Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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Can Kevin Dotson Be in Great Shape and Still Have Coaches Mad At Him? Perhaps.

In case you tuned out and are only now starting to tune back in now that Steelers training camp is nearing, the big news out Pittsburgh following OTAs is that Steelers insider Dejan Kovacevic, the founder and editor of DK Pittsburgh Sports, came under fire recently for writing about and then podcasting about the possibility that someone within the Steelers organization was upset with second-year guard Kevin Dotson for a supposed lack of conditioning this offseason.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With the Steelers offensive line in total rebuild mode thanks to the release of guard David DeCastro last week, this has the potential to be a big story, especially when you consider the fact that Kevin Dotson, who had a tremendous rookie season in spot duty in 2020, was penciled in as the new starting left guard the very second Matt Feiler left via free agency in March. 

In fact, according to DK’s source, when Trai Turner was brought in for a visit during the week of mandatory minicamp, it wasn’t in an attempt to find DeCastro’s replacement at right guard; it was to possibly find someone who could play left guard in place of the seemingly undisciplined Dotson. (Turner was ultimately signed to replace DeCastro as the starting right guard for 2021.)

  • Is Kevin Dotson not taking his opportunity seriously, as DK’s source is apparently asserting?

The funny part was how quickly Steelers fans rallied around Kevin Dotson and took to social media to post pictures and videos of the guard hard at work during the offseason. Not only did the fans take up for Dotson, but his trainer —Duke Mayweather –did as well. Even other local reporters scoffed at Kovacevic’s story and said things simply did not add up.

Just because things don’t add up on the surface, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people within the Steelers’ organization who are upset with Dotson. Dotson could be taking his opportunity to be the next starting left guard very seriously — hitting the gym, hitting the film room, etc.–and yet there still could be at least one person within the Steelers’ organization — a coach, a front-office executive, freaking Art Rooney II–who is unhappy with his desire and dedication.

Think about it, why would Kovacevic, a longtime local sports reporter, want to make his job harder by fabricating a story that’s going to anger the Steelers and possibly cause him to lose access to players and coaches? Heck, Ramon Foster works for DK Pittsburgh Sports. It would be foolish for Kovacevic to make this public if it wasn’t said to him. Mark Madden, the popular and controversial Pittsburgh sports talk radio personality, has had sources within the Steelers’ organization for years. Who were/are they? A good journalist would never reveal such a thing.

Anyway, more often than not, when Madden reports something from his anonymous sources(s), it turns out to be true.

Case in point, Madden was the first person to report that running back Le’Veon Bell would be suspended at the start of the 2016 season for missing several mandatory drug tests. Nobody wanted to buy it at the time. Bell, who was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 campaign, vehemently denied this rumor.

It turned out to be true.

Again, though, I’m not saying that Dotson is out of shape and/or not taking his job as a professional football player seriously. What I am saying is that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is probably unhappy with him for one reason or another.

Football people are weird. Coaches can be unusual birds and are often hard to please. General managers can have strange opinions on players. Even owners are susceptible to placing one of their charges in the dog house and never letting him out.

There could be any number of reasons why someone is unhappy with Dotson. Maybe it’s his draft pedigree. After all, he was a fourth-round pick from Louisiana who wasn’t even invited to the 2020 NFL Combine. Perhaps someone feels Pittsburgh could do better at left guard in terms of talent and ability.

It’s like what Keith Willis once said about making a name for himself as a defensive end in the NFL despite being an undrafted free agent from Northeastern in 1982: “For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that.”

  • It could even be Dotson’s outspoken nature on social media.
  • I know that sounds crazy, but, again, coaches, executives and owners can be strange birds.

They say all it takes is one person to be your champion in order to succeed at something. The opposite can be true, as well. I think the most famous example may be the disdain former Raiders owner Al Davis continuously had for Marcus Allen, a Hall of Fame running back and one of the greatest players to ever don the silver and black. There’s never been any specific reason given as to why the late Davis had it out for his star running back –everything from Allen’s training camp holdouts to his lack of breakaway speed has been mentioned as possibilities –but there’s no question the feud was very real.

If you’re going to have someone within your organization not believe in you, the last person you’d want it to be is the one who signs your checks.

