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.

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

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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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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2017: Le’Veon Bell – Time for Pittsburgh to Ring the Bell

The modern NFL Draft is founded upon hyperbole. Even back during the 1988 and 1989 NFL Drafts I can remember watching ESPN and listening in disbelief to Mel Kiper Jr. all but predicted disaster or Super Bowl depending on whether he liked a pick or not.

  • But then there are moments when a draft pick lives up to the hype, the times when the Le’Veon Bells get picked.

Le’Veon Bell has surpassed his draft day hype and now looks to cash in with his first 8 figure contract as he reaches free agency.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers, Le'Veon Bell touchdown chargers, Le'Veon Bell free agent, David DeCastro

Le’Veon Bell scores the game winning touchdown against San Diego in 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images via antennamag.com

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

A lot of people rolled their eyes during the 2013 NFL Draft when Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers second round pick, as the best running back the draft. Months later, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 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.”

Bouchette has been covering the Steelers since the early 70’s, allowing him to see the preseason debuts of first rounders such as Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. Bouchette has seen more than a few training camp sensations flame out. He is not wont to compare rookies to Hall of Famers. But still, the Dean of the Steelers press corps seemed to be going a little over the top.

  • Four years later it is clear that skeptics in Steelers Nation should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

After struggling for 3 years to replace Willie Parker with the likes of Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers selected a blue-chip running back in Le’Veon Bell in 2013.

  • What’s all the more amazing is that it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell began the 2013 season with a lisfranc injury. He ended 2014 unable to play in the post-season. 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse violations, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

Despite those difficulties, with 4045 yards to his name, Le’Veon Bell has passed Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson to become the 4th all-time Steelers leading rusher. In four years, Le’Veon Bell has gone from being a 2nd round pick that left some pundits scratching their heads to a player with the potential to revitalize the concept of franchise running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

A year ago the Steelers 2016 offense was supposed to be the AFC North’s variant of The Greatest Show on Turf. That didn’t happen and for most of the year Ben Roethlisberger had little more than 5th and 6th string wide receivers to throw to other than Antonio Brown. In other words, opposing defenses knew Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Steelers Dolphins playoffs, Marcus Gilbert

Le’Veon Bell rush for a touchdown in the playoffs against Miami. Photo Credit: Don Wright, FRE via Houston Chronicle

But opposing defenses were powerless to stop Le’Veon Bell as he broke the Steelers single game regular season rushing record. Breaking regular season records is nice, but doing it in January is something else. In his first playoff game Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record. In his second playoff game, Le’Veon Bell broke the record again.

  • Le’Veon Bell did something in two playoff games which Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker couldn’t do in 58.

You don’t often hear the phrase “So and so running back took over the game for such and such team.”

Le’Veon Bell took over several games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 and the franchise would be wise to see that he continues to do so.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

In four years Le’Veon Bell has only appeared in 49 of a possible 68 regular and post-season games (depending on how you count the AFC Championship). The rest he’s missed either because of drug suspensions or injuries.

  • The average NFL career only lasts 4 years, and the average for running backs is lower yet.

He already has 1135 touches on his frame. How many more carries does Le’Veon Bell have before his production curve drops like a rock? The brutal reality of the NFL in the 21st century is that running backs flame out quickly. Hear anyone talk up DeMarco Murray’s Hall of Fame prospects lately? You haven’t, because Dallas has already replaced the man who led the NFL in rushing just two years ago with Ezekiel Elliott. Running backs are disposable commodities.

Is it really wise to invest serious long-term salary cap dollars in a player like Le’Veon Bell who might be suspended at any moment and who all statistical indicators suggest has a short shelf life?

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

The Steelers plans here are clear. Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell back, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin want him back. Ben Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Le’Veon Bell back. Le’Veon Bell wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Le’Veon Bell will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.

That’s a good thing. Period. How he gets there isn’t quite clear. The Steelers would like to give him a long-term deal, which is a smart move. The only question is will Bell be reasonable with his salary demands? If he is the deal will be made. If not the Steelers will use the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh in 2017.

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

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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record – Now Pause & Think about What that Means….

For two straight off seasons, Steelers Nation has fretted and fidgeted while watching the Steelers asking the question “What IF.” The big “What IF” of course was “What if Le’Veon Bell had been playing?”

Going into the playoff loss to the Ravens in 2014 (2015, actually) Bell’s absence represented a loss of 34% of the Steelers total offense. It is harder to calculate the impact of Le’Veon Bell’s absence in the 2015 postseason because Bell missed the majority of the season injured or suspended.

But it is quite possible that Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary against the Bengals had Bell been available to kill the clock in the 4th.

In Pittsburgh’s wild card win against the Dolphins, Steelers Nation finaly got to see their “What IF” come true. So how did that work out?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell breaks Steelers playoff rushing record, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers wild card win dolphins

Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers playoff record breaking performance against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • Le’Veon Bell ran 29 times for 167 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single game post-season rushing record.

