Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Trade for J.J. Wilcox from Buccaneers, Bolstering Safety Depth

How much value can you squeeze out of a sixth round draft pick? A lot apparently.

A year ago the Steelers traded their 6th round pick of the 2018 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Justin Gilbert. When the Steelers 2017 roster was assembled, it was done in part by trading Sammie Coates to the Cleveland Browns for that self-same 6th round pick (they also gave Cleveland their 2019 7th round pick).

Steelers trade for J.J. Wilcox, J.J. Wilcox, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Cowboys

The Steelers now will hope J.J. Wilcox has better luck covering running backs not named Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

A day later we find the Pittsburgh Steelers trading their 6th round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for safety J.J. Wilcox and Tampa’s 7th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

When the Denver Broncos cut safety T.J. Ward (apparently the initial “J.” is in vogue in Pittsburgh) speculation mounted that the Steelers would sign him, but he instead signed with the Buccaneers, making J.J. Wilcox expendable.

  • The Steelers need depth at Safety.

Starting free safety Mike Mitchell has been injured all summer and his status for the season opener is unknown. Reserve safety Jordan Dangerfield injured himself in the Steelers final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. Robert Golden has been healthy, but his play at safety has been spotty at best. William Gay will also play safety some this season, but he’s untested at that position (not to mention on the wrong side of 30 for a defensive back.)

J.J. Wilcox appeared in 58 games for the Cowboys, and made 38 starts, logging 5 interceptions and forcing two fumbles by Pro Football Reference’s count. While the trade for J.J. Wilcox is official, he does not formally join the Steelers roster until Labor Day. At the time the Steelers will have to make two more roster moves, to make way for Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell.

While it is unlikely that J.J. Wilcox will start immediately, unlike Joe Haden, he could see playing time sooner rather than later. The Steelers 2017 secondary will have a very different look from its 2016 counterpart as with Ross Cockrell in New York, William Gay playing a new position, and two new faces added at the tail, tail end of the 2017 off season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Is James Harrison on the Roster Bubble? Or are the Steelers “Bettising” Him?

Is Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison roster spot in jeopardy? Recent comments by linebackers coach Joey Porter seem to open that door.

  • Yet it is also possible that the Steelers are “Bettising” their linebacking legend.

Joey Porter’s announcement that first round draft pick TJ Watt will start at outside linebacker across from Bud Dupree and that neither will rotate is welcome news.

James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons

James Harrison roars at practice while Lawrence Timmons looks on. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Finding a starter-capable player at right outside linebacker was one critical question the Steelers needed to answer “Yes” two during training camp, and it appears they leave St. Vincents having done so. But they will also leave St. Vincent’s without James Harrison having practiced with the team, which isn’t all that out of the ordinary, given that Harrison doesn’t need the reps.

But before the Steelers preseason opener against the Giants, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell identified 15 potential open slots on the Steelers roster and 38 locks, leave Harrison and William Gay as “almost locks.”

  • In Wexell’s view a combination of a numbers game with Harrison not showing enough speed could put him in jeopardy.

Regardless of whether Wexell was simply speculating or musing about something he’d heard off the record, Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter’s conversation with Joey Porter thickened the plot, as Porter declared:

We know what he can do. At the same time, you want to see a little bit to make sure he still has got it,” Everybody has to be tested to see if you still got it. We can assume something. But the NFL, sometimes you just wake up one day and that pop is gone. There will be a time when we take the wrapping off of him and let him go out there so we can see if it’s still that James from last year.

That, combined with James Harrison being held out of practice, was enough to get Dale Lolley to question whether the Steelers were preparing to move on from James Harrison.

While that’s certainly a possibility, such a move would be out of character for the Steelers. It’s well known that Chuck Noll held on to too many of his starters from the 70’s for too long, but institutional memory has largely kept the team from making the same mistake, as James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward learned during the 2012 off season.

The Steelers not only brought Harrison back, but offered him a two year deal, with Harrison proclaiming his desire to play into his 40s. The Steelers cut plenty of players before their contracts expire – think Justin Hartwig or Willie Colon, but it’s rare for them to cut someone after signing them to a new contract (Greg Warren excepted, although word is the Steelers did it this way so that Warren would benefit financially.)

