Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Art Rooney II Says Steelers Play Too Many Night Games. Fans Living East of US Eastern Time Agree

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II made a rather head turning statement to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The thing that concerns me about our attendance is more related to our schedule — I would rather not have as many night games.”

Steelers fans who live outside of the United States, and specifically those of us who are ahead of Eastern Time wholeheartedly agree.

  • Both sentiments might strike you as counter-intuitive and for good reason.

After all, going into the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 46-24 on Monday Night Football and 26-5 at home. When playing under the lights on Sunday Night Football the Steelers record isn’t quite as strong, but is still 28-20 overall and 14-7 at home.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Indeed, the greatest game in Heinz Field history, the 2008 AFC Championship win over the Ravens that featured Troy Polamalu’s belief-defying pick six, came in Prime Time on Sunday night. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg:

And that’s only counting the Mike Tomlin era. Bill Cowher started 6-0 on Monday Night. With breakout performances like these, you’d expect Art Rooney II to petition Roger Goodell to schedule all the Steelers games in Prime Time, wouldn’t you?

  • Except he’s not, and he has a good reason.

As Rooney explains to Bouchette, “Last year we had three home night games almost in a row. I just don’t think our fans want to do that anymore.” The NFL is facing an issue with declining attendance, and while the Steelers still have a 20 year season ticket waiting list, they were not immune to the decline.

The problem as Rooney sees it, is asking fans to brave the cold and the commute home at night for three straight games. That’s sound business sense, but fans who live ahead of US Eastern time have a more selfish reason for agreeing:

  • Night games are pure hell, even when you’re watching on TV.

Early in the season, before the US switches its clocks to fall back, games start at 9:30 pm instead of 8:30 here in Buenos Aires. That projects to a 12:30 am finish which is manageable. But after the US switches clocks, we’re two hours behind. An 8:30 game starts at 10:30 and doesn’t end until 1:30 am at the earliest.

  • By the time you clean up, take the contact lenses out, perhaps pop up a poll and you’re lucky to have your head hitting the pillow by 2:30 am.

And if it’s a close game, featuring a lot of Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown heroics or a critical Cam Heyward sack or stop, you’ve got the adrenaline flowing and, lets face it, you’re not falling asleep right away.

  • Which means you’ve got to get up for work and start the week in sleep deprivation mode.

Night games also wreak havoc with bloggers. Traffic peaks the morning after a game, and there’s no chance to get anything but a stub up between a night game’s finish and starting work the next morning.

  • If you’re really efficient and suffer no unexpected delays in your work day you might get something up for the early evening publishing window.

Playing in Prime Time is a sign of excellence and a point of pride for both players and fans. But when Art Rooney II says he wishes the Steelers played less on prime time, the only reaction that fans living to east of the Eastern Time Zone can possibly summon is a simple “We agree.”

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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