4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Steelers Draft Brian Allen in 5th Round, Amidst Familiar Carnell Lake Refrain

The 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers draft Brian Allen a cornerback from Utah.

Brian Allen was the second cornerback the Steelers took in this draft, after taking Cam Sutton with their first pick in the 3rd round of the Draft. Since drafting Senquez Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers have taken 4 cornerbacks in the last 3 drafts.

  • At 6’3” and weighing in at 215 pounds Allen represents the larger cornerback that the Steelers used to seek for their defense.

However, Brian Allen is a converted wide out who only has two years under his belt at corner, and one year as a starter. That college track record mirrors that of 1st round pick T.J. Watt, but unlike Watt, Allen’s combine times however were a little wanting.

Steelers draft Brian Allen, Brian Allen

Steelers 5th round pick Brian Allen intercepts a pass for Utah. Photo Credit: via USA Today’s SteelersWire.com

Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake didn’t address Allen’s measurable but did suggest “I think with some more games under his belt, he probably would’ve been drafted a lot higher.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. After the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in 2013 and Senquez Golson in 2015 Carnell Lake suggested that had both men been two inches taller they’d have been 1st round picks.

Welcome to 2017 ladies and gentleman, where even 6th round picks have their own highlight reels prepared for them.

The Steelers selection of Brian Allen adds him to a depth chart which includes starters Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, veteran William Gay, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton and Al-Hajj Shabazz. Even if William Gay makes the rumored transition to safety, Brian Allen’s best bet is probably the practice squad.

That’s not a bad way to cut your teeth as a future Pittsburgh Steeler, as Chris Hoke, Jordan Dangerfield Steve McLendon and James Harrison can attest to. Welcome to Steelers Nation Brian Allen.

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

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

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

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

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 Changes in Pittsburgh Since the Steelers Last Win vs Ravens

The Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Day show down with the Baltimore Ravens has turned out to be everything the schedule makers hoped it to be: A contest to determine the AFC North champions.

While the Steelers are taking a superior 9-5 record and a six game winning streak into the game, they’re also fighting another inconvenient truth:

  • The Steelers last win vs Ravens came 784 days ago.

Yes, the Ravens arrive in Pittsburgh with their own four game winning streak vs. the Steelers.

For the record, the Steelers last win against the Ravens came on November 2nd, at Heinz Field on the night that Joe Greene joined Ernie Stautner as the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have his number retired. A lot has changed in Pittsburgh since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens.

james harrison sacks joe flacco, james harrison, joe flacco, steelers last win vs ravens

James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the Steelers November 2014 win over Baltimore. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Baltimore CBS Local

1. Keith Butler Replaces Dick LeBeau at Defensive Coordinator

This represents what is likely the biggest change since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. Following Super Bowl XLV, Dick LeBeau did what he could to compensate for the declining talent on defense and kept the Steelers competitive on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and 2012.

  • Yet, but 2013 the talent deficiencies could no longer be swept under the rug.

Statically the Steelers defense dropped further in 2014, although those numbers mask a late season surge by the Dick LeBeau’s defense over the final four games of the season. Mike Tomlin nonetheless decided to make a change following the season when it appeared that Keith Butler would finally accept a defensive coordinator promotion rather than wait for LeBeau to retire.

  • During his first year, Keith Butler fielded a bend but don’t break type defense.

If yardage totals rose, they were off set by an increase in sacks, turnovers, and Red Zone play. After a slow start in this season, the 2016 defense is showing a lot of similar characteristics.

Advantage: Steelers

2. Steelers Scrap Their Secondary and Start Over

When you look at the Steelers defensive backfield depth charts from 2014 and 2016 side by side, the sea change really strikes you:

steelers secondary depth chart, steelers defensive backs depth chart, steelers depth chart defensive backfield

The Steelers secondary has changed a lot since 2014…

First, the Steelers are carrying 3 fewer defensive backs now than they were 2 years ago. Some of that was dictated by age – even the most wild-eyed optimists knew that Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were nearing the end when 2014 started.

  • But it also appears that the Steelers were perhaps trying to substitute for quality with quantity.

The complete makeover says that their attempt failed. Of the 12 defensive backs the Steelers had on their roster the last time they beat the Ravens, only 3 remain. Yes, that number is three, because Shamarko Thomas is now exclusively a special teams player whereas Robert Golden occupied that role 2 years ago.

But gone or Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, Ross Ventrone, Cortez Allen, and Will Allen who the Steelers have replaced with Justin Gilbert, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and Sean Davis.

