Steelers Report Card for the 2023 Season – Glad the Grading is Over Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is glad to be done with grading for a while, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 season.

T.J. Watt, Jake Browning, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jake Browning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Both Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky disappointed. Kenny Pickett not only failed to make the “second year leap” he posted some historically anemic passing numbers. Trubisky had multiple chances both as a reliever and a starter to show why he belongs in this game, and he squandered them. The difference is Trubisky turned over the ball, Pickett did not. Mason Rudolph in contrast, elevated the entire offense. IT was a different unit with him on the field. And his performance pulls the group’s grade up. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren entered uncharted territory for the franchise this year, becoming the only 2 running backs to get a carry (although Anthony McFarland did catch 2 passes in the opener.) Both men earned over 1000 yards from scrimmage, with Najee Harris rushing for 1035 yards – his third consecutive 1000 yard season. We saw as the season progressed, the running backs were capable when they had the blocking. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth got hurt in the opener and then played through injuries for the first several weeks until missing several games in the middle of the season. His effectiveness was limited, but he did come on late. Darnell Washington did a respectable job for a rookie. Connor Heyward was a quality role player and his presence as a blocker was notable late in the season. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wideouts had their ups and downs. George Pickens flashed early in the season, but struggled in the number one role. His attitude came into question, but he closed the year with a bang. Diontae Johnson was injured early in the season, and took some time to find his stride. Calvin Austin flashed on a few plays, but otherwise was a non-factor. Allen Robinson served as a serviceable slot receiver. Myles Boykin didn’t see much action outside of special teams. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This unit was easily the biggest disappointment for the first half of the season. Pass blocking was poor and run blocking appeared to be non-existent at times. The change began when Broderick Jones entered the starting lineup. However, the rest of the line improve, particularly as Isaac Seumalo got his legs under him. The improvement was important, but the difficulty the Steelers had running the ball against Buffalo shows that this group has a long way to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
This group got a taste of what life could be like after Cam Heyward, and at times that was pretty scary. Early in the year it looked as if the Steelers run defense might revert to 2021 form. However, the unit improved as Keeanu Benton worked his way into the line up. Still, it would be nice to call out a few other up and comers. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored another Defensive Player of the year worthy performance. Watt proved time and time again he is a generational talent capable of altering the course of a game by himself. Alex Highsmith’s numbers were down a bit from his previous year, but Highsmith delivered, as did outside linebacking backups Markus Golden and Nick Herbig. At inside linebacker, it took a while to jell, but the Steelers had quite a troika there in Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Then of course Holcomb and Alexander got hurt, as did Roberts, forcing the Steelers to look to the street for replacements. Those guys did well enough, but the absence of the starters was significant. Grade: B+

Secondary
When the Steelers opened against San Francisco, Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace were the starting corners, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and safety Keanu Neal formed a troika while Eric Rowe sat on the Carolina Panthers practice squad. When the Steelers closed at Baltimore, Joey Porter Jr. was a starting corner, Levi Wallace was back as a starter as Patrick Peterson was playing safety alongside Eric Rowe. Yes, this unit weathered a lot of adversity. And while their numbers might not have been flashy, they had as big a part of keeping the Steelers in games as did any other unit on the defense. Grade: B

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Miles Killebrew was a one man wrecking crew blocking 2 punts during the season. Calvin Austin may not have done much as a receiver, but he proved to be a good punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike proved to be a solid kick returner with “upside.” Steelers kick coverage could have been better at times, but it was never a liability. Pressley Harvin’s punting was inconsistent, and that brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Coaching
The Steelers coaches’ score card for 2023 contains ugly, bad and good.

The ugly stems from the ill-fated decision to retain Matt Canada. None of the progress evident during the final half of the 2022 season was evident in 2023. Instead, the Steelers fielded one of the most anemic offensive efforts franchise history. Three and outs became the norm. The Steelers failed to establish the running game and Kenny Pickett did not progress.

For as disappointing as Kenny Pickett’s failure to make the “second year leap” was, the Steelers worst stretch of the season came when Kenny Pickett was out. Mitch Trubisky showed a lot of leadership, looked in command on the field, but he ultimately failed to rally the team in relief of Pickett and floundered in his first two starts.

  • Mike Tomlin had treated Mason Rudolph as a “nice to have” and he should have given him stronger consideration sooner.

