Feed the Hand that Slaps You III: Steelers Sign Larry Ogunjobi, Veteran AFC North Defensive Lineman

The Pittsburgh Steelers have responded to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement by falling back on what has been their off season mantra: Feed the hand that slaps you.

  • In this case this involves signing defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to a one year contract.

Larry Ogunjobi is no stranger to Steelers fans, Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he played for the Mistake by the Lake for four years. Following that he took a cruise down I-71 and sigened with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Browns

Larry Ogunjobi glares at Mason Rudolph after shoving him to the ground. Photo Credit:

Larry Ogunjobi 16 games for the Bengals in 2021, recording 7 sacks, 12 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, for Ogunjobi he injured his right foot in the Bengals playoff game against the Oakland er um Las Vegas Raiders and missed the rest of the post season.

  • The injury unfortunately prevented Ogunjobi from cashing on his “prove it” deal with the Bengals.

In March he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Bears worth a totaling $40.5 million and, if reports are correct, got $26.3 million guaranteed. However, when Ogunjobi failed a physical and Chicago withdrew their offer.

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has pointed out, Larry Ogunjobi has more tackles against the Steelers than against any other teams.

But Steelers fans will undoubtedly remember him from the infamous 2019 “Body Bag Game” at Cleveland Stadium. Shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi pushed Mason Rudolph to the ground. That action earned him a 1 game suspension, which was lenient given that he’d crossed the field of play to interject himself into a fight.

So like fellow new defenders Genard Avery Myles Jack and Levi Wallace, the Steelers signed yet another player who has caused Pittsburgh pain in the past (at least Avery Jack and Wallace did so legally….)

Defensive Line Depth Shored Up

Larry Ogunjobi probably doesn’t alter the Steelers projected starting depth chart for St. Vincents, with Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley expected to begin camp as starters. Assuming he arrives in Latrobe in full health, Ogunjobi could push Wormley or perhaps Alualu for a starting job.

Isaiahh Loudermilk quest for playing time just got more complicated and Montravius Adams’ lease on a roster spot just got looser. As for Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis? None of those men would would be wise to sign long-term leases in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Third round pick DeMarvin Leal remains a lock to make the team, but if he wants to get a helmet, he’d better bone up on his special teams.

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Steelers Resign Minkah Fitzpatrick to 4 Year Extension, Proving that Yes, Sometimes Social Media Rumors Are True

The Pittsburgh Steelers have resigned Minkah Fitzpatrick to a 4 year extension worth a reported 73.6 million dollars with 36 of it guaranteed. The deal makes him the NFL’s highest paid safety and proves, once again, that Minkah Fitzpatrick shows that sometimes its worth paying attention to social media.

  • Ah, how’s that you say?
Luke Wilson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick denies Luke Wilson a touchdown. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Let me explain. Part of being an intelligent football fan in the digital age is being wise enough to ignore much if not most of what you see on social media. For quick reference think back a few months to those reports that “The Steelers have a deal in place to land Aaron Rodgers should he ask out of Green Bay.”

A lot of people on Twitter believed that. Bless their hearts, they really did.

Many also bought the Tweets and Facebook posts that explained why Russell Wilson was destined for the Steel City. And of course there were fans who got frustrated when the Steelers didn’t offer 5 first round draft picks for Deshaun Watson, as reports assured us they were ready to do.

Which isn’t to say that those reports are always wrong. A tweet from someone I trust led your truly to write up an article detailing the Steelers signing of Tyrann Mathieu. Thank God I double checked, because it will be Terrell Edmunds and not Mathieu lining up along side Minkah this year.

  • But Minkah has been different.

During September 2019, I was hurriedly getting ready to work my company’s booth at Oracle Open World when I saw on WhatApp that the Steelers were trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. I thought nothing of it, because everyone “knows” the Steelers never trade their first round pick.

  • They especially wouldn’t trade him less than 24 hours after losing Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

No, I figured it was some over enthusiastic, gullible fan who’d been duped by social media and forgot about it. But then I found out it was real.