Going into the Christmas game vs. the Ravens, the Steelers secondary looks to be improved since their last win.

Advantage: Steelers

3. Le’Veon Bell Establishes Himself as an Elite Back without a Backup

OK. This one involves a little slight of hand. Le’Veon Bell’s breakout game vs. the Tennessee Titans came two weeks after the Steelers last win over the Ravens. But that is the moment he lost his backup, when LeGarrette Blount decided to go AWOL.

  • Since then, the Steelers have struggled to find someone to back up Le’Veon Bell.

No, no one is forgetting DeAngelo Williams, but due to injuries and suspensions, you can count the number of games Williams and Bell have played in together in single digits. Williams is returning from an injury and is expected to dress, but he hasn’t played since loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Advantage: Steelers, unless Bell gets hurt….

4. A Carousel of Receivers has Started Opposite Antonioy Brown

Antonio Brown was already an All Pro and then some the last time Pittsburgh beat Baltimore but injuries and suspensions have forced the Steelers to play musical wide receiver since then.

Martavis Bryant had announced his presence two games earlier and was expected to usurp Markus Wheaton as the Steelers number 2 wide receiver, but that hasn’t happened thanks to Martavis Bryant’s issues with addiction.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was basically just a special teams player when the Steelers last triumphed over the Ravens, but since then he’s emerged as a legitmate downfield threat, gotten promoted to the number 2 WR slot only to get hurt. Sammie Coates has had shots at the Steelres number 2 WR slot, but has failed to grasp them due to injuries and inefficiency.

Mike Tomlin has said that Darrius Heyward-Bey might play against the Ravens on Christmas, but at this point it looks like Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton will have serve as Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd and 3rd choices downfield.

Advantage: Ravens

5. Heath Miller Has Hung It Up

Heath Miller has since retired since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. For the record, Miller only caught one pass in that game, but it went for 14 yards, so it probably resulted in a third down.

The Steelers of course brought Ladarius Green in to replace Heath Miller but lost Green for the first half of the season due to injury. Green has been making his presence felt since then, but is in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Given his history with concussions, it is not likely he will play.

Advantage: Ravens

6. Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel Have Moved On

The fact that Brett Keisel has retired since the Steelers last victory over the Ravens surprises no one, but Steve McLendon’s departure perhaps does. By 2014 it was clear that Steve McLendon wasn’t going to be Casey Hampton, but he didn’t need to be and he appeared to have a long future in Pittsburgh ahead of him.

However, the Steelers made a salary cap calculation not to invest in a nose tackle, and moved one.

Stephon Tuitt has replaced Brett Keisel and Javon Hargrave has replaced Tuitt. Normally that would give the Steelers a strong duo, but Stephon Tuitt is nursing a knee injury. And with Cam Heyward out for the year, that is not good.

Advantage: Ravens

There you have it. Pittsburgh has seen a lot of changes since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens. Some of them offer promise for the Christmas day show down, others favor Baltimore.

What does that mean?

Probably that the Steelers-Ravens Christmas Day game will come down to who can hit the hardest – just as any good Steelers-Ravens game should.

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Steelers Resign Vince Williams to 3 Year Contract, Is Lawrence Timmons Time in Pittsburgh Limited?

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their first contract of the preseason today, but this latest contract extension didn’t involve the player or the position every expected. The Steelers are reportedly in negotiations for a long-term deal with guard David DeCastro. While that deal has yet to materialized, as Cameron Heyward’s did at the start of training camp 2015, an agreement was expected.

  • Linebacker was another position where the Steelers looked to extend a contract.
vince willliams, vince williams steelers contract, vince williams contract, reggie bush, steelers vs. lions 2013

Vince Williams tackles Reggie Bush at Heinz Field in 2013. Photo credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today; used on StillCurtain

And they did. Except it didn’t involve the player the Steelers were expected to resign. The move saw the Steelers resign Vince Williams to a 3 year contract. While Vince Williams is the type of player the Steelers would typically look to extend, his new contract calls into question Lawrence Timmons time in Pittsburgh.

Vince Williams Heir Apparent at Inside Linebacker?

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Vince Williams in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft with the hope that he would develop into a player capable of replacing veteran Larry Foote. Foote had returned to his starting role in 2012 following James Farrior’s retirement/waiver, and had played well, but he was going into his 12th year and pushing age 33.

  • Vince Williams did replace Larry Foote, albeit a lot sooner than the Steelers expected or wanted.