Are the Steelers Bettising James Harrison?

The other possibility is that the Steleers are “Bettising” James Harrison. “Bettising” of course refers to Steelers Hall of Fame Running back Jerome Bettis, who began hearing calls from the experts (Mike Prisuta, for example) as early as the 2002 season.

  • And while Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney didn’t pay much heed to those calls, outside criticism his ability still served to motivate Bettis late in his career.
Jerome Bettis, Ryan Clark

Jerome Bettis and Ryan Clark at St. Vincents in 2015. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Could the Steelers be doing something similar with James Harrison? It is possible but unlikely. James Harrison, who was in the weight room at 5:00 am the morning after the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs, epitomes the concept of “self-starter.” He needs no motivation.

So on the one hand, you have the Steelers who don’t typically sign veterans and then cut them, on the other hand you have two veteran reporters who are not wont to suggest that someone of James Harrison’s stature is on the roster bubble as a matter of idle speculation.

To be clear, Jim Wexell has reiterated that he expects to see Harrison on the final roster. And even offered this after Harrion’s “mob interview” at St. Vincents:

As someone who would love nothing more than to see James Harrison hosting Lombardi Number 7 alongside Ben Roethlisberger, the hope here is that Wexell’s instinct is right and  Mike Tomlin and Joey Porter are in fact “Bettising” Deebo.

Time will tell. But until then, we’ll chalk this up as a case of 2+2 not quite equaling four.

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

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

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

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

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

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

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Don’t Sweat Senquez Golson’s Injury History. He Can Still Contribute to Steelers 2017 Secondary

It must be a helpless feeling to be a young NFL player and have to sit out two-straight years with injuries. As former Houston Oilers head coach and Chuck Noll nemesis Jerry Glanville once argued, the NFL stands for “Not For Long.”

There are other sayings, such as “You can’t make the club in the tub” but they all describe the harsh realities of trying to make it in the NFL when you’re physically unable to show what you can do. And it’s possible Senquez Golson, the third-year corner out of Ole Mississippi who the Steelers selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, has heard them all by now.

Senquez Golson, Steelers 2017 OTAs, Steelers 2017 Secondary, Senquez Golson injury

Senquez Golson @ Steelers OTAs. Photo credit: 247sports.com

Senquez Golson arrived to Pittsburgh two seasons ago and, before even taking his first training camp rep, was being counted on heavily by the Steelers coaching staff to come right in and assume the role as the starting slot corner.

Unfortunately for Senquez Golson, he never did get to take that one training camp rep in his rookie year, as an offseason shoulder injury ultimately required surgery and shelved him for the all of 2015.

  • Fast-forward to last summer around this time; expectations were still high for Golson to boost a struggling Steelers secondary.

While the more cynical segment in Steelers Nation (OK, it was this site) wondered aloud if Senquez Golson might not end up as this generation’s Kris Farris,  as head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff were clearly counting on incorporating Golson into the Steelers defensive backfield heading into 2016. But while Senquez Golson did participate in training camp last season, it amounted to the proverbial cup of coffee, as he suffered a foot injury barely a week after reporting to Latrobe, Pa.

Although the Steelers kept Golson on their 53 man roster at the start of the season with hope that he might some time in November, Pittsburgh placed Senquez Golson on Injured Reserve and missed his second straight campaign.

That’s Golson’s story.

Steelers Secondary has Moved on in Golson’s Absence

The story of the Steelers secondary while Golson has sat out two years in a row has been many more draft picks added to the mix–including cornerback Artie Burns (first round) and safety Sean Davis (second round) last year; and Cameron Sutton (third round) and Brian Allen (fifth round) this past draft.

The story of the secondary has also been improvement, as Artie Burns and Sean Davis eventually assumed starting roles as the 2016 campaign rolled along and helped a passing defense improve to 16th in the NFL after finishing 30th one season earlier.

Sean Davis, Chris Conely, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Davis lays in the wood on Chris Conley during the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Regarding Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, like with most new draft picks, optimism has abounded this offseason, especially after both players made decent showings in rookie camp, minicamp and OTAs.