The same thoughts occurred to me today when I saw the news. I figured it had to be false, because the Steelers never make those moves now, always right before the season.

But sign Minkah they have. The question is why now?

Omar Khan Effect?

The Pittsburgh Steelers pioneered the practice of resigning free agents who are in the final year of their deals. And they often made those signings in the spring, well before training camp. Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson inked deals during this timeframe.

  • James Harrison similarly got an extension in the spring as have a few others.

But by in large, as the Kevin Colbert era progressed, the Steelers have waited until the end of the summer to resign their players. Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt all inked deals just before the beginning of the season. Heck Troy Polamalu signed his contract at the airport as the Steelers were leaving for Baltimore for the 2011 opener. (The Steelers unlike other clubs don’t negotiate contracts during the season.)

The Steelers were expected to do the same with Minkah. Hold off through training camp and preseason as insurance against injury and ink a deal before the season’s start.

  • But instead, they’ve signed him.

Whether this is a tactical shift by new General Manager Omar Khan or a one-off move, this is the right thing to do. Yes, there is a risk that Fitzpatrick could get injured during drills at St. Vincents or during preseason. But there’s also a greater chance that he could get injured in the season opener.

This way Minkah will be with the team, fully participating in drills and in preseason, if you’re a curmudgeon like me who still believes “practice makes perfect,” that’s a good thing.

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A Steelers Fan Looks at 50: If You’ve Watched the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben Play, You’re Old

I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.

Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.

Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.

What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.

Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.

While the second Super Bowl era officially ended in an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 regular season, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to overhaul its roster and become a bona fide contender again by the mid-10s.

Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

  • What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?

Man, I’m getting up there. I’ve seen both Joe Greene and Cam Heyward. I’ve been around for both Jack Ham and T.J. Watt.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Yancey Thigpen, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Pickens.

I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?

Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.

I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.

My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to

Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

 did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.

  • I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.

Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?

As the Steelers begin a new era with a new quarterback–it’s either going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett who gets the first crack at replacing Big Ben–I sure can’t wait to find out.

 

 

 

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Hedging: Steelers Decline Devin Bush’s 5th Year Option – What Does & Doesn’t Mean

The ink on the draft cards for the Steelers 2022 Draft class was hardly dry when the franchise displayed a bit of buyer’s remorse by opting not to pick up Devin Bush’s 5th year option.

The Steelers of course traded their own 2019 first round pick, their 2nd round pick from ’19 and their 2020 third round pick to move up to pick Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft. Devin Bush started as a rookie, winning rookie of the year honors, while authoring several splash, game-changing plays.

Bush returned to start 17 games in 2021, but he was not the same. Not only was he not an impact player, his tackle count plummeted, which is especially surprising, given the historically bad run defense the Steelers suffered.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

What the Decision on Bush Means and Doesn’t Mean

The Tribune Review’s Tim Benz went so far as to declare in a headline: “Praise of Kevin Colbert’s success with Steelers meets acknowledgment of Devin Bush’s failure.” That’s going a little too far.

Let’s be clear:

  • This unequivocally confirms that the Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin have serious concerns about Devin Bush.

The Steelers, like any NFL franchise, expect to offer their first round draft picks second contracts. Since the 2010 NFL CBA mandated 4 year contracts with a 5-year option for first round draft picks, the Steelers have picked up the option on Cam Heyward, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

And the Steelers not been facing salary cap Armageddon, they probably would have found a way to sign Dupree to a second contract. As it was, they franchised him.

But not franchising Devin Bush, the Steelers put him into the company of Jarvis Jones, Artie Burns, and Terrell Edmunds, all of whom did not get their options picked up.

  • While that’s not good, it isn’t as damning as it sounds.

Really, the Steelers put Bush in the same company as Terrell Edmunds. The 2020 CBA changed the 5th year option, making it fully guaranteed upon signing. Prior to that, it was only guaranteed for injury (much to Ryan Shazier’s benefit.)