Larry Foote was injured in the Steelers 2013 opening day debacle vs. Tennessee ending his season on the spot. Vince Williams was in street clothes, leaving Kion Wilson to replace Foote. Wilson only played 9 games for the Steelers before getting cut midseason. By the time Vince Williams was the regular starer.

To say that Vince Williams got a baptism by fire represents an understatement.

The young linebacker struggled in Dick LeBeau’s system. Fans saw the once vaunted Steelers run defense give up yards easily, and often pointed the finger at Steve McLendon who himself was replacing a legend in Casey Hampton. However, more educated analysis pin-pointed the weakness on Vince Williams.

  • Nonetheless, Williams improved, and by the end of the season was making head-turning plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Williams has only made two starts since 2013, but he has played extensively in relief of either Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons. Williams has improved each and every year, and he is by no means a liability to the Steelers defense when he is in the game.

Terms of the deal were not released, but one would have to expect that Vince Williams would only have agreed to sign a contract now, as opposed to waiting for free agency in 2017, if the Steelers were offering starter money….

Clock Ticking for Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh? 

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin made Lawrence Timmons the first pick of the Tomlin era in 2007, when they picked the linebacker in the 2007 NFL Draft. Timmons was originally tagged as an outside linebacker, but injuries kept him off the field for most of his rookie year. The Steelers extend Timmon’s contract in 2011, and while Timmons struggled in 2011, he was easily the Steelers most consistent defensive player in 2012, 2013 and arguably in 2014.

While Timmons has not shown any signs of slowing down, he has turned 30.

Timmons has been healthy as well, having started all 16 games since 2011. Timmons has a cap value of over 15 million dollars due to numerous restructures, and it would seem logical for the Steelers to extend his contract to create salary cap relief.

However, with Ryan Shazier locked in at the other inside linebacker position, Vince Williams resigned for the next three years, and a host of younger players rounding out the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker, it is hard to see how Timmons fits in – if the Steelers indeed offered Vince Williams starter money.

  • Steelers fans who want to see Timmons stay in Pittsburgh do have a ray of hope.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers extend the contract of a player they project as a long-term starter, they often do it for more than three years. In 2011 Ike Taylor got a four year contract, Willie Colon got a 5 year contract, LaMarr Woodley got a six year contract, and Timmons himself got a six year contract.

Ironically enough, of the group, only Timmons has played his the entire contract. For the moment however, it looks like Timmons’ second contract with the Steelers may be his last.

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Steelers 2016 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Complete

With their 2016 NFL Draft Class complete, the Pittsburgh Steelers filled out the rest of their roster by signing their 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class:

Johnny Maxey, defensive line, 6-5, 283, Mars Hill
Tyriq McCord, linebacker, 6-3, 241, Miami
Will Monday, punter, 6-4, 210, Duke
Giorgio Newberry, defensive line, 6-6, 295, Florida State
Christian Powell, running back, 6-0, 235, Colorado
David Reeves, tight end, 6-5, 255, Duke
Jay Rome, tight end, 6-6, 250, Georgia
Quinton Schooley, offensive line, 6-4, 298, NC State
Canaan Severin, wide receiver, 6-2, 205, Virginia
Devaunte Sigler, defensive line, 6-3, 290, Jacksonville State

Now, will the next Super Bowl record breaker please step up? The Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class might not amount to anything, but Kevin Colbert has an uncanny knack for finding quality undrafted rookie free agents.

But the Steelers current roster boasts Ramon Foster, Robert Golden, and Roosevelt Nix who were undrafted rookie free agents, while the Steeler recently said goodbye to the likes of Will Johnson, Steve McLendon and Terence Garvin all of whom joined the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents.

A Few Surprises in the Steelers 2016 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

The Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class comes with a few surprises. First, the Steelers did not sign a quarterback. Given that the Steelers want and need an extra arm for rookie mini-camp in addition to training camp, that would seem to signal that the Steelers are looking to sign a veteran backup quarterback.

  • Prior to the draft, Kevin Colbert indicated the Steelers would make a roster move on quarterback after the draft.

The Steelers already have Dustin Vaughan on the roster who is seen as more of 4th arm type of quarterback than anything else. That would seem to indicate that if the Steelers want to bring in someone other than Landry Jones to backup Ben Roethlisberger, now would be the time. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert like Brian Hoyer, but he signed a one year deal with the Bears.

So it was no surprise that the Steelers resigned Bruce Gradkowski after the draft.

  • The dearth of running backs in the Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class classifies as another surprise.