The Steelers defense had its struggles early on too. But as the troika of inside linebackers found their stride, the unit perked up. Then they started to get hurt. Many Steelers fans question why Mike Tomlin extended Teryl Austin for two more years.

They should not. Austin’s defense may never have broached shut down level, but it displayed an uncanny knack for delivering big plays at critical moments. This continued throughout the season, despite the fact that Austin had to rebuild the middle of his defense, almost on a weekly basis.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

If Mike Tomlin deserves criticism for retaining Canada and the horrid 10 quarter stretch that followed Pickett’s injury – and he does – he also earns credit. When the bottom falls out on and NFL team late in the season like that, free fall generally ensues.

Mike Tomlin made sure the opposite happened, defying the odds and landing his team in the playoffs, where they made a spirited run at a Super Bowl favorite. Grade: C+

Front Office
The improvement of the Steelers in 2023 can be tied, in many respects, directly to integration of its rookie class into the starting line ups. Omar Khan and Andy Wedil’s first draft won accolades.

That was nice, but the Steelers 2023 draft class helped the team win games, which is far more important.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

The front offense proved to be quick on its feet, as the Steelers found themselves cycling through street free agents at safety and inside linebacker. Likewise the free agents Khan brought to Pittsburgh also accounted itself well. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense had trouble scoring for most of the year. At times it had difficulty doing anything right. But there was one player who could be counted on to score when his number was called, and he delivered 56 times out of 59 and for that Mr. Automatic Chris Boswell wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 season.

 

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Reality Bites: 49ers Kick Steelers in the Teeth, 30-7 to Open the 2023 Season

Week 1 in the NFL is all about acquainting yourself with reality. And the reality Pittsburgh faces today is that the San Francisco 49ers came to Acrisure Stadium for the 2023 season opener and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of 30-7.

  • Sometimes reality bites.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin minced no words declaring, “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways.” He’s right. The question is why and should we be worried?

 

Kenny Pickett, Drake Jackson, Steelers vs 49ers

Drake Jackson sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

How Quickly Off Season Accolades Feel Hollow

The NFL has dominated sports news, in terms of commanding press coverage and fan interest since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to professional football. Yet through all of it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely remained in the background.

But 2023 was different. The Steelers got out of their comfort zone:

  • Free agents that otherwise would have stayed in Pittsburgh were allowed to walk.
  • Older free agents and/or others with injury histories were brought to the Steel City
  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl authored a draft that made everyone happy
  • “Flawless” isn’t too much of an exaggeration to describe the Steelers preseason effort

Yet, as Washington Commanders fans can assure us, winning the off season Lombardi counts for nothing when the games actually matter. Oh, it’s not that the everything the Steelers did in the off season blew up in their faces. To the contrary:

And that exercise above, ladies and gentleman, is the football analysis equivalent of having the icing off of the top of your cupcake before eating the rest of your dinner. And by cupcake, I’m not talking about the kind your mother made, I’m talking about a Hostess cupcake. You might enjoy a brief sugar high, but everything else will disappoint you as your appetite is spoiled.

Because really everything else the Steelers did in their 2023 opener disappointed.

Losing It in the Trenches

One of the most heartening things about the off season was the front office’s commitment to returning to “Steelers Football.” By “Steelers Football” we mean winning in the trenches because the ones in Black and Gold are the ones hitting the hardest.

First in free agency and then in the draft, the Steelers invested heavily in bulking up their starters and backups on both lines, while signing thumpers to rebuild their inside linebacking corps. Yet the 49ers pushed the Steelers around like rag dolls.

  • You remember that picture-perfect run Jaylen Warren in preseason against the Bills?

Well, the 49ers executed a similar play to open the 2nd half, where Christian McCaffrey ran 65 yards for a touchdown. McCaffrey ran well on that play, but his lineman watch that play again and try to count all of the Steelers defenders who got manhandled on that play.

  • Nor was that an isolated incident. Take away that 65 run and McCafferty still averages over 4 yards a carry.

And the 49ers hardly executed a one-dimensional offense. The Steelers defense might have “contained” George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but Brandon Aiyuk torched them for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Granted, on the first touchdown pass Brock Prudy placed the ball with super-human precision, but either way Aiyuk literally caught everything that was thrown his way.

Chicken, Egg or Both?

During the back-half of 2022 the Steelers formula for success on offense was simple:

  • Control the line of scrimmage
  • Create manageable third downs by running hard on first and or second down
  • Count on Kenny Pickett (or Derek Watt if we dare say) to convert those third downs
  • Dominate time of possession

Sure, the Steelers got stuck in the Red Zone more often than not ensuring that a lot of games went down to the buzzer. But it worked.