Had the Steelers optioned Devin Bush on Monday, Art Rooney II essentially would have been giving him a post-dated check for 10.9 million dollars. Art II clearly isn’t ready to do that. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on him.

The conventional wisdom was that Terrell Edmunds was as good as gone when the Steelers declined his option, but Terrell Edmunds is back, albeit on a one year prove it deal.

If Bush rebounds in 2022, the Steelers could still franchise him at the cost of about 18 million dollars. So the Steelers aren’t giving up on Bush’s development, but rather hedging their bets. It could turn out to an expensive hedge indeed.

Steelers Sign Kazee Veteran Safety

The Pittsburgh Steelers made a signing the day after the draft that has to count as a bit of a surprise. They came to terms with Damontae Kazee. Kazee entered the NFL in 2017 as a fifth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, playing as the primary starter in his second and third seasons before a torn ACL ended his 4 season after four games.

The Dallas Cowboys signed him, and he started 15 games for them in 2021, making 2 interceptions and forcing 2 fumbles. Still he was unsigned at the draft and only got a one year contract from the Steelers, presumably at or near the veteran minimum.

The Steelers have taken a “wait and see” approach to safety this off season, declining to getting into a bidding war for Tyrann Mathieu, letting Terrell Edmunds test the market, and only signing Karl Joseph weeks into free agency.

Of course the Steelers are expected to seek a long term deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick this off season. They also have Tre Norwood as a safety.

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All in the Family! Steelers Draft Connor Heyward, Tight End, Michigan State, in 6th Round

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves blood lines. He added T.J. Watt in 2017 and Terrell Edmunds in 2018. By 2020 their brothers Derek Watt and Trey Edmunds were both playing for the Steelers.

Now he has a shot at doing it again, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted Connor Heyward, a tight end out of Michigan State, younger brother of Cam Heyward and son of the late, great University of Pittsburgh star Craig “Iron Head” Heyward.

Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers 6th round pick 2022

Connor Heyward, the Steelers 6th round 2022 draft pick. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When asked if he consulted Cam Heyward as a reference for Conner, Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts replied, with good cheer, “I don’t mess with Cam” multiple times. When asked about the importance of bloodlines, Roberts rebuffed the idea a little, explaining, “Connor holds his own. Getting drafted into the NFL is a big deal.”

Roberts said the Steelers were attracted the Heyward because of his ability to make plays down the field or at the line of scrimmage clarifying that Heyward has “the want to and the savviness to do some other things that are really attractive to us.”

When asked of Heyward’s versatility made him similar to Derek Watt, Roberts agreed that the two player’s skill sets are similar, but cautioned that Watt is more of a “pure fullback” whereas “Connor gives you a different flex and tight end responsibilities.”

Connor Heyward Video Highlights

Here is a sampling of some of the work that Connor Heyward put on tape while with the Spartans

What really comes home with these videos is that Connor Heyward is indeed versatile, able to line up as a tight end, work as a fullback or set up like a true H-Back. As a 6th round pick, Connor Heyward is in no way guaranteed a roster spot.

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry roster spots are set, so assuming both stay healthy, the battle for the 3rd tight end spot will be between Kevin Rader and Heyward.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Connor Heyward.

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Keeping It Real, Steelers Draft DeMarvin Leal, in 3rd Round, DE Texas A&M

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will go to their graves swearing that they draft the best player available. So the fact that they addressed 3 our of their 4 top needs in the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is just a conscience.

So be it. With their third round pick the Steelers drafted DeMarvin Leal, a junior defensive end out of Texas A&M. Last season the Steelers drafted both Dan Moore and Buddy Johnson out of Texas A&M, which was also the stomping ground of former reserve safety Gary Jones, much to Don Beebe’s chagrin (Google it, ’93 Steelers vs Bills will help your keyword search.)

  • The Steelers interest in DeMarvin Leal is obvious.

He is a versatile lineman who played multiple positions in 33 games at Texas A&M while amassing 13 sacks, 1 interception and 133 tackles. Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin mentioned many times that he expects Leal to add to his 6’4 273 frame, and almost slipped out his draft grade, while admitting that they had a “nice grade on him.”

