Why Steelers Shouldn’t Resign Stevan Ridley, the Free Agent Backup Running Back

It’s an uncertain time to be a running back for the Steelers. If you’re superstar Le’Veon Bell, will you be here next year, the year after that and for the rest of your career?

  • If you’re second-year back James Conner, will the torn MCL you sustained near the end of your rookie season heal in time to be ready for 2018?

And if you’re veteran Stevan Ridley, picked up near the tail-end of the 2017 campaign as  a result of James Conner’s injury, do you even want to come back? Stevan Ridley and the merits of retaining his services beyond the proverbial cup of coffee that was his time with Pittsburgh in 2017 is what we’re going to discuss right now.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers free agent Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley rushing for Steelers in Jan 1st win over Browns Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley’s Steelers career

The classic journeyman running back, Stevan Ridley, 29, was a third round pick of the Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft. Ridley played in New England for four seasons, with his standout year coming in 2012, when he rushed  for 1,263 yards on 290 carries.

A free agent the following spring, Stevan Ridley signed a deal with the Jets, but only remained with them for one season, before bouncing around the league through the end of the ’17 season, when the Steelers came calling on December 19.

Stevan Ridley looked pretty good in limited action for the final two games of the regular season–including a Week 17 start in a game against the Browns that was virtually meaningless. All-in-all, Ridley tallied 26 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown with Pittsburgh, but saw no action in the divisional round playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley 

It shouldn’t cost more than the veteran minimum to retain the services of a player like Stevan Ridley, who arrived in Pittsburgh literally hours after watching football from the comfort of his own home. He is a veteran with a history of productivity and perhaps showed he has some tread left on his tires during his limited work with the Steelers in December.

If Le’Veon Bell were to sit out 2018, and if James Conner isn’t fully healed by the start of the season, other than Fitzgerald Toussaint, at this point, a restricted free agent, who would start in Pittsburgh’s backfield as things stand right now?

Stevan Ridley might not be a world beater, but the fact that Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin instructed Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones to hand the ball to Ridley while keeping Toussaint on the bench should tell you all you need to know.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Regarding retaining the services of the All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, many fans contend that any running back could have success behind the Steelers impressive offensive line, one that now includes three Pro Bowlers.

Perhaps an unfair thing to say, but Ridley was  the very definition of any running back, and he averaged 4.15 yards per carry behind the Steelers hogs. If Stevan Ridley can do that, why not James Conner? Why not Fitz Toussaint? Why not any number of college running backs the Steelers could pick up in the 2018 NFL Draft in and indoctrinate in its system?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley did well in his limited time rushing for the Steelers. And while his ability to get off the couch to deliver on short notice, in contrast to say Sean Spence, is impressive, one also must keep in mind that Ridley was playing behind an All-Pro offensive line, and against two teams fighting for draft position.

The most consequential decision the Steelers face in free agency is on Le’Veon Bell. But regardless of whether Bell returns or seeks greener pastures, its also hard to argue that the Steelers shouldn’t be able to find someone who can add more to their backfield other than Ridley in 2018.

So if I’m Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, I’m telling Stevan Ridley, “We have your number. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

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The Pro’s and Con’s of the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Every NFL personnel decision carries its own pro’s and con’s, and each choice a team makes comes with its own opportunity costs, especially in the salary cap era.

  • But the pro’s and con’s of the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell are perhaps a little more complex than others.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never faced a bigger, more consequential free agent decision than one that the now face with Le’Veon Bell. What will the Steelers do? What should they do? How will Bell react if the Steelers try to franchise him? Let’s take a look.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Have the Steelers made a more ballyhood second round pick? Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell the best running back the draft as soon as Pittsburgh picked him. Later, Ed Bouchette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

To keep that in context, Bouchette had watched the preseason debuts of Steelers first round running backs Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. This was hardly his first rodeo with a highly hyped rookie. Yet, Bouchette seemed to be going a little too far over the top.

  • Five years later, it is clear everyone should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

What’s all the more amazing even if this is true, it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the summer of 2013. Injuries kept Le’Veon Bell from 2014 post-season. Both 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse suspensions, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

  • Then, in 2016 Bell dominated the NFL at a level the league has not seen in a generation.

