Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix – Who to Pick If Need Must Drive Decision

The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

When the Steelers 2020 season ended in flames with the playoff loss to the Browns, things looked bleak. Pittsburgh faced salary cap Armageddon thanks to COVID-19. But they’re far stronger than expected, thanks  to Ben Roethlisberger taking one for the team with a 5 million dollar pay cut.

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert also stepped step outside their comfort zone with voidable year contracts that kept JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and Eric Ebron in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:

  • The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.

The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftPittsburgh’s need using the following scale.

  • The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and  “Nice to Haves.”

The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”

What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.

Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”

  • In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.

And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.

  • Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.

With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.

  • And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.

Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.

But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.

As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.

But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)

Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.

Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.

 

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The Extension: Yes, Mike Tomlin Deserves Criticism. But He’s Earned Far More Credit

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for 3 more years. His new current contract will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season.

Tomlin’s contract extension might not be a surprise, but it does come a bit off schedule as the Steelers typically have extended their coaches during the summer, either shortly before or during training camp.

The decision also indicates that Mike Tomlin will oversee at least the beginning of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mike Tomlin’s last extension mirrored Ben Roethlisberger’s, leading to speculation that Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert would simultaneously retire.

  • That appears far less likely now.

In a prepared statement Art Rooney II extolled his 14 year head coach:

Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League. We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.

If Mr. Rooney were to poll the citizens of Steelers Nation, he’d undoubtedly find disagrees. Indeed, the dissenters would be many, and they would be vocal. They would also be wrong.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has one ring from Super Bowl XLIII, two AFC Championships, 7 AFC North Championships, 9 playoff appearances while compiling a 145-78-1 regular season record while never suffering a losing season. Only once, on Tomlin’s watch have the Steelers been eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final game.

Yet for all that, based on social media reaction you’d think resume was on par Rod Rust’s 1990 campaign in New England.

Let’s debunk some of the charges leveled against Tomlin:

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

Pittsburgh’s playoff record since Super Bowl XLV certainly strings. Those last two home playoff losses sucked.

But if that’s your argument against Mike Tomlin then ask yourself this one question – would you feel different if he’d racked up a bunch of AFC Championship losses?

Seriously.

  • Bill Cowher won playoff games a plenty between 1992 and 2004.
Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Yet the knock on Cowher was, “He can’t win the big one.” After he suffered his 2nd humiliating Heinz Field AFC Championship defeat to the Patriots in 2004, there was no shortage of fans who felt he should be fired. Fortunately, Dan Rooney ignored them and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL a year later.

“He only won with Bill Cowher’s players.”

Really? Well, by that measure, Bill Cowher started losing in the late 1990’s when Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake, the Hall of Famers/All Pros he inherited from Chuck Noll, either left or started fading. He only became a champion after a franchise QB (whom he didn’t really want to pick) dropped in his lap.

And if we’re using a predecessor’s success to discredit a successor, then let’s also acknowledge that Kevin Colbert only won with Tom Donahoe’s players.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go there either.

“He’s had 10 YEARS to Rebuild Since Super Bowl XLV”

True. Very true. It’s also true that rebuilding around a franchise QB is hard. Don Shula went to the Super Bowl in ’82, got his franchise QB in ’83, went to another Super Bowl in ’84 and never sniffed another. Shula is generally recognized as one of the top 3 coaches of all time….

“BUT Tomlin’s had a franchise QB his ENTIRE career. And he’s ONLY won ONE Super Bowl.”

Number don’t lie. This is true. But tell me:

  • How many Super Bowls did Sean Peyton win with Drew Brees?
  • Mike McCarthy had Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. How many rings does he wear?
  • Pete Carroll is a fine coach. Russell Wilson is a great QB. How many trophies do they have?
  • And, by the way, how did that Legion of Boom dynasty pan out?

Tom Coughlin did win two Super Bowl rings and he beat the Patriots to get his. Give the man credit. He also closed his chapter in New York with 3 straight losing seasons.

Would Steelers Nation trade 7-9 and twin 6-10 records for another Lombardi? We might. Throw in a playoff win over the Patriots, and I probably take that deal.

But it still shows how hard it is to sustain winning after a championship run. Oh, and how has New York done since kicking Coughlin to the curb?