Fast forward to September 2023. When Mike Tomlin was asked about the poor performance of his offense, he reference the fact that the Steelers started something like 0-5 on third down conversions.

Take away Najee Harris 24 yard run at the end of the 1st half and he averages 1.4 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren wasn’t much better, averaging 2 yards per carry. Suffice to say, there’s no running back controversy in Pittsburgh this morning.

But the offense’s woes don’t lie entirely on the shoulders of the running backs and offensive line. The Steelers tried opening several drives with short passes, but even when they completed those they still found themselves in third and long.

What’s perhaps more worrisome was how they attacked those third and longs. During the second half of 2022 the knock on Kenny Pickett was that he played it safe, avoiding throwing downfield and/or in the middle of the field.

  • Against the 49ers he attacked the middle of the field, and the middle counter attacked.

Perhaps his first interception was due to Diontae Johnson slipping, but he threw a very poor pass dead center in the middle of the field on his second one, and he should have had a third returned for a touchdown.

In his defense, Pickett faced pressure all day. The 49ers sacked him 5 times and registered a total of 9 hits. Couple that with the 8 tackles for losses registered by 49er defenders and Andy Weidl’s “planet theory” of offensive line building looked more like space dust.

Primary Differentiation on Opening Day

Is all hope lost for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers? Of course not. The Steelers opened their previous two seasons with upsets of AFC contenders only to flounder for large portions of both campaigns. Looking further back, during the Cowher Era and opening day blowout was almost a good omen.

  • But with that said, opening day revealed a stark contrast to Steelers Nation.

The San Francisco 49ers looked every bit of the team that’s been to 3 of the last 4 Conference championships and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a team still searching for its first playoff win since 2016.

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Good to be King? Steelers Sign Desmond King, Cornerback from the Houston Texans

Alas, Omar Khan didn’t have another “Khan Artist” style trade up his sleeve. The Steelers initial 53-man roster had 2 punters on it: Pressley Harvin and Braden Mann. Surely this wasn’t going to last. So speculation started.

Glancing down the Turnpike, the Eagles didn’t have a punter and had 7 defensive backs….

….Could Khan and Andy Weidl be cooking up a cross state exchange? After all, the biggest question on the depth chart was whether the Steelers had found the right mix between speed, youth and experience in their cornerback room.

Desmond King, Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Chargers

Tyler Matakevich tries to tackle Desmond King. Photo Credit: Chargers.com

While a trade never materialized, the Steelers did acquire a defensive back when they signed Desmond King who’d been cut by the Houston Texans. Unable to make a trade (assuming he tried), Khan remained in the Steelers comfort zone of “feeding the hand that slaps you.”

During the 2022 off season the Steelers filled key defensive needs by signing Levi Wallace, Genard Avery, and Larry Ogunjobi, all of whom had hurt the Steelers with big plays. And while few Steelers remember the name “Desmond King,” most will never be able to forget his 75 yard punt return for a touchdown in the Steelers 2018 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

The play was not only dramatic, but was likely aided by an uncalled clip.

Desmond King was a 5th round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2017. He played for the Chargers for four season, appearing in 53 games and starting 23. The Chargers traded him to the Tennessee Titans in 2020 and he signed with the Houston Texans during the 2021 off season.

In Houston, King appeared in 33 games, starting 25 of those. During his career he’s logged in 9 interceptions, force 3 fumbles and recovered 7. He’s also made 8.5 sacks and delivered 16 hits on the quarterback.

And between Calvin Austin and Gunner Olszewski the Steelers appear to be set for returners, but King gives Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith an option there, having returned over 101 punts in his career and 57 kickoffs, including a 50 yarder just a year ago.

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center & Guard – Is Pittsburgh Set?

Let’s face it. Offensive line isn’t “Sexy.” An offense might need to field five lineman, but the other six men are said to play “The skill positions.” Even then, interior offensive lineman get short shrift.

Quibble you do?

Take a look at how NFL teams prioritize Center and Guard in the draft and in how they spend their salary cap. Heck, offensive tackles get Hollywood movies made about them. Try making On the Blind Side about a guard.

True as that may be, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more interior offensive lineman in the Hall of Fame, see Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca, than they do wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth).

