Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

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Zach Banner Stays, Tyson Alualu Leaves, Vince Williams a Cap Casualty

On the first day of “legal tampering” the Steelers opened free agency by signing Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was their most important “signable” free agent. On day two Pittsburgh addressed the man who was arguably their 2nd most important “signable” priority by resigning offensive guard Zach Banner to a two year contract.

  • All of the news was neither good, nor entirely expected.

Tyson Alualu got a 2 year contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that had drafted him in 2010. As mentioned in Alualu’s free agent profile, Alualu delivered excellent “bang for the salary cap buck” for Pittsburgh and was the unsung hero on the Ste

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

elers defensive line in 2020. Moreover, if reports are correct, the deal he got in Jacksonville is only slightly larger than the one he could have expected in Pittsburgh, showing just how cash strapped the Steelers are.

  • The Steelers also made another move, this one while not a surprise, it was disappointing.

To create salary cap space, the Steelers decided to part ways with eight year veteran Vince Williams, presumptively clearing the way for newly resigned Robert Spillane to assume duties as a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are far more qualified than this scribe to make this “bang for the buck” calculation, but Vince Williams will be missed. More to come on this front.

Finally, Mike Hilton appears to be signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Banner and Another Two Year Deal…

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Zach Banner’s new deal is for $9.5 million and includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. Unlike Cam Sutton, the amount of money that Banner got wasn’t a suprise, given Banner’s more limited resume and his recent ACL tear.

  • Like Cam Sutton’s deal, Zach Banner’s is also for two years….

Again, this is slightly out of character for the Steelers, who typically give 2nd year contracts that last for 3 years, or more. Moreover, veterans like David DeCastro, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are all heading into the final year of their contracts, leading to speculation that the Steelers Brain Trust has penciled in 2021 as the final year it will make a run with this core of veterans, including Ben Roethlisberger.

It is too early to tell, but at this point we can say “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence….”

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Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, Bud Dupree Bolts, Matt Feiler Flies

Free Agency has yet to officially start but with the official negotiating period already underway, things are already beginning to happen for the Steelers.

  • The biggest news of the day was word the the Steelers had resigned Cam Sutton to a 2 year, 9 million dollar contract.

Cam Sutton joined the Steelers as a 3rd round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Sutton began the year on injured reserve but was pressed into action in the Steelers road win over the Cincinnati Bengals, which coincidentally was that same night Ryan Shazier suffered his career ending injury.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Sutton played in each of the rest of the Steelers games in 2017, and saw his playing time increase in the coming year where he logged 46% of the defensive snaps, working in behind starters Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton.

During 2020, Cam Sutton intercepted one pass, defensed eight more passes, forced 3 fumbles and recovered one of those. Per Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sutton logged a career-high 53% of all defensive snaps. Of the Steelers “signable” free agents, keeping Cam Sutton in Pittsburgh was clearly their biggest priority.

Arguably, the next most important signings for the Steelers would be offensive tackle Zach Banner and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.

Why Only 2 Years for Cam Sutton?

On the face of it, Cam Sutton appears to have taken a “hometown discount,” as 9 million over two years is hardly big payday for a proven NFL cornerback. Obviously, if Sutton and his agent had harder offers from outside of Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t have agreed to a deal so quickly.

  • But what is surprising is the term of the deal.

A one year “prove it” deal wouldn’t have been a surprise, but a two year deal does surprise, given the the Steelers typically sign their players to 3 year second contracts. At the beginning of the off season, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic observed that Steelers most important contracts ran through 2021.

Kaboly’s conclusion was that this was where management had seen the team’s natural window of Super Bowl viability ending.

Could Cam Sutton’s two year deal indicate that the team is now projecting into 2022? At this point its far too early to to tell but it is worth keeping an eye on.

Bud Bolts, Feiler Flies

While the news that Cam Sutton would be staying in Pittsburgh was a positive and perhaps a bit surprising, several free agents announced their decisions to sign elsewhere. Bud Dupree has apparently reached a deal to play with the Tennessee Titans and Matt Feiler will join the San Diego Chargers.

JuJu Smith-Schuter has not annouced his new home, but has informed players that he will be departing, and rumors have tied Mike Hilton to Philadelphia.

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What Will be the Fate of Steelers Matt Feiler in Free Agency?

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during most of the Mike Tomlin era has been a study in contrasts. For the better part of the last decade, the Steelers have fielded one of the best, if not the best offensive line in football.

  • But the route they’ve taken to get their is more circuitous than Glass Run Road

(Sorry, if you’re not from or at least familiar with Pittsburgh then Googling “Glass Run Road” it won’t cut it here. So you’ve just got to trust me on this, or otherwise go to Pittsburgh and drive it on a rainy night on a Learner’s Permit.)

On the one hand, it has featured high-profile draft picks, such as Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve unheralded draft picks and/or undrafted free agents. Matt Feiler is the latest in the latter group, and he’s about to become a free agent. 