Give Tomlin the Criticism Deserves and the Credit He’s Earned

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games too often. Sure, there are some mitigating circumstances in some cases. But it has happened too often to dismiss as chance.

Has he stubbornly run running backs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell into the ground while failing to staff adequate back up depth? Yes sir! This scuttled two if not 3 playoff runs.

But has wiffing on picks like Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns set the rebuild behind? Absolutely.

Does he let loyalty and personal relationships cloud his decisions on assistants? Yes, at times it seems he does.

These faults are real. But this is also real: No other coach Bill Belichick and arguably Tom Coughlin has been better than Mike Tomlin during the Tom Brady era.

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Just How Big of a Need is Center for the Steelers in the 2021 NFL Draft?

It was once explained to me that the quarterback is football’s most important position because the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every play. No real argument there, other than the fact that the statement not actually true.

  • The center also touches the ball on each play.

While that reality doesn’t make center football’s 2nd most important position, in football, it does highlight the critical role it plays in the offense. With that in mind, just how big of a need is center for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Steelers Depth Cart at Center: The Starter

When it comes to the Steelers needs at Center in the 2021 NFL Draft the fact that Pittsburgh has no starting center tells us a lot.

While no one dispute the fact that Pouncey was the latest in a legacy of great Steelers centers, starting with Ray Mansfield, and continuing through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings, the truth is that his play slipped.

High snaps bedeviled Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph at throughout 2019 and of course the first snap of the 2021 post season sailed high above Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and the Steelers never recovered.

But there’s mistaking the fact that the Steelers will miss Pouncey’s leadership in the locker room.

Steelers Center Depth Chart: The Backups

Current the Steelers have two backup centers, J.C. Hassenauer an unrestricted rookie free agent from the 2021 squad, and B.J. Finney who joined the Steelers via the practice squad in 2015, work himself into a regular roster spot in 2016 and started 13 games over the next four season.

B.J. Finney departed in free agency in 2020, but was ultimately traded by Seattle to Cincinnati, who cut him earlier this year.

  • The Steelers wasted little time in bringing B.J. Finney back to Pittsburgh.

At this point, both J.C. Hassnuer and B.J. Finney project more like the next Sean Mahan or the next Justin Hartwig as opposed to the next Dermontti Mansfield, the next Mike Hartings or the next Maurkice Webster. But the Steelers did win a Super Bowl with Justin Hartwig and he was seen as a strong enough player to warrant a 2nd, 4 year contract prior to the 2009 season.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Center

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftBy bringing back B.J. Finney Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin brought themselves the luxury of not having to reach for a center early in the draft. This is critical.

The Steelers have too many needs in at too many other spots on the depth chart to tie their hands at center. And besides, when Colbert and Tomlin reach, Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns happen.

  • But make no mistake about it, center is one of Pittsburgh’s top needs.

The Steelers don’t need to draft a center who can come in and start right away the way Pouncey did after arriving via the number 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but they do need someone who at least projects as a full-time starter from 2022 onwards.

Therefore, the Steelers need at center entering the 2021 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate-High.

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Mike Hilton Is a Steelers Success Story, But This Free Agent Will Find Fortune Elsewhere

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents have been the secret to Kevin Colbert’s success. OK, his record of only wiffing on two first round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns) since returning to Pittsburgh has had a big role in his success.

  • But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.

Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.

  • Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career

Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.

Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.

The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did this while splitting time with Cameron Sutton.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.

  • Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball

You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.

There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:

  • Move outside when needed.

Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.

The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.

There’s no way they can sign both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton and they probably won’t even try. Expect Mike Hilton to find his fortune outside of Pittsburgh.

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 Free Agent Focus 2021: Its Bye, Bye Bud Dupree

Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “Pincer” this way: “A military attack by two coordinated forces that close in on an enemy position from different directions.”

Military analogies to football often get over done, but words like “bomb,” “blitz,” “sack,” and “shotgun” describe some of its most dramatic plays. “Pincer Movement” isn’t one of those words, but it does describe the Steelers defense when its been at its best:

  • With two outside linebackers successfully pressuring a quarterback form opposite directions.