In conclusion, all the workout pictures and videos in the world aren’t going to change the fact that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is likely upset with Kevin Dotson. Is it justified? I can’t answer that. I do know that when it comes to Dejan Kovacevic, instead of killing the messenger, you should probably be asking why a promising young guard is seemingly in the doghouse of a prominent member within the Steelers’ organization.

 

 

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Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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Guard Duty: Is Steelers Depth Sufficient to Ignore Guard in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Look up the word “Guard” in Webster’s on-line dictionary and you’ll see: A person or a body of persons on sentinel duty. Following Webster’s lead, would think that your “Guards” would be more important than any other position on the offensive line.

  • But conventional wisdom would say that they’re not.

The conventional wisdom is right in this case. Which isn’t to say that guards are unimportant. The Steeler enjoyed solid play at guard for a long time, yet the quality of play slipped in 2020, and it was noticeable. So, does how does or should that impact the Steelers plans for the 2021 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers practice

David DeCastro and Chukwuma Okorafo on the South Side. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Guard: The Starters

When he fell to the Steelers during the 2012 NFL Draft, David DeCastro was providing the penultimate piece to an offensive line that would become the NFL’s best for a half decade. Aside from an injury that truncated his rookie season, durability has been one of DeCastro’s calling cards until 2020.

  • An injury kept DeCastro on the bench for the first 2 games of 2020.

David DeCastro returned to action in week 3 against Houston where James Conner logged his season-best rushing effort clocking in at 109 yards. This folks is not a coincidence. DeCastro played the next week against Philadelphia, was out against Cleveland, and then returned for the next game against Tennessee and started for the rest of the season.

  • But he wasn’t the same.

Steel Curtain Rising has no inside information on this front, nor have any sourced reporters confirmed this, but conventional wisdom is that whatever the injury was, it nagged DeCastro all season long. The Steelers other starter at guard, Matt Feilier, departed via free agency, theoretically, leave the left guard slot open.

Steelers Guard Depth Chart: The Backups

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette once quoted Art Rooney Sr. as saying, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day” (Collier really did. Except Don’t Google it. You won’t find it.) The Chief was right. But sometimes the vibe a player creates is just a little different. Such was the case with Kevin Dotson after the Steelers picked Dotson in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly why it was said or the way that whoever was saying it was different, but word was, from almost the get go, that Dotson was a keeper.

And they were right. Kevin Dotson filled in for DeCastro early in the season and later started the final two games of the season with some commentators suggesting he should replace Matt Feiler. While we’re treating him as a backup for this analysis simply because the Steelers website doesn’t even list him as a guard, barring injury or some other calamity, Kevin Dotson will be the Steelers left guard on opening day 2021, and the team will be stronger for it.

  • Outside of Dotson, the Steelers also have B.J. Finney.

B.J. Finney might be the Steelers starting center, but if he is not expect him to be the “Next man up” at guard. After that, the Steelers have Rashaad Coward, who brings 3 years of NFL experience with the Chicago Bears that includes 30 games and 15 starts. One would suppose that J.C. Hassenauer could play guard in a pinch.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Guard

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftGuard almost perfectly encapsulates the Steelers situation going into the 2021 NFL Draft and the season as a whole. If David DeCastro returns to form and remains healthy, and if Kevin Dotson builds on his rookie year and remains healthy, and if the Steelers get a starter-capable center in the draft, then Pittsburgh can comfortably ignore guard until late in the afternoon on Day 3.

  • But, like in so many other position areas, that’s a lot of “Ifs.”

And remember, David DeCastro is both turning 31 and going into the final year of his contract. While he’s certainly a candidate for an extension this summer, he’s also coming off a season in which he struggled.

Given their other needs using a premium pick on a guard is simply a luxury the Steelers don’t have. But the truth is that the Steelers need to boost depth going into 2021 and can’t ignore the need for a potential starter beyond, so their need at guard going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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After a Hollywood Worthy Career, Steelers Must say to Alejandro Villanueva, “Adios Alejandro, Gracias.”

Ever see the 2006 movie Mark Wahlberg Invincible about the Philadelphia Eagles Vince Papale who transformed himself from NFL walk on into a 3 year stint as a special teamer? 

