T.J. Watt Is Already the Pittsburgh Steelers Sack Leader – Let that Sink In

The Steelers victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football was the essence of an “ugly win.” Anytime your defense scores more touchdowns than your offense, you know it ain’t pretty.

  • But Steelers History passed a critical milestone at Acrisure Stadium.

T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns MNF, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt Steelers all time sack leader

T.J. Watt sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP via San Diego Tribune-Review

Let’s repeat: T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re not talking about the Houston Texas, or the Los Angeles-Anaheim-St. Louis-Los Angles Rams.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the franchise that has defined defensive excellence for three generations. This is the franchise that gave us the Steel Curtain and a generation later gave is Blitzburgh. This same franchise who had a member of their defense set the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers were the first, and only, football team to have its defensive line featured on the cover of Time Magazine, back when that meant something.

Effective defense in the NFL goes way beyond getting after the quarterback, but you’d be wise to start there.

So just how does T.J. Watt’s accomplishment stack up in terms of the Steelers larger legacy? Let’s take a look:

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Sack Leaders

Before diving into the stat sheet above, let’s offer a big shout out to my friend and staff writer Tony Defeo. When the Steelers cut Woodley, Defeo put his accomplishments in context by calling out how Woodley had led the Steelers in sacks per game.

The totals above include Woodley’s full body of work, but if you look at Woodley’s career from his debut to the 2011 win against the Patriots, he averaged 0.8 sacks per game.

  • That was an incredible accomplishment, but Watt is beating him by a mile.

Kevin Greene, a Hall of Famer, is next. After that you get Joey Porter, Bud Dupree and the original Steel Curtain makes an appearance with Ernie Holmes.

What else can we learn from this?

First, the numbers reveal how the modern game has evolved. While each member of the original Steel Curtain makes this list, only Holmes is in the top half. Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene are in the middle. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham aren’t anywhere to be seen, with Andy Russell only eking his way in at the bottom.

Bud Carson and George Perles’ defense didn’t need to blitz often because the NFL didn’t handcuff its defensive backs before the Mel Blount Rule.

Second, you can see the difference between great Steelers pass rushers and those who were truly special. The great ones sacked the quarterback somewhere between 40 and 50% of the games. Get beyond that, and you’re truly at an elite level.

Fourth, there’s an additional metric for differentiating players on this list, and that’s players with forced fumbles. Sacking the quarterback is critical, but so much more meaningful if you can knock the ball out while doing it. (Just ask Alex Highsmith and Deshaun Watson.)

Unfortunately data isn’t available for members of the original Steel Curtain or 1980’s stalwart Keith Willis. But it does show us that players like Jason Gildon and even Lamarr Woodley weren’t as dynamic, while driving home the fact that guys like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison had innate playmaking ability.

Finally, and not surprisingly, T.J. Watt leads the field here too – by a mile. This guy sacks the quarterback in almost every game and causes a forced fumble in just under 1/3 of his games.

My take away? Man, I’m glad T.J. Watt is a Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their initial 53-man roster today as Omar Khan continued to wheel and deal.

Over the weekend Khan dealt Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, getting a fourth round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, swapping 5th round picks and sending a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft to LA. But Kahn has already traded back into the 6th round when he dealt Kendrick Green to the Houston Texans for their 6th round pick in 2025.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

The Steelers cuts included some surprises. Veterans Zach Gentry and Tre Norwood got visits from The Turk, as did free agent signees Breiden Fehoko and Nick Kwiatkoski who played nose tackle an inside linebacker respectively. Quincy Roche’s second go around with the Steelers will also come to an end.

Here’s a look at who made the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 initial roster. There is at least one more move to come as you’ll see at the bottom.

Quarterbacks – 3
Kenny Pickett
Mitchell Trubisky
Mason Rudolph
– No surprises here. Pittsburgh has perhaps the deepest quarterback room in the NFL

Running Backs – 3
Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren
Anthony McFarland
– Common Sense Attack: A running back depth chart that’s three backs deep for the 2nd straight year.

