Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”

The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl hopes crashed 3 yards short of the goal in the AFC Championship  loss to the San Diego Chargers. Heartbreaking though it was, it did lead to the “3 More Yards” off season rallying cry.

  • Alas, the Steelers didn’t start 1995 3 yards short of the Super Bowl, however.

Quite the contrary. In 1995, Bill Cowher would need the Steelers to harness every ounce of energy within the franchise to find those final 3 yards.

Steelers Colts AFC Championship, Aaron Bailey, Randy Fuller, Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary AFC Championship

Randy Fuller bats a pass away from Aaron Bailey. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

When a franchise falls a hair short of the Super Bowl, its instinct is generally to keep the same team intact. Yet, the Steelers did the opposite in 1995.

Neil O'Donnell, Barry FosterBarry Foster and Eric Green had powered the offense in the Cowher Era, earning a third of the yards and scoring 40% of the touchdowns. The Steelers let Eric Green walk in free agency and sent Barry Foster to Carolina for a song.

  • Yes, their production dipped in 1994, but the moves carried enormous risk.

Pittsburgh replaced Green with Mark Bruener, a first round tight end who “Had no plans to hold a Super Bowl rap video.” Bam Morris’ emergence in 1994 and the arrival of free agent Erric Pegram in 1995 gave the Steelers the comfort they needed to trade the talented, but testy Barry Foster. On defense, the Steelers let Tim McKyer and Gerald Williams depart via the expansion draft, figuring they had enough depth to make up the difference.

These were calculated risks and in May 1995, it looked like the Steelers had lost their gamble when starting cornerback Deon Figures took a stray bullet in the knee while driving through Los Angeles.

  • However, Figures recovered quickly enough to play on opening day.

It seemed that the Steelers had tempted Fate and escaped. As they would soon learn, Fate was in fact a temptress, and one who did not appreciate being scorned.

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

The Steelers opened the 1995 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday September 3rd with Three Rivers Stadium awash in brilliant sunshine. All was well as the Steelers sat on a 3-0 lead with 1:19 remaining in the 1st quarter as the Lions tried to convert a 3rd and 7.

  • Scott Mitchell passed to Barry Sanders in the flat.
  • Rod Woodson pivoted to make the tackle.

No one remembers now or cared then that Sanders converted the 3rd down because Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the play. Fourteen plays later, Neil O’Donnell converted a third down with a throw to Ernie Mills, then was seen holding his hand after handing off to Bam Morris.

Mike Tomczak was warming up after the TV time out as announcers informed that Neil O’Donnell had broken his hand.

The 1995 season was barley a quarter old, and the Steelers had lost their Hall of Fame cornerback and the starting quarterback. Fate’s vengeance carried a stiff price.

“3 More Yards” Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Although, Pittsburgh rallied to win on opening day on a last second Norm Johnson field goal, the Steelers would play some of their worst football of the Cowher era over the next six weeks.

Sure, Andre Hastings, Carnell Lake, Willie Williams, and Alvoid Mays all made splash plays on special teams and defense to score critical touchdowns that supplied the Steelers with 2 more wins.

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

Willie Williams and Myron Bell. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • But those performances were exceptions, and not the rule.

While they were in route to a 3-4 start, the Boston Globe’s William McDonough argued that Pittsburgh was hopeless without their four best players from the previous year. The legendary columnist was wrong.

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

Bam Morris struggled to crack the 3 yards a carry mark and hadn’t sniffed a 100-yard game. Bill Cowher benched Mike Tomcazk twice in favor of Jim Miller, but Miller didn’t give The Chin any reason to stick with him.

But talent really wasn’t the core issue bedeviling the 1995 Steelers as revealed by a simple fact: Their two worst losses came following O’Donnell’s return, first to the expansion Jaguars and second to Bengals.

The problem? Pittsburgh’s was playing with the attitude of a team that actually thought it only needed 3 yards to reach the Super Bowl:

  • Tackles were sloppy
  • Routine passes got dropped
  • Games were lost with balls thrown into traffic while receivers roamed uncovered in the end zone

Focus seemed to be everywhere except on the fundamentals. After 7 games the Steelers were 3-4.

