Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but John Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving John Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked John Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

John Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, John Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing John Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Sign Javon Hargrave – Is Hargrave a Cameron Heyward or a Stephon Tuitt?

The “Official” wind down of Pittsburgh’s OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Javon Hargrave, the 3rd round defensive lineman out of FCS South Carolina State where he twice won the SBN Sports Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year.

Extended rookie hold outs have been rare for over a decade and rookie contracts have become so pro-forma since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement that some players opt not to use an agent – far cry from 1990 when Neil O’Donnell, the Steelers 3rd round pick held out deep into August.

No, there was never any question Javon Hargrave was going to arrive at St. Vincent’s Latrobe signed and suited up for action with the rest of the Steelers 2016 draft class. The biggest question surrounding Javon Hargrave’s rookie year with the Steelers comes down to this:

That might seem like an odd question, given that the Steelers drafted Hargrave to play nose tackle while providing rotational relief at both defensive end positions but the analogy is very apt. Why? Well, comes times an infographic is worth 1,360 words:

Johnny Mitchell, rookie starts, steelers defensive line, casey hampton, stephon tuitt

Steelers rookies not named Casey Hampton rarely start for Johnny Mitchell

When that inforgraphic first appeared in 2014, no Steelers rookie not names Casey Hampton had started on John Mitchell’s defensive lines. OK, at the beginning of Mitchell’s tenure Brensten Buckner and later Orpheus Roye made a few starts. But since then, all rookies, including Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood and even Cameron Heyward never got a starting nod. I wrote a lengthy piece on this for BTSC’s 2014 Renegade, which you can read at length here.

But history has changed since then.

  • Or perhaps more precisely, Stephon Tuitt has changed history since then.

Stephon Tuitt started four games as a rookie in 2014, and in doing so he registered a sack and forced a key fumble. Tuitt in fact started the final four games of 2014, which also happened to feature the best four defensive performances of the Steelers that season.

But it’s also true that the Steelers never for a second considered started Cam Thomas over Tuitt when Keisel went down. And that represented a 180 degree shift in the thinking of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Johnny Mitchell, who watched Cam Thomas struggle when he rotated in for Heyward or Keisel early in the year, but nonetheless kept Tuitt on the bench.

If all goes according to plan (meaning there are no injuries), Heyward, Tuitt and veteran Dan McCullers will start all season long for the Steelers. But it would be nice if Hargrave showed enough for the coaches to turn to him instead of Ricardo Mathews should one of the big three fall.

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

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

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Image Credit: Real Sport 101

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

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

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

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

Why Wait 5 Years to Evaluate a Draft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution of the Steelers 2011 NFL Draft Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Yet Cortez Allen remained an enigma.

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Free Agent Analysis Brandon Boykin – Cornerback Not Likely to Return to Pittsburgh

Of the 20 players the Pittsburgh Steelers have who will soon become unrestricted free agents, perhaps there is no greater mystery than that surrounding free agent cornerback Brandon Boykin. Steel Certain Rising’s Steelers free agent analysis takes a look at Boykin and tires to see if we can make sense from the noise…

Capsule Profile of Brandon Boykin’s Career with the Steelers

Brandon Boykin holds the distinction of being the first Steelers acquisition that learned about through my wife…. The Steelers of course traded for Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Neither player amounted to much, and perhaps that was a bad omen for the Boykin trade. When Boykin arrived, many expected him to push for a starting job. As it was, he found himself unable to get on the field in a year when the Steelers:

Instead, Boykin stood and watched as Antwon Blake struggled and Ross Cockrell got reps ahead of him. Boykin did start seeing regular reps with the Steelers defense following the loss to Seattle.

He got an interception vs. the Colts and ended up working a sort of “closer” for Antwon Blake, although Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell down played Boykin’s role in the Steelers comeback win over the Broncos in the regular season.

On the flip side, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell singled out Boykin’s mental error on Denver’s critical 3rd and 12 conversion during the Broncos go ahead score vs. the Steelers in the playoffs

The Case for Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

Brandon Boykin came to the Steelers with 48 games and 6 starts of experience, including one playoff start with the Eagles. The “knock” on him was that he fell out of favor with Chip Kelly, which is something you hear a lot… If there is one area on the Steelers depth chart that is screaming for help it is cornerback.

  • It says here that Brandon Boykin is not the answer for the Steelers at cornerback.