Wide Receivers – 6
Diontae Johnson
George Pickens
Allen Robinson
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
– Gunner Olszewksi showed a lot of heart in preseason. The coaches took notice.

Tight Ends – 3
Pat Freiermuth
Darnell Washington
Connor Heyward
– The deepest Steelers tight end room since 1991?

Offensive Line – 9
Dan Moore
Isaac Seumalo
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chuks Okorafor
Broderick Jones
Nate Herbig
Spencer Anderson
Dylan Cook
– Almost a complete rebuild since 2021.

Defensive Line – 7
Cam Heyward
Keeanu Benton
Larry Ogunjobi
DeMarvin Leal
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
Armon Watts
– A solid mix of veterans and youth.

Inside Linebackers – 4
Cole Holcomb
Elandon Roberts
Kwon Alexander
Mark Robinson
– Dare we hope this unit is finally finding post-Ryan Shazier stability?

Outside Linebacker – 4
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Markus Golden
Nick Herbig
– Steelers have good depth at this critical position. Knock on wood, they won’t need it.

Cornerback – 6
Patrick Peterson
Levi Wallace
Joey Porter Jr.
Chandon Sullivan
James Pierre
– Have the Steelers achieved the right balance between youth, speed and experience?

Safety – 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Damontae Kazee
Keanu Neal
Miles Killebrew
Elijah Riley
– Will health hold out?

Specialists – 4
Chris Boswell, kicker
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper
Pressley Harvin, Punter
Braden Mann, Punter

Two punters? Not for long.

One way or another Omar Khan isn’t finished with his wheeling and dealing.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
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

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Find Cam’s Replacement?

Playing defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t just about helping the team win games, its also about maintaining a legacy.

In 2021, the Steelers defensive line was a glaring liability. Looking back at the 2022 season it is safe to say that the Steelers defensive line once again helped Pittsburgh win football games.

In the 2023 NFL Draft it is time for the Steelers to start looking for defensive lineman who can defend its legacy.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Defensive Line: The Starters

Cameron Heyward hasn’t lived up to the Steelers legacy at defensive line. Yes, you read that right. You can’t say Cam has lived up to the legacy because he has added to it. In 2022, Cameron Heyward logged 10.5 sacks, batted away 4 passes, forced one fumble and dropped 14 players behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did it at age 33.

When Stephon Tuitt announced his retirement in June of 2022, things looked bleak. Absent Tuitt, Cam Heyward had looked like a future Hall of Famer playing along side NAIA second stringers. However, Omar Khan went out and signed Larry Ogunjobi.

Larry Ogunjobi’s 1.5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss might look pedestrian, but with Ogunjobi in the line up, the Steelers field the 8th best defense against the run instead of the 32nd best defense against the run in 2022.

The Steelers signed Montravius Adams off of the New Orelans practice squad in November 30 and he improved the defense. He started 17 games in 2022 contributing to the turn around against the run.

Steelers Defensive Line  Depth Chart: The Backups

Quantity. That’s the best way to describe the Steelers depth chart behind their starters on defensive line. Leading the way is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers whom the Steelers drafted with their third round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Leal didn’t see much action as a rookie, but tellingly when the Steelers run defense came up soft against the run at home against the Ravens, Mike Tomlin responded by getting Leal into the line up, and the run defense improved.

The Steelers also have Isaiahh Loudermilk whom they traded up to get in the 2021 NFL Draft. As a rookie Loudermilk saw playing time on a horrible defensive line but still managed to flash. His second season was a disappointment, with Loudermilk not even suit up for the first four games and only seeing 18% of the snaps after that – down from 29% as a rookie.

Omar Khan has been aggressive in adding to the defensive line in free agency signing Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts who look like good value signings.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers are basically in the same place they were a year ago on defensive line. They’ve got starters on defensive line, one of whom is aging, and they’re OK in the middle. Behind that they’ve got a lot of names.