In 2017 Le’Veon Bell logged his first injury and suspension free season, and while his production dipped, he clearly remains the NFL’s best running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Just how important is Le’Veon Bell to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense? Number don’t lie:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell rushing averages, Le'Veon Bell touches, Le'Veon Bell receptions

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

No disrespect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but the Steelers offense really does revolve around Le’Veon’Bell. In contrast to 2016, in 2017 Ben Roethlisberger had weapons like Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald at his disposal, Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense still increased.

The number crunchers can make all of the arguments that they want about running backs, their declining productivity and lack of durability, but all of those meta statistics, while valid to a certain extent, miss a fundamental point:

  • Le’Veon Bell is a championship caliber player.

This is a man who broke the Steelers regular season in 2016 and then a few weeks later broke the post-season record in his first playoff experience, accomplishing something that John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, never did.

Player like this do not come along often. When you find one, you keep him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

By all accounts, the Steelers gave Le’Veon Bell an offer that would have paid him considerably more than the next highest paid running back and guaranteed close to 30 to 32 million dollars over its first 3 years.

  • Bell balked, leaving the Steelers (and his agent) at the altar.

Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, but would he really go so far as to sweeten the pot beyond what the Steelers were offering a year ago? That’s simply not sound football sense.

Bell’s yards-per-carry dropped from 4.9 to just over 4.0 from 2016 to 2017. His longest run was only 27 yards, calling into question his ability to go the length of the field. He’s a year older and has another 400 touches – and hits – on his frame.

The Steelers could franchise Le’Veon Bell again, but that would wreak havoc with their salary cap, and there’s a real risk that Bell might sit out the season, acting as a martyr for his fellow running backs.

  • Aside from his injury history, Bell is one bong hit away from another suspension.

While James Conner isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered as a replacement, the Steelers could likely replace Bell with some combination of Conners, Stevan Ridley, a moderately priced free agent and a draft pick.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

This is a tough call because the Steelers are to some degree into uncharted territory. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly franchise running backs appear to be a thing of the past in the NFL. This site has suggested that Le’Veon Bell might change that, and Bell demands he be paid like a franchise running back.

  • Yet, Bell’s decline in production from 2016 to 2017 undercuts his own argument.

Even if that’s true, Le’Veon Bell remains a championship caliber player by any measure. The types of plays he delivers game-in and game-out, are not the type of plays you can simply make up with a “Moneyball” type approach to building your running backs depth chart. The tweet below offers only one example of that:

Franching Le’Veon Bell for another year might a wise option in the abstract, but that would complicate the already tight salary cap position the Steelers already face.

One way or another, it seems like Le’Veon Bell will be with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, but this is one time when yours truly doesn’t envy the decision that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make.

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Does Steelers Restricted Free Agent Fitzgerald Toussaint Fit in Pittsburgh?

The NFL practice squad is at once a tenuous lifeline to an NFL dream, a way point for roster bubble babies, and a proving round for future starters and even All Pros.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has been a waypoint type practice squad player while in Pittsburgh, and as he reaches Restricted Free Agency, Toussaint will learn whether that time translates into bigger and better things.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, James Wright, Steelers vs Bengals,

Fitzgerald Toussaint returns a kick against the Bengals in 2016. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Fitzgerald Toussaint Steelers Career

The Steelers added Fitzgerald Toussaint to their practice squad in November of 2015 after the Baltimore Ravens parted with him. The Steelers activated Toussaint in late November likely to keep the Ravens from claiming him. That move proved to be schrewed, as DeAngelo Williams got injured in the 2015 season finale against Cleveland.

  • That set the stage for Fitzgerald Toussaint to start the Steelers playoff games against the Bengals and Broncos.

The Steelers brought back Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2016, where he served on the active roster, but only saw spot duty despite the fact that Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams rarely were healthy enough to play together.