During the last two springs both Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan have invested heavily in interior offensive line positions. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore them in the draft? Let’s take a look.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The leader of the Steelers offensive line is unquestionably James Daniels. Kevin Colbert signed him last spring to a 3 year 26 million dollar contract, after Daniels had finished four years as a starter in Chicago.

James Daniels not only leads the team in terms of talent and salary, but also in terms of attitude. When the Buffalo Bills hit Kenny Pickett late, Daniels wasted no time in defending his quarterback – just what you need to see from your top offensive lineman.

Last year Colbert also signed Mason Cole to play center, after Cole had played for 3 years in Arizona and 1 Minnesota. Cole helped shore up a position that had been a weakness was solid all season.
Here’s where it gets interesting.

Officially speaking, Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starting guard. Kevin Dotson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and while he missed games in both 2019 and 2020, the Steelers line was certainly stronger with him playing. Dotson fortunately played all 17 games in 2022.

But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Andy Wedil from going out and signing Isaac Seumalo, who brings 7 years of NFL experience with the Philadelphia Eagles totaling 81 games and 60 starts, including 17 last season. The money the Steelers are paying Seumalo makes it clear that they’re not bringing him to Pittsburgh to be a backup.

Steelers Guard and Center Depth Chart: The Backups

When talking about depth at guard and center it would remise not to point out that both James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo have some experience at center. As does Nate Herbig, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from the New York Jets (although he is another ex-Philadelphia Eagle.)

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers also have Kendrick Green, their 2022 3rd round pick who was their starting center for most of 2022. Green also has position flexibility at guard, and many feel he’s more naturally suited there.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

“You can never have enough good offensive lineman” the old adage goes. And that’s a sound philosophy. But the Steelers have three if not four starter-capable guards, a former 3rd round pick, and an established starter at Center.

And oh, by the way, 3 of those guards have experience playing center. And the Steelers only have 7 picks this year. Therefore, their need at both center and guard going into the 2023 draft should be considered as Negligible.

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Comings and Goings: Steelers Sign Zach Gentry, Le’Raven Clark, Lose Steven Sims, Trent Scott

Last week saw a lot of under the radar activity by the Steelers in free agency.

The Steelers resigned tight end Zach Gentry. As news of the deal broke on a Saturday, there are no contract details. They also signed offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark from the Tennessee Titans, making him the 3rd ex-Eagles offensive lineman to follow Andy Wedil to Pittsburgh.

That latter move was necessary, as the Steeler lost offensive tackle Trent Scott to the Washington Commanders. They saw wide receiver and kick returner Steven Sims sign with to the Houston Texans. And of course the Eagles struck back, a bit at least, by signing Terrell Edmunds away from the Steelers.

We covered Terrell Edmunds’ departure at length here, today we’ll take a look at the other moves.

Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers vs Chiefs 2021 Wild Card, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger last pass

Zach Gentry catching one of Ben Roethlisberger’s last passes. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One for One Replacements and Votes of Confidence

Le’Raven Clark brings 6 years and 64 games with 18 starts to Pittsburgh, having played for the Colts, Eagles and most recently the Titans. That’s a very similar to Trent Scott, and based on that resume its clear that Clark is seen as a backup. This is a 1 for 1 depth replacement, and should do nothing to alter the Steelers (God willing) plans to add a tackle with one of their premium picks in the 2023 NFL Draft.

  • The loss of Steven Sims isn’t terribly surprising.

He’s shown himself to be a solid returner and a wide receiver with serviceable skills. The Steelers left him, along with James Pierre unprotected as a restricted free again. Omar Khan won his gamble and got James Pierre back, but has now lost Sims.

The fact that the Steelers left him unprotected also has to be seen as a vote of confidence for Gunner Olszewski. Sims replaced Gunner as the return man after Gunner Olszewski’s fumbling issues followed him from New England to Pittsburgh.

  • The biggest surprise of the week was the decision to resign Zach Gentry.

The Steelers drafted Gentry as a project in 2019. Injures limited him greatly in his first two years, but he had a strong 2021 season, looking like a legit number 2 tight end  along side Pat Freiermuth . He really didn’t make much of a leap in 2022 with and the emergence of Connor Heyward appeared to make him expendable.

  • Obviously, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan see it differently.

Still, the decision to resign him is understandable, given the fact that the Steelers don’t have a 5th round or a 6th round pick in this spring’s draft, which is about where you’d find a backup tight end.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost free agent Terrell Edmunds to the Eagles, as their 2018 first round draft pick signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.