“Ah, but DeMarvin Leal!” you counter? Yes he looked good in limited action as a rookie, you could have said the same thing about Loudermilk this time a year ago. While Loudermilk’s draft status will likely earn him another season, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say he’s 2023’s version of Henry Mondeaux

“Ah, but the free agency signings” you protest? Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts do offer a lot of potential and “Upside” but they’re basically replacements for Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley.

Put that all together and the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End – Can the Depth Chart be Beefed Up?

Tight ends in threes. The Steelers have carried three tight ends, no more or no less, on their roster seemingly forever.

As the 2023 NFL Draft approaches, the Steelers have 3 tight ends under contract for coming season. Yet, this draft is said to be deep at tight end. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore the position?

Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry at Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Bestodds.com

 

Steelers Depth Cart at: The Starter

How do you know where the Steelers stand at Tight End? How about this: Moouth!

That’s the sound that Steelers fans have been waiting to chat and hear since Heath Miller retired. Watching Pat Freiermuth’s play over the first two years of his it is easy to see why.

Pat Freiermuth immediately established himself as a starter, a reliable “Go To” target in the over the middle and a leader on the field. Thus far he’s caught 123 passes on 177 targets for a 69.5% catch rate, while hauling in 9 touchdowns. If his catch percentage dropped, his yards per reception (or target) and his first down catches increased.

You can’t quite say “Pat Freiermuth is unquestionability the Steelers long-term answer at tight end” however, because he has had 3 concussions in two years. Freiermuth insists he’s not worried about it, but the Steelers would be foolish not to be concerned.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers drafted Zach Gentry as a project with their fifth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Injuries and his learning curve kept him from doing much in 2019 and 2020, but in 2021 Gentry emerged with a respectable season, showing signs that he could be a legitimate number 2 NFL tight end.

He really didn’t do much to build on that in 2022 but the Steelers still resigned him, although that second contract comes with a bit “but” (see below.)

The Steelers added Connor Heyward to the mix with their 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Mike Tomlin’s love for NFL blood lines doesn’t always work out (see Devin Bush, and to a lesser extent Terrell Edmunds), but Connor Heyward’s rookie year vindicates Tomlin’s family fetish.

Heyward only touched the ball 14 times, but he made those count, delivering big plays that helped break open the games against the Buccaneers, Falcons and Browns and helping seal the win over the Raiders.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End

The 2023 NFL Draft is said to be deep in tight ends. But the Steelers really don’t have the luxury of drafting a tight end early.

But be clear about one thing, everything about Zach Gentry’s contract, from its one year length, its meager $152,000 signing bonus and the fact that it’s a hair over the veteran minimum salary, says “You can be cut at St. Vincents without a second thought.”

However, the Steelers don’t have a 5th or a 6th round pick, which is where you’d typically find a backup tight end.

But just because Pittsburgh’s draft capital might not allow them to draft a tight end, doesn’t change the fact that going in to the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers need at tight end must be considered as Moderate.

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Strengthen the Center: Steelers Sign Keanu Neal, Breiden Fehoko, Sustain Omar Khan’s Free Agency Trend

Strengthen the center.

That’s been Omar Kahn’s singular focus in free agency. It was evident in the Steelers signings of Inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and resigning of Damontae Kazee. On the offensive side of the ball the Steelers signed guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Khan doubled down on the third week of free agency by signing safety Keanu Neal and nose tackle Breiden Fehoko.

Keanu Neal, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Keanu Neal celebrates after making a play against his new team. Photo Credit: Buccaneers.com

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting, David Cantner the agent for both players, has tweeted that Neal’s contract is for 2 years. Cantner did not tweet a length for Fehoko, which Rutter indicates that this likely means it is a one year deal.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal with the 17th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal played in Atlanta for five seasons. He was their starting free safety for two straight seasons before injuries ruined both his third and 4th seasons.

Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 opener and then his Achilles in 2019. The Falcons extended him a 5 year option but let him walk to the Dallas Cowboys in 2021where Neal played middle linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Neal in 2022, where appeared in all 17 games, but was limited to 8 starts due to a hip injury.

With Terrell Edmunds gone to Philadelphia and his background as a middle linebacker, Keanu Neal will likely split time with Damontae Kazze at strong safety and function as the “dime linebacker” in the Steelers three safety set.

Jim Wexell has suggested and Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Patrick Peterson could also see sometime at safety, suggesting that Minkah Fitzpatrick could work a little at strong safety.

  • Nose tackle Breiden Fehoko fills an obvious need for the Steelers for depth at defensive line.

Fehoko got his start in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the San Die… er um, the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s made his bones in the NFL as a backup, appearing in just 19 games over three years with 4 starts.

Although four of those starts came in 2022, the Chargers did not offer him a restricted free agent offer. Breiden Fehoko will likely work in behind Montravius Adams and compete with Isaiahh Loudermilk for playing time, if not a helmet on game days.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette retweeted this shot of Fehoko from late last season:

If this is an indication of the level he’s playing at, Karl Dunbar will find a way to get him on the field.

Draft Impact of Neal and Fehoko

While these moves address needs and add depth, they’re impact on the Steelers draft plans is likely minimal. Keanu Neal’s addition makes it less likely that the Steelers will draft a safety on day one or day two of the draft. But his injury history, along with Kazee’s injury history and his age suggest that neither is likely seen as a long-term answer.

So a safety in round 3 or 4 wouldn’t be out of the question.

Breiden Fehoko could be an interesting under the radar pickup for the Steelers. But at this point has to be seen as Tyson Alualu’s replacement. And even if he does turn out to be a free agent steal, that doesn’t change the fact that Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger.

Defensive line remains a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2023 draft.

“Que Pasa con Gentry?”

Last weekend news broke that the Steelers had resigned Zach Gentry. All of the major outlets went with it. However, the Steelers have yet to announce that they’ve come to terms with their erstwhile number 2 tight end.

The signing could still happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a NFL Network reporter broke the news of a deal, only for that deal to never appear.

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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Unfortunately, for Steelers Free Agent Chris Wormley, Sometimes Timing is Everything

On December 2nd, 2020 the stories of Chris Wormley and Bud Dupree intertwined an a eerie way to show that sometimes timing is everything in the NFL.

And that’s bad news for Chris Wormley as he reaches free agency.

Chris Wormley, Lamar Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamar Jackson. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Shutterstock.

Capsule Profile of Chris Wormley’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers traded for Chris Wormley in March 2020, marking a rare interdivision trade. The Steelers used Wormley sparingly for most of the year. However, his snap count spiked to 45% in that fateful December game against the Ravens. Although Wormley didn’t do much of note during 2020, the Steelers resigned Wormley the next spring to a two year deal.

In 2021 Wormely became the defacto starter thanks to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement and Tyson Alualu’s season-ending injury. He logged 7 sacks, batted down 3 passes, made 6 tackles for losses and hit quarterbacks 10 other times. His best game by far was a 2.5 sack effort in the Steelers upset of the Ravens at Heinz Field.

With that said, he played 71% of the snaps on a Steelers defensive front that was historically bad against the run – and let’s be clear, Cam Heyward was not the weak link up front.

In 2022 his workload dropped thanks to the arrival of Larry Ogunjobi, and the only splah play he made was a half sack against the Ravens at home. That was also his last game of the year, as he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Wormley

So maybe Chris Wormley’s 2021 performance was a bit of an achievement. It still shows he has serviceable skills and can provide valuable depth. Bringing him back on a team-friendly deal is a no-brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Wormley

Cam Heyward’s not getting any younger. Larry Ogunjobi might not be back. Isaiahh Loudermilk failed the make the 2nd year leap (if anything, he regressed.) The Steelers need defensive lineman, but they need more than bodies.

