.

Mike Tomlin made Lawrence Timmons his first draft pick as Steelers head coach when he took Timmons in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Timmons went on to start 126 games for the Steelers, including a streak of 6 years where he never missed a game due to injury.

Lawrence Timmons, Mike Tomlin, Joey Porter, Stephon Tuitt, Lawrence Timmons Dolphins

Lawrence Timmons leaves the field in 2014 as Mike Tomlin, Joey Porter & Stephon Tuitt greet him. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

As stars such as James Farrior, Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith either retired and/or faded, Lawrence Timmons remained a steadfast, constant presence in the middle of the Steelers defense. From 2012 to at least 2014 Timmons was the most consistent, if not best defender on the Steelers defense.

  • Several times during the last year Lawrence Timmons had expressed a desire to sign a third contract with the Steelers.

The Steelers likewise wanted him back, but if reports are accurate, Timmons signed a 2 year 12 million dollar contract with the Miami Dolphins that included 11 million dollars of guaranteed money. That was more than the Steelers were willing to pay, and likely more than they were willing to guarantee in such a short time span.

Steel Curtain Rising will take a longer look at Lawrence Timmons’ legacy as a Pittsburgh Steeler, but those who wish for a fairly comprehensive recap of his career can click here.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart with Timmons Gone

For the first time since 2009 the Steelers will enter training camp with a new name penciled in at left inside linebacker. Vince Williams will get the first shot at replacing Timmons. The Steelers anticipated this possibility last summer when they resigned Vince Williams to a 3 year contract.

Vince Williams is more of a linebacker in the mold of Larry Foote and provides a hard-hitting presence in Lawrence Timmons’ absence, he lacks Timmons speed and athleticism. Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins likely won’t alter the Steelers plans to target cornerback and outside linebacker in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, but if a good inside linebacker is on the board in the third round he could very well get a call from Mike Tomlin.

Life Imitating Art?

Steel Curtain Rising strongly supported the Steelers keeping Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh, but we understand that salary cap realities require Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to make hard choices like this.

  • But news that Lawrence Timmons signed with the Miami Dolphins arrives with a large dose of irony at this site.

Two years ago as on April Fool’s Day we published a fax article indicating the Steelers had traded Timmons to the Dolphins to move up in the draft. The article did so well that Jacob Klinger of PennLive went so far as to call the Steelers for confirmation of the story. To this day, it remains the 5th most visited page in the site’s history following our 2014 migration to WordPress.

  • What can we say? This is one of the times when you hate to be right.

In a perfect world, Lawrence Timmons would have finished his career in Pittsburgh. Sadly, we won’t see that happen now.

But Steel Curtain Rising thanks Lawrence Timmons for 10 wonderful years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thank you Law Dog!

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If Steelers Free Agent Jarvis Jones has an NFL Future, It Won’t Be in Pittsburgh

One of the most unfair things you can ask any athlete to do is to follow a legend. Last spring, Tony Defeo chronicled the Steelers careers of David Little and Walter Abercromie, two unfortunate souls brought into the NFL with the humble request that they replace Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Franco Harris.

Which brings us to the case of Jarvis Jones, the man the Steelers turned to in the 2013 NFL Draft after they cut James Harrison with the expectation that he would fill the legend’s shoes.

Jarvis Jones, Brock Osweiler Steelers, Jarvis Jones free agent, steelers vs broncos

Jarvis Jones helps finish off Brock Osweiler in Steelers 2015 win over Broncos. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Jarvis Jones Steelers Career

Jarvisy Jones first move in Pittsburgh was to request jersey number 95, or the number that Greg Lloyd had donned. That was a bold statement made by the man the Steelers asked to replace James Harrison.

In the early going, it looked like Jarvis Jones’ actions on the field might live up to his request. People forget, but Jones authored what then BTSC editor Neal Coolong described as “an electrifying preseason campaign” in 2013. On opening day, Jarvis Jones dramatic, behind the line of scrimmage tackle of Chris Johnson was perhaps the only positive Pittsburgh took out of their disastrous loss to the Titans.

  • Things didn’t go so smoothly after that.

Jarvis Jones held down the starting spot until mid season, but the Steelers eventually decided that shifting Jason Worilds over to the left side and starting LaMarr Woodley on right gave them their best chance to win. 2014 started off strong for Jones has he recorded sacks in the season opener and the Steelers third game against Carolina.

In 2015 Jarvis Jones reclaimed his starting role, but split time with James Harrison. While Jones didn’t seem to be struggling, he certainly didn’t show signs that he could pressure the passer Pittsburgh needed him to. Nonetheless, the Steelers coaching staff and/or its public relationships team continued to feed journalists stories of how Jones continued to make gains in the running game, a trend that continued into 2016.

Ironically enough, it was Jarvis Jones failure against the run in the Steelers loss to the Cowboys ended his team as a starter as this tweet from Steel City Blitz’s @Steeldad makes painfully clear:

Within 48 hours Mike Tomlin was benching Jarvis Jones and starting James Harrison. The Steelers won their next 9 games, and as explained in our free agent profile of James Harrison, that is no coincidence.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

So, with all of that said, is there a case to be made, however theoretical, in favor of the Steelers resigning Jarvis Jones? Yes, in fact there is.