But they gave up a 5th round pick to get him, spent a year letting him learn the system, and they know what they have in him.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

One of the prime reasons why the Steelers let Dick LeBeau go and promoted Keith Butler was to simplify the system so that new comers could learn it more easily. Boykin, by all accounts, struggled to learn the Steelers defense.

While Boyking did make contributions when he started to get reps late in the season, he whiffed on what was arguably the biggest play for the Steelers. That’s not to say it was all his fault, but the playoffs are (generally) a good crucible for seeing which direction a player will go (Ziggy Hood in the 2010 playoffs being an exception.)

The Steelers have looked into bringing Brice McCain back.

Who wouldn’t have preferred McCain in 2015 to Boykin?

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Brandon Boykin

As Jim Wexell has noted, as a free agent Brandon Boykin is going to draw interest from the rest of the NFL. The Steelers are likely interested to, but the fact is that the greatest probability scenario is some other team will make Boykin an offer that the Steelers are not interested in matching.

If that doesn’t happen, and the Steelers can bring Brandon Boykin back at a low value “prove it” contract, that would be a wise move. But that is not likely to happen.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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The Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl Snub Stings and Its Inexcusable

The Steelers Pro Bowl selections for 2015 are in, and while no one in Steelers nation is complaining about sending Ben Roethlisberger, David DeCastro and Antonio Brown to Honolulu, there are more than a few Steelers that should probably join them. Here will look at a few 2015 Steelers Pro Bowl snubs, but none is more grating than the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub.

Miller & Williams Lead Possible “Other” Steelers Pro Bowl Snubs

On any city in the road, a catch by 83 evokes “Heeath” from the audience. Yet why Heath Miller is so underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh baffles the mind. A year ago it looked like there might be the first signs that Miller was losing a step, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in 2015.

DeAngelo Williams has also more than made the case that he belongs. Yes, he’s “Only a backup” but one that has carried the Steelers entire rushing offense on his back during Le’Veon Bell’s absence. Honestly, seeing Williams name on the Steelers Pro Bowl squad would have been a shock, but that doesn’t make him any less deserving.

Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton’s role in the Steelers offense is perhaps underappreciated, but neither of the men has been consistent enough to warrant serious consideration.

Of DeCastro’s fellow lineman, Marcus Gilbert is porbably the only other contender, although if there was a “team offensive” line vote, then the Steelers offensive line should fare pretty well.

Smarting Over the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl Snub

If the other Steelers non-Pro Bowl selections are largely explainable, the same cannot be said for the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub. Cam Heyward deserves to be in the Pro Bowl, and snubbing Cam Heyward out of a trip to Honolulu is both inexcusable and indefensible.

Cam Heyward saw time as a rookie, but largely watched and learned from Brett Keisel as the Steelers attempted to replace Aaron Smith with Ziggy Hood. Heyward saw more playing time in 2012 and, despite out playing Hood on various snap/production measures, Heyward was still third in the pecking order.

  • Some less-informed members of Steelers Nation began to call Cameron Heyward a bust.

Such talk was utter foolishness, although John Mitchell, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin’s insistence on starting Hood over Heyward puzzled. After the Steelers 0-4 start, Heyward got promoted to starter, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since. Heyward helped a 2-6 squad transform itself into the 8-8 squad that just missed the playoffs.

During 2014, in his first full year as a starter, Cameron Heyward emerged as a dominant defensive tackle. On the year, he had 7.5 sacks which is impressive, but Cam Heyward really shined during the 2014 Steelers final four games when he stepped up sack the quarterback 3 and a half times as the Steelers defense led Pittsburgh to an 4-0 finish.

  • It’s ironic but in no way coincidental that Heyward’s rise coincided with Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Brett Keisel’s exit from the Steelers defense.

The leaders of one generation of Steelers defense were stepping down, and Cam Heyward was stepping forward to take their place. In 2015 that process has continued, as statistically speaking Heyward is outpacing his 2014 performance as he emerges as one of the unquestioned leaders of the Steelers defense.

  • Statistics are nice, but too often they fail to show Heyward’s excellence.

Look at the box score from the Steelers Monday Night win over the Chargers, Cameron Heyward has all of 1 tackle. But Pro Football Focus rated his performance  at 9.8 by far the best of a defensive end in the entire NFL that weekend. Heyward might not have been compiling any sexy stats that night, but he was severely disrupting anything and everything that moved in the San Diego backfield.

