Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The experiment that was Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers has officially come to an end.

As reported by various outlets–including the team’s official website–Allen, 27, was released on Friday after five seasons. According to UPI.com, Allen, who was scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2016, was let go after refusing to take a pay-cut.

Cortez Allen was the team’s fourth round pick out of The Citadel in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after showing a lot of promise near the end of the 2012 season–including two interceptions and a fumble recovery–and emerging as a starter in 2013, the front-office decided to reward him with a five-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season.

After watching Keenan Lewis, a third round pick in 2009, develop into perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2012 and then leave via free-agency that offseason, Pittsburgh didn’t want to make the same mistake with Allen. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffective play stymied Allen’s 2014 season, and by the time the Steelers were marching towards the playoffs and their first AFC North crown in four years,  he had been surpassed on the cornerback depth chart by journeymen Antwon Blake and Brice McCain and was pretty much a non-factor.

  • The 2015 season would not prove to be a resurgence for Allen, as injuries reduced his season to just one game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointedly refused to give Allen a vote of confidence in his season-ending press conference following the loss to the Broncos in the divisional round. And after months to think things over, Tomlin again hinted that Allen’s time with the team had pretty much come to an end when he addressed the media in March while in Boca Raton, Florida, for the annual owners’ meetings.

With Allen’s release following the free-agent departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, at the very least the Steelers will have to address their cornerback depth in the 2016 NFL Draft, which kicks off on April 28.

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Are the Steelers Pinning Too Much Hope on Senquez Golson? Kris Farris Offers Cautionary Tale

NFL owners meetings bring big news to Steelers Nation simply because they’re the only off season moment when Mike Tomlin talks to the press. At a recent meeting in Boca Raton, Tomlin offered unqualified praise for cornerback Senquez Golson:

We are excited about getting Senquez Golson back in the mix. I think oftentimes he is forgotten about. We were excited about him a year ago when we drafted him. I still share that same level of excitement. I can’t wait to get him on the grass.

Mike Tomlin’s embrace of Senquez Golson is both revealing and alarming. The 2015 Steelers weak spot was cornerback and it remains so a month into free agency with Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin departing.

However, last spring plays like the one below prompted the Pittsburgh Steelers to pick Senquez Golson with their 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The athleticism, tracking ability and discipline Golson reveals in the play would leave any coach licking his chops. But Golson unfortunately course injured his shoulder in Steelers OTA’s last year, sat out training camp on the PUP list, and lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The headline, “Rookie season lost to injury” sounds ominous, but should it?

Starting your career on injured reserve is hardly ideal, but several Seelers have bounced such setbacks.

sean spence, injury, 2012 preseason, steelers, carolina panthers

Sean Spence is injured during the 2012 preseason

Sean Spence lost his first two years to injury, yet Spence was starting for the injured Ryan Shazier by week 4 of 2014. Keenan Lewis suited up for a handful of games in 2009, but his rookie season was marred by injury. Lewis didn’t do much in 2010 either. He flashed little in 2011, and by 2012 he’d improved so much he became the guy the Steelers couldn’t afford to keep.

A torn ACL cost the legendary Greg Lloyd his rookie season, and another knee injury cost him the first half of his second season. Yet by the end of 1988, Lloyd was pushing for starting time, and going into 1989 NFL Draft, Greg Lloyd had made the reigning single season sack leader Mike Merriweather expendable.

Mike Tomlin’s faith in Golson is hardly unprecedented. However, placing too much hope in a rookie’s ability to bounce back from injury is generally a mistake, and the case of Kris Farris reveals why.

The Cautionary Case of Outland Trophy Winner Kris Farris

The Steelers offensive line needed help in 1999. Badly. When Jerome Bettis had arrived via trade in 1996, he proclaimed that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “Like running down hill.” But by 1999, the line had lost Leon Searcy, John Jackson, Justin Strzelczyk, Will Wolford to free agency, injury and retirement.

Worse yet, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had swung and missed badly in attempting to replace them by drafting Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins and Chris Conrad.

  • Drafting the 1999 Outland Trophy winner would appear to be a sure bet to snap that streak, if only the Steelers got the chance.

The Steelers got that chance in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, taking the Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris the middle of their trio of 3rd round picks that year.

But during rookie workouts Farris’ foot began to get sore. At first he’d be OK after a few minutes, but each day it took longer to feel normal. Farris aggravated the injury on Memorial Day, sat out veteran mini-camp, and took it easy, hoping the rest would ready him for St. Vincents.