Never let it be said that Pittsburgh will be outdone by Philadelphia, because Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva is worthy of his own movie.

Villanueva, a Spanish national, played his college ball at Army and served several tours of duty as an Army Ranger. After failing to make it in the NFL as both a tight end — his college position–and a defensive lineman, Villanueva transitioned over to the offensive line and eventually became a Pro Bowler for the Steelers at the left tackle position.

Villaneuva is not only a true hero but a great example that you can accomplish just about anything in life if you put your mind to it. However, even great stories have a final chapter. With the Steelers looking to overhaul their once-dominant offensive line, has Villanueva’s final chapter in Pittsburgh already been written?

Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers fake field goal

Alejandro Villanueva catches a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Receptor en la Esquina

Capsule Profile of Alejandro Villanueva’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Army in 2010, Villanueva tried to latch on with both the Bengals and Eagles while also fulfilling his military obligations as an Army Ranger and serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Pittsburgh signed Villanueva in 2014 and quickly converted him from a defensive lineman into an offensive tackle. Villanueva honed his skills under the watchful eye of legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak and ultimately became the Steelers’ starting left tackle in 2015. Villanueva has been a fixture at the position ever since and has started a total of 90 games. But Villanueva didn’t just become a starter. He was named to the Pro Bowl in both 2017 and 2018.

Alejandro Villanueva even caught a 2 point conversion pass on a fake field goal in the Steelers 2018 loss to the Broncos.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Alejandro Villanueva in 2021

Villanueva is a popular player with both his teammates and the fans. More importantly, his durability at the left tackle spot cannot be understated — he’s started 80-straight games. Furthermore, he plays perhaps the most important position along the offensive line and is entrusted with protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Alejandro Villanueva

While Villanueva’s career hasn’t been a long one due to his military service and many years transitioning himself into a left tackle, he’ll still be 33 years old in September. More critically, it appeared that his play started to decline in recent years and elite pass-rushers such as Myles Garrett began to have their way with him.

Besides, Villanueva’s last contract included base salaries of $5 million each of the past two seasons. Do the Steelers want to give him a similar deal even for another year or two, especially when it appears they have cheaper and younger alternatives?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Alejandro Villanueva in 2021

Alejandro Villanueva should be proud of his story and his career with the Steelers, but that doesn’t mean he should still be their starting left tackle in 2021. If the Steelers 2020 season proved anything, it is that the decline of the once proud offensive line that started in 2019 wasn’t just a one-year fluke.

The first step to reversing that decline is to start to get younger, and you don’t do that by resigning 33 year old veterans whose play appears to be slipping. Alejandro Villanueva’s career is worthy of its own movie. Who knows, maybe some day Thomas Tull will get back into the cinema business and film it some day.

  • If they do it will be a tremendous celebration of his achievement.

But now is the time for the Steelers to figuratively shake Villanueva’s hand and say, “Adios Alejandro, muchas gracias para todo.”  

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: J.C. Hassenauer – Can He Take Up the Legacy?

The story is 55 years in the making. Its authors include Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey. Highlights of their tale, The Steelers Legacy of Excellence at Center, include 27 Pro Bowls, 14 1st Team All Pro selections, 9 Super Bowl appearances, 7 Lombardi Trophies and 2 busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

  • Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, indicating it is time for someone else to pick up the thread.

Can that man be J.C. Hassenauer, who took his place in 2020? Let’s take a look.

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers

Hassenauer, a center who played his college ball at powerhouse Alabama, was an undrafted free agent in 2018 and signed with the Falcons. After being cut by Atlanta, Hassenauer signed with the Birmingham Iron of the newly-founded Alliance of American Football in the spring of 2019. After playing eight games with the Iron before the AAF folded, Hassenauer was signed to the Steelers practice squad later that year. Hassenauer was promoted to the active roster by the end of the 2019 regular season, but it was in 2020 where he got some real experience at the center position, starting four games in place of the legendary Maurkice Pouncey.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

Hassenauer is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he has literally zero leverage in contract negotiations. But on the plus side for Hassenauer, he’s coming off a season in which he gained some valuable experience as a starter. Did he perform all that well? Not really, but he wasn’t alone along the Steelers offensive line in 2020. The Steelers need to revamp their line, and it wouldn’t hurt to see what they have in someone like Hassenauer, if for nothing else than for depth purposes. Also, Pouncey has officially retired, and this could be the opportunity for the Steelers to find their next center at the diamond in the rough store.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C Hassenauer

To reiterate, Hassenauer didn’t show out and make people stand up and take notice while filling in for Pouncey last year. Perhaps the Steelers already know what they have in Hassenauer, and they don’t like it.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer

What could it hurt to bring Hassenauer to training camp? It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Steelers precarious financial situation. I say it’s a no-lose situation to at least sign him and bring him to training camp. And besides that, its not like the Steelers have anyone else who can play center….

