Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.
Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-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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Keeping Cam Sutton in Free Agency is a Challenge Steelers Must Meet

The “story” on the Pittsburgh Steelers since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV has been, “Can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rebuild the defense while Ben Roethlisberger remains in his prime?”

  • And no position has been more challenging for the Steelers than cornerback.

Keenan Lewis developed slowly and by the time he got good, he was gone. The Steelers thought they had “the answer” in Cortez Allen, until injuries and mystery conspired to sabotage his career. Joe Haden‘s arrival in 2017 changed things at cornerback for the better, but then fate dealt a mortal blow to the Steelers defensive rebuild:  Ryan Shazier suffered a career ending injury.

But on of the unmentioned ironies accompanying Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury is that the night also marked the NFL debut of another promising cornerback for Pittsburgh, Cam Sutton who is in the spot light today.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021

As part of such a high-profile Steelers 2017 draft class that included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, was a bit of a forgot man, even if he did play a position — cornerback — that was still considered to be problematic for Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it would have been different had the Steelers not signed Joe Haden that summer. Furthermore, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, came out of nowhere that same year and took the Steelers secondary by storm as a very productive slot corner. Sutton spent his first few seasons increasing his position flexibility at the corner position, the slot corner position and even at safety.

However, it was in 2020 that Sutton finally had a bit of a breakthrough, appearing in 16 games and starting six at cornerback. Sutton recorded one interception, eight passes defended and 30 tackles a season ago. That he did this in the final year of his rookie deal certainly makes him much more attractive in free agency.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Again, Sutton has position flexibility, something that has always been a valuable commodity to head coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, the position the Steelers would likely need Sutton to fill in 2021 is slot corner, and that is because it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain the services of Hilton, who is considered one of the best in the business.

Mike Hilton is going to command big money on the open market. Sutton will certainly get a raise, but if the Steelers can retain him at a reasonable price, he could fill a huge void in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Honestly, the only negative would be the fact that Sutton put himself on the map in 2020 and could really cash in on the open market. Life is all about timing, and if some team presents Cam Sutton with an offer that he simply can’t refuse, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have the cap space to compete.

Curtain’s Call on Cam Sutton in 2021

I think the Steelers should do whatever they can within reason to retain Sutton. They spent years trying to rebuild their secondary, and I can’t imagine how much weaker it could be if their top two slot corners from a year ago exited via free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Maurkice Pouncey Retires Signaling the Beginning of the End of an Era for Steelers Offensive Line

Pittsburgh Steelers center and perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, marking the official beginning of the end of an era in Steelers offensive line history.

Fans can be forgiven their frustration over the last two seasons as the Steelers offensive line has slipped for one simple reason:

  • For almost half a decade, it was almost a given the Steelers had the best offensive line in NFL.

The Tomlin era certainly didn’t start that way. Mike Tomlin inherited a strong, albeit aging offensive line that promptly fell apart in after the 2007 season and then had to be rebuilt during the 2008 season. What followed was a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building that saw the Steelers sign an entire starting offensive line to 2nd contracts only to cut all of them before they completed their deals.

Indeed, Pouncey arrived at St. Vincents, in Latrobe, with Super Bowl veteran Justin Hartwig as the incumbent and forced him off the team less than a year after he’d signed a 4 year contract with the Steelers. From there Pouncey was a fixture at center, continuing the legacy of excellence at the position that began with Ray Mansfield, continued through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

But it was anything but easy.

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Overcoming Injury a Constant for Pouncey

During the 2010 AFC Championship win over the New York Jets Maurkice Pouncey suffered a dreaded “high ankle” sprain. The team “kept the light on for him” but he was unable to play in what would be his only Super Bowl.

  • This was the first of many times injuries would challenge Pouency.

A high ankle sprain would hobble him again against the Browns in 2011 keeping him from the 2011 playoff loss to the Tim Tebow Broncos. In 2013 David DeCastro would fall on Maurkice Pouncey’s leg, breaking it and finishing his season after just 8 snaps. In 2015, Pouncey season end after an injury suffered against the Packers in the preseason.

  • Behind these injuries were numerous surgeries, and numerous complications.

But Maurkice Pouncey never let it slow him down on the field, and he always remained a presence in the locker room.

Best Offensive Line in Football

Building a dominant offensive line takes time. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Steelers a piece. Ramon Foster, a product of “Plug and Patch” proved himself worthy of being another. In 2011 the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert, who remained a force until injuries derailed his career. In 2012, David DeCastro arrived, as did Kelvin Beachum. In 2014, the Steelers took a flyer on Alejandro Villanueva, and by the end of 2015 he was a starter.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Whether they were protecting Ben Roethlisberger or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner, from 2014 to 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the most, if not the most dominate offensive line in the NFL.

  • At the center of it, literally and figuratively, was Maurkice Pouncey.

Maurkice Pouncey led the line with his superior play. When discipline needed to be enforce, such as when Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph with a deadly weapon, it was Maurkice Pouncey who retaliated.

That example stands out, but there were numerous smaller ones which either escaped the camera and/or memory. But those plays cemented Pouncey’s role as locker room leader.

  • When Pouncey spoke, people listened.

When Le’Veon Bell held out in 2018 and Pouncey ripped him, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell warned the wayward rusher, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

Life’s Work Looms

Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger declared prior to the playoff loss to the Jaguars that would not retire, Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that he too would return. This was the first indication that Pouency was considering starting his “Life’s Work.”

Indeed, as they sat together following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns, Roethlisberger apologized to Pouncey, “I’m sorry brother, you’re the only reason I wanted to do this.”

Shortly thereafter, word leaked that Pouency was considering retirement. On Friday February 12th, he made it official. By retiring, Maurkice Pouency simplified the Steelers salary cap situation by giving them back over 8 million dollars.

But make no mistake about it, those 8 million dollars will never replace the leadership and character that Maurkice Pouency contributed to the Steelers Way.

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After Offense Goes South, Steelers Hire Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator

Mike Tomlin wasted little time in dismissing offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner following the Steelers “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff debacle against Cleveland. Fichtner’s bags were not even packed before reports circulated that Mike Tomlin was going to replace him with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

  • Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.

The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Matt Canada Inherits an Offense in Free Fall

A year ago Mike Tomlin opted to re-fill the slot of quarterbacks coach that had been vacated when he promoted Randy Fichtner to offensive coordinator, replacing Todd Haley. At the time, speculation abounded as to Matt Canada’s role.

Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.

He was also widely seen as being brought in to mentor Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and ultimately Joshua Dobbs who returned via the waiver wire.

How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.

Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.

  • Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.

If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.

And Maurkice Pouncey, a perennial Pro Bowler, is said to be ready to retire.

Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach

The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.

The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.

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