Fitzgerald Toussaint was in the running to earn the third running backs slot in 2017 behind Bell and James Conners, but ultimately gave way to Terrell Watson. Watson however didn’t pan out as expected, and the Steelers promoted Toussaint to the active roster in late November where he saw action as a kickoff returner.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

In three seasons, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable body to man the 3rd running back slot. And fate has forced the Steelers to turn to that slot more than once late in the season.

Many Steelers fans will never forgive, or forget, Toussaint’s fumble against the Broncos, but the fact is that the young made did quite well for what was essentially a 5th string running back starting in the playoffs. In fact, Toussaint had over 100 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

That’s the kind of depth you want to have at running back.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

As Fitzgerald Toussaint is a restricted free agent, the Steelers must make him a qualifying tender to retain some sort of first-refusal right and/or get compensation should someone sign him. While restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, even a low tender will portrayal come in at around 1.8 million dollars.

Fitzgerald Toussaint is a good number 3 running back, but committing 1.8 million dollars in salary cap dollars to a third running back is not a wise more even in the abstract, and certainly not given the Steelers tight salary cap situation.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Fitzgerald Toussaint

When James Conners got hurt and the Steelers needed to rest Le’Veon Bell, they went to the street and signed Stevan Ridley. And it was Ridley’s number that got called thereafter, and in the regular season finale against the Browns.

  • A year ago, when Fitzgerald Toussaint was an exclusive rights free agent, this site took a lot of heat for citing him as a Kevin Colbert success story.

The point then wasn’t to say that Toussaint was a Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, or even Merril Hoge in the making. Far from it. He was a decent waiver wire pickup, and a serviceable 3rd running back. That was true then and it remains true today.

The Steelers can let Fitzgerald Toussaint become an unrestricted free agent and stand a good shot at bringing him back at or near the veteran minimum. He’s certainly a player worth bringing to training camp but treating him as anything else entering free agency would be folly.

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Surprise! Steelers Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from Practice Squad, Cut Terrell Watson. What’s Going On?

Its the last week of November, so it must be time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to….

…If you guessed “Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from the practice squad” you’d be right, as that’s just what the Steelers did 24 hours ahead of their show down with the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field. In a move that comes as a surprise, the Steelers cut rookie Terrell Watson and promoted the veteran Toussaint from the practice squad.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger

Fitzgerald Toussiant runs in the Steelers 2015 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Photo Credit: The SteelersWire

Two years ago, almost to the day, the Steelers activated Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad ahead of their 2015 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

At the time, the move Steelers appeared to be protecting Toussaint from practice squad poaching, as the Ravens had just lost Justin Forsett, and Fitzgerald Toussaint had been with the Ravens in 2014.

  • This time the Steelers motives appear murkier.

Le’Veon Bell has been getting the lion’s share of the carries, with James Conner getting a few carries per game. Instead of risking Ben Roethlisberger on quarterback sneaks, Terrell Watson gotten the call as a short yardage back with mixed effectiveness and for the record had 5 carries for 8 yards.

While this site has taken heat on Twitter for being somewhat of a homer for Fitzgerald Toussaint, Watson had out performed Foussaint during training camp and preseason and won the job.

  • Might the Steelers have concerns about either Le’Veon Bell or James Conner’s health?

Or are the Steelers simply engaging in the type of roster shuffling on their running back depth chart similar to what they have done on the inside linebacking depth chart where Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky have alternated L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson on the active roster and practice squad throughout the year.

  • That’s a possibility, its also possible that Fitzgerald Toussaint is looking better than Watson in practice.

While he won’t strike fear into the hearts of any opposing defensive coordinator, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable number 3 running back in his time in Pittsburgh.

His biggest game came in the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals, where he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage, although many fans still haven’t forgiven him for his fumble in the Steelers playoff loss to Denver the following week.

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Speak Out Steelers Nation – Vote Steelers Bengals Game Ball Winners

Its time once again to speak out Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted AFC North Rival the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ben in Black and Gold walked away with a 29-14 victory, which brings them to 5-2 on the season and perhaps more importantly, 3-0 in the AFC North.