Yes, it must be quite disconcerting for a young player to have to sit on the sidelines, while other youngsters playing the same position are either now producing in the NFL or are drawing praise from their coaches and even the fans.

  • What might be even more troubling for Golson is that his bosses — especially general manager Kevin Colbert–may be ready to move on.

“Through no fault of his own, he has been injured two years in a row,” Colbert told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette in a story published on May 24.“And in all honesty, I worry about a defensive back coming off a foot injury because you don’t know what he’s going to be like and we won’t know until we get into OTA’s and mini-camps and things of that nature.”

Not the greatest vote of confidence from a man whose opinion counts more than anyone’s except for maybe Mike Tomlin’s.

But if Senquez Golson is indeed healthy, the opportunity is certainly there for him to become a factor in the secondary.

How Senquez Golson Can Contribute in 2017

Yes, Ross Cockrell appears to have the corner spot opposite Burns locked down. Yes, William Gay is still around as the wily old veteran, while journeyman Coty Sensabaugh was added to the mix as a free agent this offseason.

However, despite starting 15 games–including many at the slot position–it was believed Gay’s play began to slip as the 2016 campaign drew to a close. As for Coty Sensabaugh, after five years in the league with three different teams, what you’ve seen from his so far is probably what you’re going to get moving forward.

In other words, those veterans don’t have upside, whereas Senquez Golson, who came to the pros after a decorated college career at Mississippi that included 10 interceptions and being voted a first-team All-American in his senior season, does.

It is true you make similar statements about both Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, but the difference with Senquez Golson is that, while he has missed his first two seasons, he has had the benefit of attending meetings and learning defensive coordinator Keith Butler‘s playbook and system.

  • Are mental reps in the classroom more beneficial than physical reps on the practice field?

Probably not, but having two years of knowledge should definitely put Senquez Golson on a more solid ground than the incoming class of rookies. “At this point, the only thing I’m missing is in-game experience,” Golson explained to Ed Bouchette, “I pretty much have the basics down. I don’t feel any hitch, no falloff, nothing like that.”

  • Senquez Golson later added: “Healthy, I’m still the same guy they drafted.”

If that is the case, it would certainly be premature and short-sighted for anyone to write Senquez Golson off as a potential contributor to the Steelers secondary in 2017.

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4 Steelers 2017 OTAs Story Lines to Avoid (But That You Probably Can’t Resist)

Today marks the mid-point of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 OTA’s or “Oragniazed Team Activities” for those of you who insist on precision. That means that there’s only four more left after today. But fear not, there’s also minicamp.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be the first person to caution against drawing conclusions from “football in shorts.”

And he’s right. Nonetheless, there are times when OTA’s and/or Minicamp have provided insight into the direction of the Steelers. But reading last Tuesday morning’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s headline “7 Steelers Storylines as OTA’s Begin” inspired me to write the “4 Steelers 2017 OTA Storylines to Avoid” article….

…And then I started reading coverage from the first week of Steelers OTA’s, took my Black and Gold blood pressure, and added the “Probably Can’t Resist” part. You’ll see why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 OTAs

Will 2017 mark Ben Roethlisberger’s final Steelers OTAs? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

1. The Roethlisberger Retirement Story

This is probably the most unavoidable of the ones to avoid. Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t talked to the press since dropping the R-word following the Steelers AFC Championship loss. So you knew this was coming. And let’s be honest, Jerry Micco & company would woefully neglectful NOT publishing a story on it.

  • As it turns out, Ben Roethlisberger proclaimed and demonstrated his 110% commitment to 2017 and refused to go further.

So in other words, Ben Rothlisberger has confirmed that his playing days are now on a year-to-year basis. We knew that already. So really, there’s no story there….

…And with that said, if seeing Ben Roethlisberger proclaim…

I am here on Day One. You saw me out there taking every rep I am supposed to take, and then some. I actually took some of the rookies’ today. I am 110 percent committed, like I said I was I love this city. I love these guys. I love being out here. Football is a passion of mine. It’s what I do and it’s what I love to do.

…Doesn’t make you wish opening days was this Sunday, then you’re not a real Steelers fan.

