Steelers Extend Kevin Colbert’s Contract through the 2021 NFL Draft

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the 2020 off season is a foot, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted little time in getting their 2nd biggest off season question answered when they extended Vice President and General Manager Kevin Colbert’s contract through the 2021 NFL Draft.

Traditionally the Steelers have announced contract extension for front office staff shortly before training camp. Last season the Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract but they did not extend Kevin Colbert’s contract as Art Rooney II announced that Colbert prefers to renew on a year-by-year basis.

While most observers expected Kevin Colbert to return to the Steelers, there have been rumors that he could bolt to the Carolina Panthers, whose owner David Tepper was a former Steelers minority owner.

All of that talk is for naught, as Kevin Colbert is staying put in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert Authors 20 Years of Unparalleled Excellence in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh native, Kevin Colbert’s return to his home city in February 2000 came as a bit of a surprise. The Steelers had endured two tumultuous seasons, finishing 7-9 in 1998 after suffering a 5 game losing streak, followed by a 6-10 finish that saw the Steelers lose 7 of their last 8.

While failures in the draft and free agency fueled this decline, a feud between Hall of Famer Bill Cowher and then Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe provided a nasty backstory to the on the field implosion. Dan Rooney had to choose between the two, and he chose Bill Cowher.

  • The Steelers took an aggressive approach to replacing Donahoe, interviewing several up and coming names around the league, but Dan Rooney settled on Kevin Colbert.

Some commentators panned the move, questioning the decision to fly in people from around the league, only to hire the guy who’d graduated from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic – the same school that the Rooneys and Tom Donahoe had attended.

  • Since then, Kevin Colbert has authored an unparalleled record of excellence.

During Kevin Colbert’s two decades overseeing the front office Kevin Colbert the Steelers have only suffered one losing season, made the playoffs 12 times, earned 9 AFC Central or AFC North titles, won three AFC Championships and of course won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert has done this by excelling on first round draft picks – Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns stand has is only two misses – made prudent free agent signings securing talents like James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Steven Nelson traded up to bring in stars like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and had uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents by finding gems such as James Harrison and Willie Parker.

With Kevin Colbert locked down for another year, Steelers Nation’s attention now turns to the biggest question of the off season – that of Ben Roethlisberger’s prognosis for recovery from his elbow injury. Per reports, Roethlisberger is scheduled to have his elbow examined in late February.

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Color Canton Black & Gold: Troy Polamalu Elected to Hall of Fame!

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 Class will have an unmistakable Black and Gold tinge Troy Polamalu was elected to the 2020 class where he will join fellow Steelers safety Donnie Shell and his former coach Bill Cowher who were inducted as part of the Centennial Class.

  • All of the news wasn’t good for Steelers Nation however, as Alan Faneca was passed over again.

In the words of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu was a generational talent and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot was a no brainer. Going into the voting the fear was that the “Too Many Steelers” mentality espoused by Peter King and other voters might hurt Polamalu’s candidacy.

Fortunately, voters set aside their any bias or political agendas, and did the right thing.

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

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

Troy Polamalu Once in a Lifetime Talent, Hall of Famer

During his 12 year career, Troy Polamalu made 783 tackles, logged 56 tackles-for-losses, sacked the quarterback 12 times, intercepted 32 passes, dislodged 14 forced fumbles, recovered 7 fumbles and scored 5 touchdowns.

  • To those regular season numbers, Troy Polamalu added 3 interceptions and half a sack.

Those playoff numbers may seem pedestrian, but they in fact show why he was so special. His last post-season interception came in the 2008 AFC Championship game against the Ravens. If you’ve read this far, you obviously remember it, but you’ll just as obviously want to see it again:

This was one of the most spectacular defensive touchdowns in this history of football. That’s easy to remember. But even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is easy to forget the play’s ominous backstory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud franchise. But the Steelers had also lost 3 straight AFC Championships at home. They’d lost the 1997 AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos in Three Rivers Stadium. Then they’d lost the 2001 AFC Championship and again the 2004 AFC Championship to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter holding a 16 to 7 lead. Yet, the Baltimore Ravens took their first 4th quarter possession and marched to the Steelers end zone with startling ease. The Steelers next possession amounted to a 2 yard Willie Parker run followed by Willie Colon penalty and a 3rd down Terrell Suggs sack of Ben Roethlisberger that forced a punt.

In Heinz Field the feeling of “Here we go again” was palpable.

  • Six plays later, Troy Polamalu took it to the house, exorcising the Ghosts of AFC Championships’ past

Take that play away, and Troy Polamalu probably still has a Hall of Fame worth resume. But with his interception of Joe Flacco, and his wild, zig zaging return for touchdown, Troy Polamalu cemented his status as a legend.

Welcome to Canton Mr. Polamalu.

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships

People forget but controversy shrouded Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Kevin Colbert in February 2000.

The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.

As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)

But defying the conventional wisdom turned out to be the wise move, as it was with some many of the key decisions Dan Rooney made while running the Steelers.

  • Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”

The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.

Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.

Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.

  • While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.

This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.

  • And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.

That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.

Why where the Steelers of the ‘90’s contenders while the Steelers of the 00’s were Champions in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII?

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.

  • Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.

He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.

  • Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.

But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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Is Mike Hilton’s Slot-Corner Role Up For Grabs @ St. Vincents?

When comparing Steelers third-year slot-corner Mike Hiltons stats from 2017 with those from 2018, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference.

In 2017, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2016, had 54 tackles, four sacks, six passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble while appearing in 16 games and starting four.