Will he find his fortune in Pittsburgh?

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Unnestricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

One year after signing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg, Matt Feiler latched on with the Steelers in 2015. After spending a few seasons honing his skills under the tutelage of offensive line coach–and position guru– Mike Munchak.

Feiler got his big break in 2018 when he started 10 games at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. How well did Feiler do? So well, Pittsburgh felt more than comfortable trading Gilbert to the Cardinals in the 2019 offseason. Feiler justified the move that regular season by starting all 16 games at right tackle. In 2020, Feiler, who was a versatile backup before becoming a starter, was moved to left guard to take the place of the retired Ramon Foster. Feiler appeared to struggle much more at that position, however, than he did at right tackle.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

2020 could have just been an off year for Feiler, 28. Either that, or it was simply a mistake moving him to the guard position, one that could easily be corrected by putting him back at right tackle in 2021. Beyond that, the Steelers, in a word, need offensive lineman.

  • They need both quality and quantity. 

Matt Feiler was part of what was still one of the best offensive lines in football in 2018. He’s a proven commodity at a position the Steelers need to strengthen.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

Feiler isn’t an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent. He’s now an unrestricted free agent who is free to shop his services wherever he desires. I personally feel that Feiler’s best position is right tackle and if I’m thinking that, perhaps various NFL general managers are, as well.

And if Feiler wants to really cash in, he’s surely thinking that. What could Feiler command on the open market as a tackle? If it’s anything approaching what other Steelers offensive tackles received in free agency, such as Kelvin Beachum (five years, $45 million from the Jaguars in 2015) and Chris Hubbard (five years, $36.5 million from the Browns in 2018), it will likely be much too much for the salary cap-strapped Steelers.

Besides all of that, the Steelers appear to have their left guard of the very immediate future in Kevin Dotson, last year’s fourth-round pick; Dotson did so well while starting in place of both Feiler and perennial All-Pro David DeCastro, he probably would have been the team’s rookie of the year if not for Chase Claypool.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

It’s going to take much work for the Steelers to get in cap compliance this offseason. Zach Banner, a fellow free agent, is most likely returning after missing the vast majority of 2020 with a torn ACL. Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal and took Banner’s place at right tackle last year.

I think the Steelers are going to give those two youngsters every opportunity to win the tackle spots in 2021. As for the left guard position? Dotson appears to have a bright future. Again, I feel that Feiler would be wise to market himself as a tackle in free agency.

  • I think it’s best for the Steelers to move on.

Given that the Steelers don’t have the flexibility to make luxury signings on the offensive line, expect them to do just that.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Promote Adrian Klemm as Offensive Line Coach. A Strange Move that Might Work

….Once upon a time, a once proud Steelers unit fell into deep disrepair.

Someone from outside Pittsburgh caught the Steelers head coach’s eye. Some viewed the outsider of choice as suspect. He had deep ties deep ties to a historic divisional rival after all. But everyone felt it best to embrace a breath of fresh air, to bring in new blood.

  • Yet new blood could not revive what remained stale.

And after two seasons of test, the Steelers head coach opted for change again, this time looking no further than the end of his nose. Given his chance, this insider innovated, reanimating a unit that was once again proud….

That little fairy tail intro was prompted by the news that the Steelers officially named Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach, promoting him from his role of Assistant Offensive Line coach. Given that the once dominating Steelers offensive line has slipped from elite status to liability, Mike Tomlin’s decision to promote in house seems like a real head scratcher.

Adrian Klemm, Steelers

New Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Photo Credit: Photo by Shelley Lipton, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After all, following the Hindenburg Rescuers the Titanic disaster of a playoff loss to the Browns, Tomlin acknowledged the repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is insanity. Yet, after firing Randy Fichtner, he promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. Now, after firing Shaun Sarrett, he promotes his assistant Adrian Klemm.

  • It seems crazy. And maybe it will turn out to be.

But precedents from Steelers history offers proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. After the 1998 season it became clear that offensive coordinator Ray Sherman was way, way in over his head. Mexican Blogger Carlos Ortega even reports that he once called a play that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook, but one that came from the Minnesota Vikings playbook.

  • Bill Cowher looked outside the organization, and replaced Sherman with Kevin Gilbride.

The Steelers, of course, knew Kevin Gilbride from his days with the Houston Oilers and Jacksonville Jaguars. He was seen as a bright young offensive mind. Or just the guy to bring Kordell Stewart along. Except he wasn’t.

Bill Cowher surprised everyone with his next move, by hiring Mike Mularkey as his offensive coordinator. Mulkarkey had returned to the Steelers in 1996, shortly after Super Bowl XXX, as tight ends coach – which isn’t exactly a fast-track position for offensive coordinators in waiting.

  • Many questioned the move, but Mike Mularkey proved to be a good offensive coordinator.