DeMarvin Leal, Steelers 2022 3rd round draft pick

DeMarvin Leal, Steelers 2022 3rd round Draft Pick. Photo Credit: Noticias del Mundo

Austin also acknowledged the elephant on the room by admitting, “”It’s really important to add young guys in there.” With Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu all over 30 and Isaiahh Loudermilk the only young prospect with serious “upside,” the Steelers defensive line will benefit from the injection of youth.

With that said, the fact that the Steelers waited until the third round, drafting quarterback Kenny Pickett in the first, and wide receiver George Pickens in the 2nd gives us a reasonably firm indication that Tomlin, Austin, and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar expect Stephon Tuitt to play in 2022.

Tuitt of course made the initial 53 man roster, only to sit out the entire season for reasons that still haven’t been explained. At his pre-draft press conference Mike Tomlin declined to confirm whether Tuitt has been attending voluntary workouts.

DeMarvin Leal Video Highlights

Here’s a look at the some tape that Leal put together while at Texas A&M.

Impressive to say the least.

Welcome to Steelers Nation DeMarvin Leal.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line – Invest in the Future Now

Draft picks on defensive line have a way of defining eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Greene’s arrival pivoted the franchise from loser to champion. Passing on Dan Marino for Gabe Rivera was a mistake it took 2 decades to atone for. And the selection of Aaron Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft is one of the unsung moments in the building of the Steelers second Super Bowl Era.

As the 2022 NFL Draft arrives, defensive line is clearly an area of need for Pittsburgh. Lets find out just how deeply that need runs.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart at: The Starter

The bad news? Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers only have one confirmed starter on the defensive line.

When the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert pronounced it a “historic day” for the franchise. Those were perhaps the truest words of post-draft praise since Chuck Noll proclaimed his love for Rod Woodson during the 1987 NFL Draft.

In playing 11 years, 166 games and 131 starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cam Heyward has become more than a dominant player on the field, a locker room leader off the field and a pillar within the community of Pittsburgh, Heyward has arguably become the face of the franchise.

In 2021, at age 32 and playing alongside junior varsity defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, didn’t simply turn in an All Pro performance with his 10 sacks, 17 QB hits, interception and nine defensed passes, he showed himself to be worthy of mention alongside franchise legends Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.

Heyward will be 33 in 2022, and if he’s shown little sign of slowing down thus far, the Steelers must be mindful of his age.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Could Be Starters

If you are surprised to read that Cam Heyward is the only confirmed starter on defensive line, you should be. Thus far there’s been no public indication that Tyson Alualu will not be back in 2022. And Steel Curtain Rising has zero access to sources that would contradict this.

However, Alualu is 35 and he is coming off of an injury that cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2021 campaign. If Alualu can stay healthy and can return to something resembling his former level, he’ll be an asset to the team.

The Steelers defense dominated at the beginning of 2020 and only began to slip with Alualu’s injury against the Ravens. The run defense took a noticeable hit when he went out against the Raiders in week 2 of 2021 and never improved.

Unlike Alualu, there has been question about whether Stephon Tuitt will return to play football in 2022. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all expressed optimism, but they’ve all been non-committal.

Stephon Tuitt had a monster year in 2020, 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Mike Tomlin likes to say that backups are really just “starters in waiting.” Yeah. That might be true in many cases, but it certainly was false for the Steelers in 2021. The absence of Tuitt and Alualu exposed the Steelers defensive line’s dearth of depth the way a root canal without pain killers exposes a nerve.

  • The Steelers had the worst run defense in franchise history since the 1940’s.

The unit was so bad that the Steelers signed Montravius Adams in week 13 off of the Saints practice squad, started him and saw the unit improve. Adams pushed Isahiah Buggs off the team, and will be back in 2022.

One potential “benefit” to the injuries to Tuitt and Alualu is that the Steelers got Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field. The Steelers traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get Loudermilk, and many questioned the move. However,  Loudermilk played reasonably well with on sack and 3 passes defensed and appears to have upside.