Let’s restate that: In his first post season appearance, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single-game playoff rushing record. Now consider what that really means. Had Le’Veon Bell broken this record, say, for the San Francisco 49ers, he wouldn’t have turned many heads, no disrespect to Roger Craig or Rickey Waters.

  • But Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff rushing record for a single game.

This is the same franchise that has sent Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson (you forgot about him, didn’t you?) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the team that gave Willie Parker, holder of the Super Bowl record for the longest run from scrimmage, his shot in the NFL.

What’s more amazing is the way in which Le’Veon Bell broke the record. As Peter King, who is no Steelers cheerleader, observed:

Watch the man. He’s got the oddest rushing style in football today. “The Great Hesitator,” Phil Simms called him on CBS, and that’s just about perfect. Usually, Bell lines up as the classic I-back, seven yards deep, and when he takes a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll take a couple of jab steps toward a hole and almost stop in his tracks. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, had a one-cut running style; the back was told to hit up in the hole immediately—that charging into the hole was the one cut. Most coaches decry what they call pussyfooting.

Peter King then backed up his argument with a statistic, that someone on his staff deserves a ton of credit for unearthing:

I find this amazing: Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king, gained 860 yards in his best seven-game stretch. That’s 142 yards less than Bell’s current seven-game run.

So in other words, in the space of just 8 games, Le’Veon Bell broken a record set by one Steelers Hall of Fame running back that another Steelers Hall of Fame Running back couldn’t touch, and rushed for 142 yards more than Emmitt Smith rushed for during his best seven-game stretch.

Jerome Bettis, Jerome Bettis AFC Championship, Jerome Bettis Broncos

Jerome Bettis in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via BTSC

A little bit of research reveals that it’s not unusual for a Steelers running back to break the century mark in his playoff debut.

  • Barry Foster ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the 1992 Steelers playoff loss to the Bills
  • Jerome Bettis ran for 102 yards in the Steelers 1996 playoff win against the Colts, although he injured himself
  • Merril Hoge rushed for 100 yards even in the 1989 Steelers New Year’s Eve upset of the Oilers

Rashard Mendenhall, Bam Morris, Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier also had 100 yard (or near 100 yard) performances early in their careers, but these came after their first post season game.

All impressive efforts, to be certain. But if you really want to appreciate what Le’Veon Bell accomplished, look no further than to the comments made by Ben Roethlisberger:

I’ll never forget when Charlie Batch was here, he used to always tell me about how he would hand off and just watch Barry Sanders. I am not trying to put Le’Veon with Barry Sanders yet, but it is fun to sit and watch and just see what he is going to do because he is incredibly talented.

So if you’re keeping track at home, in addition to outperforming 3 Steelers Hall of Fame running backs, Le’Veon Bell’s playoff performance against the Dolphins has now drawn comparisons to two other non-Steelers Hall of Fame running backs.

Walter Payton, Walter Payton Steelers, Le'Veon Bell Walter Payton

Walter Peyton dives over the pile as the Steelers are powerless to stop him. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via NFL SpinZone

During Le’Veon Bell took a lot of heat during his rookie season with a lot of journalists both inside (see John Stiegerwald) and outside of Pittsburgh doubting his ability. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took the time to compare his game-by-game results to Walter Payton’s rookie campaign, despite getting needled about it on social media from some of his peers.

  • Three seasons, a couple of injuries, 2 suspensions, and 1 playoff game later, Bell is getting the last laugh.

As Ben Roethlisberger cautioned, it is still too early to categorize Bell alongside the Smiths, Harris, Sanders, and Paytons of NFL lore, but in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have a special running back.

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What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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What’s DeAngelo Williams 2016 Outlook? Here’s What Statistics of NFL Running Backs Age 33 & Above Tell Us

Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you DeAngelo Williams, Happy Birthday to you….”

If the scribes of Steelers Nation are to be believed, DeAngelo Williams’ teammates serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” prior to every practice this summer. And so they should. Sightings of 33 year old running backs are almost as rare as sightings of blue whales.

  • The average NFL career lasts just less than 4 years, the shelf life of an NFL running back is even shorter

Yet, for the second consecutive season, DeAngelo Williams will lineup behind Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers starting running back, thanks to another suspension to Le’Veon Bell. That presents an interesting challenge to conventional wisdom.

deangelo williams, deangelo williams outlook 2016

What is DeAngelo Williams 2016 outlook? The statistics might surprise you…

In examining the potential impact of Le’Veon Bell’s suspension on the Steelers Lombardi hopes, this Steel Curtain Rising offered this caution:

DeAngelo Williams performed tremendously in 2015. Credit Colbert for another masterful free agent signing. But Williams will be 33 and skill-position players at that age often suffer sharp season-to-season drop offs.