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Maurkice Pouncey Retires Signaling the Beginning of the End of an Era for Steelers Offensive Line

Pittsburgh Steelers center and perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, marking the official beginning of the end of an era in Steelers offensive line history.

Fans can be forgiven their frustration over the last two seasons as the Steelers offensive line has slipped for one simple reason:

  • For almost half a decade, it was almost a given the Steelers had the best offensive line in NFL.

The Tomlin era certainly didn’t start that way. Mike Tomlin inherited a strong, albeit aging offensive line that promptly fell apart in after the 2007 season and then had to be rebuilt during the 2008 season. What followed was a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building that saw the Steelers sign an entire starting offensive line to 2nd contracts only to cut all of them before they completed their deals.

Indeed, Pouncey arrived at St. Vincents, in Latrobe, with Super Bowl veteran Justin Hartwig as the incumbent and forced him off the team less than a year after he’d signed a 4 year contract with the Steelers. From there Pouncey was a fixture at center, continuing the legacy of excellence at the position that began with Ray Mansfield, continued through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

But it was anything but easy.

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Overcoming Injury a Constant for Pouncey

During the 2010 AFC Championship win over the New York Jets Maurkice Pouncey suffered a dreaded “high ankle” sprain. The team “kept the light on for him” but he was unable to play in what would be his only Super Bowl.

  • This was the first of many times injuries would challenge Pouency.

A high ankle sprain would hobble him again against the Browns in 2011 keeping him from the 2011 playoff loss to the Tim Tebow Broncos. In 2013 David DeCastro would fall on Maurkice Pouncey’s leg, breaking it and finishing his season after just 8 snaps. In 2015, Pouncey season end after an injury suffered against the Packers in the preseason.

  • Behind these injuries were numerous surgeries, and numerous complications.

But Maurkice Pouncey never let it slow him down on the field, and he always remained a presence in the locker room.

Best Offensive Line in Football

Building a dominant offensive line takes time. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Steelers a piece. Ramon Foster, a product of “Plug and Patch” proved himself worthy of being another. In 2011 the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert, who remained a force until injuries derailed his career. In 2012, David DeCastro arrived, as did Kelvin Beachum. In 2014, the Steelers took a flyer on Alejandro Villanueva, and by the end of 2015 he was a starter.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Whether they were protecting Ben Roethlisberger or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner, from 2014 to 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the most, if not the most dominate offensive line in the NFL.

  • At the center of it, literally and figuratively, was Maurkice Pouncey.

Maurkice Pouncey led the line with his superior play. When discipline needed to be enforce, such as when Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph with a deadly weapon, it was Maurkice Pouncey who retaliated.

That example stands out, but there were numerous smaller ones which either escaped the camera and/or memory. But those plays cemented Pouncey’s role as locker room leader.

  • When Pouncey spoke, people listened.

When Le’Veon Bell held out in 2018 and Pouncey ripped him, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell warned the wayward rusher, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

Life’s Work Looms

Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger declared prior to the playoff loss to the Jaguars that would not retire, Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that he too would return. This was the first indication that Pouency was considering starting his “Life’s Work.”

Indeed, as they sat together following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns, Roethlisberger apologized to Pouncey, “I’m sorry brother, you’re the only reason I wanted to do this.”

Shortly thereafter, word leaked that Pouency was considering retirement. On Friday February 12th, he made it official. By retiring, Maurkice Pouency simplified the Steelers salary cap situation by giving them back over 8 million dollars.

But make no mistake about it, those 8 million dollars will never replace the leadership and character that Maurkice Pouency contributed to the Steelers Way.

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