Watch Tower: Gabe Rivera-Ryan Shazier Connection, 2018 & 2003 Draft, OLB Swap & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.

Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.

But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.

Gabe Rivera, Gabriel Rivera, Steelers 1983 draft

Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com

Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers

Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.

  • And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.

Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.

  • However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.

Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.

The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Who Is Mike Tomlin?

Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”

Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live feed notwithstanding.)

  • But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.

In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.

  • Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.

During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”

  • Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.

Junod traveled to Pittsburgh three times and was with the team training prior to the Pro Bowl. During that time Junod talked to, or at least secured quotes from strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont, Pittsburgh pastor Ed Glover, former Tomlin coach Bill Stewart, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Tony Dungy, Joe Haden, Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Mitchell, Cam Heyward and Ryan Clark.

  • Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”

Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.

Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present

Is ESPN’s Jermey Fowler a Watch Tower reader? The odds are against it, but he has nonetheless been answering our pleas. Three years ago, the Watch Tower lamented the dearth of stories that provided insight into the Steelers draft process, drawing a contrast with the rich narrative that surrounds the Steelers drafts of the 70’s.

Troy Polamalu, touchdown, AFC Championship, pick six, touchdown

Troy Polamalu’s AFC Championship Touchdown

This year Fowler delivered again with an article on the Troy Polamalu trade. As with his article on Brown, Fowler didn’t have much luck getting current Steelers employees to discuss the trade, but he still shed new light on one of the most consequential draft-day trades in Steelers history.

  • Once again, Fowler wins Watch Tower kudos.

Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.

Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.

So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.

Split on OLB Shift Story

The decision to swap Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from right to left OLB is the few bits of true news to come out of Steelers OTAs. Dale Lolley had Jim Wexell had indicated to their readers that this move was coming early in the off season, and addition reporting by Wexell during OTA’s suggests the move is permanent.

  • Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.

Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.

Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee

In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.

  • As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.

Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?

Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.

Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.

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Back to Basics: Keith Butler’s Promise for Steelers to Practice Tackling is Music to the Ears

“Back to Basics.” Chuck Noll would be smiling broadly if he’d heard Keith Butler‘s promise that the Steelers would be practicing tackling at St. Vincents during summer of 2018. If Michael MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work is any guide, Chuck Noll uttered “Back to Basics” as much if not more than Mike Tomlin trots out “The Standard is the Standard.”

Sean Davis after missing a tackle on Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via USA Today For the Win.

Chuck Noll was complex person – how many other NFL coaches killed time before playoff games by reading books on celestial maritime navigation – but his coaching philosophies were simple. Noll understood that you win championships by excelling at doing ordinary things – blocking, tackling, taking the right angles, etc…

And that’s why Noll would instruct Andy Russell, the only legitimate Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin, how many inches his feet should be apart, and how to hold his hands prior to the snap. Thus, Andy Russell grew from a good player to a great player.

Seriously, if the Steelers fail to bag Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 do you REALLY think its because Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed a couple of days of OTAs? Troy Polamalu routinely missed OTAs and he seemed to do just fine.

But Steelers OTAs and minicamps sometimes yield useful news nuggets, and hopefully defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s comments about the pitiful state of tackling in Pittsburgh will prove to be one of them. Per the Tribune-Review’s Joe Rutter’s report, Butler isn’t pulling any punches in his self-assessment: “It’s as simple as you can get. Look at the whole last year and we missed a ton of tackles.”

  • Fortunately, Butler plans to do something about it.

According to Butler, the Steelers plan to focus on tackling during training camp, offering that the art of tackling isn’t even something that’s taught much at the college level anymore:

When we get them, we can’t think they know the fundamentals of playing football, we have to teach them the fundamentals of playing football, and it’s our job to do that.

Those are refreshing words from a defensive coordinator of a team that gave up three rushing touchdowns to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a single quarter during the AFC Divisional playoff game. For years, fans have complained about how missed tackles have plagued the Steelers, peppering beat reporters like Ed Bouchette with questions about why things never improve.

  • Bouchette would remind readers that live tackling in practice was a relic, of well, Chuck Noll’s time.

It should be noted, at St. Vincents in Steelers 2013 Mike Tomlin departed from the script and ordered live tackling during training camp. Tomlin hadn’t even told Kevin Colbert he was going to do this, who apparently went apoplectic when he saw it. Tomlin’s goal was to form a “battle hardened unit.”

That didn’t quite work, as the Steelers lost 4 starters to injury on opening day and went 0-4 and then 2-6. And no one rushed to apologize, “But they’re the best tackling 0-4 team we’ve ever seen….”