In 2020, it became unmistakably clear that Bud Dupree delivered the Steelers defense ½ of what they need to put opposing quarterbacks in a “Pincer Movement.” As free agency looms, the question remains, “Will Bud Dupree continue to do that in Pittsburgh, or will he do it for somewhere else?”

Bud Dupree, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Bud Dupree Sacks Jake Luton. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Bud Dupree in the 1st round of the 2015 NFL Draft as a proverbial project. The initial returns were encouraging.

  • As a rookie, Dupree logged 4 sacks in his first 8 games
  • As a “sophomore,” Dupree came off of IR to log 4.5 sacks in 7 games
Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Big things were expected of Bud heading into the 2017 season, particularly given the arrival of T.J. Watt. But instead of progressing, Bud Dupree plateaued. He only logged 6 sacks in 2017, despite playing 16 games. The Steelers flipped Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt before the 2018 season.

  • It didn’t help as Dupree’s sack total dropped to 5.5.

Moreover, reports that, “Dupree’s sack total might be low, but he’s excelling in pass coverage” started to circulate, just as similar reports of Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run had surfaced when he struggled to pressure the passer.

Under Keith Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree’s careear has taken off. In 2019 Bud Dupree logged 11.5 sacks and just as importantly, he force 4 fumbles. He continued in 2020, logging 8 sacks on the year and was going strong all the way up until he tore his ACL in the home game against the Ravens.

For all of the sound and fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s struggle’s with the long ball and the absence of a running game, it should be noted that the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers remained undefeated until they lost Bud Dupree.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

It took a decade following Super Bowl XLV, but the Steelers defense returned to dominance in 2019, as the unit carried a team with an offense forced to start its 4th string quarterback to an 8-8 record.

  • The Dominance came in no small part due to Bud Dupree’s development.

For the first time since losing LaMarr Woodley in the 2011 win over the Patriots, the Steelers defense finally had two dominate outside linebackers. With that in mind, resigning Bud Dupree is a no brainer.

Alex Highsmith showed flashes in 2020, but when asked to assume the starting role he floundered. If the Steelers are serious about fielding a dominating defense in 2021, they need Bud Dupree. Period.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

X’s and O’s might spell out one type of reality, but the hard math of salary cap calculations tell a very different story. The Steelers might not be facing salary cap Armageddon anymore, but they are facing salary cap Purgatory. Under normal circumstances, the Steelers could probably manage to sign Bud Dupree to a long-term contract, just as they once inked Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to long term deals.

  • But circumstances are hardly ordinary.

Second contracts for top outside linebackers start at about 15 million per year, and trend to 20 million. The Steelers are at least 20 million over the projected 2021 salary cap. And if Bud Dupree is one of the best outside linebackers in the game today, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick have flashed generational level play making talent.

The fact is, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot afford to bring Bud Dupree back in 2021.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

The only true “X Factor” in equation outlined above is Bud Dupree’s ACL tear. It is possible that teams might shy away from giving Bud Dupree big payday because of it.

  • That’s the only realistic scenario that sees Bud Dupree back in Pittsburgh in 2021.

It is also an unlikely scenario.

Sports medicine has evolved tremendously when it comes to ACL tears and players routinely rebound from them in a full off season, which is what Dupree will have to rehab. The Curtain’s call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree is to expect him to finish his career outside of Pittsburgh.

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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Ben Roethlisberger’s Returning. Here are Best, Worst and Most Likely Scenarios for the Steelers

Now that Ben Roethlisberger has confirmed he’s coming back, we can start making some projections as to how this decision will play out….

…OK, the Steelers still need to weather free agency and then hit the 2021 NFL Draft.

These are two huge variables that will have an impact on the 2021 season. But here is a look at Worst, Best and Most Realistic Scenarios for the Steelers in light of Ben Roethlisberger’s return for the 2021 season.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images via The SteelersWire

Worst Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

The risks of a Roethlisberger return are real. Here’s a worst case scenario:

  • Ben never gets comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm.
  • Therefore, he’s limited to the short passing game.
  • Defenses catch on. Except this time it doesn’t take them 2 months.
  • Worse yet, the Steelers can’t rebuild their offensive line nor field a strong running game.
  • The defense, is good, but Alex Highsmith looks like the 2nd coming of Jarvis Jones

If that happens 2021 autumn will drag on. The Steelers could perhaps sniff a playoff spot, but in the hyper-competitive AFC North, they could easily find themselves in a knockdown, drag out fight to avoid finishing 4th place.