In 2018, Mike Hilton had 57 tackles, one sack, eight passes defensed, one interception and two fumble recoveries while appearing in 15 games and starting two.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Other than the number of sacks, which are a bit misleading considering he had three in one game in a Week 16 blowout victory over the Texans in 2017, again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a discernible difference in play and performance over Hilton’s first two seasons in the league.

Yet, after entering his second Steelers training camp as a youngster who appeared to have a bright future in the defense, Mike Hilton enters his third Steelers training camp looking like a player who is in for a fight for his starting role in the secondary.

Yes, the slot corner position is very much considered a starting role in the modern era of football; and after some unsuccessful attempts to fill this now very important role–including with Hilton’s old college teammate, 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson–the Steelers seemed to find their man two years ago.

What changed? It’s not rumor or speculation, either. The sudden drop of Mike Hilton’s stock from one season to the next — specifically, the tail-end of last season, when other corners were now battling him for playing time.

To further reinforce this apparent lack of confidence in Mike Hilton’s abilities, the Steelers barely even made an attempt to negotiate with him on a multi-year contract this past offseason, and he ultimately signed his $645,000 tender as an exclusive rights free agent. as you probably know, an exclusive rights free agent is someone who has no power or leverage to negotiate a deal. It’s a take it or leave it situation.

  • For whatever reason, the Steelers made it pretty clear to Mike Hilton that he had no leverage.

In other words, they opted not to treat him like James Harrison, Willie Parker and/or Alejandro Villanueava who got second contracts as Exclusive Rights Free Agents. 

To his credit, Mike Hilton participated in all offseason workouts, even before signing his tender. Now, he’s at Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa. trying to prove to his bosses that 2017 was no fluke. Again, though, what happened in 2018 that made Mike Hilton’s rookie season seem so fluky?

  • I’m obviously no expert, so maybe there was a drop off in Mike Hilton’s play that only those who get paid to evaluate could have detected.

Nobody on Pittsburgh’s current roster appears to be nipping at Hilton’s heels, not 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, not 2017 fifth-round pick, Brian Allen and certainly not 2016 first-round pick, Artie Burns, who is fighting just to stay on the roster.

Maybe it really is just speculation, this apparent falling out of favor by Mike Hilton with the Steelers. After all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him on any list ranking the NFL’s top nickle corners. Furthermore, Mike Hilton is a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning the Steelers essentially control his rights for another offseason. Therefore, why bother with a multi-year contract at this point?

Maybe the Steelers feel that there is much room for improvement at slot corner, and while Hilton is a nice player, perhaps they’re looking for a little more out of the position.

By all outward appearances, Mike Hilton has been put on notice by the Steelers, and the battle for the slot-corner position is one worth watching this summer.

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Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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Steelers 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Before the the ink of 7th round draft pick Derwin Grey’s draft card had time to dry, the Steelers went right to work in signing their 2019 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

James Harrison, Willie Parker, Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agents

James Harrison & Willie Parker arrived at St. Vincent’s as undrafted rookie free agents. They retired with Super Bowl rings. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Zimbo.com

These are the young men who wait in vain by the phone on draft day, only to get a call when it is all over offering their NFL dream a line line.

Here’s a quick look at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agent class:

Dravon Askew-Henry, Safety, West Virginia
Alexander Myers, Cornerback, Houston
Garrett Brumfield, Guard, LSU
Fred Johnson, Guard, Florida
Travon McMillian, Running Back, Colorado
Jay Hayes, Defensive End, Georgia
Chris Nelson, Defensive Tackle, Texas
Trevor Wood, Tight end/long snapper, Texas A&M
Matthew Wright, Kicker, Central Florida
Ian Berryman, Punter, Western Carolina

As they often do, the Steelers added bodies through the undrafted free agent rookie pool that they were unable to add in the draft. The Steelers did not pick a safety, but added Dravon Askew-Henry. They only added one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman, but added two guards and two defensive lineman undrafted rookie free agents.

  • Interestingly enough, they added Trevor Wood, a tight end with long snapping capabilities.

It is also interesting that they added two specialists, in the form of Ian Berryman, a punter out of Western Carolina, and a place kicker, Matthew Wright.

The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry in free agency, so Berryman could be just an extra leg for training camp, but they could also be bringing Berryman in to provide real competition for Berry. Matthew Wright’s signing is more interesting.

  • The Steelers of course have Chris Boswell under contract for several more years and would take a rather large salary cap hit by cutting him.

But they also have Matthew McCrane under contract to provide training camp competition. It’s been normal for the Steelers to bring two kickers to St. Vincents, but three? Time will tell.

Steelers History of Giving Undrafted Rookie Free Agents a Fair Shot

Undrafted rookie free agents face the longest of odds for realizing their NFL dream. Their the NFL version of Rudy, he of Hollywood fueled Notre Dame folklore glory.

It is a good bet that at least one of the men listed above will not make it to St. Vincents this summer. But Mike Tomlin is fond of saying that when you get to Latrobe, the Steelers stop caring about where you went to school or how you got there, and start focusing on what you do while you’re there.

  • And Mike Tomlin puts his money where his mouth is.

And the Steelers are true to their word. Ramon Foster arrived that way in 2009, and is now on his third (or perhaps 4th) NFL contract. Fellow offensive lineman Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney also arrived as UDFA’s and play pivotal roles on the unit.

And of course there’s Willie Parker and James Harrison, who both arrived in St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and both made dramatic, game changing plays in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The Pittsburgh Steelers promise to give undrafted rookie free agents a fair shot, and they mean it.

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Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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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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