  • But there’s a difference between simply having live tackling in practice and actually teaching tackling.

Butler’s comments suggest that Steelers coaches are going to focus on the latter. No ever one solved a problem they failed to acknowledge. Butler clearly recognizes the Steelers problem with missed tackles, and he plans to address it, by going back to basics. Chuck Noll would concur.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Steelers 2018 Draft Class Proves that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin Don’t Live in their Fears

The Steelers 2018 draft class is complete. Suffice to say, things didn’t play out as outsiders expected.

By consensus, the Steelers biggest need in the 2018 NFL Draft was at inside linebacker. Drafting Le’Veon Bell’s replacement would have been wise. And the conventional wisdom dictated by the manhandling suffered at the hands of Jacksonville that the Steelers hit defense early and often.

  • So how did Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin conduct this draft?
Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin shake hands with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

The duo refused to live in their fears, ignored the critics and marched to their own tune during the draft. Now that the dust has settled, the Steelers have concluded the 2018 NFL Draft and they:

  • Didn’t pick up an inside linebacker
  • Drafted a safety which few “experts” felt was first round worthy
  • Invested only 1 of 4 premium picks on defense and 4 of Pittsburgh’s overall 7 picks were on offense
  • Made zero attempt to replace Le’Veon Bell

That surprised many in Steelers Nation, yours truly included. But it shouldn’t have. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert don’t make personnel decision out of fear. And while need has influenced their picks in the past, it is pretty clear that the Steelers stuck to their draft board.

Here’s the Steelers 2018 Draft Class at a Glance:

1st round, Terrell Edmunds, Safety, Virginia Tech
2nd round, James Washington, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
3rd round A, Mason Rudolph, Quarterback, Oklahoma State
3rd round B, Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle, West Michigan
5th round A, Marcus Allen, Safety, Penn State
5th round, Jaylen Samuels, Running Back, North Carolina State
7th round, Joshua Frazier, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin got everyone talking by picking Terrell Edmunds. Mel Kipper Jr. had him rated as the draft’s 8th best safety. Some sites had him rated as the 20th best safety in the draft. Better safeties, in the eyes of many, remained on the board.

  • What to make of this?

As a draft ignoramus, I won’t hazard an argument. The experts, with a few exceptions, didn’t like it. There are only two or three decision makers in the Steelers draft room vs. an infinite number of pundits racing to offer instant evaluations.

Listening to the cascade of criticism generated by Terrell Edmunds pick reminded me of reaction to the New York Jet’s decision to draft Jeff Lageman in the 1989 NFL Draft. The legendary Pete Axthelm went so far as to joke that the Exxon Valdez hadn’t been piloted by scouts for the Jets. Lageman ended up making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and had a solid career, if one that fell below his status of the 14th pick.

In contrast, Mel Kipper Jr. praised the Steelers 1985 Draft Class, which turned out to be one of the worst in modern era and had to have contributed to Dan Rooney’s decision to fire Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.

And as everyone in Steelers Nation knows, the legendary Vic Stiletto panned the Steelers 1974 Draft Class after day one for not having improved themselves at punter. The 1974 haul brought Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster to Pittsburgh, all four of whom current have busts honoring them in Canton.

  • Will something similar happen to Terrell Edmunds? Will he become this generation’s Troy Polamalu? Will Mason Rudolph prove to be Ben Roethlisberger’s Aaron Rogers?

Time will tell. In the short-term the perception of the success or failure of this draft is going to hinge on whether Terrell Edmunds matches Tomlin and Colbert’s expectations or those of the pundits. But Mason Rudolph offers an “X” factor. The Steelers apparently had a 1st round grade on him, and if he proves to be a worthy success to Big Ben then this draft will be a success even if Edmunds is as base as the Mel Kipper Jr.’s of the world assure us he is.

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Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs – There’s No “Safety in Numbers” Pittsburgh Needs Talent Instead

The 2018 off season has already seen the Pittsburgh Steelers make numerous changes to their roster, and no area has seen more renovations than safety.

Interestingly enough, the two additions have come via free agency, which has been the preferred method of filling this critical spot on the depth chart of Kevin Colbert, the sterling example of Troy Polamalu notwithstanding. Has the free agent market has restocked Steelers sufficiently or should the Steelers target safety in the 2018 NFL Draft?

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The concept of “starter” at safety has perhaps never been more nebulous in Steelers history. Sean Davis of course will return, but his role may be changing as a shift from strong safety to free safety is being openly discussed.

