Marcus Gilbert’s Steelers Career Ends as Pittsburgh Trades Him to Arizona for 6th Round Pick

The Steelers have made the trade! No, not THAT trade, the one involving Antonio Brown. Instead the Steelers have traded offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals for a 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • Some sort of roster move involving Marcus Gilbert was expected, although a trade is a mild surprise.

Marcus Gilbert missed the last 11 games of the 2018 season due to injury after missing nine games during 2017 due to injury and suspension. Gilbert was in the final year of the contract he signed in 2015 and was due to make $4.9 million dollars, and it has been speculated that Marcus Gilbert could be a cap casualty.

That speculation turns out to be correct.

Marcus Gilbert, Marcus Gilbert trade

Marcus Gilbert starting for the Steelers vs the Chiefs in 2018. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Marcus Gilbert Trade Completes Phase of Cycle Begun in 2011

The day was September 11th, 2011, the venue was Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and the result was one of the most humiliating defeats of the Mike Tomlin era. After defeating the Baltimore Ravens in 4 straight contests, including 3 in 2010, the Ravens struck back decimating the Steelers in the Debacle in Baltimore.

  • This was the game that prompted Warren Sapp to declare the Steelers “Old, Slow and Done.”

During the game the Steelers lost Willie Colon for the year as the starting offensive tackle tore his triceps. The Steelers had played “Plug and Patch” on their offensive line up until that point in the Tomlin era. Many assumed the Steelers would look to either resign Max Starks or Flozell Adams, both of whom had been with the club in 2010 and cut during the summer.

  • Flozell Adams did in fact offer his services to the team, but the price was too steep.

The Steelers would again take the Red Phone to Max Starks, but that move came in October, when it became clear that Jonathan Scott was in over his head and woefully unable to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.

The Steelers instead announced that Marcus Gilbert would start at right tackle. The decision was important because it signaled the Steelers commitment building a sustainable offensive line. And while injures kept him off of the field for much of 2012, he’s held down the position ever since, aside from rotating with Kelvin Beachum for a bit during the beginning of 2013.

And while that commitment continues, trading Marcus Gilbert ends a phase of that cycle.

Remembering the “Gilbertings”

Marcus Gilbert deserves to be remembered as a player who provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with quality play at right tackle, helping stabilize a position and an offensive line that had under gone tremendous turmoil during Mike Tomlin’s first 4 or 5 seasons.

  • Yet fate was not always kind to those who played close to Marcus Gilbert.

During the 2012 preseason, Marcus Gilbert fell on David Johnson and David DeCastro, injuring both men and costing David Johnson the season in which he was to transition to becoming a full time fullback. Later on, during the 2015 season, Marcus Gilbert landed on Landry Jones, ending the young quarterback’s first start after just a handful of snaps.

Steelers Offensive Line Remains in Solid Shape

As the Steelers learned during the first half of the Mike Tomlin era, “You can never have enough good offensive lineman.” And $4.9 million dollars, is not a lot of money to pay a quality offensive tackle.

But Matt Feiler did an excellent job of filling in for Gilbert in 2018, as did 2018’s 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers will also bring back 2016’s 4th round pick Jerald Hawkins.

Steel Curtain Rising would like to thank Marcus Gilbert for 8 years of quality play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and wishes him well with the Arizona Cardinals.

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He’s Steelers Success Story, But Should Ramon Foster Seek a Home Outside Pittsburgh?

Everyone loves a “Rags to Riches” undrafted rookie free agent does good story. Kevin Colbert’s a knack for finding undrafted rookie free agents played a big part in adding Lombardi’s Number Five and Six to the trophy case. Think I’m exaggerating? 

The sad thing about undrafted rookie free agent success stories is that they have to end at some point. Which brings us to veteran left guard Ramon Foster. Could it be time for his story in Pittsburgh to end? Let’s take a look.

Ramon  Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career

As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, Foster signed with the Steelers in 2009. He started four games during his rookie campaign including Super Bowl XLV and another eight in his second season. And in 2011, Foster started 14 games at left guard and since has become a permanent fixture at the position.

The process was not seamless, however. When the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in the 2012 NFL Draft and moved Willie Colon from tackle to guard, it appeared that the Steelers were trying to replace Ramon Foster. However, Ramon Foster continued to start in the face of injured to both Colon and DeCastro, and Ramon Foster has started 14 games or more in every season since.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

Ramon Foster not only survived the influx of offensive line talent, starting with the drafting of perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in the 2010 NFL Draft, he has emerged as one of the most consistent and durable members of the unit. Furthermore, Ramon Foster has established himself as a team leader and a calming presence in a Steelers locker room that sorely needs such things as of late.