2. The Martavis Bryant Rejuvenation

If Ben Roethlisberger gauging the correct time to pull the plug on his career, Martavis Bryant is trying to keep his on life support.

Martavis Bryant returned to the South Side for the first time since his latest substance abuse suspension and proclaimed himself to be a new man. He’s in the best shape of his life, and apparently running a 40 that’s faster than when he was in college. Then Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was kind enough to post this video:

Again, admit it: If the sight of Martavis Bryant lining up along Antonio Brown doesn’t make you wonder “What If” when you remember the AFC Championship game, then it’s time to turn in your season tickets.

  • But while that feel good story is legit, some buzz kill certainly remains in order.

It was just one year ago today that Le’Veon Bell was denying Mark Madden’s report that he’d failed multiple drug tests. With that direct denial in hand, the Steelers press corps moved on to other items, and the story died, until training camp arrived and Steelers Nation learned that Le’Veon Bell WAS in fact facing a suspension.

Martavis Bryant is saying all the right things and by all accounts doing the right things, but we’ve seen this movie before.

3. Position Battles at Tight End and Cornerback

This one comes with no need for qualification. Had Ladarius Green not been cut, then it’s possible that OTA’s would have given Steelers Nation the first sight that Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Scott Orndoff from Pitt was going to give David Johnson or Xavier Grimble a run for his money (and his roster spot.)

  • Possible, mind you, but not likely.

But as it stands, Jesse James is the Steelers number 1 tight end, with David Johnson and Xavier Grimble fighting for the number 2 spot. As the Steelers don’t typically keep four tight ends, Scott Orndoff might still need to beat one of those two men to get a spot. But absent Ladarius Green, Orndoff getting reps won’t tell us much.

  • Ditto the defensive backfield.

About the only thing we might learn is whether Jordan Dangerfield will continue to function in that hybrid linebacker/safety slot that he played in at times at the end of 2016. But don’t expect any realistic information to come out of OTA’s as to whether Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson or 3rd round draft pick Cam Sutton will push William Gay to Safety or to the bench.

With that said, news that Senquez Golson is running well will be most welcome.

4. News That So-and-So Rookie Is As Good as Advertised…

If a team’s first round draft pick is kind of like a new car, then OTA’s represent the first time you get to take it around the block. Let’s admit it fun. The car retains all of its sex appeal and new car sent never smelled better.
No one ever discovered they’d bought a lemon on their first spin around the bock. Neither did they concluded that they’d made the best purchase of their life.

No Pittsburgh Steeler ever earned rookie of the year honors during OTA’s let alone the Pro Bowl. But they have left false impressions. Ryan Shazier immediately leap frogged Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin and worked alongside the starters during 2014 OTA’s.

  • Mike Tomlin loathes anointing rookies, so this represented a bold move.

And while this site was an remains a Ryan Shazier fan, injuries ruined much of his rookie year, and he had to fight his way back onto the starting roster. Jonathan Dwyer provides an even better example. If memory serves, Jonathan Dwyer was the toast of 2010’s OTA’s. Unfortunately, the PG Plus stories that Ray Fitapaldo wrote about him aren’t accessible via Google search.

  • We did unearth an article talking about how Jonathan Dwyer’s cousin James Farrior was helping him understand the work ethic necessary to transition to the NFL.

That make this all the more ironic, because while Dwyer did look good in OTA’s, he showed up at St. Vincents overweight and out of shape, and only got a roster spot thanks to a late preseason surge plus an injury to Frank “The Tank” Summers.

So with that in mind I could do nothing except roll my eyes when I saw Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman’s headline, “Steelers Top Draft Pick TJ Watt Flashes Ridiculous Ball Skills at OTAs.” I mean, come one, how “ridiculous” can the ball skills of any rookie, even a future Hall of Famer like Troy Polamalu, show at OTAs. Right?

Then I saw the video:

In case you’re just joining use, the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to replace James Harrison, not Heath Miller or Ladarius Green. And this wasn’t a one-play wonder:

OK. Let’s remember that this is coming during OTA’s in a situation where Watt knows not only knows the ball is being thrown, its being thrown to him without anyone contesting the catch.

But how can you not be impressed by back-to-back one-handed interceptions. For the record, Jim Wexell posted a longer video of this same session that also showed Bud Dupree making some nice catches himself.