If Ben Roethlisberger never finds his comfort zone with the “bionics” of his new arm, then even an 8-8 or 9-7 effort is likely the best case outcome, which would have a snowball effect, in that the Steelers would drafting in the middle, rather than early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Best Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

Here’s a best case scenario for a Ben Roethlisberger return:

  • Ben gains comfort with the “bionics” of his new arm.
  • Matt Canada can unleash Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson downfield. James Washington flourishes.
  • Zach Banner resigns. A new center is found.
  • The Steelers offensive line recaptures glory of old.
  • Pittsburgh gets a legitimate number 1 running back forcing defenses to respect the run.
  • Alex Highsmith flashes LaMarr Woodley like potential
  • Joe Haden doesn’t lose a step. Sutton resigns. The defense is dominant.

Wishful thinking? Maybe.

But towards the end of the awful 6-10 2003 campaign, Bob Labriola reflected on the Steelers woe and mused that “offensive lineman don’t grow on trees” and liked the Steelers road to improvement to an overweight person’s battle to get fit – don’t expect it to happen over night.

But the Steelers did field a strong offensive line in 2004, their defense got better, and they finished 15-1.

Most Realistic Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return

As someone who supported bringing Ben Roethlisberger back in 2021, the most realistic scenario return lies somewhere in between the best and worst case. It would look like this:

  • Ben Roethlisberger falls into a rut, of struggling early in games and then getting hot
  • The Steelers offensive line is better (how can get be worse) but Ben’s immobility is an issue
  • Alex Highsmith looks like the next Jason Worilds
  • Mike Hilton is back, but Cam Sutton is not
  • Joe Haden still has something left in the tank, but often needs safety help
  • Tyson Alualu returns, mans the middle like a champ, then gets hurt and is lost for the season

With that in mind, the most likely end game for the 2021 Steelers is that Pittsburgh is competitive, makes the playoffs, but falls short. The God’s honest truth is that this is the most likely scenario.

But its also true that the Steelers their chances for making run at Lombardi Number 7 are far better with Ben Roethlisberger than with Mason Rudolph.

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Remembering and Honoring Ivan Cole, Friend, Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season kicks off tonight against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Thanks to COVID-19, this will already be the most unique Steelers opener in history.

  • Yet, even putting aside the specter of the pandemic, there’s something missing in the Steelers Nation.

Sure, professionals and bloggers alike have penned their Steelers pre-season previews, this site included. But this year the collective conversation is poorer for its effort, due to the absence of the voice of Ivan Cole.

Every year for at least a decade, Ivan Cole would pen his column “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in XXXX” where he’d lay out the most compelling case possible for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl during coming season.Ivan Cole

Today, Steel Curtain Rising takes time out to honor and remember a man who was a loving father and grandfather, a friend to many, and a scribe who can rightly be called conscience of Steelers Nation.

Getting to Know Ivan Cole

“Pleased to ‘meet’ you too. Thank you for sending such a long and detailed email. What a pleasant surprise for a Monday morning!”

That’s how my first interaction with Ivan Cole began sometime in the spring of 2011. Ivan had written something thought-provoking on Behind the Steel Curtain that prompted me to reach out. Even in those days, before communication was so thoroughly Twitterized, getting “thanked” for a long email was exceedingly rare.

  • Yet, that was Ivan Cole in a nutshell.

An Ivan Cole observation would get you thinking. You’d share your reaction with Ivan. A deeper conversation would evolve, almost always taking unexpected twists, and by the time it was over, you’d both be better for it. That was Ivan.

  • Love for the Pittsburgh Steelers might have brought Ivan and I together, but our friendship quickly grew beyond the Black and Gold.

Today it is all too common to find people talking at each other, rather than to each other. But you always talked with Ivan. If you’d pointed this out to Ivan, it is easy to imagine offering a non-sarcastic response along the lines of “I consider myself a practitioner of the dying art of discourse.”

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Measured in material terms, Ivan Cole was a person of fairly modest material means, but his desire to understand the world in which he lived gave his personality a richness that everyone he touched could appreciate.