Antonio Brown, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown smokes Darqueze Dennard for a touchdown in the 1st quarter of the Steelers win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As we always do after a Steelers victory, we invite you, the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners for those who stood out during Pittsburgh’s. Here’s a look at this week’s ballot:

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Game ball winners Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger played what was perhaps his best game of the season, and Number 7 was particularly sharp in the first half, leading the Steelers to two touchdown drives on its first two possession, and adding a field goal drive inside the two minute warning.

  • Antonio Brown was Roethlisberger’s favorite target, having caught 4 passes for 65 yards including the Steelers first touchdown.

Le’Veon Bell earns a slot on this week’s ballot, thanks to his 135 yard performance in a game that saw Bell touch  the ball 35 times on the ground and 3 times through the air, including a 42 yard catch and run. David DeCastro also had an exemplary day, leading the way for Bell on run after run.

Their exploits need no introduction as Golden and Darrius Heyward-Bey hooked up on a key 4th quarter fake punt, while Boswell booted in 5 field goals to give the Steelers their margin of victory.

For as potent as the offense was in the early going, the Steelers defense stole the show in the second half, allowing Andy Dalton and the Bengals 19 yards from scrimmage. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree and Tyson Alualu all sacked Andy Dalton, earning them ballot slots. Joe Hayden and William Gay also had interceptions, which secures their position on the ballot.

  • But remember, you my beloved reader, are the ultimate arbiter of who makes the ballot?

Think that JuJu Smith-Schuster,  deserves a game ball? Write his name in? Feel that Sean Davis or Anthony Chickillo deserve nods? Again, write their names in, or better yet write their names in and leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting, and be sure to check back for Steel Curtain Rising’s full game analysis of the Steelers 2017 Heinz Field win over the Bengals.

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

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Return on Investment? Steelers Sign Knile Davis to as Kick Returner, Backup Running Back

Bargain hunting continued on Pittsburgh’s South Side Monday as the Steelers signed Knile Davis, a free agent running back who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Knile Davis is listed as a running back, but the Steelers are eyeing him primarily as a kick returner, a specialist position which the franchise has struggled to fill for most of the Mike Tomlin Era.

Knile Davis, Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Spence tackles Knile Davis as Jarvis Jones arrives a second too late. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers Wire

To put the matter into perspective, the last time the Steelers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown as in the 2010’s game against the Tennessee Titans, when Antonio Brown took a reverse and ran it all the way in.

The only Steelers kick returners who’ve returned more than 10 kicks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure to remotely approach an average of 25 yards per return are Stephan Logan, Markus Wheaton, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

  • In just four seasons, Knile Daivs has already returned 73 kicks for a total of 1920 yards, for a 26.8 yard average for two touchdowns.

Given that a touchback now results in the ball being spotted at the 25 yard line, having a kick returner who can routinely better that marks a welcome addition to the return team. (For the record Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey were the only returners during the Tomlin era to average more than 25 yards.)

Now Knile Davis Impacts the Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back

Le’Veon Bell remains the uncontested Alpha Male atop the Steelers running back depth chart, and the unsigned status of DeAngelo Williams might suggest that the he’s been replaced by Knile Davis. Davis would certainly like coaches to see it that way as indicated by his statement to reporters:

I feel like they are confident I can (complement Bell). I’ve had to fill in before. I’ve had 100-yard games in this league. I’ve done well in this league, and I’m prepared for whatever comes in the future.

That’s a little bold, but healthy nonetheless or the new arrival. However, if press reports are any indication, the Steelers primarily interest in Knile Davis is as a kick returner, not as a running back. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald Toussaint has been put on notice that he will need to defend his roster spot at St. Vincents next summer.

The Steelers tried to work Toussaint in at kick returner last year, but without much effect. And while Knile Davis’ 3.2 rushing average isn’t much to write home about it is better that Fitzgerald Toussaint’s career average of 2.9.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Knile Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

He played in Kansas City for three seasons until the Chiefs traded him to Green Bay for a seventh-round draft pick in October 2016. But Davis didn’t remain a Cheesehead for long, as the Packers cut him after two games. He spent one day on the New York Jets’ roster before re-signing with Kansas City.

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs. Patriots, DeAngelo Williams touchdown AFC Championship, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

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