As the NFL’s attention shifts away from “big ticket” free agents to the upcoming draft, the Steelers continue to operate under the radar, and reveal a lot about how they view their needs in the process.
Mike Tomlin has promised to look under every loose stone in his quest to fix what ails the Steelers, and he is making good on his pledge.
Offensive line and special teams were obvious need areas long before the final gun sounded against Jacksonville. The Steelers have hosted several offensive linemen, and signed running back Mewelde Moore and line backer Keyaron Fox to bolster their special teams.
But the Steelers most interesting free agent moves have come on the defensive side. In the last two weeks they have brought in New England’s Eugene Wilson, Atlanta’s Chris Crocker, and Donnie Nickey from Tennessee. All three are safeties.
Pittsburgh’s tendency to fade in the final two minutes was the most alarming negative trend of the 2007 season. With the benefit of 20/20 hind sight, three of these games, (four if you include the playoffs) came with free safety Ryan Clark out of the lineup.
Without the ability to go back and review those games it is impossible to say. The rest of the defense is not off of the hook if its not a coincidence, but poor free safety play can cost a team dearly when it comes to closing close contests.
Each of Clark’s replacements earned himself a moment of ignominy – Tom Brady burned Anthony Smith, badly, after Smith’s “victory guarantee,” and David Garrard made Tyrone Carter look like a deer caught in the headlights while he sealed Jacksonville’s victory with a third down run.
Can any of these guys make a difference? I don’t know. When you get to free agents at this level you’re looking at getting more bang for your buck, as opposed to getting an immediate impact. I don’t know anything about these players, but you’ve gotta like it that Donnie Nickey got into a fight with Vince Young because Nickey hit him too hard in practice.
Regardless of what happens, watch the free safety slot. In addition to these moves, both the Tribune Review’s John Harris and the Steelers Digests’ Jim Wexell reported on various scenarios that involve moving Deshea Townsend to safety. One way or another, the Steelers are actively exploring ways to improve play at free safety, which is a good thing.