Ivan had a passion for advancing civil rights and social justice, and his natural curiosity led him to explore the social and political issues tied to those twin core values.

While never shy about arguing for what he believed in, Ivan was always ready to consider new information on its own merits. In the same vein, Ivan had an ability to identify and connect with people whose viewpoints differed from his – a quality that is in increasingly short supply in our world.

And Ivan’s interest was hardly limited to his immediate surroundings, so he would often question me about Argentina’s perpetual political-economic crisis. He not only volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for my “Argentine Political History for Dummies” PPT, but his insights helped sharpen the final version I used with my exhcange students at Universidad Austral.

Later in life, Ivan took an interest in combating Human Trafficking, and issue which he explained, “Found him.” I don’t know many details about his efforts there, but I can assure you with his passion and his energy, he undoubted helped make the world a more jut place with his work at LATO, Life After Trauma Organizaiton.

But Ivan was hardly an “All work and no play” type person. Quite to the contrary, Ivan was rather gregarious. I can still remember the Saturday morning when Ivan emailed telling me that the owner of the local café he frequented had told him that Jerome Bettis had stopped in earlier in the morning.

To read the email, you’d have thought that Ivan had seen The Bus himself. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Ivan Cole, Steelers Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

And of course, if you knew of Ivan’s passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’d understand why Ivan would be so giddy about almost crossing paths with Jerome Bettis (who apparently was very friendly with everyone in the establishment.)

Ivan was a Steelers scribe, writing first for Behind the Steel Curtain, during the site’s golden age under Michael Bean and later Neal Coolong, and then for Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site.

  • Ivan Cole wrote on a wide range of topics for both sites.

In doing so he never passed up an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the Steelers, whether that meant taking aim at the NCAA or discussing the role that the Pittsburgh diaspora plays in the team’s national fan base.

Ivan was as well versed in the team’s history as any professional beat writer, a knowledge which impressed Art Rooney Jr. enough to facilitat an interview between Ivan and the legendary Bill Nunn Jr.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

For a long time, Ivan Cole worte, among other items, the “Weekly Checkdown” which summarized all of the relevant Steelers news from the preceding week. If anyone wants to see just how thorough Ivan was, take a look at this article from June of 2012.

In his farewell column as editor of the site, Neal Coolong offered this:

…the Weekend Checkdown, the longest-running column on BTSC. I can count on two fingers the amount of weeks Ivan did not submit his column. Editors love that kind of thing, but only slightly less is how much they love the conversation Ivan creates.

As Coolong concludes, Ivan didn’t just offer Steelers nation consistency and quantity, but most importantly quality.

  • And when it came to analyzing the Steelers, Ivan suffered no fools.
Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Ivan Cole had no time for what he labeled the “Fire everyone crowd,” the segment of fans who wished that Dan Rooney would run his team more like Daniel Snyder. If a fan argued that the locker room was “tuning Mike Tomlin out” Ivan would recount how he’d heard the same criticism leveled at Chuck Noll – just after the 1977 season and just before Noll next two Super Bowls.

To fans who complained about misfires on draft picks such as Jarvis Jones, Ivan would counter with stats on how Google was often disappointed with the results of its own recruiting efforts. When fans wanted to flail Mike Tomlin for the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore, Ivan reminded everyone that it was Mike Tomlin who cautioned that the Raven’s late week roster shuffling had made them so dangerous.

For those who wanted to go to town on Mike Tomiln and the Steelers for the ugly 2-6 start in 2013, Ivan argued that the fact that the Steelers had finished 8-8 and were a blown call away from the playoffs spoke to “the awesomeness of  the organization.”

After Ryan Shazier’s game-changing play turned the Steelers win over Cincinnati in the 2015 playoffs, Ivan quickly used it as an example to admonish fans who’d written Shazier off as a “Bust” just weeks before.

Ivan never shied away from taking on members of the professional press, such as his aggressive (and accurate) refutation of Colin Cowherd in early 2016.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

While it is fair to say that Ivan did border into homerism at times, but to the extent that was occasionally true it was simply because Ivan had been around long enough to appreciate just how special the Rooneys were and how special that made the Steelers culture.

  • And in that respect, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that Ivan Cole was, in many ways, the conscience of Steelers Nation.