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

The lasting images of the Steelers Thursday Night Football loss to the Bengals were Alvoid Mays getting tortured and torched by Jeff Blake and Bill Cowher screaming on the sidelines. From a distance, The Chin appeared to be losing control.

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

Bill Cowher declared it a 9-game season and, as if to prove a point, he made 9 lineup changes:

  • At left tackle Justin Strzelczyk replaced injured John Jackson
  • Rookie Brendan Stai took Strzelczyk’s place starting at right guard
  • John Williams, returned to health, replaced Steve Avery at fullback
  • Bam Morris got benched, replaced by Erric Pegram
  • Jerry Olsavsky stepped in for Chad Brown, who’d suffered a high ankle sprain
  • Brentson Buckner slid over to replace the suspended Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry took his place
  • Myron Bell became the new starter at strong safety

Making 8 lineup changes in one week in the NFL is dramatic. But Bill Cowher’s 9th change bordered on revolutionary: Carnell Lake, who played linebacker at UCLA and started strong safety since 1989, move over to cornerback. This was a bold move, as Lake had never played cornerback, outside of a few series during the 1991 preseason (don’t believe me? Check the August 1991 Steelers Digest editions).

Change came in the locker room. The Steelers held a players-only meeting, banning pagers (Google it) and cellphones from meetings and practices with Greg Lloyd promising to smash the next one he saw.

  • All of this was public knowledge. But Bill Cowher had another change up his sleeve that he was saving for the field.

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

The following week the Steelers attacked the Jacksonville Jaguars with laser like focus, going up 21-0 at the half and closing with a 24-7 win. The win was impressive and needed. But the real lesson was tucked  into the end of the 1st quarter, when on 3rd and 2, the 4th string quarterback entered the game under center and ran for 16 yards.

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart lines of up his first NFL carry. “Slash” was about to be born. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • It seemed like a gimmick. Instead, it signaled a revolutionary change for the Steelers offense.

But before starting the revolution, the Steelers needed to travel to Chicago, and play a 6-2 Bears team that had been one of the NFL’s best. It wasn’t easy. The Steelers fought the Bears for every blade of grass in a contest that saw the lead change 11 times.

In the end, the Steelers tied the game late in the 4th quarter, snuffed out a Bears comeback attempt with a Willie Williams interception, lost the toss in overtime, forced a punt but kicked a field goal to win it.

  • Against the Bears, Kordell Stewart had run once for two yards and caught another pass for 27.

Although both of those converted 3rd downs, Kordell’s contributions remained largely in the background.

That changed the following week on Monday Night Football, when Kordell Stewart stood under center at the goal line, scrambled from one end of the backfield to the next before connecting with Ernie Mills for his first NFL touchdown pass.

“Slash” was born.

While Neil O’Donnell remained entrenched as the starter, Kordell Stewart’s ability to run, throw and catch gave Pittsburgh’s offense a dynamic weapon that opposing defenses could not cope with. Lest anyone doubt how potent Pittsburgh’s offense became with Slash take a look here (tweet courtesy of Steel City Star):

This wasn’t just a 71-yard touchdown pass, it was the go-ahead score in a game that saw the Steelers start the 2nd half down 13 to 31. The offense evolved in other ways, as Kordell would sometimes join Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings to form an empty set formation which was rare in the NFL in those days, and unheard of in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stacked wins. Some, like the 20-17 road win over the Browns, were more workman like than others. But most importantly, the Steelers took it in stride, with the implicit understanding that each win was simply a necessary stepping stone toward the playoffs.

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

When the 1994 playoffs arrived, both the Steelers and Steelers Nation regarded the Divisional and AFC Championship games as formalities. The San Diego Chargers had disabused Pittsburgh of such fantasies.

The divisional round brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a steady, 23 to 7 half time lead. They tacked on another field goal to make it 26 to 7. But then the Bills, alternating between Alex Van Pelt and Jim Kelly, scored a second and then a third touchdown.

