Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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Quiet Takeaway after 5 Games? Chris Boswell’s Steelers Career Keeps “Kicking Along” (pun intended)

The one thing that was annoying about the Steelers’ 27-19 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday was the vantage point during extra point and field goal attempts at one end of the stadium.

I don’t know if it was because the game was on Fox, which prevented me from enjoying an HD viewing experience, but whenever Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a kick and the kick was broadcast from a camera in the opposite end zone (or behind Boswell), I had a hard time finding the ball once it was launched toward the goalposts.

With each kick, I had to wait an extra second or two for the in-stadium crowd to react. If I heard cheers, I knew Boswell’s kick was true. If I heard nothing, I knew he had missed his mark.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Fortunately for me, I had already assumed I would hear cheers as soon as Boswell connected with foot to ball. Why? The man’s been money for most of his career as the kicker for the Steelers, that’s why.

  • He certainly was on Sunday, as he connected on every single kick.

Chris Boswell may never be placed in the same category as Gary Anderson or Jeff Reed as an all-time great Steelers kicker, but he actually is the best to have ever done it in a Steelers career that began during the 2015 campaign, when he was a midseason replacement for the struggling Josh Scobee, who was a training camp replacement Garrett Hartley who was himself an injury replacement for the injured Shaun Suisham.

Boswell connected on 29 of 32 field-goal attempts during his inaugural season with the Steelers and even made the game-winning kick in the final seconds of the wild wild-card win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

One year later, in the divisional round of the 2016 postseason, Boswell was the only scoring the Steelers could muster, as he kicked six field goals in an 18-16 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

  • The 2017 season may have been Boswell’s finest.

Even though receiver Antonio Brown won the award, you could make a case for Boswell as the Steelers MVP in 2017, as he connected on 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including several game-winners down the stretch to help Pittsburgh win 13 games and the AFC North crown.

Boswell earned a trip to his first Pro Bowl following the 2017 campaign and a new, multi-year contract right before the 2018 regular season was about to kick off.

Unfortunately for Boswell, 2018 would be the worst year of his career; in fact, things immediately started to fall apart in Week 1 with a missed field goal in overtime in a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 rain-soaked tie at Cleveland.

I don’t know if that missed kick against the Browns affected Boswell’s psyche, but he would go on to miss seven field goals and five extra points in 2018 and repeatedly failed to pull the Steelers out of the same close jams that he did one year earlier. Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason with a 9-6-1 record. Was Boswell dealing with some sort of injury all throughout the 2018 campaign? We do know he was placed on Injured Reserve prior to Week 17 after reportedly suffering a torn groin muscle in a game against the Saints.

After some talk of releasing Chris Boswell and his contract during the 2019 offseason, the now veteran thankfully returned to his old form and connected on 29 of 31 field-goal attempts during the regular season.

Boswell remained consistent in 2020, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts and even set a franchise mark with a 59-yard boot against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Speaking of records, Boswell kicked the longest field goal in Heinz Field history earlier this season when he made one from 56 yards in a Week 2 game against the Raiders on September 19.

  • That field goal was one of eight Boswell has made so far in 2021 with his only miss coming in Week 3.

Unlike in the days of Gary Anderson, it’s much harder for kickers to distinguish themselves these days, and most are expected to have an accuracy rate at or close to 90 percent.

Chris Boswell may not get talked about or celebrated in the same fashion as less-accurate Steelers kickers from the past, but he’s clearly the greatest one to ever boot balls for the organization.

That speaks volumes.

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News Flash Steelers Nation: Players Staying in Shape During Off Season Isn’t “News”

It appears we’ve reached the point of the Steelers offseason that I like to refer to as “Putting in the Work.”

The reason I say that is because of the endless amount of videos that pop up on social media in May, June and July of Steelers players hard at work at the gym and/or at some high school field. They’re squatting, lifting, sprinting, doing those cone drills, etc., etc.

  • The fans eat it up and post comments such as, “Get some!” “My man!” and, of course, “(Insert player here) is putting in the work!”

 

James Harrison, James Harrison workout, James Harrison weight room

Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Photo Credit: Stack.com

 

Just in the past few weeks or so, we’ve learned that second-year player, Alex Highsmith, has added a few pounds of muscle during the offseason in an effort to, among other things, rise to the occasion and capitalize on his great opportunity to win the starting job at outside linebacker, opposite T.J. Watt. Also, Marcus Allen, the former Penn State safety, has been hard at work at the gym, bulking up for his now seemingly permanent role as an inside linebacker.

I can go on and on with these examples; they’re endless and everywhere. Just about every player has some version of “Putting in the work” posted on some social media platform.

I could be wrong, but I believe Antonio Brown was one of the first well-known professional athletes to promote his workouts on social media.