That, in and of itself, is a reason to honor Ivan. But there are two life lessons Ivan left me that should give us all, even those who didn’t know him, to cherish his memory.

Life Lessons Left to Us by Ivan Cole

Although Ivan passed away in late April, his health troubles began before the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” entered our vernacular. I don’t know many details beyond Ivan suffering an accident late in 2020 which required hospitalization, followed by surgery, followed by post-op complications, which led to infections, more surgeries and ultimately more infections and other health complications.

In April, as Rebecca Rollett so poignantly observed, “… his body couldn’t support his great soul any more.”

  • The first lesson Ivan’s passing offers is personal and very bittersweet.

During Ivan’s final months, his daughter offered regular updates. At one point, she asked for friends and family to call her father to help keep his spirits up. I reached out to a few friends who might not have gotten the message from his daughter and a few of them connected with him.

  • Yet, I, myself, never made the call.

I’ve never been squeamish about reaching out to friends in those circumstances, but “…I was too busy with work at this very moment, there will be time later,” I told myself. To be both 100% truthful and 100% fair to myself, I honestly didn’t realize his condition was so critical or I would have made time.

Fortunately I was able to leave him a long voice mail, a positive upbeat message talking about how great it was that two people who lived 6,000 miles away could become such great friends. His daughter played that for him, and apparently this message, along with others, helped ease Ivan’s transition form this world to the next.

  • Still, I wish I’d had that one last conversation with him.

The lesson here is simple:  Always take advantages of chances to connect with people important to you. Work to do and bills to pay will always be there, but time with wives, spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends can be fleeting.

  • The second, and final lesson Ivan offered isn’t bittersweet, but simply sweet.
Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

Although I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ivan Cole lived in Reston, Virginia, I got to meet him in person several times. First at my parents house during a visit in 2014. After that I got to see him at various Steelers bars in Virginia, where on one occasion I was fortunate enough to meet his daughter, grand daugherters, brother and other friends from the BTSC and Going Deep blogging communities.

  • Those meetings were great, but unfortunately on those days the Steelers weren’t.

The first time we met was the first 2015 Bengals game, the first game of the season when all four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant would take the field together. That was also the game when Le’Veon Bell was injured and lost for the season.

The next time we met was in the fall of 2017, when the Steeler played the Jaguars and Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions.

A year later, I reached out to Ivan before making a trip back to the States, asking, “Dare we tempt fate” and try to watch the game together again?” We debated the question with Clark, Bill, Mike and the rest of the gang.

There was a lot of back and forth, until Ivan settled the question definitively by insisting, “Let’s live in our hopes, instead of our fears.” The Steelers of course won that game against the Bengals, but even if they hadn’t, I can’t think of a better life lesson left to us by Ivan Cole.

Click Below to read tributes to Ivan Cole by:

Rebecca Rollett (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Michael Bean (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Medium)
Here are also links to Ivan’s best work on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site.

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Sometimes 15.8 Million Isn’t Enough. Bud Dupree Files Franchise Tag Grievance

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is filing a grievance over the franchise tag, requesting that he be considered a defensive end as opposed to an outside linebacker. As a franchised outside linebacker the only thing standing between Bud Dupree and 15.8 million dollar payday is COVID-19.

  • But apparently, 15.8 million dollars for a year’s work just isn’t enough.

Per Joe Rutter’s reporting at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the 2020 franchise tender for a defensive end is $17.788 million or 1.988 million more.

As Rutter reports, Shaq Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has filed a similar grievance.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Evolution of Edge Rusher in the Age of the Salary Cap

As this column’s snarky headline suggests, this author doesn’t start with great sympathy for Bud Dupree. For the vast majority Terrible Towel twirlers, 1.988 million dollars represents a lifetime of income, and then some. In that light, it is easy to write this off as another example of a greedy, out of touch pro athlete.

  • But would that be fair to Bud Dupree? Perhaps not.

Football players have short careers, and after deducting taxes and agent commissions, the difference between two franchise tags could amount to nearly 1 million dollars more in Dupree’s pocket. If you could give yourself a shot at getting an extra million dollars by filling out paperwork would you do it?