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.
Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

Levon Kirkland intercepts Jim Kelly. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images, via Heavy.com

The Steelers responded with an 11-play drive that burned 5 minutes off the clock and ended with a Bam Morris touchdown. Jerry Olsavsky and Levon Kirkland ended the next two Bills drives with interceptions, allowing Bam Morris to score an insurance touchdown for a 40 to 21 win.

Instead of the euphoria that had engulfed Three Rivers Stadium a year earlier, Greg Lloyd held up 2 fingers, for two more games, as he entered the tunnel, confirming that the Steelers were taking nothing for granted.

  • As the next week would prove, that attitude would serve the entire team well.

Like the Chargers a year before them, the 1995 Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to have made it this far. But they upset the AFC favorite Kansas City Chiefs and their demeanor made clear that the Colts arrived in Pittsburgh with every intention of doing the same to the Steelers.

  • The two teams slogged it out in a defensive chess match that lasted three quarters.

Going into the 4th quarter the Steelers held a 13 to 9 lead, having scored the only touchdown in the first half. With about 8 minutes left, Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown and a 16 to 13 lead.

  • Steelers Nation uttered a collective, “Here we go again.”

What followed was perhaps the most intense 8 minutes of the decade. Every man on each team, left it all on the field. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Colts had a 3rd and one. A first down would likely allow them to kill the clock. Willie Williams responded; rushing from the opposite side he covered the entire width of the field making an improbable tackle of Lamont Warren for no gain.

You can see Willie William’s tackle here courtesy of Steel City Star (it is number 4, coming @ the 1:26 mark):

Williams’ tackle forced the Colts to punt. Here’s what followed:

  • The Steelers got the ball back but struggled, being forced to convert a 4th and three.
  • Then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills for a 37-yard hookup that put Pittsburgh at Indy’s 1.
  • Bam Morris ran for no gain. Indy took a time out.
  • Bam Morris ran again, this time scoring, giving the Steelers a 20 to 16 lead.

The Colts had a minute 34 and were far from finished. Jim Harbaugh converted 3rd and 4th downs as he moved the Colts to the Steelers 29 with time for one throw. He heaved it towards the end zone. It found Aaron Bailey through a crowd and landed on his lap.

Bailey closed on the ball for a second, but Randy Fuller knocked it away.

Time expired and the Steelers were heading to Super Bowl XXX.

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

The Dallas Cowboys were undeniably the dominate team of the early 1990’s. The only thing keeping them from winning more Super Bowls was Jerry Jones’ ego and insistence on Barry Switzer over Jimmy Johnson.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

  • It says here that Vegas odds makers were right to favor Dallas in this game.

But was 17 points too much?

For the first 26 minutes of the game, that margin seemed about right. The Steelers played with stage fright and quite frankly, were lucky to hold the Cowboys to 13 points. But late in the 2nd quarter, Tory Aikman tried to hook up with Michael Irvin on third down only to have Rod Woodson knock the ball away.

Woodson’s presence alone was a medical miracle, let alone a play such as that against a fellow Hall of Famer.

The Steelers went to work and clawed their way down the field. The first half closed with Neil O’Donnell connecting with Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown. The Steelers were down 13 to 7 but had put themselves back into the game by halftime.

…Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell almost took them back out of the game when early in the 3rd quarter he threw directly to Larry Brown who returned the ball 30 yards, setting up an easy Cowboys touchdown.

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

They opened the 4th quarter with a Norm Johnson field goal, followed by a surprise-on-sides kick that Deon Figures recovered. Pittsburgh was not only going to continue to play, it was playing to win.

Larry Brown, John L. Williams, Steelers vs Cowboys, Larry Brown interception Super Bowl XXX, Larry Brown pick six Super Bowl XXX

Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com

O’Donnell quickly moved the team down the field, and in just 3 minutes, Bam Morris was in the end zone, making it a 20 to 17 game. The Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt on a drive that featured their only sack of the game, an 8-yard drop by Levon Kirkland.

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

To this day, people argue whether Andre Hastings ran the wrong route or not, but what is clear is that Neil O’Donnell again threw it directly to Larry Brown. And again Larry Brown returned into the Steelers Red Zone. And again, Emmitt Smith did what he did so well – score touchdowns.