Yes, perhaps he did do a little too much to earn his “Inspector Gadget,” moniker, but with weapons like Jerome Bettis, Antwaan Randle El, Hines Wards, and Plaxico Burress at his disposal, he fielded a good offense and managed the change from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox effectively.

Can Klemm Copy Mukarkey’s Example

It remains to be seen if Adrian Klemm can follow Mike Mularkey’s example. Kleem does have 3 Super Bowl rings earned as a backup with the New England Patriots, and has extensive experience coaching future NFL offensive lineman while coaching in the collegiate ranks.

  • Former Steelers lineman Ramon Foster and Trai Essex have publicly endorsed the hire.

That’s a welcome sign, but regardless of his coaching acumen, Kleem has his work cut out for him. The Steelers will likely part ways with Alejandro Villanueva and could see Zach Banner and Matt Feiler while Maurkice Pouncey is contemplating retirement and most certainly will if Ben Roethlisberger does not return.

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How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/1305666999813648384

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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COVID 19 Will Test “Steelers Way,” Art Rooney II Like Never Before

The “Steelers Way” is at once palpable and nebulous. The Pittsburgh Steelers march to their own drummer, how they do it eludes precise definition.

The “Steelers Way” extends far beyond contract negotiation and salary cap management, but COVID-19 will soon test those aspects of the team’s MO like never before.

  • To illustrate how, we’ll revive an anecdote shared here before.

It was the summer of 1993. Free agency had just arrived and was transforming the league. Free agent shopping sprees where the norm in the NFL with that year’s top free agent, Reggie White, being wooed by gifts of city keys and ticker tape parades.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

COVID-19 Will Test Art Rooney II like never before. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

Free agency forced Pittsburgh to say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilkin as well as young upstarts like Jerrol Williams. Tampa Bay almost signed away starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell. And while Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe responded by bringing in players like Kevin Greene and John L. Williams, those signings failed to quiet “the sky is falling” mantra mouthed by fans and the press.

  • The Steelers also made two curious moves.

First they extended Greg Lloyd’s contract, a year before he was set to become free agency. Then they did the same thing same thing for Dermontti Dawson, prompting on one fan to rip Rooney on an AOL message board:

Someone needs to sit Dan Rooney down and EXPLAIN to him that the whole point of free agency is to get better by signing OTHER TEAMS players instead of wasting time signing your OWN PLAYERS.

Had social media existed then, this post would have certainly secured hundreds of Retweets and Facebook likes. Fans in those days weren’t any more shy about castigating Dan Rooney as “cheap” than they are today about criticizing Art Rooney II for being too patient with Mike Tomlin.

Today, resigning your own players before they reach free agency standard NFL practice. The Steelers showed the way, and the rest of the NFL copied. It is easy to see why.

Since that summer, the Steelers have suffered just 3 losing seasons, been to the playoffs 17 times, won 13 AFC Central or AFC North titles, played in 8 conference championships, won 4 AFC Championships and taken Lombardi’s back to Pittsburgh following wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Sure, the Patriots have more hardware, albeit some of it is tainted, and the Cowboys have one more Lombardi, but those are the only two franchises that can remotely touch the Steelers.

  • But the COVID-19 crisis is making it impossible for the Steelers to do one of the things they do best.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was conventional wisdom that starters such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner wouldn’t see contract extensions, in part due to salary cap considerations. When it became clear that COVID-19 wouldn’t “go away” before the NFL season, serious talk of extensions ended for most players, but some in the press still held out hope for a new deal for Cam Heyward.

  • Public comments by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert now even seem to rule that out.

Cam Heyward isn’t the only starter the Steelers would normally be targeting for training camp extension. Bud Dupree’s asking price might be too steep, but starters like Matt Feiler and could be starters such as Zach Banner would be obvious candidates.

And while the smart move for a player like Mike Hilton would be to wait to test the open market, Cam Sutton is exactly the sort of under the radar player the Steelers would typical target for a 2nd contract heading into his fourth year.

But next year the NFL’s salary cap could and likely will drop to $175 million dollars. Per Jim Wexell’s calculations on Steel City Insider, “the Steelers have 40 players signed for 2021 at a cost of $197 million.”

Those types of numbers point to painful cuts and difficult departures as opposed to contract extensions designed to prop Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window open.

The Rooneys have adpated the “Steelers Way” over time. For a long time, Dan Rooney balked at renegotiating contracts. Yet, when he renegotiated Kordell Stewart’s contract in the spring of 1999 he quipped that maybe you to things in 1999 that you didn’t do in 1933.

For a long time, the Steelers resisted the practice restructuring  contracts to free salary cap space. Since Art Rooney II took over the reigns from his father, contract restructures have become a Steelers staple.

COVID-19 figures to give the Art Rooney II’s adaptation skills a far stiffer test.

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