Given that the Steelers and Andy Weidl have signed Guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark away from the Eagles and as well as Nate Herbig, who is also a former Eagle, the tempting headline might be, “Eagles claw back, sign Terrell Edmunds from the Steelers.”

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

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

While that might be accurate and attention catching, the real story here behind Terrell Edmunds departure is that the Steelers shuffle at strong safety continues. Sure, the Steelers resigned Damontae Kazee. But Kazee’s 2-year, team-friendly deal shows that neither Omar Khan nor Mike Tomlin think he’s the long term answer at strong safety.

No one has been for the last ten years when the Steelers quest to fill this critical position began.

  • In 2013 the Steelers traded up for Shamarko Thomas, hopping he was Troy Poamalu’s successor – Thomas started 2 games
  • Will Allen served as the stopgap safety in 2015, following Polamlau’s retirement
  • In 2016 the Steelers drafted Sean Davis, who started for two years
  • In 2018 the Steelers signed Morgan Burnett and drafted Terrell Edmunds. Burnett was one and done.

The short hand version of this story would read, “The Steelers had suffered a succession of busts at strong safety since Troy Polamalu retired.” That’s the superficial conclusion, the quick conclusion but also the wrong one.

Yes, Shamarko Thomas was a bust. The Steelers smashed franchise precedent in trading up to get him, and he was a disaster.* Will Allen was probably one of the unsung free agent signings of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and played pretty well for a 33 year old safety in 2015.

Sean Davis had a spectacular rookie year, and he really played well during the first half of his second year. Of course the second half was a different story, but whose play didn’t decline after the injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier?

Morgan Burnett, like the rest of the 2018 Steelers defense started to come on at the end of the year – it was Burnett who batted away Tom Brady’s final pass in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. But Burnett couldn’t beat out the rookie first round pick Edmunds, and wanted out of Pittsburgh so Mike Tomlin let him go.

  • And of course, many fans will always consider Terrell Edmunds “A bust.”

That’s simply wrong. Terrell Edmunds started 75 of the 79 games he appeared in. And if he was never a superstar in a defense that was on the rebound, he was always a force for stability. Yet in those five seasons, only picked off 5 passes, sacked the quarterback 5 times, recovered 1 fumble but never forced one. That’s 11 “Splash plays” out of 4,897 snaps on defense.

So his “Splash Play Percentage” was a mere 0.22%.

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

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

As Jim Wexell, (who compiled those numbers above – although the “Splash Play Percentage” is my own creation) observed, “He’s the strong safety. Should we review the playmaking numbers of the strong safeties who’ve played in Super Bowls for the Steelers? … you can look up the numbers for Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu.”

Well, I have.

  • Mike Wagner had 36 interceptions and 4 sacks in 116 starts for the Steelers
  • Donnie Shell had 51 interceptions and 9.5 sacks in 162 starts for the Steelers
  • Carnell Lake had 16 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in 154 sacks for the Steelers
  • Troy Polamalu had 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles in 142 starts for the Steelers

In that light, Terrell Edmunds’ stats look similar to those of Lee Flowers, who had 4 interceptions in 75 starts with the Steelers. But even Lee Flowers, who didn’t have Edmunds’ athletic ability, had 12 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. in 75 starts with the Steelers had 4 interceptions and 12 sacks.

In 2022 as well as in 2023 I wrote free agent profiles on Terrell Edmunds arguing that while, he wasn’t a superstar, he was “good enough” to deserve a second contract.

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

After comparing Edmunds’ stats to his predecessors, I don’t know that I can disagree with them.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

*Here’s morsel for Steelers trivia buffs: After the Steelers drafted him, Carnell Lake commented that had Thomas been 2 inches taller, he might have been a first rounder. When Lake said the same thing 2 years later after they drafted Senquez Golson, I almost wonder if he was dooming the kid. Maybe he did….

 

 

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Wedil Paints a Pickett Fence: Steelers Sign Isaac Seumalo, Guard, from the Eagles

Wow. Woke up this morning to see the Steelers signed guard Isaac Seumalo from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Talk about a blogger falling asleep at the switch. Due to personal/family reasons had kept me from writing about any of the Steelers free agent moves save for the loss of Cam Sutton and signing of Patrick Peterson.