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers opened the season by losing their best player. By midseason they were facing an abyss. The effort of the 1995 Steelers in turning the season around is worthy of story and song.

But at the end of the day, the truth is that Pittsburgh had glimpsed the Mountain Top, but it was two interceptions too far.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Grades – Disappointments Add Up to a (generous) C-

With nine new players, numerous Pro Day visits, thousands of words of prediction and analysis and countless hours of video, the 2021 Draft is complete.

  • And now we can finally assign draft grades.

We can now finally grade the Steelers 2016 Draft class. Wait, what? Why pray tell, would a Steelers site grade the 2016 draft now?

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

We’ve always harked back to Chuck Noll’s philosophy of waiting 5 years to grade a draft. And while its fun to say “If it was enough for Chuck Noll is good enough for me,” that rings hollow this year. Because after the Steelers 2016 Draft class was announced, I boldly declared:

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class, like the Steelers 2015 and 2014 draft classes will be judged by one criteria: Did the players selected by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin add enough value to allow Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to a 7th Super Bowl.

Well, Ok now, the Steelers clearly haven’t brought home another Lombardi ergo, there’s nothing new we can learn from the 2016 draft, right?

  • Actually, far from it.

The Steelers 2016 Draft class reinforces a timeless lesson: Time and patience are required to grade a draft class. In that sense, the Steelers 2016 draft is reminiscent of the 1989 Steelers draft: Both looked pretty damn good the following January.

1989 Steelers broke a four year playoff drought, shocked the world with an upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a dropped pass and a bad snap from the AFC Championship game.

  • Steelers 1989 draft class was a huge factor in making that happen.

Yet, as time passed, it became clear that the Steelers 1989 draft had far more Fool’s Gold than did did gems. 2016 is similar. The 2016 season ended with a bitter AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, but the 3 Steelers defensive rookies who started that game had played a huge role in getting them there.

  • The “Upside” of those rookies appeared to be limitless.

But appearances can be deceiving. As our grades reveal:

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Artie Burns the Burn Out

When the Steelers called Artie Burns‘ name on draft night, the skeptics spoke up. Pitttsburgh desperately needed a cornerback and the top corners had gone off the board in a hurry. William Jackson the player Pittsburgh wanted, went one pick before the Steelers turn to draft.

  • Artie Burns looked and felt like a reach.

As a rookie, Artie Burns defied his critics. He won he starting job from William Gay at mid season, made 3 interceptions and deflected 13 passes. Was he perfect? No. But Burns certainly contributed to the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Unfortunately, Artie Burns burned out after that.

Artie Burns struggled in 2017. Rumors circulated that Cam Sutton might replace him. 2018 saw Burns benched, and he got burned in his lone reapperance in the Steelers win over the Patriots. In 2019 he was purely a backup, although he played well in his start against the Chargers.

Most fans will write Artie Burns off as a bust, but he wasn’t a total loss. Grade: Disappointment

Second Round: Sean Davis Doesn’t Deliver on Rookie Promise

This site has written a lot about Sean Davis recently, reflecting on his career arc both in Tony Defeo’s free agent profile and the piece about his free agent signing with the Colts.

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year honors were well deserved. HE played well, like the rest of the defense, during the first half of 2017, then struggled with everyone else. He moved to free safety in 2018 and did fairly well, and lost his 2019 to injury.

He served as a backup and special teams player during his return in 2020. Might not have been his fault, but Davis never delivered on the promise of his rookie year. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Third Round: Javon Hargrave – The Grave Digger Finds Gold

Former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell was spare with his praise, but he didn’t hold back when the Steelers took Javon Hargrave in 2016.

And Hargrave delivered. He won the starting job in 2016 as a rookie and neither he nor the Steelers looked back since then. Injuries limited his effectiveness in 2017, but the only question about Hargrave during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh was “Why doesn’t he play more?” Grade: Grand Slam

Fourth Round: Injuries Hobble Jerald Hawkins’ Career before It Starts

Jerald Hawkins was one of first lineman the Steelers had drafted in quite some time. Unfortunately, his rookie season was lost to injury. He saw some action in 2018 but got injured during OTAs in 2018 was lost for the entire season.