He’s also a popular player as far as offensive linemen go and a bit of a pillar in the Pittsburgh community.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

B.J. Finney. A year ago Foster’s fellow undrafted rookie free agent signed a one-year contract extension with the Steelers. Now B.J. Finney is reaching restricted free agency. But while B.J. Finney has spent the majority of his time with the Steelers playing the role of utility lineman (he’s started games at guard and center), he’s shown more than enough potential to be promoted to the role of starter.

Furthermore, B.J. Finney, 27, is six years younger than Ramon Foster, who will be 33 by the time he plays in his next NFL game of consequence. And let’s not forget Foster, who has never really cashed in on a big deal, has gone on record to say that if the Steelers want to keep him around for a few more years, they’re going to have to pay him.

  • What that tells me is that he’s willing and eager to shop his services on the open market.

In other words, no “Home Team Discount” for Ramon Foster. Given the alternatives, the Steelers best course of action would be to lock B.J. Finney down to a long-term deal, and allow Ramon Foster to walk. 

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ramon Foster

With so many needs at so many other positions–including at wide receiver (in case you haven’t heard, Antonio Brown is headed out of town….), inside linebacker and, as always, in the secondary — keeping a player like Ramon Foster around — as consistent as he is — just seems like a luxury at this point.

That’s especially the case for an offensive line that has been able to find and then develop so many undrafted and lower round prospects into productive offensive linemen under the tutelage of the legendary Mike Munchak and his successor, Shaun Sarrett.

Therefore, I think it’s time for the Steelers to thank Ramon Foster for a wonderful 10 seasons and wish him well on his future endeavors.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Achilles Heel? Jesse James Healthy but Steelers Could be in Tight Spot @ Tight End

Ah, gotta watch those June Achilles tears. On the Jesse James return to practice following his injury in Pittsburgh’s preseason win over Tennessee, but tight end could be a tight spot for the Steelers this season, and if it is it will have all started with a June Achilles injury.

Jesse James, Steelers 2018 tight ends

Jesse James after catching a high Ben Roethlisberger pass vs. Titans. Photo credit: Yahoo! Sports

Pittsburgh’s problems at the position of began during spring practice, when reserve tight end Jake McGee torn his Achilles tendon during OTAs. The Steelers had carried McGee on their practice squad during 2018 and coaches expected McGee to push Xavier Grimble for a roster spot.

The Steelers situation at tight end grew more complicated arrived at St. Vincents when Vance McDonald injured his foot after after only one day of practice. Vance McDonald has not practiced since that fateful day in July, although Mike Tomlin has publicly listed McDonald as “Day-to-day.”

The Steelers of course acquired McDonald last season in a trade, only to see him sit on the sidelines injured, although he rebounded for strong game in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

That left Xavier Grimble and Jesse James, but Grimble injured his wrist/thumb on a blocking sled on August 18th and had to have surgery. Grimble has been characterized as “Week-to-week.” If McDonald’s absence is any guide, perhaps month-to-month would be for fitting for Grimble.

Let’s hope that not the case, but as good Reimagined Battlestar Galactica fans know, “All this has happened before and [hopefully] will [not] again.”

June Misfortunes Can Set the Tone for an Entire Season

The advent of the digital age has magnified everything. Trivial, bit-sized bites of Steelers news that once would have merited 2-3 inches of newspaper column wedged in somewhere deep in the back pages of the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette now serve as feature-length click generating stories (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.)

  • In that spirit, news from OTAs and minicamp often gets taken too seriously.
  • But sometimes what events from June can end up dictating the entire narrative of the season.

Take the case of Willie Colon. In 2010 Willie Colon, the Steelers starting right tackle, tore his Achilles tendon in late June. This came after Steelers 5th round draft pick Chris Scott had already broken his leg. Those two injuries initiated a torrent of offensive line injuries that lasted the entire year.

During the Steelers 2010 win over Tampa Bay, the Steelers were force to substitute so many offensive lineman that Mike Tomlin remarked jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) that coaches didn’t even know who was in and who was out of the game.

The Steelers lost Max Starks in week 7 against Cincinnati, and in the next week against New England, Ben Roethlisberger suffered 5 sacks as the Patriots collapsed the Steelers offensive line at will. Roethlisberger’s sack rate nearly doubled with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

  • Offensive line injuries continued literally through to the taild end of the season.

After the Steelers playoff win against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger lauded Flozell Adams for wanting to come off of a gurney to return to the game, and Pittsburgh of course was forced to start Doug Legursky at center in Super Bowl XLV due to injuries to Maurkice Pouncey.

Will the same thing happen to the 2018 Steelers at tight end? Hopefully not, but with less than two weeks to go before the regular season, tight end appears to be the Steelers Achilles heel.

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Celebrate Chris Hubbard as a Steelers Success Before He Leaves Pittsburgh as a Free Agent

Times have changed. As NFL free agency turns 25, Steelers fans who remember the 1990’s will recall when Steelers routinely developed young talent only to see it leave in free agency.