Its been said that 3-4 defensive lineman often suffer by comparison to their 4-3 companions. That’s true enough as Joel Steed dominated in obscurity during the 1990’s with Pro Bowl recognition coming only before his knees forced him to retire. Casey Hampton himself only made it to 5 Pro Bowls. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel made it to one apiece.

  • That doesn’t remove the sting from the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub

Cameron Heyward belongs on the 2015 Pro Bowl squad. It is an honor he has earned and one that is well-deserved.

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Steelers vs Worst NFL Draft Classes in Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has ranked the 4 worst draft classes of the NFL’s last 25 years. If that sounds curious it should. Reineking actually claims to rank the NFL’s five worst draft classes, but he’s already included the 2013 NFL Draft, and 2 years is far too short a time to draw conclusions about any draft class.

  • Beyond that, the simple fact is that at this time of year pro football focused sites, including this one, become desperate for anything that generates them page views.

But let’s assume that Reineking’s methodology is sound and the analysis behind his rankings is solid. The question of interest to Steel Curtain Rising is “How did the Steelers fare vs the worst NFL draft classes in history?”  Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Steelers 1992 NFL Draft Class

For Reineking, the 1992 NFL Draft was the worst of the last 25 years and if he’s right, then this is all the much sweeter for Steelers nation, because the Steelers 1992 draft class was one of the best of the post-Chuck Noll era.

The 1992 NFL Draft was Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s first together, and their first three picks were Leon Searcy, Levon Kirkland, and Joel Steed. None of the three started in Cowher’s 1992 opening day upset of the Houston Oilers. That honor feel to Darren Perry who started all sixteen games and hauled in 6 interceptions.

  • Searcy, Kirkland, and Steed did start on opening day 1993, and were regular starters through Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers also grabbed long snapper Kendall Gammon in the 11th round of the 1992 NFL Draft who served as long snapper for 4 straight years. Searcy left after 1995, but Kirkland, Steed, and Perry all signed multiple contracts from the Steelers. Kirkland and Steed made 3 Pro Bowls between them.

The Steelers 1992 draft class did not produce superstars, but Pittsburgh did find four solid, long-term starters and critical special teams role player. That’s a very good effort for any draft, and all the more so for one that is rated as the worst overall draft in a quarter century.

Steelers 2013 NFL Draft Class

It is way, way too early to evaluate the Steelers 2013 draft class. Going into 2015, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas represent huge question marks and you don’t want to say that of your first and third round pick two years after the draft. Especially when the success or failure of your defense hinges closely on their development.

Yet, Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams, and Markus Wheaton have all shown “something” and that bodes well for the overall fate of the 2013 draft class.

Steelers 2009 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 2009 draft class has perhaps been one of the most misunderstood. By definition, it’s a disappointment when no members of your draft class get second contracts. And if Ziggy Hood was a disappointing 1st round pick, he was no bust, and as Steel Curtain Rising demonstrated last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers made good picks in 2009, the problem is that the rest of the NFL benefited from them.

If 2009 was the third worst draft of the last 25 years, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin sent a lot of the right names to the podium, even if it did Pittsburgh little good.

Steelers 1999 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 1999 draft class was Tom Donahoe’s last, and it was far from his best. The Steelers were picking 13th, and their first two picks were Troy Edwards and Scott Shields, both of whom were busts. 3rd round pick Kris Farris represented another waste of a premium pick.

  • But the 1999 draft was far from a total loss for Pittsburgh.

Round’s 3 and four included men by the names of Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, two men who own three Super Bowl rings between them. Amos Zereoue also arrived in that draft and, while Zereoue never reached his potential he was hardly a bust.

The Steelers laid a couple of eggs in the 1999 NFL Draft, but they also found 2 diamonds in the rough.

Steelers 2002 NFL Draft Class

The 2002 NFL Draft was Kevin Colbert’s third with the team, and it was easily its best in terms of finding overall value. Only one of the 8 players the Steelers drafted in 2002 failed to make the roster.

Injuries ruined Kendall Simmons career, but he stayed healthy enough to start in Super Bowl XL. Most people will never think of Antwaan Randle El as great, but his value to the Steelers offenses went far beyond his stat sheet (just ask Hines Ward). Ditto Larry Foote. The Steelers upgraded when they replaced Chris Hope with Ryan Clark, but Hope was good enough to start during the 2004 15-1 season and the Super Bowl that followed a year later.

Verron Haynes and Lee Mays weren’t household words in Steelers Nation even when they were playing, but Hayes was a serviceable back up, and Lee Mays a decent spot duty role player.