It might be “Only OTA’s” but I guess it’s still OK to enjoy what you see.

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Steelers Release Greg Warren, Highlighting Difference Between 2 Super Bowl Eras

And then there were two. “Real” football news can be quite rare in late May of any year, but the number of Super Bowl veterans on the South Side dwindled to two as the Steelers released Greg Warren, who handled the long snapping duties for the team since 2005, earning him rings in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Steelers kicked off their 2017 season by signing Greg Warren to their customary 1 year deal in February, Warren’s release is hardly a shock. The Steelers turned heads in the 2017 NFL Draft when they used their sixth round pick to draft long snapper Colin Holba of Louisville.

Greg Warren, Steelers Greg Warren Super Bowl Eras

Greg Warren tackles Solomon Patton early in the first quarter of the Steelers 2014 loss to Tampa @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

The move was instantly panned by both professional journalists as well as bloggers (this site included), but Jim Wexell and other reporters informed that the Steelers had legitimate concerns about Greg Warrens durability. It would seem like those concerns were well founded, as Greg Warren himself related:

I would first like to thank the Steelers organization, coaches and training staff for their help and advice over the last few weeks. I had full intentions of playing this upcoming season, but in light of new information I’ve recently received from my doctors relating to a past injury, it has been determined that trying to compete in the 2017 season may be a risk to my long-term health. After discussing this with the Steelers, we have decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to release me at this point.

Signed in 2005, Greg Warren played in 181 regular season games, more than any other Steeler at that time, for coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. With Warren’s release, only Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison remain as veterans from the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII championship squads.

Greg Warren’s Release Highlights Differences Between Steelers 2 Super Bowl Eras

Let’s admit it, when you think of “Steelers Super Bowl Eras” the name of Greg Warren doesn’t jump out at you. If you’ve got a long view of things, the names Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert spring to mind.

And you probably associate the Steelers second Super Bowl era with players like Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and perhaps Willie Parker. But Greg Warren has provided vital stability during his era, and highlights how different the Steelers second Super Bowl Era has been from the first.

  • Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl teams were drafted together, matured together, won Super Bowls together, and then got old together.

Unfortunately, for reasons that go well beyond the scope of this blog post, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn struggled to restock the Steelers roster, even after mediocre records improved their drafting position.

Steel Curtain, 1974 AFC Championship, Steelers vs Raiders, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, LC Greenwood

Dwight White, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: SI

This second era has been different, largely thanks to Dan Rooney’s wisdom, the Steelers were able to draft a franchise quarterback and add him to a team that was already Super Bowl ready.

Although only two seasons separated the Steelers last two Lombardi Trophy presentations, Mike Tomlin’s ’08 squad featured a number of new faces in important places compared to Bill Cowher’s ’05 squad. Thanks to Heath Miller’s retirement and Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins, William Gay is the only other veteran from Super Bowl XLIII.

  • On a more personal level, Greg Warren’s retirement also underscores just how much perception of time evolves with age.

Born mere months before the Immaculate Reception provided the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation, I have no memories of Super Bowls IX or X. I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII but recall few details beyond my older sister asking “Who is that guy in the hat they keep showing” every time the camera focused on Tom Landry. I remember Super Bowl XIV better, and particularly John Stallworth’s game changing 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go touchdown.

After that with my age not yet breaking double digits, I had difficulty understanding why the Steelers struggled in the early 1980’s, not wanting to accept my older brother’s explanation that “All the Steelers have are old guys and rookies.”

It was difficult to follow the Steelers growing up in suburban DC in the pre-internet age. And by the time I started following the Steelers seriously again during the 1987 season I was in high school, and I was shocked to see that Super Bowl veterans such as Stallworth, Mike Webster and Donnie Shell were still playing.

  • At time it seemed like several generations of football has passed since the last Super Bowl, when in fact less time separated the Steelers from their last Lombardi than does now.

Time most certainly does move faster as you age.

Bit contributor or not, Steel Curtain Rising Thanks Greg Warren for helping bring home One for The Thumb and then completing the Super Bowl Six Pack, and wishes him the best as he begins his “Life’s Work.”

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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