  • Whether Bud Dupree deserves to be considered a defensive end is another question.
Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

Two generations ago, the idea that Jack Ham, Andy Russell or Robin Cole arguing that they play the same position as L.C. Greenwood or Dwight White would be laughable. Neither would anyone confuse the responsibilities of Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter with those of Ray Seals or Aaron Smith in Dick LeBeau’s defenses of the ‘90’s or the ‘00’s.

  • But the game has changed.

Cam Heyward entered the league as a defensive end in the Steelers system. A few seasons ago, his position was changed to that of tackle. The Steelers had Javon Hargrave budding into a very good (if not great) nose tackle and let him go because they only use their “base” defense.

  • Bud Dupree might not start snaps with his hand in the dirt, but his primary responsibility is to rush the passer.

And in 2019 Bud Dupree did that to great effect, registering 11.5 sacks, forcing 4 fumbles and recovering 2. For the first time since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Bud Dupree made difference making plays as an “Edge Rusher.”

  • Its the “Edge Rusher” status which clouds the situation, and that’s where Dupree’s grievance gets a tad bit ironic.

Bud Dupree took a long time to get to this level, and to counter the “Bud the Bust” story line, leaks about Dupree’s pass coverage prowess found their way into the press. This scribe always assumed that they came from Steelers coaches because the leaks sounded awfully similar to the ones that praised Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run.

  • But Bud Dupree’s agent could have also been the source of the leaks.

If it was Dupree’s agent, and this is most certainly an IF, then his agent has made a pretty deft pivot from extolling his client’s ability to cover passes downfield to arguing that he should now be considered a defensive end.

But I guess that’s why Bud pays him the big bucks.

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Steelers Draft Alex Highsmith in 3rd Round of 2020 NFL Draft. Video Highlights OLB from Charlotte

The Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft, closing out day 2 by using their compensatory selection on the outside linebacker from Charlotte.

IF Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ignored the “advice” offered to them via the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix, when they drafted Chase Claypool, they stuck to it by picking Alex Highsmith with their last premium pick, as outside linebacker was rated as Pittsburgh’s second most urgent area of need.

  • At least it can be made to appear that way on the outside.

In truth, the Steelers (wisely) are probably sticking to their policy of drafting the best player available, as Kevin Colbert has been high on the depth at outside linebacker in the 2020 NFL Draft. And he didn’t hold back in his praise for Alex Highsmith explaining:

He kind of stood out in the East-West practices. A long, fast, athletic guy, he continued to impress us athletically at the Combine. And when you really looked at his history, what he did as a walk-on, that was a special-teams standout as a young player, to end up putting out the stats that he has this season, we don’t think this kid’s anywhere near where he might be somewheres down the road.

The Steelers have had their eye on Highsmith since last fall, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin openly talked about him backing up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, something which High Smith relishes, confessing:

I’m so excited to learn from those guys, two of the best pass-rushers in the league. So I’m just ready to soak up everything like a sponge. I’m just ready to learn so much from them and do whatever I can to help this team get back to another Super Bowl.

Its not every 3rd round compensatory pick that arrives talking about helping his team win a Super Bowl, but the ambition and attitude are welcome.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers 2020 3rd round pick

Alex Highsmith, the Steelers 2020 3rd round pick. Photo Credit: Charlotte 49ers.

Alex Highsmith Video Highlights

Alex Highsmith played for four years at Charlotte, appearing in just under four dozen games. As Kevin Colbert alluded to, the Wilmington, North Carolina native had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, making Charlotte as a walk on.

But each year his production jumped, and he soared as a senior, topping out at 75 tackles and 13 sacks.

Here is a look at his highlight tape:

Highsmith’s time in the 40 was 4.7, or .2 seconds better than Jarvis Jones was (oh, but the track was muddy at Georgia the day they timed him…) and you can see he’s certainly has an explosive burst.

While Watt and Dupree are fixed as starters, Alex Highsmith can and should immediately push Tuzar Skipper and Ola Adeniyi for playing time as “The next man” up at outside linebacker, although the key to getting a helmet on game day will be his ability to perform on special teams.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Alex Highsmith.

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2020 NFL Draft has arrived. And yes, this one has a different feel to it.