Kris Farris, not wanting to beg off of Bill Cowher’s annual run test, told the Steelers he was 90 to 95%. Farris gave it his all, but when it was all over a concerned Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis approached him because he looked so pale.

  • Farris tried to make a go of it in the first full pads practice of Camp Cowher 1999, but could not finish.

Subsequent MRI’s reveal cracks and then a full hairline fracture in his foot. The Steelers put Kris Farris on season-ending injured reserve, and hoped for the best.

During the 1999 season, the Steelers offensive line’s decline accelerated as as coaches alternated between Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad to see who would was “less worse.” In bars throughout Steelers Nation, fans shook their heads asking, “If only we had Kris Farris…..”

Kris Farris returned to St. Vincents with the Steelers in the summer of 2000, but earned reputation for “being soft” and Steelers cut Farris  trimmed their roster to 70.

The Bengals picked him up, but he was unable hold a roster spot in Cincinnati. Tom Donahoe brought Farris to Buffalo in 2001, did manage to play 3 games in 2001 but, in an cruelly ironic moment, Farris broke his leg in a 20-3 loss to the Steelers. Sadly, Farris never played football again.

  • The moral of the story isn’t that the Steelers can’t improve at cornerback from 2015 to 2016.

Despite that disappointment, the 2000 Steelers were far stronger at right tackle with rookie Marvel Smith, 1999’s third stringer Shar Pourdanesh and Larry Tharpe been out of football in 1999, but whom Kevin Colbert knew from his Detroit days.

But Kris Farris’ story also should serve as a caution against the Steelers pinning too many of their hopes for improving at cornerback on Senquez Golsen.

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Is 2016 the Year the Steelers Make a Splash in Free Agency?

Is 2016 the year the Pittsburgh Steelers make a splash in free agency?

  • ….Probably not. The Steelers never make a significant splash in free-agency, but this doesn’t mean they can’t make some moves that fans will feel good about.

Two years ago, the signings of safety Mike Mitchell and reserve running back LeGarrette Blount were met with great enthusiasm, especially after a few off seasons of financial blood-lettings that included the departure of promising corner Keenan Lewis and the release of veteran linebacker James Harrison in 2013.

All those years of cap massaging finally left Pittsburgh with no space at all, and the 2013 offseason was certainly a depressing time, complete with the inevitability that the upcoming regular season was going to be a bit of a downer, which it was–at least the 2-6 first half.

Obviously, Mitchell, who was injured, didn’t do much in 2014 but draw the ire of fans for his underwhelming play; Blount ultimately drew the wrath of teammates, coaches and, of course, the fans for his actions that included smoking a joint with Le’Veon Bell the day before an exhibition game in August and walking off the field moments ahead of the rest of his team near the end of the Steelers Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans.

But while the moves didn’t do much to help the 2014 team, they were good in-theory, and Pittsburgh’s 2015 free-agent running back do-over that was the signing of long-time Panthers’ veteran (and good guy) DeAngelo Williams more than made up for the gamble on Blount.

Due to a suspension and season-ending knee injury, Bell wound up only playing in six regular season games. In his place, Williams, who responded to a challenge by head coach Mike Tomlin and came to training camp in the best shape in years, started 10 games and rushed for 907 yards (the third-highest total of his already accomplished career).

As for Mitchell’s 2015 regular season, it was significantly better and the kind of upgrade over the retired Ryan Clark that everyone initially envisioned when he came on board the year before.

According to to the website Over the Cap, the Steelers have approximately $11.3 million of cap space, heading into free-agency.

  • That’s a fair amount, but certainly not enough to go after one significant player. But that’s okay, because football is a team sport.

While fans and the media like to fall all over themselves this time of year, after downtrodden organizations with a lot of room like the Buccaneers and Jaguars sign big names, the fact is, the smart moves can often make the biggest difference.

For the Steelers, maybe those smart moves will simply be re-signing guard Ramon Foster and/or cornerback William Gay. Maybe it’s going out and finding a dependable, veteran tight end who, if he doesn’t start in place of the young Jesse James, could be an upgrade over Matt Spaeth. How about finding a reserve defensive lineman that is an improvement over Cam Thomas?

None of these moves would get the Steelers added to any list of free-agent “winners,” but championships are won in January and February, not March and April.