Save the roster spot, if not the salary cap space, on someone who has legitimate “Upside” because Wormley does not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Wormley

Chris Wormley saw his first extended action in the same game where Bud Dupree tore his ACL. Dupree was coming off of a career year. Things might not have worked out well for him in Tennessee, but he still got paid.

  • Wormley’s not so lucky. He tore his ACL at the end of a year where his effort was rather middling – at best.

He can still be a good 4th or perhaps 5th lineman for the Steelers, but given his injury and his subpar year, his next contract is likely going to be for the veteran minimum.

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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Cost, Benefit: Steelers Can’t Afford to Lose or Overpay Larry Ogunjobi in Free Agency

Street free agents are the NFL’s bottom feeders. As the name implies, they’re literally NFL veterans that teams sign off of the streets because no one else wants them.

Street free agents were Kevin Colbert’s secret weapon. Time and time again, an emergency would create a need for a starter and he’d find guys like Fernando Velasco or Flozell Adams stepped in and immediately began contributing.

Larry Ogunjobi was Omar Khan’s first street free agent signing, arriving in Pittsburgh by virtue of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. There’s no question that Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defense a shot in the arm. Was that shot effective enough to keep him in Pittsburgh?

Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Larry Ogunjobi’s Career with the Steelers

Sometimes statistics are simply insufficient to measure a player’s performance. Case in point Larry Ogunjobi’s 2022 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made 48 tackles, 7 of which were for losses and registered 1.5 sacks. In 2021 while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals he made 49 tackles, had 7 sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

  • In both season Larry Ogunjobi started 16 games. Seems pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

Now consider this. In 2021 the Steelers defense ranked 32 against the run. Beyond being dead last in the NFL, you have go back to the 1940’s to find a worse Steelers run defense. Larry Ogunjobi isn’t the sole reason for that change, having Myles Jack behind him and Brian Flores wearing the coaching headset helped, but Ogunjobi played a big part.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

In Cam Heyward the Steelers have an All Pro defensive lineman who, quite frankly should probably get Hall of Fame consideration (but probably won’t.) And we saw in 2021 that Cam can’t do it alone.

With Larry Ogunjobi in the line up, Heyward continued to dominate AND the line was an asset to a defense on the rise instead being a glaring liability. Although defensive lineman come at a premium in free agency, Ogunjobi lack of “splash” plays should make him affordable.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

Last year when Larry Ogunjobi became a free agent the Chicago Bears wasted little time in offering him a 40 million dollars over 3 years. But Chicago backed out of that deal just as quickly when Ogunjobi failed a physical.

  • While Ogunjobi only missed one game for the Steelers, his name was a permeant fixture on the injury report.

While its unlikely that any team will offer him the type of money that the Bears did last year, resigning Larry Ogunjobi will require several million dollars in guarantees and an average salary that’s likely trending towards 8 figures.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have DeMarvin Leal on a rookie deal, will likely draft a defensive lineman with one of their top three picks and can add  a “veteran whose ideal to be the first guy off the bench” defensive lineman similar to what they did in 2017 when they signed Tyson Alualu.

They can do all of that for less than what it would likely take to resign Larry Ogunjobi.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Larry Ogunjobi

What happens with Larry Ogunjobi will be one of the more interesting off season questions. Even if the Steelers projects DeMarvin Leal as starter going into 2023 depth on the defensive line is perilously thin.

That means that letting Larry Ogunjobi walk all but commits the Steelers to using one of their top three picks on a defensive lineman – they may want to do this anyway, but his absence could force them to reach.

Despite his injury history, the Steelers still had to pay him 8,000,000 dollars last year. If he’s willing to come back for something in that range, the it make sense to do that deal. If he’s looking for the kind of payday Chicago offered them then the Steelers should take a pass.

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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