Think back to the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals. Everyone remembers Ryan Shazier strip of Jeremy Hill and Ross Cockrell’s recovery, but people forget that it was Jarvis Jones who cut across the field to tackle Hill. Jones also had a sack in the game, and made several key stops.

  • Likewise, Jarvis Jones played very strong goal line defense in the season finale vs. the Browns.

To simply label Jarvis Jones as a “bust” and write off his time in Pittsburgh would be a mistake. He has shown flashes, even if he hasn’t been consistent. He might not be a starting caliber linebacker in the Steelers system, but he still has some playmaking talent and Jarvis Jones could still serve as a valuable backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

Anthony Chickillo has 2.5 sacks in 7 career starts. Arthur Moats has 11.5 sacks in 20 starts in Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree has 8.5 sacks in 9 starts. James Harrison got 5 sacks starting just 7 games this past year. How has Jarvis Jones done?

  • Jarvis Jones has a mere six sacks in 35 career starts.

In watching Jarvis Jones this year the words of Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys famed personnel guru repeated echoed back. Looking at Jarvis Jones’ 40 time, Brandt concluded:

I think he’s one of those guys that when you’re rushing the passer, he’s going to almost get there, but not quite.

Jarvis Jones validated Gil Brandt’s prediction over and over again during the 2016 season. The experiment has been replicated, repeatedly. And there’s only one possible conclusion: The Jarvis Jones experiment has failed.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jarvis Jones

There’s no suspense and no mystery behind this Steelers 2017 free agent decision. The Steelers Christmas show down with the Ravens was the franchise’s biggest regular season game since 2010 and Mike Tomlin deactivated Jarvis Jones.

  • Mike Tomlin’s actions speak volumes.

Jarvis Jones has flashed enough to show that he does belong in the NFL. Perhaps in another system he can carve out a role as a starter or as a key role player. Teams don’t draft guys with the 17th pick to be mere role players. Jarvis Jones has had his chances in Pittsburgh to show he can do more, and he simply can’t.

It is time for both the Steelers and Jarvis Jones to move on.

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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Why Steelers Should Resign James Harrison for the 2017 Season

Sports commentator throw around the word “Legend” a lot, perhaps too much sometimes. But how do you really define a sports legend?

Webster’s defines “Legend” this way: “A story coming down from the past; especially : one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.” That’s OK, but I like my 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Marylyn Lev definition: A story based on some historical facts that grows through the years due to exaggeration.

  • If Mrs. Lev’s definition is better it remains insufficient when it comes to describing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

James Harrison is most certainly a Pittsburgh Steelers Legend, in the truest and purest sense of the word, yet James Harrison’s story neither contains nor requires exaggeration.

James Harrison, James Harrison sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens Divisional Playoff game, James Harrison Free agent

James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the 2010 AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Reuters, via Wall Street Journal

Capsule Profile of James Harrison’s Steelers Career

You’ve heard the story enough times that you can recite it in your sleep. This site has rewritten and rewritten the story enough times that we won’t do so again here out of fear of provoking a dreaded “duplicate content” penalty from Google.

But here is James Harrison’s short-hand history:

The Steelers signed James Harrison as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2002. Bill Cowher had to be convinced to keep him around. The Steelers cut James Harrison four times and the Baltimore Ravens cut him once. Joey Porter’s ejection got James Harrison his first start, where he body slammed a drunk Cleveland Browns fan.

Although James Harrison had 4 sacks in four starts by the end of 2005, Bill Cowher kept him on the bench behind Clark Haggans until he stepped down.

As he was reviewing the Steelers roster heading into the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote (3 times in one article) James Harrison needs to play more. Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau listened, as James Harrison almost single handedly defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game.

James Harrison followed up that act by winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008, and authoring perhaps the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII.

Since that time James Harrison has done nothing of note except overcome numerous injuries, shift the course of dozens of games by making splash plays at opportune times, retire and then come back only to lead the Steelers in sacks, and of course break the Steelers sack record.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Harrison

On November 13th, after the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside of the 2 minute warning this site declared that the Cowboys loss proved that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good. And that pronouncement came before knowing that Cam Heyward was lost for the season.

  • The Steelers of course went on a 9 game winning streak that ended in the AFC Championship game.

If you’re looking to define 1 decision that defined the Steelers 2016 turn around it was Mike Tomlin’s promotion of James Harrison to full time starter. Yes, the championship-caliber play by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell was necessary. As were Chris Boswell’s field goals, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier’s splash plays, Bud Dupree’s emergence and Sean Davis’ development.

  • But in less than half a season of starting, James Harrison led the Steelers in sacks and turned around a leaky run defense.

James Harrison also added two and a half sacks in the playoffs, including a strip sack that essentially ended any threat of a Dolphins comeback in the playoffs. Beyond those objective accomplishments, James Harrison is a leader both on and off the field, as evidence by his showing up in the locker room to lift weights the morning after the Steelers playoff win over Kansas City.