  • The Rooneys kept their word when Heinz Field opened, and the Steelers have been much more competitive in retaining home-grown players.

But sometimes tough choices mean that a budding star will seek greener pastures. The conventional wisdom that Steelers free agent tackle Chris Hubbard is all but certain play 2018 somewhere other than Pittsburgh. Today our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Focus looks at whether that should and will happen.

Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts

Chris Hubbard in the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

In about five months or so we’ll be flooded with blog posts, tweets, Facebook comments and full-blown articles bemoaning preseason football that call for sharply curtailing it or perhaps eliminating it altogether.

  • When you see such rants next August remember Chris Hubbard’s story.

The Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was heavy on offensive lineman, and included the much ballyhood Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka Nik Embernasty. No one paid any attention to Chris Hubbard.

And when Steelers Nation got its first look at the undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like on one should pay attention to him. As Steel City Insider reader “Heinzsight” observed:

Hubbard was a good lesson/reminder for me. I remember his first preseason game against the Giants at LG. I thought he was so irredeemably awful that they should do everyone a favor, including Hubbard, and cut bait and not waste any more of anyone’s time on him. He really was that bad. His pass pro was nonexistent, and spent most of the run game on the ground, getting shrugged, jerked, or ragdolled. No center, always getting out over his hands, and tossed/discarded. Look at him now. Obviously wasn’t irredeemable.

Non-Steel City Insider subscribes will have to accept this author’s assurances that “Heinzsight” knows more about the fundamentals football than 90% of bloggers, including this one, will ever forget.

Chris Hubbard made the Steelers practice squad in 2013 and returned in 2014 to make the active roster. He saw his first professional action in the Steelers 2014 win at Carolina, one of the first truly impressive “scary good” performances of the offensive line of the entire Tomlin era.

Hubbard would see action in 7 games in 2015, saw action in 15 games in 2016 including four starts. Chris Hubbard started 10 games and appeared in 16 regular season games for the Steelers in 2017, proving himself to be that all-so-invaluable 3rd starting swing tackle charged with opening holes for Le’Veon Bell and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

You can never have too many good offensive lineman? How many times during has fate taught that lesson to the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era?

Chris Hubbard is the real deal. He’s a legitimate, quality starting tackle in league that puts a premium on this position. On top of that, he’s another guy like his counterpart Alejandro Villanueva or Kelvin Beachum who the rest of the NFL looked over, and said, “No Thanks” to. The Steelers were smarter, invested the time and effort into developing him. Why shouldn’t he stay in Pittsburgh?

  • Sentimentally doesn’t and shouldn’t drive free agent decisions.

The truth is that the will turn 27 this year, while Marcus Gilbert will turn 30, and Gilbert has more than his share of injuries on his frame having missed significant time in 2017 to injuries. The smart salary cap money says cut Gilbert, who’ll get signed in a snap, and resign Hubbard.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

It’d be easy to say that cutting Marcus Gilbert in favor of Chris Hubbard isn’t part of “The Steelers Way.” And it would give Steelers fan a warm and fuzzy feeling inside if we said it.

  • Unfortunately its not true.

The Steelers cut veterans before the end of their contracts, and during the early portion of the Tomlin era this was standard operating procedure especially on offensive line (just ask Justin Hartwig, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu.)

But the truth is the if the Steelers cut Marcus Gilbert, they’d take close to a 5 million dollar dead money salary cap hit, and this is the game that needs to get every bit of football out of its salary cap dollars as it can. And given that the Steelers extended Gilbert in 2014, Hubbard would certainly command a higher salary cap number.

You’d like to keep a guy like Chris Hubbard, but the numbers just don’t add up.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Hubbard

Kevin Colbert is a wiz a plucking gems from the undrafted rookie free agent pool, and Mike Tomlin is a coach whose dedicated to giving those young men a fair shot. You know their names. Roosevelt Nix, Ramon Foster, Willie Parker, and James Harrison. To name a few.

  • In another year, with a healthier cap situation, the Steelers might take a shot at keeping Hubbard.

But the Steelers salary cap situation simply doesn’t afford them that luxury. The Steelers gave Chris Hubbard an opportunity, he took full advantage of it, and he deserves to cash in. It won’t be in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply the way things work out.

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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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 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.

Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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How Long Does It Take to Grade an NFL Draft? 5 Years & the Steelers 2011 Draft Class Shows Why

How long does it take to grade an NFL Draft class? Google “2016 NFL Draft Grades” you’ll get 3,980,000 returns. OK, the 2016 NFL Draft hasn’t generated 4 million report cards, but there’s no shortage of grading done on a draft that’s less than a week old.

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Image Credit: Real Sport 101

  • Instant draft grades are understandable, enjoyable but ultimately meaningless.