It makes perfect sense. Advanced training methods may allow football players to continue to perform at high levels later into their 30’s, but the sight of an over 30 player “getting old fast” from one season to the next remains quite common. Think of Hines Ward. Had the Steelers won Super Bowl XLV, Hines Ward probably would have earned his second Super Bowl MVP.

So it would seem that DeAngelo Williams faces the same danger. The logic is flawless, isn’t it?

So just how much does the performance of NFL running backs drop off after age 33? And what do those tendencies tell us about DeAngelo William’s prospects for 2016? Let’s take a look.

The Elite 11 – NFL Running Backs Performance after Age 33

This is a difficult question to answer. Not surprisingly, there are not a ton of NFL running backs who’ve played into their mid-30’s, and there’s no easy way to identify them. However, Steel Curtain Rising has compiled data on 11 NFL running backs who played until or beyond age 33.

  • We’ll use the experiences of these “Elite 11” to predict DeAngelo Williams 2016 outlook.

All statistics come from Pro Football Reference. Running backs were selected simply by going down PFR’s list of all time NFL rushers, and looking to see how long they played. To qualify for the list, a running back had to log at least 100 carries at or after age 33. Some players like Fred Taylor barely made the list. In contrast, John Riggins rushed the ball more than a 1000 times after turning 33.

deangelo williams career rushing average, nfl running backs after age 33

The first graphic gives us an idea of the career performance of the 33 rushers club. Over half of the players are NFL Hall of Famers including Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett and Steelers Nation’s Jerome Bettis, which should be no surprise as longevity is part of greatness.

  • So what does this tell us about DeAngelo Williams 2016 outlook?

First, he has a lot fewer carries seems to do more with less, having a better career rushing average than any of the 11 players had over the span of their careers. However, the graphic above comprises data from the entire careers of these 11 running backs? How does DeAngelo Williams stack up vs. these Elite 11 before they turned 33?

DeAngelo Williams career rushing average

The answer is, DeAngelo Williams career still stacks up well. The “mean of the means” the aggregate rushing yards per carry is unchanged for the target group of runners. In fact, there’s very little change in performance between how these Elite 11 rushed before age 33 and their overall career averages.

  • All very interesting, but does that really tell us anything useful towards project DeAngelo Williams 2016 outlook?

Maybe. Maybe not. All of these players logged the bulk of their snaps before age 33, and even Father Time is struggling to combat the weight of those cumulative performances.

So what happened after these Elite 11 turned 33? Let’s take a look.

NFL running back rushing averages after age 33

Not surprisingly, the numbers are down across the board. The average longest run drops to from 45 yards to 26 yards, proving that even these Elite 11 lost a step as they got older. Everyone’s yards per-carry dropped below four yards. However, passing 33 was hardly a death sentence for these players. O.J. Anderson won a Super Bowl MVP award at age 34 as did John Riggins at age 33.

  • But does turning 33 represent a true milestone for an NFL running back, similar to crossing the 350 carry threshold?

Here the numbers show us something interesting, and encouraging for DeAngelo Williams.

NFL running back performance age 32 vs age 33

The running backs comprising our Elite 11 sample did suffer a dip in performance after turning age 33, but the fall off was far from dramatic. In fact, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, O.J. Anderson and Earnest Byner actually saw their rushing averages increase in the first season following their 33rd birthday. Overall, the drop off in production from age 32 to age 33 was slight.

  • After turning 33, our Elite 11 ran for 1.4 fewer times a game, scored about a touchdown and half less, and only averaged about a tenth of a yard less per carry.

All of that represents good news for DeAngelo Williams 2016 outlook.

DeAngelo Williams 2016 Outlook – A Statistical Projection

If you apply the average drop off between age 32 and age 33 by our Elite 11 to DeAngelo William’s career averages, you’ll see that statics show he should only drop off .07 yards per carry, and rush the ball about 2 times less per game. His projected long run for the season should be 47 yards, down from his career average of 54.

deangelo williams 2016 outlook, deangelo williams 2016 statistics, deangelo williams 2016 predictions

And if statics are any guide, there’s more good news for DeAngelo Williams.

nfl running backs after age 33

Looking at average cumulative performance before and after age 33, we see drop offs almost across the board. However, we can see that players like Marcus Allen’s decline was far less dramatic than the rest of his peers.

  • There’s no secret as to why – Al Davis, for some reason he took to the grave – forced his coaches to keep Allen on the bench.

Indeed, Marcus Allen rushed an average of 188 times a season in his career, which is below the Elite 11 average of 232 times per season. DeAngelo Williams has averaged 163 carries per season, lower than any other player in the Elite 11 Earnest Byner.

All of that suggests that less wear and tear for DeAngelo Williams should potentially allow him to continue to run strong in 2016 and beyond.

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