The Steelers of course drafted Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Davis became an immediate starter and performed so well that Davis earned Joe Green Great Performance Award aka rookie of the year honors.

  • 2017 did not go as well for Davis, as he struggled at times and failed to make that vaunted 2nd year leap.

If Gerry Dulac’s reporting is any guide, the Steelers view some of the criticism leveled at Sean Davis to be unfair, particularly for the rough outing he suffered at the hands of Tom Brady and Ron Gronkowski in the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Take that for what you will, the Steelers went at great pains to try to defect critism from Jarvis Jones and perhaps are doing the same thing with Bud Dupree.

  • But if nothing else, it shows the Steelers still have confidence in Sean Davis.

The Steelers of course signed Morgan Burnett to replace Mike Mitchell, although his role has yet to be defined. Some have suggested he’ll play more of a dime linebacker role, similar to what William Gay played last season.

However, the Steelers are paying Morgan Burnett over 4 million dollars a year which is not the type of contract you give to a situational player. Burnett figures to start in the Steelers secondary, and brings a strong pedigree to the team, including a reputation for being an excellent tackler and strong communicator.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Behind Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett, the Steelers have J.J. Wilcox, Jordan Dangerfield and Nat Berhe.

The Steelers acquired Wilcox via a trade prior to the season, and he saw immediate playing time in the team’s first three games, only to see his participation essentially disappear after that – all but 10 of Wilcox’s 134 defensive snaps came in the first three games of the season.

  • Wilcox was reputed to be a cap casualty, but he’s with the team now, perhaps because new secondary coach Tom Bradley saw something he liked.

The Steelers likely traded for Wilcox because Jordan Dangerfield got injured during preseason. Dangerfield spent the 2014 and 2015 season on the Steelers practice squad before landing a spot on the regular season roster in 2016 where he saw action in 14 regular season games and two post-season games.

The Steelers also recently signed Nat Berhe. Berhe is seen as more of a replacement of Robert Golden, who’d led the Steelers special teams for several seasons, but struggled when called into action in the secondary.

Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs

As mentioned at the top, Kevin Colbert has historically relied on free agency fill needs at safety more frequently than he has for probably any other position. One of his first moves was to bring in Brett Alexander in the 2000 off season. A year later it was Mike Logan. Further on down the road he looked to Ryan Clark and then Mike Mitchell.

  • Of course, Kevin Colbert hit a grand slam home run when he traded up to draft Troy Polamalu in the 1st round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

And, his sophomore struggles notwithstanding, Sean Davis the early returns on Sean Davis are positive. Yet Kevin Colbert also used premium picks on Anthony Smith and Shamarko Thomas, two players who can only be described as busts.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Any look at the Steelers depth chart at safety reveals an inconvenient truth: The Steelers have quantity of unknown quality.

There are some positions on a football team where you can “get by,” to a certain extent, but substituting a little quantity for lack of quality. Safety is not one of those. There’s no way to wall paper over things when your safety gets beaten deep, fails to provide a double coverage or takes a wrong angle after a running back has breached the second level.

By signing Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe the Steelers have wisely insulated themselves from the need of having to reach to fill this position, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 draft needs at safety must be considered High-Moderate.

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Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

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Surprise! Steelers Cut Robert Golden Along with William Gay and Mike Mitchell

The Pittsburgh Steelers cut Mike Mitchell and William Gay today, making official what everyone has been common knowledge for the past several days. However, the day’s news contained a surprise as it also saw the Steelers cut Robert Golden, their special teams captain and reserve safety.

Both Mike Mitchell and William Gay had been expected to be salary cap casualties, although Mitchell’s play had seen a noticeable drop in 2017 and William Gay was clearly losing a step.

  • Robert Golden’s departure  however had not been on anyone’s radar screen.
Robert Golden, Steelers cut Robert Golden, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier

Robert Golden in the Steelers 2017 home win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Robert Golden will save the Steelers $1,475,000 in salary cap space although he will carry a dead money charge of $416,668. The move deprives the Steelers of the man who has been their special teams captain for several consecutive seasons, and leaves the franchise with only three experienced safeties in the form of Sean Davis, J.J. Wilcox and Jordan Dangerfield.

  • It has been rumored that cornerback Cam Sutton might move to safety, and Golden’s departure makes that far more likely.

Robert Golden came to Pittsburgh as part of the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent class and he accomplished a rare feat that season by not only making the roster, but also getting snaps with the secondary as a rookie.