True NFL draft evaluation takes years. How many? Well, Dale Lolley suggests 3 years suffices. That’s reasonable. Four years offers a natural number because that’s when players become free agents. A draft class has certainly revealed a lot about itself in four years.

  • But 5 years is really the magic number when it comes to draft evaluation.

Were Chuck Noll still with us, he would applaud. 5 Years might seem a little too long to wait, and 5 years certainly is an eternity a Twitterized, update by the second sports landscape. But think about it. IT makes a lot of sense, and the Steelers 2011 Draft Class provides a compelling example.

Why Wait 5 Years to Evaluate a Draft?

Let’s concede that 5 years IS a long time to wait to grade an NFL draft class, especially when you consider that the average pro football career is 4 years. But, as your statistics teacher told you (or will tell you) the mean gives you the balance point of your data set.

  • For an NFL draft class that half of every NFL draft class is out of the league by the end of year four.

That also means that by year five you’re going to a meaningful body of work, or “data set” if you will, on everyone from that class. Guys who hung on simply because they were playing on inexpensive rookie contracts will be out of the league by then.

Others who were late bloomers (think Brett Keisel) will have established themselves. Players who might not have been a good fit for the team the drafted them will have found success elsewhere (think James Farrior and Ryan Mundy).

  • That sounds logical on paper, but 5 years STILL seems like too long a time.

A look at the evolution of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class shows why prudent draft evaluations come after 5 years.

Evolution of the Steelers 2011 NFL Draft Class

Drafting second to last in each round is the price you pay for making it to the Super Bowl and losing, but despite that the Steelers 2011 Draft was well received. Kevin Colbert labled the Steelers first pick as a historic day for the franchise. The Steelers met their needs, at least theoretically.

  • Cameron Heyward, the Steelers 2011 first round pick did not play much that season.

That’s no surprise, as Aaron Smith started the season, Brett Keisel was still in his prime, and Ziggy Hood had finished 2010 with a bang (yes, its true, people forget that.) Marcus Gilbert got a baptism by fire when Willie Colon was lost for the season and won the rookie of the year award. And Cortez Allen saw spot duty, but showed a lot of promising signs.

  • Still, no meaningful evaluation of the 2011 Draft class was possible at season’s end.

In 2012 Steelers Nation got to see more. Chris Carter got some starts while James Harrison was out, but could not hold off Jason Worilds. Cam Heyward got playing time but still didn’t start. Baron Batch returned from injury, but wasn’t the same (or the flashes he’d shown prior to tearing his ACL weren’t just that, flashes.) Marcus Gilbert started the season, but was out most of the year injured.

  • Cortez Allen started late in the year and looked like Mel Butler Woodson.

After two years, it looked like some meaningful conclusions on the Steelers 2011 were Possible. But were they…?

Evaluation of Cameron Heyward was mixed. Some pointed to per-snap production stats that were far better than Ziggy Hood’s. Others concluded his failure to start was a warning sign of an impending bust. Some concluded that the Steelers decision to draft Mike Adams might spell trouble for Marcus Gilbert. Curtis Brown hadn’t shown anything when he got on the field.

  • The Steelers 2011 draft class did begin to sort itself out during 2013 – to a point.

Cam Heyward emerged as the stud that the Steelers drafted him to be, relegating Ziggy Hood to the bench. Marcus Gilbert’s start to the season was shaky, but by season’s end he had the starting job, and a new contract locked down. Cortez Allen got injured, and struggled a little, but finished strong. Chris Carter showed he wasn’t the answer, in contrast, and Baron Batch never made the final roster.

  • By the end of 2014, the argument for closing the books on a grade for the 2011 draft class was strong.

Cameron Heyward continued to terrorize offenses, while Marcus Gilbert quietly settled into becoming one of the better right tackles in the league. Curtis Brown and Baron Batch were out of football (as was Keith Williams). Chris Carter was bouncing around the league.

  • Yet Cortez Allen remained an enigma.

The Steelers thought enough of his first three seasons of production and his work in preseason to extend his contract. And based on past experience with Steelers DB’s, Cortez Allen looked poised to have a breakout year. Except he didn’t. He struggled in coverage. He lost his starting job, then was benched, then went to IR.

  • By season’s end, four year’s had elapsed since the Steelers made their picks in 2011 NFL Draft, yet a definitive grade remained elusive.

A Cortez Allen rebound could transform and “OK” grade on the Steelers 2011 Draft to a good or even great one. Alas, Cortez Allen didn’t rebound. Either because of injury or aptitude, he didn’t play outside of the Steelers opener vs. New England and went on IR earlier in the year. Last month the Steelers cut Cortez Allen.

Waiting 5 years to grade an NFL Draft Class isn’t sexy and it won’t win you many page clicks. But if you really want a meaningful draft evaluation, then you really must way 5 years.

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