By their own admission, the Steelers wanted to draft a running back in the 5th round and where either unable to find a partner and/or unwilling to pay the price. The Steelers currently have Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint which gives them 2 starter-capable running backs plus another backup. Given that, it is a mild surprise that the Steelers did not bring in more running backs.

Either these players will get a fair shot to impress their coaches and earn and NFL roster spot.

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Filling a Need for a Nose, Steelers Draft Javon Hargrave in 3rd Round, NT from South Carolina State

Day two of the 2016 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to tick off their needs. After drafting cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second round, Pittsburgh looked to fill their next glaring area of need at nose tackle as the Steelers draft Javon Hargrave a nose tackle out of South Carolina State.

Perhaps what’s most telling about the move are the comments from Steelers defensive line coach and assistant head coach Johnny Mitchell. Mitchell is a veteran and makes no bones about the need to strip his players down to zero, and coach them up from there.

In other words, Mitchell is not known for lavishing praise on rookies. Yet, Mitchell did not hold back:

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn was alive today, he would really like this pick. Javon Hargrave is a self-made man,” continued Mitchell. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackle, this guy is pretty impressive.

Invoking Bill Nunn’s name in connection with a third round pick his high praise in indeed, as Nunn was the scout who found such Steelers gems as Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood and of course Donnie Shell who also hailed from South Carolina State.

Video Highlights of Javon Hargrave

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert put a lot of stock on what they see on tape from potential draft prospects, and Javon Hargrave has quite a pedigree:

On Johnny Mitchell’s watch, which began in 1994 after Bill Cowher dismissed Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness as defensive line coach, the nose tackle’s role from Joel Steed to Casey Hampton has traditionally been to clog up the middle first, with pass rushing coming second.

  • But the nose tackle is evolving under defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The Steelers want nose tackles who an not only be stout against the run, but also pressure the passer. Steve McLendon did that in 2012 in relief of Casey Hampton, but was less of a presence in the pass rush after taking over the role in 2013.

  • Looking at his college states, Javon Hargrave can fill that need.

In his NCAA career, Hargrave compiled 37 sacks, including 29.5 in his last two seasons alone. He’s got a 40 time of 4.9 which is good for a defensive lineman. As Jim Wexell points out, Hargrave even had 6 sacks in a game that he didn’t start.

A big part of the reason the Steelers let Steve McLendon go to the Jets was that he was off of the field for almost 2/3rds of the defensive snaps. Yet Johnny Mitchell sees Hargave breaking that mold, explaining “I’ll tell you this, he will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-package.”

Depending on Hargrave’s ability to pick up the Steelers scheme, he’s seen as someone who can also help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, allowing Mitchell to set up a rotation at defensive line, which has been on of the hallmarks of his strategy.

The Steelers will not hand Hargrave anything. Daniel McCullers will enter training camp as the team’s number one nose tackle, but Hargrave will get every chance to press McCullers for playing time and even the starting role.

  • That’s what you want to hear of a third round pick.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Just Hargrave.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Nose Tackle – Quality and Quantity Needed. Now.

Just yesterday, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reaffirmed that, historically, wrote that the nose tackle is the fulcrum that the success of the Steelers 3-4 defense rises and falls on the knees of the nose tackle. Neal Coolong, when he was still at of Behind the Steel Curtain pointed out that salary cap math says otherwise.

Both men have a point, but the Steelers defense’s return to dominance in the 1990’s and again in the 2000’s were accompanied by the arrivals of Joel Steed and Casey Hampton.

But the Steelers defense continues to evolve under Keith Butler and the nose tackle position is one of the most impacted positions. Just how much should that evolution impact the Steelers plans for the 2016 NFL Draft? Once again, it is time to find out.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Nose Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the “Starter”

The Steelers sent a significant signal about the direction of their defense when the let Steve McLendon defect to the New York Jets via free agency, calculating that the money the New York Jets offered was too much to pay starter who would only see the field on 1/3rd of the snaps.

  • Time will tell whether that was a wise, moneyball type move or not.

Right now all Steelers Nation knows is that the Steelers only have Daniel McCullers at nose tackle. Given McCuller’s massive size at 6’7”352 he seems like an ideal fit. Yet McCullers did not make much of a leap between his rookie year and sophomore campaign. McCullers played 105 snaps in 2015 or 9.5% of the time which is only increase of 3.1% after 2014.

  • Word is that McCullers doesn’t seem to want it enough.

Perhaps that is true, perhaps McCullers will prove the doubters wrong. Either way, McCullers is only the starter by default not because he’s earned it.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Nose Tackle Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

In addition to McCullers, the Steelers currently list Lavon Hooks and Roy Philion as defensive tackles on their roster. Ricardo Mathews, recent free agent signee also has experience playing nose tackle.