The Steelers traded him prior to the 2019 season, but brought him back for 2020 in a bit of waiver wire shopping where Hawkins served as the Steelers 3 tight end. Grade: Disappointment

5th Round: Travis Feeney. Who?

Travis Feeney didn’t make the Steelers 2016 roster and Pittsburgh lost him in a bit of practice squad poaching in December of that year when the New Orleans Saints signed him. Per Pro Football Reference, he never played a down of NFL football, as the Saints cut him the following June. Grade: Bust

7th Round A: Demarcus Ayers Remarkable Start All for Naught

Hollywood doesn’t script better than this. As a 7th round pick On his second week off of practice squad, in the 4th quarter of his first professional game, Demarcus Ayers:

  • Drew a 35 yard pass interference play that moved the Steelers into the Red Zone
  • Threw a key block 2 plays later that set up a touchdown
  • Made a 9 yard catch and got out of bounds with 0:57 left to play

Oh, and did we mention the AFC North was on the line? On Christmas? And against the Ravens?

Ayers went 3-3 targets/catches in against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs, but he failed to make the 53 man roster the next summer. He famously balked at rejoining the Steelers practice squad, spent a few weeks on the Patriot’s practice squad, was on the Bears 2018 off season roster and then out of football.

  • Could Demarcus Ayers have carved a niche role for himself by staying in Pittsburgh?

Alas, we’ll never know. Neither will he. Grade: Disappointment.

7th Round B: Tyler Matakevich – “Dirty Red” Excels on Special Teams

Tyler Matakevich was supposed to be one of those linebackers like Jerry Olsavsky who lacked measurables but was going to made up for it in preparation, effort and heart.

  • During four years in Pittsburgh Matakevich proved himself to be an excellent special teams player.

However, he never grew into a supporting role at inside linebacker. Coaches gave him a clear, first shot at winning the starting job at St. Vincents in the summer of 2018, but by time the season arrived “Dirty Red” found himself behind both Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Overall Final Grade for the Steelers 2016 Draft Class

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class delivered 3 Disappointments, 2 Serviceable Pickups, 1 Bust and one Grand Slam. So the Steelers got some value out of this draft class, but the value delivered by their premium picks diminished rapidly. Javon Hargrave keeps this grade in striking distance of respectable, and the final grade might be a bit generous given the stakes. Grade: C-

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Steelers Draft Buddy Johnson with 4th Round Compensatory Pick, Two ‘n a Row for Texas A&M

Last year it was Terrapins from the University of Maryland. This year its Aggies from Texas A&M. At least in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

12 picks after calling Don Moore Jr.’s name with their own 4th round pick the Steelers went to the Texas A&M well a second time when they picked Aggies inside linebacker Buddy Johnson.

The decision to look to inside linebacker departs from the (definitive) Steelers Draft Needs Matrix which rated cornerback as a higher need, which in no way suggests that this move is a mistake. While a best case scenario for both Buddy Johnson and the team will be for Johnson to shine on special teams this year, the Steelers certainly need depth at inside linebacker.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski pointed out, Buddy Johnson was the leading tackler on the best defense in what is considered to be the NCAA’s toughest conference. But, Adamski reminds us that none of those statistics meant anything to Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers inside linebackers coach.

Jerry Olsavsky, himself a former Steelers inside linebacker taken as a 10th round pick out of Pitt in the 1989 NFL Draft, explains his attraction to Johnson:

I don’t look at the production numbers, OK” I look at the film and I see production, and I say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a good player.’ I didn’t know (about Johnson’s stat superlatives). … The SEC is great football. But if you watch one game, you would be like, ‘Wow, this guy is active.’ And that’s what I’m looking for.

One would expect no less from Jerry Olsvasky. While Olsvasky has worked with superior athletes such as Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush, he was once described by the Monday Night Football broadcast team as “One of those players who isn’t big enough, isn’t fast enough, but just simply good enough.”