They also have Chris Wormley who started 14 games in 2021 and recorded 7 sacks, shining brightly against Baltimore.

In addition to Wromely, the Steelers have Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis. Mondeaux saw action in 15 games and Davis played in 4 games, or 3 fewer than his rookie season.

The Steelers 2022 Defensive Line Draft Needs

A best case scenario for the Steelers in 2022 would see Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu rejoin Cam Heyward as starters. That would be great, but it wouldn’t change the fact that all are over 30. Loudermilk’s sample size is small, but he has potential to be at least starter capable.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Wormley and Adams’ appear to be serviceable backups, but both are replaceable. As for Henry Mondeaux and Davis? The Steelers trade for Loudermilk reminded me of Mondeaux and Davis faux tussle on the sidelines of the ’20 finale against Cleveland.

That in turn reminded me of my high school wrestling coach, the amateur Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, who once stopped practice admonished two wrestlers who were staring each other down with, “If either of you was as tough as your pretending to be you’d both be state champions. Now get back on the mat.”

  • Neither Mondeaux nor Davis is as tough as they were pretending to be that day. Instead, they’re roster bubble babies.

How does all of this impact the Steelers draft needs? Well, the Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need to draft a starter this week, but they really must to use this draft to find future starters, so their need at defensive line must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Add Depth Behind the Edge

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense had a historically bad year in 2021.

  • To find similar examples of their futility against the run, one needs to back to the 1940s.

Counter intuitively, the tough year endured by the Steelers defense actually reinforced just how important its for the franchise to get quality play out of their outside linebackers.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

To those who whine about why tanking in the name of draft position is not only necessary but good, my response is simple: T.J. Watt.

The 2016 Steelers lost in the AFC Championship to the Patriots, earning Pittsburgh the 30th pick in the draft as a consequence. Sounds almost like a death sentence. Except it wasn’t. It was with that 30th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft that the Steelers picked T.J. Watt.

T.J. Watt became an instant starter, grew into a dominant player capable of making game-changing plays and is building a Hall of Fame resume. In 2021 T.J. Watt earned Defensive Player of the Year honors, tied the NFL sack record and almost single handedly beat the Seattle Seahawks.

Playing opposite T.J. Watt is Alex Highsmith, whom the Steelers drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In his first full year as a starter, logged 6 sack and 15 QB hits. Those numbers may not seem impressive, but Highsmith improved during the year, particularly in run support.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

To provide depth at outside linebacker the Steelers have signed Genard Avery in free agency. Avery isn’t well known to Steelers fans, but he is the man who forced James Conner’s fumble in the Steelers 2018 opening weekend tie against the Browns.

  • Avery has 59 games of experience, including 17 starts, 12 of which came last year while with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Steelers also have linebackers John Simon, Tegray Scales, Delontae Scott on their roster.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL DraftHow good is T.J. Watt? Well, next year it is conceivable that, in his 6th year, he’ll pass Jason Gildon, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and James Harrison for the team sack record. If the Steelers defense was bad in 2021, and it was, T.J. Watt played a critical role in it not being worse. Not bad for a 30th pick, eh?

And if Alex Highsmith is nowhere near that level, he certainly tremendous strides from year 1 to year two and his progress should continue, especially if the Steelers field quality defensive lineman not named Cam Heyward.

  • The problem is their outside linebacker depth is scant.

Genard Avery has the resume of a serviceable backup, but he certainly doesn’t look like the type of player you want starting multiple games should an injury occur. John Simon has 10 years of experience but was on and off the Titans roster during 2021.

The rest of the players appear to be placeholders. Therefore the Steelers need at outside linebacker going in to the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-High.

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Cornering the Market? Steelers Resign Ahkello Witherspoon, to 2 Year Contract

Kevin Colbert may have struggled at drafting cornerbacks but he’s done a pretty good job at bringing them in from the outside. So its logical that when he finds a good one, he tries to keep him. And so it is with Ahkello Witherspoon whom the Steelers resigned to a two year contract.