Indeed, going into training camp at St. Vincents during the summer of 2013 rumblings on the internet even held that if strong training camp performances by Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas could make Ryan Clark expendable. That never came to pass.

  • And Robert Golden’s role as a reserve safety was slow to emerge as Will Allen played the proverbial “next man” up behind Clark, Mitchell and Troy Polamalu.

Golden got his first serious action at safety in 2015 in relief of Will Allen and Steelers thought enough of him to resign Robert Golden to a 3 year contract in the spring of 2016. During the 2016 season Golden became a more familiar face in the lineup by 2016. But Golden clearly struggled in the role, and his presence in the secondary was ultimately a liability.

  • Still, Golden’s role on special teams appeared to ensure a spot on the roster.

If nothing else, Robert Golden leaves Pittsburgh with a perfect 2-2 passer rating, having completed passes on fake punts in the Steelers 2014 home win over the Browns and their 2017 home win against the Bengals. For the record, Robert Golden appeared in 92 games for the Steelers, made 12 starts had 2 interceptions, forced 1 fumble and recovered 2 more.

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

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Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers Simply Aren’t Suited for Splash Free Agency Signings

Are the Steelers suited for splash free agency? That question came to mind when news broke late Friday that the Steelers were indeed planning to cut Mike Mitchell for salary cap reasons.

  • The impending decision to cut Mike Mitchell, paired with the Ladarius Green experiment along with an article by Simon Chester reminded me of a poem I once read.

Yes, a poem penned by Jimmy Carter (yes, that “Jimmy Carter,” but fear not, politics remains a verboten topic on this site) and told of how, when his father first succeeded in the peanut business, he mail ordered an expensive suit only to have it fit badly when it arrived. He titled the poem “Prosperity Doesn’t Suit Everyone.”

Might the same lesson apply to the Steelers and free agency, at least under Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s watch?

  • Well, it certainly feels that way now.
Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Bears

Mike Mitchell fails to stop Jordan Howard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Charles Palla, via Twitter

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency. In the 1990’s fans would howl over the Steelers decision to devote their salary cap dollars to resigning stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Greg Lloyd, while opting to let other teams over pay players like Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson.

The opening of Heinz Field in 2001 gave the Steelers the resources to keep more of their own players. And victories Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII validate the Steelers approach.

Yet One for the Thumb and the Lombardi Six Pack haven’t stopped fans from lamenting the fact that Dan Rooney’s team doesn’t act more like Daniel Snyder’s team the off season Lombardi race.

  • Yet, the Steelers started free agency with a bang during two of the last four off seasons.

In 2014 it meant signing Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark, and in 2016 it meant signing Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller. Both were day one, big money deals which were decidedly out of character for the franchise.

Sure, the Steelers opened free agency in 2010 by signing Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, Will Allen, Jonathan Scott and Arnz Battle. But those modest contracts were completely consistent with Pittsburgh’s free agency philosophy even if the timing wasn’t.

The Difference with the Mitchell and Green Signings

The signings of Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were different. While they certainly weren’t Albert Haynesworth break-the bank blowup the salary cap type contracts, they also weren’t the type of bargain hunting/best-bang for the buck type free agent the Steeler are known for.

  • And both Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were disappointments.

In his six games with the Steelers Ladarius Green delivered the “field flipping” capability that Mike Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh to provide. But the Steelers signed him to a 4 year contract, so they were expecting another 58 games or so. Ladarius Green remains out of football either because his ankle never healed correctly, because of concussions or because of both.

  • Mike Mitchell is a little different.

Mike Mitchell earned the wrath of Steelers Nation during 2014, even though he was playing with an groin injury throughout the season. He also failed to jell with Troy Polamalu, which is why the Steelers defense closed 2014 on a high note with Will Allen starting alongside Mitchell.

In 2015 Mike Mitchell made a number of plays, including a few drive killing interceptions in the Red Zone. Mitchell didn’t make as many “Splash” plays in 2016, but his tackle and pass defensed numbers were on par with 2017.

  • Consensus by analysts both inside and outside Pittsburgh concludes that 2017 was a disaster for Mike Mitchell. He defensed a total of two passes, and his tackle count was down by more than a third.

Mitchell might unfairly get scapegoated by fans for more things than are actually his fault, but clearly he hasn’t delivered as the Steelers expected, or needed.

What Do the Mitchell and Green Disappointments Tell Us?