Buddy Johnson, Steelers 4th round pick 2021 NFL Draft

Buddy Johnson during the LSU-Texas A&M game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Buddy Johnson Video Highlights

So just what is that that Jerry Olsvasky sees when he looks at the tape of this 6’, 229 pound, 23 game starter for the Aggies who led Texas A&M in tackles for the last two years? Well, let’s take a look:

That’s a nice tape. What is particularly encouraging is that Buddy Johnson appears to have sound tackling technique. While the Steelers tackling has been better of late, failure on this fundamental skill has been at issue in the not too distant past.

How Buddy Johnson Fits In

The Steelers obviously have a lot invested in Devin Bush’s development, but with Vince Williams and Robert Spillane playing on one year deals, Pittsburgh clearly needs to think of the future. While Johnson will get a fair shake and a reasonable shot at earning a helmet on game day, he doesn’t need to come in and made an immediate impact.

That can change in a hurry, as Vince Williams learned during his rookie year, but for now Buddy Johnson adds depth in the present, offers potential for the future and hopefully can begin contributing on special teams immediately.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Buddy Johnson.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Betwixt & Between at an Evolving Position

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebackers “evolve.”

Pittsburgh’s first player at the position was Jack Lambert, who “evolved” from a middle linebacker to an inside linebacker. Both Mark Barron and Miles Killebrew the Steelers last two free agent signings at the position started as safeties and “evolved” into inside linebackers.

In between, Huey Richardson was drafted and listed as an inside linebacker, but in 2014 the Steelers Media Guide suddenly started listing him as a defensive end.* So this Steelers most infamous 1st round bust managed to evolve at his position 22 years after Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson in a fire sale.

Injuries and COVID-19 infections forced the Steelers to evolve on the fly at inside linebacker multiple times in 2020. But how will that unpleasant experience impact their plans in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

Who, other than Ben Roethlisberger, was the Steelers most indispensable player in 2020? Prior to the season, the Athletic’s Mark Kaboly argued it was Devin Bush.

  • What happens if Devin Bush goes down?

The ominous answer was that Robert Spillane would have to play. He did. And he played well. In the battle of the undefeated he Derrick Henry at the goal line play that could ONLY have reminded his position coach Jerry Olsavsky of a similar stop he made of Christian Okoye back in 1989. The next week he took one of Lamarr Jackson’s passes to the house providing Pittsburgh with a critical point differential.

Robert Spillane might not be a superstar in the making, but his play was solid enough to convince the Steelers to cut Vince Williams, the starter opposite him.

Devin Bush’s sophomore season only lasted 5 games, but that was long enough to register 2 half sacks, pat down 3 passes and log 3 quarterback hits.

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Backups

The story for the Steelers here changed dramatically for the better last week when Vince Williams announced he was rejecting other offers and returning to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary. While that may seem odd, as few if any Steelers have ever done that, Vince Williams will likely slide into the role he played earlier in his career as part-time starter.

In 14 games during 2020, Vince Williams sacked the quarterback 3 times, recovered 2 fumbles and generally laid in the wood when it needed to be laid in.

The Steelers also signed Miles Killebrew, who as mentioned above, began his career as a safety before moving to inside linebacker. Killebrew played for 5 years in Detroit, appearing in 78 games but only starting 5. He did log two interceptions at safety early in his career, and could become a “Dime Linebacker” that the Steelers have been seeking.

The Steelers also have Marcus Allen, yet another converted Safety who started two games this past season, registering 2 tackles for losses and hitting the quarterback twice while struggling against the run.

Finally, Ulysees Gilbert III the Steelers 3rd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who has only appeared in 11 games.

Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker in 2021

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers are betwixed and between at inside linebacker.

On the one hand, they’re blessed with 1 up and coming starter and two starter capable players alongside him. That’s a good thing.

  • But both Spillane and Williams are upgradeable, and Pittsburgh has little proven depth behind them.

Miles Killebrew came out of the free agent bargain bin, Marcus Allens’ play there was hardly convincing and Ulysees Gilbert has done little more than get injured during his time in Pittsburgh. Given that the Steelers draft needs at Inside Linebacker must be considered Moderate-High.