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016Roy Philion caught on with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, and spent time on the Bears and Lions practice squads in 2014. Lavon Hooks has spent time in training camp with the Green Bay Packers.

Even if McCullers defies the critics with a vengeance, this depth chart at nose tackle isn’t going to scare any offensive coordinator.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Nose Tackle and/or Defensive Tackle

The Steelers defense is evolving as the base 3-4 is being used less, while 4-2-5 alignments are being used more frequently. The Steelers could look at drafting a pure 4-3 tackle or they could opt to sign a nose tackle. Either way, the Steelers have an urgent need to fill their defensive tackle position with both quality and quantity.

In that light the Steelers 2016 draft need at nose tackle/defensive tackle at must be considered High.

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Giants Sign Will Johnson Steelers Free Agent Fullback

The Arizona Cardinals have long been known as “Pittsburgh West,” the Tennessee Titans have made a play to call themselves “Pittsburgh South” and the Buffalo Bills could arguably be called, “Pittsburgh North East.”

  • IS it time to start calling the New York City Pittsburgh on the Hudson?

That may be a little premature, but today’s free agency news saw the New York Giants sign Will Johnson, Steelers hybrid fullback and tight end. This comes on the heels of the New York Jets decision to sign Steve McLendon. Former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon signed with the New York Jets in 2013 after being cut by the Steelers and played there in 2014 and 2015, although he remains a free agent.

Will Johnson caught the Pittsburgh Steelers eye at a West Virginia Pro Day after he’d been out of football for a year. The Steelers signed Johnson as an undrafted rookie free agent, but went into training camp thinking that David Johnson would be making the transition to full time fullback under Todd Haley’s first season as offensive coordinator.

Will Johnson’s role with the Steelers began to evolve in 2015, as Roosevelt Nix’s emergence allowed the Steelers to use Johnson as a tight end, although he did serve as a short yardage back in relief of DeAngelo Williams while Le’Veon Bell was suspended.

Normally, Will Johnson is the type of free agent the Steelers want to keep, but Roosevelt Nix, a converted defensive lineman, did quite well at fullback this season, making Will Johnson expendable.

Terms of Will Johnson’s contract are not currently available, but it does run for two years, binding him to the team until 2017.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Steelers Free Agency 2016 Poll Results Complete

In the end, Brandon Boykin got a lot of love from Steelers Nation. Or at least this corner of it. As the Steelers 2016 pre-draft visits have begun, Steel Curtain Rising has taken down its Steelers free agency 2016 poll. While it is possible, perhaps even probable the Steelers will make move free agent moves before convening training camp in Latrobe at St. Vincents, the organization’s focus has clearly shift to the draft.

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Steelers Nation voted on Steelers 2016 Free Agents

  • But over the last 45 days or so, Steelers Nation has had a chance to vote on what they think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be doing.

Brandon Boykin was the third most popular Steelers free agent, William Gay was first with 51 votes and Ramon Foster was second with 46, followed by Boykin’s 41. The Steelers resigned William Gay and Ramon Foster, but let prance to the Carolina Panthers. Darrius Heyward-Bey came in fourth, whom the Steelers also resigned.

No one outside of that group got more than 30 votes. Almost as many people wanted to see Kelvin Beachum protecting Ben Roethlisberger (25), as want to see Bruce Gradkowski back him up (24). No one else got more than 20 votes.

  • The next highest vote getter is somewhat of a surprise: Doug Legursky who got 19 votes.

Steel Curtain Rising sung Legursky’s praises when he first reached free agency in 2013 and warned the losing Legursky could carry consequences (it did) and scolded the Pittsburgh media for not even bothering to cover it when he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, this site did not call for Legursky’s return to Pittsburgh, but a good chunk of our readers have.

Both remain unsigned and at this point will likely stay that way until after the draft. The Steelers may still bring back Will Johnson, but word is Will Allen will not return. Steelers long snapper Greg Warren also got 18 votes, although the Steelers had already resigned Warren before the voting began.

Below Warren and the Wills, only Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin found double digit support in Steelers Nation, with Michael Vick, Byron Stingily, Clifton GeathersCam Thomas, Jordan Todman and David Nelson (who?) all polling in single digits.

Of the group above, only Jordan Todman has signed elsewhere, and the Steelers are not likely to resign any of those players. Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted in our poll, and encourages you to vote in our Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Poll.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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