  • The final pick was of course Brett Keisel. What more do we need to say?

Kevin Colbert really did save the best for last here.

Keisel might not be a future Hall of Famer, he might have only earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Brett Keisel blossomed into a great player in every sense of the word.

The Steelers do Well in Picking from Weak NFL Draft Classes

Going into ever NFL draft, fans are wont to hear that “This it’s a great year to for teams that need to draft ______ [insert your position name(s)],” or “Unfortunately, there aren’t any viable franchise quarterbacks coming out this year.”

  • The funny thing is, you rarely hear draft classes collectively panned or praised after the fact.

Credit NFL.Com’s Jim Reineking for trying to change that.

Steel Curtain Rising offers no opinion either way of his choices, but if his rankings are right, then the Steelers have provided a case study proving the old adage that “Good players are available in every round waiting to be found,” it just takes a smart scouting organization to find them.

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Silverback Returns! Steelers Resign James Harrison

The Pittsburgh Steelers plan at outside linebacker going into the 2015 off season was remarkably similar to their plan on defensive line for the 2014 off season:

  • Allow unrestricted free agents to test the market
  • Do bargain hunting for veteran free agents as needed
  • Address the position via the draft and existing youth
  • Resign an stalwart veteran as a contingency measure

A year ago on defensive line the Steelers let Ziggy Hood and Al Woods hit the market, and declined to overpay for either of their services (assuming their was ever entertained bringing Ziggy Hood back). When both Hood and Al Woods found greener pastures, they signed Cam Thomas. They also drafted Stephon Tuitt on second round and Daniel McCullers in the 6th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

This year at outside linebacker the Steelers were content to let Jason Worilds test the market, but they did keep Arthur Moats off the open market. Presumably, the Steelers at least looked and perhaps talked to some free agent outside linebackers, although none visited the South Side. It is no secret the Steelers are looking to outside linebacker in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The case for the Steelers resigning James Harrison was strong. Like Keisel, Harrison indicated he still wanted to play. Here things turned tricky. Brett Keisel didn’t have a suitor in waiting outside of Pittsburgh. Bruce Arians waited until deep into August even to call Kesiel. The Steelers saw the move, and Keisel never made it to Pittsburgh West.

LeBeau made no secret for of his love for his players, and James Harrison was almost moved to tears when asked about LeBeau.

So James Harrison wanted to play, the only question was were, in Pittsburgh on in Tennessee. The Steelers were interested in bringing Harrison back, but wanted to wait until August. And as of Friday, the conventional wisdom was that Harrison would get the Keisel treatment from the Steelers.

Silverback Forces Steelers Hand

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do not make personnel decisions scared. But they do make smart ones. Yesterday James Harrison (again) made it known that he would only play for the Steelers or for the Titans. What’s more, he let it be known that his kids were divided as to where he should go.

It can be no coincidence that his Instagram post saw the Steelers resign James Harrison Harrison in less than 48 hours.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell concurs:

Outside of that nothing else has changed. The Steelers will still give Howard Jones, Jordan Zumwalt and Shawn Lemon a chance to earn roster spots. They will seek a young outside linebacker early in the 2015 NFL Draft. But they have also ensured that James Harrison will be on their depth chart.

The Steelers are simply making a proactive personnel move, very similar to the one they made when Green Bay worked out Steve McLendon when McLendon was a restricted free agent in 2013. In doing so, they give themselves important breathing space in the 2015 NFL Draft.

There’s a big difference between entering the NFL Draft wanting to get a top cornerback and a top outside linebacker early on and needing to take both a corner and an outside linebacker early on.

Realism Must Accompany Harrison’s Return to Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers resigned James Harrison for all the right reasons. He proved that he still has something left in the tank, he still has the desire to play, and he can serve as an excellent role model in the locker room.

  • But neither the Silverback of 2008 nor Deebo of 2010 will is returning to Pittsburgh.

Indeed, Harrison’s own agent has said as much, declaring that Harrison will be in a “supporting role”

And that’s fitting. James Harrison raised hell vs. the Baltimore Ravens at midseason, but was held in check in the Steelers playoff loss to Baltimore. To mix sports metaphors, Harrison certainly won’t be Willie Mays final stint with the Mets, but will rather likely be more like Michael Jordan’s final seasons with the Washington Wizards – as a player who can still perform at a high level, but only sporadically.

And by itself, that should be enough to help the Steelers in 2015.

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