*The plan was to use Richardson at inside linebacker and defensive end. He played there in his strong preseason debut, but his career imploded immediately after that. Now you’re ready if you get “Steelers Draft Busts” as a Final Jeopardy category – so get back to work.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Draft Ulysees Gilbert III, ILB, Akron in 6th Round. Time for Tyler Matakevich to Look Over His Shoulder?

A year ago, everyone predicted a defensive draft for the Steelers. They didn’t get one. In 2019 the refrain remained the same and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin delivered, using their third 6th round pick on defense, as the Steelers drafted Ulysees Gilbert III, Inside Linebacker, Akron.

Ulysees Gilbert III played for four years at the University of Arkon, appearing in 45 games, making 475 tackles and recording 8.5 sacks. As a Junior he had 3 interceptions, including on pick six and deflected 4 passes.

Uylsees Gilbert III, Steelers draft Ulysees Gilbert

Steelers pick Akron’s Ulyesse’s Gilbert in the 6th round. Photo Credit: Jeff Harwell, Akron Athletic

While Ulysees Gilbert will need to prove that he can play in Keith Butler’s defense, to secure a roster spot he’ll need to show he can make an immediate impact on special teams.

Vince Williams, Mark Barron and 1st round pick Devin Bush have locks on roster spots at inside linebacker. Jon Bostic will likely prove to be difficult to dislodge. However, Tyler Matakevich should probably be looking over his shoulder this evening.

A year ago coaches were talking up Tyler Matakevich and penciled him as the top candidate to replace Ryan Shazier. Fast forward 12 months, and the Steelers have just made the boldest draft day trade in franchise history to pick someone at his position, and then their penultimate pick at inside linebacker.

Tyler Matakevich however, has played a key role on the Steelers special teams. Steelers inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky seemed to confirm that Gilbert will need to shine on special teams when he told reporters: “In today’s game, a lot of inside linebackers have to be special teamers.”

But as Olsavsky clarified what the Steelers really liked about Gilbert was “His movement. He could really cover a lot of ground, sideline to sideline and he’ll hit you. That’s what we look for. If you like to run around and hit people, you know you’re good for us.”

Here is a clip of highlights from Ulysees Gilbert’s junior year, which statistically speaking was his best:

Gotta love the retro look with the black and white film.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Ulysees Gilbert.

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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Fire Joey Porter. Mike Tomlin Makes First of Several Anticipated Coaching Changes

In his postmortem press conference Mike Tomlin promised changes and is not waiting long to implement them. The Steelers announced that they will not renew outside linebacker Joey Porter’s  contract, effectively firing him.

  • Joey Porter of course played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006.

In fact, one of Mike Tomlin’s first decision upon becoming head coach was to let Joey Porter go a move, that while controversial at the time, paved the way for James Harrison to join the starting line up.

The Steelers went on to draft Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the 2007 NFL Draft (Lawrence Timmons was initially drafted as an outside linebacker, per the Steelers 2007 Media Guide.)

Joey Porter, steelers fire Joey Porter

Joey Porter during Steelers 2018 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via PennLive.

One of the reasons why Mike Tomlin parted ways with Joey Porter was because of an altercation that he reportedly had with Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers 8-8 Super Bowl hangover induced season following their victory in Super Bowl XL.

However, in February 2014 Mike Tomlin reversed course and brought Joey Porter back to Pittsburgh naming him as a “defensive assistant.” A year later when Mike Tomlim promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, Joey Porter got promoted to outside linebackers coach while Jerry Olsavsky was also promoted to inside linebackers coach.

Jarvis Jones never developed into a player, Bud Dupree has improved since his rookie year, but the consensus is that he still relies more on athleticism than refined skill. T.J. Watt appears to be blossoming into a legitimate Super Star.

  • Joey Porter’s return to the Steelers did not come without controversy.

After the Steelers January 2017 win playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, Porter was caught in a highly public altercation with a South Side bouncer.

A year earlier, Joey Porter presence on the field while doctors were attenting to Antonio Brown helped prompt Adam PAC Man Jones to touch an official, resulting in a 15 yard penalty, that set up Chris Boswell’s game winning field goal (remember those?) in the Steelers playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

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