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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The Right Choice: Steelers to Let Le’Veon Bell Walk, Will Not Use Transition Tag

As Kevin Colbert announced yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have decided not to apply the transition tag or the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. The move comes as a bit of a surprise because the Steelers had seemed intent on playing hard ball with Bell.

They have chosen not to, and that decision might signal that Art Rooney II has mastered one of the one of the most important tests of his tenure as Steelers president.

Our third and likely final free agent focus profile of Le’Veon Bell reveals why.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Here’s the digest version based on our 2017 and 2018 free-agent profiles of Le’Veon Bell.

In his rookie training camp, Ed Bouchette boldly compared Le’Veon Bell’s debut to that of Franco Harris. Journalists such as John Stiegerwald were skeptical, yet Jim Wexell tracked Bell’s rookie performance against Walter Peyton’s as a rookie.

Six years later, Le’Veon Bell has set regular season and playoff rushing records that neither Harris, Jerome Bettis, nor John Henry Johnson could set.

A lot of signs indicate yes, however the fact that Bell has played only one complete season and been hit with two suspensions raises doubts.

The (Theoretical Case) for the Steelers Retaining Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers decision seems clear, but the point of this exercise is to make the strongest case possible for keeping Bell so here goes.

  • On paper there’s a case for the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell to a long-term deal.
  • There’s also a case for using the transition tag on him.

No one inside or outside of Pittsburgh questions Le’Veon Bell’s talent and his ability to perform at peak level at least in the short term. With James Conners and Jaylen Samuels on the roster, bringing Bell back would give Pittsburgh a more potent running back tandem than the Willie Parker/Rashard Mendenhall duo they envisioned in early 2008 (with Samuels standing in for Mewelde Moore.)

  • Even if the Steelers can’t sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal, the case for putting the transition tag on him is strong, in theory.

As one Steelers scribe privately remarked when Bell’s 2018 holdout became permanent, “It would basically dare any other NFL team to improve on the offer the Steelers made last season.” It would also give the Steelers the chance to match that offer. Theoretically, the Steelers could also match the offer and then trade him to someone else.

And a trade could bring the Steelers a pick in the 2019 NFL Draft whereas any compensatory pick would only come in 2020. With a strike or lockout looming, a draft pick in 2019 helps the Steelers far more than one in 2020.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning or Transition Tagging Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers were prepared to commit an eight-figure salary cap to Le’Veon Bell in offers made in 2017 and 2018. Yet, James Conner delivered excellent production (although not ball security) in 2018 and he’ll only make $844,572 in 2019.

  • The Steelers can use the difference to bolster their defense, which needs the help.

Beyond salary cap dollars and sense, not having Le’Veon Bell probably cost the 2018 Steelers the playoffs. Bell’s behavior and the gap between his actions and words widened in 2018. Do the Steelers need another potential locker room distraction? Ah, no.

  • Using the transition tag on Bell carries risk as well.

First, the transition tag ties up valuable salary cap dollars that can’t be used while the Bell situation sorts itself out. Forget Bell signing his tender so that the Steelers can trade him. The Steelers could try to “match and trade” but would need to complete the trade on the same day to avoid a salary cap hit.

Finally, if the Steelers tag Bell then decline to match, they get nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

During the 1990’s, it often felt like the Steelers served as the NFL’s farm team. Pittsburgh would develop players like Chad Brown or Yancey Thigpen only to see them leave as free agents. The Rooneys promised things would change with a new stadium. Heinz Field opened in 2001, and since then the Steelers have done a remarkable job of keeping their own players since then.

Retaining key players has been critical to the Steelers overall success in the 21st century and critical to their victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • But you can’t keep everyone. Knowing when to let a player walk is just as important as knowing when to keep him.

For a long time it seemed like Art Rooney II and the rest of the Steelers brass was determined to use the transition tag to exert some control over Le’Veon Bell’s fate. While that’s understandable, it doesn’t make sound football sense.

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell would have signed the deal his agent had agreed to with the Steelers. But Bell declined. The Steelers gave it a second go around, and Bell sat out all of 2018 while trolling his team at every chance he got.

The Steelers are going to let Le’Veon Bell walk and that is the right decision.

 

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

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

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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