  • And of course they came in rapid succession after that.
Isaac Seumalo, Steelers vs Eagles

Isaac Seumalo lines up against the Steelers. Photo Credit: Indianapolis Star

Saturday was the first day I was able to pick up my pen, so I wrote about Nate Herbig signing as an indication of Andy Wedil’s influence. Figured that as free agent news is typically slow on the weekend, I could run the Herbig story on Sunday morning, use Sunday to write about the inside linebacker situation with the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb and that would be that.

  • But Omar Khan and Andy Wedil are marching to their own drummer, aren’t they?

And there can be no doubt that Andy Wedil is deliberately leaving his finger prints on the Steelers roster. Isaac Seumalo is a 6-foot-4, 303-pounder whom Pro Football Focus rated as the NFL’s ninth-best guard in 2022. At age 29 Seumalo only gave up one sack and started all 20 games for the Eagles.

How does he fit in?

Well, to quote Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, that’s “…a mystery to team sources not named Mike Tomlin and OL coach Pat Meyer.” Herbig’s arrival signaled that Kevin Dotson’s starting job was likely on the line. The arrival of Herbig and Seumalo mans that Dotson will have to fight for a roster spot.

Kendrick Green’s chances of making the team just got very, very complicated. And it is also very unlikely that J.C. Hassenauer, whom the Steelers made an unrestricted free agent, will get a chance to return to Pittsburgh.

In an exchange with readers Jim Wexell shared, “Someone called it building a Pickett Fence. I love it.” The metaphor is apt. Pickett fences are white, and white is an official alternative color to the Steelers Black and Gold.

But this white Pickett fence has a definite hue of green.

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Weidl Effect? Steelers Signing Nate Herbig, a Road Grading Guard, May be Sign of Andy Weidl’s Influence

So far everything the Steelers have done in free agency has been by the book. Well, ok “by the book” if you channel your Ben Kenobi and agree that its “by the book from a certain point of view.” Which is to say that by signing 33 year old cornerback in the form of Patrick Peterson is not something the Steelers typically do.

But all things consider equally, the Steelers would have preferred to keep Cameron Sutton. When Cam Sutton signed with the Lions the Steelers needed a starting corner and turned to Patrick Peterson.

Ditto the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb – personnel moves at inside linebacker have been a staple of Steelers off seasons for the last 5 seasons. (More on that in a day or so.)

  • But the Steelers decision to sign Nate Herbig is an outlier.
Nate Herbig

Steelers newest guard Nate Herbig. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

While it’s a given that the Steelers need depth at offensive line, those conversations had typically focused on tackle. Behind Mason Cole, James Daniels and Kevin Dotson the Steelers had J.C. Hassenauer and Kendrick Green. Guard wasn’t considered an area of need.

Yet the Steelers wasted little time in signing Nate Herbig for 2 years at 8 million dollars with Herbig getting 3 million of that in guarantees. That’s not crazy money for an NFL guard – James Daniels is going to have a cap number $11,166,666 this year, but there are certainly starting guards that make less in today’s NFL.

  • That means that heading into his contract year Kevin Dotson is going to need to fight for his starting job.

The move is also the first sign of Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl’s influence. Herbig came out early from Stanford and that probably cost him getting drafted. But the Philadelphia Eagles signed him. When Joe Douglas left Philadelphia for the New York Jets he signed Herbig. And now he’s followed Weidl to Pittsburgh.

During his time in Philadelphia, Weidl developed a reputation as a personnel man who bought into the idea that football games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. (See the Eagle in people moving mode on short down situations in the Super Bowl.)

At 6’4” and 335 pounds, Herbig is in the 93rd percentile of offensive guards. By all accounts he’s a road grader in the run game even if his pass pro skills remain a work in progress. When asked about where he would play, Herbig quipped he’d play punter if the Steelers asked him to.

Just the attitude you’d like to see in an offensive lineman.

Cutting Them Loose – Steelers Don’t Tender RFAs

The Steelers also made another uncharacteristic, if under the radar move: They didn’t tender any of their four Restricted Free agents.

The Steelers had until 4:00 pm on Wednesday to offer tenders to J.C. Hassenauer, James Pierre, Jeremy McNichols and Steven Sims.

Most people probably don’t know who Jermey NcNicols was so that’s no surprise. Hassenauer has some starting experience, but he wasn’t much of a surprise. But Sims is their de facto 3rd wide out and James Peirre was their starting cornerback at year’s end.

So it is a bit of a surpise that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin opted to let those guys reach the free market.

All remained unsigned at this point, so they could still remain in Pittsburgh.

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