A few weeks ago on Simon Chester, the best writer on staff at The Steelers Wire, opined that “Steelers history with free agency far from inspiring.” It certainly feels that way now, given how badly the Ladarius Green experiment failed and how uneven Mike Mitchell’s tenure in Pittsburgh was.

Yet Chester’s analysis literally began with Greg Clark, one of the first free agents the Steelers signed and one who never saw the final roster and wasn’t overly colored by recent events.

  • Nonetheless, to declare the Steelers history with free agency as uninspiring is an over reaction.

The Steelers have acquired the services of future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and perennial Pro Bowlers James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark through free agency. They’ve also found quality starters like fullback John Williams, defensive end Ray Seals and offensive lineman like Will Wolford and Tom Newberry. And they’ve excelled at finding backups who deliver like starters when called upon, with Arthur Moats and Mewelde Moore providing recent examples.

  • But there’s a common thread to all of these free agent moves.

Almost none of them were considered “splash free agency signings.” The Steelers only signed Kevin Greene after the Chargers offered an inane one year restricted free agent tender to Jerrol Williams. The Steelers only signed James Farrior after getting wind that Earl Holmes was shopping Pittsburgh’s offer to the Browns.

In the spring of 1994, Steelers Nation was clamoring for Pittsburgh to poach Daryl Johnson and Alvin Harper  from the Cowboys — John L. Williams and Ray Seals were consultation prizes. When the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the 2nd round of the 2006 NFL Draft, they planned for him and not Ryan Clark, the free agent they’d signed earlier, to be the long term starter at safety.

  • Its not that the Steelers can’t hit home runs in free agency — the can and they have — but it almost seems like they’re more likely to hit them without trying.

Maybe its just coincidence, but its hard not to think of this and remember the lesson that Art Rooney Sr. tried to teach his kids when he admonished them to drive a Buick instead of a Cadillac  “Never put on the dog.”

Perhaps its a lesson his grandson would do well to remember as the Steelers approach free agency this spring.

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Why Steelers Linebacker T.J. Watt Could Be Pittsburgh Defense’s Next Big Playmaker

With the apparent permanent loss of sensational inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, due to the horrific spinal injury he suffered in a Monday night game against the Bengals last December 4 in Cincinnati, the Steelers‘ defense appears to be severely lacking in the play-maker department as the team sets its sights on free-agency and the upcoming draft.

But while it is true that Pittsburgh may never effectively replace the talents that Shazier brought to the defense before his injury–even though the organization must make that a top priority this spring–this doesn’t mean the unit doesn’t have a potential replacement, at least in terms of someone it can count on to make big plays at key moments.

  • I’m talking about outside linebacker T.J. Watt, a rookie sensation in 2017 if there ever was one.

Unlike some other defensive rookies in previous years, Watt appeared to be the real deal right from the onset of OTAs and training camp, and he continued to impress in live action, starting with two sacks in his very first preseason game against the Giants.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Speaking of two sacks, Watt recorded two official ones in a Week 1 win over the Browns on September 10. Along with those two sacks–and two more quarterback pressures–Watt displayed the kind of athleticism that–no offense to him–the legendary James Harrison couldn’t even have dreamed of in his prime, when the rookie skied high in the air to pull down an interception thrown by fellow rookie DeShone Kizer.

All throughout 2017, Watt continued to show that his football bloodlines ran deep (his older brother is the famous J.J. Watt) and displayed the kind of all-around talent not seen at the outside linebacker position in Pittsburgh arguably since Chad Brown manned the position in 1996.

In-fact, Watt was the only linebacker in the entire league–rookie or veteran–who had a stat-line that consisted of at least 50 tackles (52), five sacks (seven), five passes defensed (seven) and an interception (one).

Watt also demonstrated he might have that all-important clutch gene, as evidenced by, among other things, a blocked field goal in a game against the Titans in Week 11; and, more importantly, a strip sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco three weeks later, a play that effectively clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh.

  • Does this mean the Steelers shouldn’t put a top priority on finding another capable inside linebacker?

Of course not.

  • Does this mean T.J. Watt should be that inside linebacker, as has been suggested by some pundits and fans alike?

Of course not.

Ryan Shazier was the Steelers greatest defensive play-maker since the legendary Troy Polamalu made life miserable for opposing offenses for well-over a decade, but unlike Polamalu, Shazier was no safety.

Defensive play-makers–those terrors that keep opposing offensive coordinators up late at night–they come in all shapes and sizes…and can play just about any position.

T.J. Watt, outside linebacker, Wisconsin, just might be the Steelers next great defensive play-maker.

 

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