  • The Steelers don’t have a first round draft pick for the first time since 1967
  • Precisely ZERO pre-draft visits have taken place on the South Side
  • They’re no announcements from the podium, no Number 1 jerseys given out

Things are even more different in Pittsburgh. Steel Curtain Rising has been running its Steelers Draft Needs Matrix in some form or fashion since 2009. And never, has the Steelers draft needs analysis been this flat across the depth chart.

The same basic analysis holds for every position area:

  • The starters are solid, if not strong, but depth is lacking.

Things get a little more uneven when you start to account for impending free agency and aging at certain positions, but even controlling for those factors can push the Steelers needs as much as it can pull it in other sectors.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

The offensive line and safety present prefect examples. On paper, the Steelers have 7 starter capable offensive lineman. So the line is in good if not great shape going into the draft. But four of those offensive lineman are over age 30.

  • At safety, the situation is very different.

Everyone is young. Free agency is years away. The Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are established starters. have two established starters. Yet, the Steelers depth have zero depth behind them.

There isn’t a position area, save for perhaps one, where the Steelers depth chart would justify passing on someone because they’re too well stocked.

And that has made mapping out the Steelers 2020 Draft Need Matrix all the more difficult.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs

Over the last week or so, with the help of Tony Defeo, we have assessed the Steelers need at each position. Here is a summary of the results.

At Running Back, Tony has rated the Steelers need at High, and that’s the only position to earn that rating.

After that, you get Outside Linebacker and Quarterback rated as High-Moderate. But we’ll treat quarterback a bit differently that its rating suggests as you’ll see.

After that, you’ve got Defensive Line, Inside Linebacker and Safety rated as Moderate-High.

Offensive line comes in as Moderate, while Cornerback, tight end and Wide Receiver clock in at Moderate-Low.

How to sort out the needs? Well, that’s what the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix is all about.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

If the Steelers have need for depth across the roster, all needs are not created equally.

While the Steelers have several bodies at running back, only James Conner is proven, and he has has also proven to be injury prone AND is heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Outside linebacker earns the next slot in the pecking order because Bud Dupree is on a one year tender and the Steelers have neither an heir apparent, nor do they have depth.

After that comes inside linebacker. The key difference between the outside and inside linebacker is that the Steelers can still count on the services of Devin Bush and Vince Williams in 2021.

Inside linebacker gets the nod over safety simply because the backups behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds have more experience than those at inside linebacker.

It might seem odd to list defensive line so low, given that there is a starting spot open, unlike at safety and at linebacker. However, the Steelers might not have a true heir apparent at nose tackles, they have an experienced NFL back up and two other younger players with “upside” who could potentially play along side Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

So Defensive line stands in the middle of the Steelers Draft need matrix and gets the nod over offensive line, which in turn get the nod over cornerback because you need 5 starting caliber offensive lineman and only 3 starting caliber cornerbacks.

The decision to prioritize cornerback over wide receiver is an easy one. Wide receivers are easier to find, and even if JuJu Smith-Schuster is heading into his final year in Pittsburgh, the arrow is pointing up on Diontae Johnson and James Washington even if depth drops off of a cliff after you get past that trio.

The Steelers are fairly strong enough at tight end that even if they had their full complement of draft picks, taking a tight end would probably be a “nice to have.” But that gets to nod over quarterback.

The Steelers need at quarterback “High-Moderate.” Ben Roethlisberger is 37, coming off of elbow surgery and not is it not clear that Mason Rudolph could be a successor. But Ben Roethlisberger’s successor isn’t going to be found with the 49 pick, or any pick after that.

The opportunity cost of using a developmental on a quarterback dramatically short-changes the Steelers ability to address other positions who can help them win in 2020. Therefore, quarterback is their lowest need.

As a caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix isn’t intended to suggest that Pittsburgh should draft for need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns and/or Jarvis Jones happen. Instead, its role is to highlight where the Steelers need the most help and, in the abstract, break any “ties” when two players at different positions are equally matched.

Draft Different, Dream the Same

The 2020 NFL Draft is already underway and the differences are already apparent. So be it. COVID-19 is changing the world and the NFL is not exempt.

Yet, for all of the differences, the NFL Draft continues to be the day that dreams come true for hundreds of young men. Let’s give them their day, and wish that those whose names gets call from Mike Tomlin can be difference makers that help Pittsburgh through the closing window that leads to the Stairway to Seven.

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