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon just before the season’s start, and then sat him for the better part of the first half of the season.

However, an injury to Joe Haden and struggles by James Pierre led to Witherspoon joining the line up and once there he turned heads. As observed here in Witherspoon’s free agent profile:

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

He also brings something else back to Pittsburgh that’s vital at the cornerback position: Youth.

Like fellow starters, Cam Sutton and new arrival Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon will by 27 in 2022, which should put him right in his athletic prime. Terms of Witherspoon’s contract haven’t leaked yet.

If that’s the case its almost certain that Witherspoon tested the market and realized that grass wasn’t greener outside of Pittsburgh. With Witherspoon’s return is a welcome development, the Steelers decision to bring him back along with their signing of Levi Wallace almost certainly ends Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh.

Safety Second?

Pittsburgh’s aggressiveness in free agency this spring has been unprecedented. They’ve signed 3 offensive lineman, a defensive lineman and found an inside linebacker to pair with Devin Bush, while tendering two backups behind time.

  • Now they’ve signed 2 cornerbacks.

And that leaves a gaping hole at safety. No, really it does. If the season started today either Marcus Allen would need to move back to safety or the Steelers would need to start Tre Norwood there.

Yesterday social media had reports of Tyrann Mathieu coming to Pittsburgh, and fans clearly think that’s a good idea. Terrell Edmunds remains unsigned. Either way the Steelers need to make a move, or otherwise they’re committing themselves to picking a safety early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Keeping Steelers Free Agent Ahkello Witherspoon in Pittsburgh is a Priority

Long before digital media and Fantasy Football made everyone their own general manager, sports fans have loved trades. Just think back to that episode of Seinfeld, where George thinks he’s going to be promoted to Assistant General Manager of the New York Yankees.

  • George and Jerry immediately begin mapping out trades.

The Steelers made a few trades in 2021 and for awhile the Ahkello Witherspoon trade puzzled. Then Witherspoon answered the doubters. But as he becomes a free agent the question is, will he stay a Steeler?

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Ahkello Witherspoon’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon on September 3rd for a 5th round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Seahawks jettisoned Witherspoon just months after signing him to a 1 year 4 million dollar deal. Yet instead of playing him, the Steelers kept Ahkello Witherspoon inactive for 8 of the season’s first 9 weeks.

  • Everyone wondered, “Why did they trade for this guy?”

That answer became apparent as started to work his way into the lineup in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. He didn’t to much of note that night, but in his next two starts he began  defending passes making a tackles losses. In his 4th start his two interceptions helped spark a furious second half rally against the Vikings that fell just short.

Four weeks later, he brought down the interception that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to end his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation. Ahkello Witherspoon finished the season with 9 passes defensed, 3 interceptions and 15 tackles. Despite missing 8 games, he played in 57% of the defensive snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

  • What isn’t there to like about the guy?

Ahkello Witherspoon struggled to find his way in San Francisco and clearly Seattle found him expendable. Yet with the Steelers Witherspoon has found a home. Free agent cornerbacks don’t come cheap in this league, but the Steelers have the money to make the investment.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Sure, Ahkello Witherspoon had his moments in 2021 with the Steelers and those interception numbers are nice, but let’s be honest, they all came in garbage time. A quick look at his game log in Pro Football Reference reveals that, although he’s only missed 2 games due to injury, he was in active in several others despite showing status a at least a part time starter.

  • What was it about him that the 49ers didn’t feel they could trust?
  • And why did the Seahawks part with him at a fire sale price?

That’s just too much risk and too much salary cap space for a player with too many yellow flags.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ahkello Witherspoon

The Steelers have not only struggled at cornerback over the last dozen years, they’ve struggled to draft and develop their own. (Anyone remember Cortez Allen?) When they’ve had success, its been by bringing in outsiders, such as Joe Haden.

  • Sometimes players struggle to fit into a certain team and/or a certain scheme.

But Ahkello Witherspoon has shown he fits in in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers should making keeping him in the Steel City a priority.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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