Nobody seemed to be more dedicated to his craft than Brown, but maybe that was just the perception that we got thanks to him being such a tireless self-promoter. I obviously can’t speak on the dedication of all Steelers players, but I think it’s safe to assume that most have always been serious about “putting in the work.” Much like a lot of things in life, these days–including what your friends just had for dinner — we are more aware of the dedication of professional athletes thanks to the advent of social media.

Speaking of social media, the non-football activities of Steelers players often come under great scrutiny the moment they either screw up in a game or their team simply loses one. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a social media self-promoter if there ever was one, has come under fire in recent years for his “lack of focus and/or discipline” due to supposedly worrying more about furthering his brand and TikTok dancing than being dedicated to his craft. However, this was the same man who hired a trainer last offseason and put himself through hell, training twice a day for six days a week in preparation for the 2020 regular season.

  • Smith-Schuster transformed his body and looked more linebacker than receiver by the time the season started.

Yet, by the end of the year, the only thing people wanted to focus on was his logo dancing and TikTok videos, as if they were totally sapping his ability to concentrate on the football field.

Do you think anyone who can add about 10 pounds of muscle is going to let his off-the-field “playtime” distract him during a game? Furthermore, do you think his teammates, players who, like Smith-Schuster, dedicate hours to conditioning their bodies for the rigors of professional football, are going to allow themselves to be distracted by some tweet or a reporter’s question about said tweet?

  • That was a rhetorical question.

The NFL is a serious business (often too serious, in my opinion), and if a player isn’t “putting in the work” at the gym, the high school field or even the meeting room, it’s going to show up during a game. These are the elite of the elite. Even the guy sitting at the end of the bench must totally dedicate himself to his craft if he wants to keep earning a paycheck every week.

I don’t know when it became a thing that a player must focus on football 24/7/365 in order to succeed (certainly the days of Ray Mansfield taking a job as a substitute teacher to make ends meet in the off season are long gone), but that’s apparently what many fans and even a lot of media members think. It’s obviously impossible to commit yourself to your profession every second of every day, but you better believe the vast majority of athletes devote more than enough time to theirs.

Do a lot of them play video games and have fun on social media? Of course. Does it mean they’re not committed to what they do for a living? Of course not.

If you truly think that you can step on an NFL field without the proper amount of dedication and preparation, perhaps you should be committed…to an institution.

 

 

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

https://twitter.com/DevinBushFan/status/1334272521235992578

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Ray-Ray McCloud – Does the Returner Deserve to Return?

Nothing can break open a game like a dramatic kick return. Think Santonio Holmes punt return for a touchdown in 2008 playoff win against the Chargers. Or Diontae Johnson‘s punt return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in 2019.

  • The problem is, Steelers fans would have to dig a lot deeper to find many more examples.

Return specialists have never been the franchise’s hallmark. Louis Lipps dominated as a rookie but that was about it. Rod Woodson was devastating as a return man when he was young but was merely “good” as the 80’s faded into the 90’s. 

Ray-Ray McCloud added some dynamism to the Steelers return game early in 2020. Does this Steelers restricted free agent deserve a shot at recapturing this in 2021? Let’s find out.

Ray-Ray McCloud, Steelers vs Texans

Ray-Ray McCloud evades Phillip Gaines. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ray-Ray McCloud’s Career with the Steelers

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in the 2018 NFL Draft, spent a season in Buffalo before being waived at the end of the following season’s training camp. After a brief stint with the Panthers and again with the Bills, McCloud was signed by the Steelers last August.

Ray-Ray McCloud was brought to Pittsburgh to be a return specialist and filled that role quite well in 2020. McCloud averaged just over 23 yards on kickoff returns, but it was his punt-return prowess that showed the Steelers that they may have found a true replacement for the dynamic Antonio Brown. McCloud tallied 298 yards on 29 punt returns–including one for 57 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud was a bit of a fifth wheel as a receiver, posting just 77 yards on 20 receptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers should be able to retain McCloud’s services rather cheaply, and he could be quite the bargain if he continues to show promise as a return specialist. Furthermore, there could be room in the Steelers’ offense for McCloud, considering JuJu Smith-Schuster is all but gone. McCloud showed some flashes when he was featured in Matt Canada’s motion offense in 2020. Now that Canada has been promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, perhaps he will find a way to flesh out McCloud’s potential.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud is a restricted free agent, so unless some team comes calling with the offer sheet of his dreams that Pittsburgh simply couldn’t match, I don’t see any negatives in bringing McCloud back, other than some character issue that has yet to be disclosed. The Steelers could tender McCloud or they could even bypass that option and with little risk and resign him as an unrestricted free agent.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud is young (24), he’s a restricted free agent, he can be retained on the cheap and he has potential to be a dynamic return specialist. Oh yeah, there could be an opening in the Steelers receivers room. I see no downside in bringing back Ray-Ray McCloud. Expect the Steelers to bring him back, albeit without offering him a restricted free agent tender, due to salary cap restrictions.

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