James Harrison is the type of player that the Steelers need if they’re to bring up Lombardi Number Seven in 2017.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Harrison

As the headline suggests, the case for the Steeler resigning James Harrison isn’t as cut and dried as the numbers might suggest. And you can find the reason in the rhetorical question Mike Tomlin posed when he promoted James Harrison back to the starting lineup: “What are we saving him for?”

  • There’s a double edged implication to Tomlin’s self-inquiry.

On the on-hand, he clearly (and rightly) made the determination that the Jarvis Jones experiment had failed and that Harrison gave the Steelers their best chance to win. But the other side of that question correctly implies that Harrison needed to be “saved.”

Indeed, various injuries limited James Harrison’s effectiveness during portions of the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons. He also injured a shoulder during the playoffs and perhaps that limited his effectiveness vs. the Patriots.

  • At age 39, James Harrison clearly has a lot left in the tank, but is that enough to carry him through a full season of starting?

Even if it is, there’s another question Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter must answer? Can James Harrison still do everything the Steelers defense needs him to do? Clearly, James Harrison remains a fearsome pass rusher, and he’s still one of the stoutest run defenders in the league.

But the AFC Championship game proved Harrison can’t be counted on to cover running backs, tight ends and receivers, even in short yardage situations. Those two limitations add up to very big “IF’s” when it comes to James Harrison’s future with the Steelers, and “IF’s” will not bring the Steelers another Lombardi in 2017.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Harrison

Moments after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots James Harrison declared he wasn’t done, and Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have all said they’re open to James Harrison returning for another year.

  • That’s the right attitude for all parties involved.

James Harrison embodies the concept of Legend. Even in the world of sports, Father Time manages to reduce legends to mere mortals, but every indication we have seen is that he still hasn’t worked his black magic on James Harrison yet.

James Harrison wants to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, and the Steelers want him back. Fortunately James Harrison’s 10th contract with the Steelers has ensured that this will happen.

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Anthony Chickillo ROLB Anyone? Why Steelers Should Try Chickillo @ Right Outside Linebacker vs Browns

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has done the right thing in sitting Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey for the season finale against the Cleveland Browns.

  • But those moves, while wise, are preventative. There’s another proactive move that Tomlin also must make.

Mike Tomlin should sit starting outside linebacker James Harrison and use the opportunity to give second year player Anthony Chickillo some live-fire snaps at on the right side.

Anthony Chickillo, Jarvis Jones, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo ROLB

Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott as Jarvis Jones watches. Photo Credit: New York Times

The Case for Playing Anthony Chickillo at ROLB vs. Cleveland

The Steelers tucked a minor, if not terribly surprising, bombshell into their inactive list prior to the Steelers Christmas comeback against the Ravens.

Given the Steelers injuries and player development issues, there’s nothing attention catching about 6 of those 7 inactives. But the decision deactivate Jarvis Jones speaks volumes.

The Steelers have stuck with Jones through injuries and growing pains, but following the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, Mike Tomlin ended the Steelers linebacker rotation. Since then Jarvis Jones snap count dropped from 56.9% to 50% vs. Cleveland, to 41.3% vs. the Colts, to 20% vs. the Giants, to 0.0% vs. the Bills and 0% vs. the Bengals.

Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola might try to argue differently on “Asked & Answered,” but the Steelers deactivating Jarvis Jones going into their biggest regular season game since 2010 signals loud and clear that Jones no longer holds a place in Pittsburgh’s plans.

  • While James Harrison has indicated he’d consider returning in 2017, Silverback clearly isn’t the long-term answer.

That means the Steelers need to find a new starting right outside linebacker. Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter would be wise to consider grooming Anthony Chickillo for that role.

Anthony Chickillo earned a starting role at left outside linebacker over Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering on injured reserve. Since his first start in Miami, Chickillo has managed two and a half sacks while splitting time with Moats.

Bud Dupree, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers vs. Bills

Bud Dupree closes in on Tyrod Taylor in the Steelers victory over the Bills. Photo Credit: Brett Carlsen, Getty Images via ESPN.com

Bud Dupree looks like a keeper on the left side, which is encouraging, but does nothing to plug the impending hole on the right side except potentially free Anthony Chickillo to move to the opposite end of the line.

  • If you think that switching from one side to the other is simple, try eating with your left hand instead of your right and then only look at your plate using a mirror.

That’s why coaches tend to wait until the off season to make moves like that. Fair enough. But the Steelers have nothing to gain or lose in their season finale vs. the Browns, and by giving Anthony Chickillo significant snaps at right outside linebacker, they’ve got a unique chance to see how the young defender performs under live-fire conditions.

  • Think of it as the defensive equivalent to telling a receiver or a running back to “go out and get open.”

Moving Anthony Chickillo to ROLB for all or part of the Browns game is a no-lose proposition for both the Steelers and Chickillo himself. Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff would be wise to take advantage.

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