A small ripple doesn’t have the same kind of initial impact as a big splash, but, in the long run, it can often be more effective.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Big Play Willie Gay to Stay! Steelers Resign William Gay to 3 Year Contract

With the start of free agency less than 24 hours away, the Pittsburgh Steelers have left zero ambiguity over what their priorities are. The Steelers have resigned 3 of their own players. First came safety Robert Golden. Then wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

  • And now they’ve signed cornerback William Gay to a 3 year contract.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but William Gay communicated the word via his Instagram account and his agent confirmed it to members of the press.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BCstanIjBUs/

  • The Steelers also confirmed the report on their website.

By resigning William Gay and Robert Golden, the Pittsburgh Steelers have locked down two of potential starters from their secondary before they even hit the free agent market. That still leaves the Steelers needing help at both safety and cornerback.

Veteran safety Will Allen could retire and Shamarko Thomas has little more than disappoint since the Steelers traded up to get him in the 2013 NFL Draft. At cornerback, Cortez Allen has been an even bigger disappointment while Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake are both free agents. Behind them the Steelers have rookies Senquez Golsen and Doran Grant, neither of whom played a down in 2015.

In William Gay, the Steelers have battle tested veteran, who owns a Super Bowl ring and can command respect on and off the field.

What a Difference 4 Years Makes

Both William Gay and the Steelers have been here before. In 2011 following the NFL lockout, the Steelers offered Gay a second contract, but at the time Gay was a number 3 corner who’d struggled as a starter and essentially got a “prove it” contract.

Gay’s play improved tremendously in 2011, yet the Steelers let him walk because of promising development of Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen.

Keenan Lewis developed as promised, but the Steelers had limited salary cap space and let Lewis go, banking heavily on on Cortez Allen surpassing Keenan Lewis.

The Arizona Cardinals cut William Gay after one season, and the Steelers almost immediately resigned him. Although Gay was only getting 1.5 million per year, far below starter money for the Steelers, William Gay has been a veritable big play machine since returning five interceptions for touchdowns, which ties Rod Woodson‘s  career total with the Steelers.

  • There is some risk in signing a 31 year old cornerback to a 3 year contract.

But skeptical fans should keep in mind that Rod Woodson intercepted 15 passes in the three seasons following his 31st birthday. Unfortunately, only six of those were with the Steelers as Tom Donahoe allowed him to depart as a free agent. To this day, Dan Rooney publicly regrets letting go of Rod Woodson.

While no one here is predicting a Hall of Fame career for William Gay, the Steelers have made sure he won’t follow Rod Woodson’s footsteps by playing some of his best ball in another uniform.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Shoulder Surgery May Jeopardize Senquez Golson Rookie Season

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that Pittsburgh Steelers second round pick Senquez Golson could be facing shoulder surgery which would end his rookie season before it even begins.

The Steelers picked Golson in the 2015 NFL draft due to his tremendous ball-hawking skills, Golson nabbed 10 interceptions last year while playing for the Old Miss, despite his 5’9” size. While no one was projecting or expecting that Senquez Golson would push for a starting job, the Steelers had planed to use him in the slot.

  • Golson participated in all of the Steelers OTA’s and mini-camps without incident, but later informed coaches that he felt he injured his shoulder during those sessions.

Golson was one of 5 Steelers to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and has not suited up for practice.

Concern about the availability of Golson apparently contributed to the Steelers decision to trade for Brandon Boykin over the weekend. Brandon Boykin, like Golson, is another short cornerback who has a knack for coming down with the ball.

Golson to Continue Recent Steelers Rookie Tradition?

If Senquez Golson’s rookie season is lost to shoulder surgery it starts, he will be following in the footsteps of a number of prominent rookies during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2012, David DeCastro and Sean Spence both began the season on IR, although DeCastro returned late in the season. A year before Baron Batch’s rookie season ended on the fields of St. Vincents. Prior to that, Chris Scott, a 5th round draft pick from 2010, injured himself weight lifting in June of that year and was lost for the season.

Lawrence Timmons, Keenan Lewis, Frank “The Tank” Summers, Ryan Shazier and Markus Wheaton all saw their rookie seasons seriously curtailed by injuries.

Rookies losing valuable time to injuries is not “tradition” that anyone would wish to emulate, but unfortunately it does seem like it will continue in 2015 at the very least.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers Third Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

Steel Curtain Rising’s annual installment of the Colbert Record began this morning with our evaluation of Kevin Colbert’s performance in the the Steelers 2010 Draft.

Now that the Steelers have drafted Bud Dupree with their first pick, focus shifts to day two of the 2015 NFL Draft which brings us to the third round. Accordingly, Steel Curtain Rising shines a light on Kevin Colbert’s draft record with third round picks.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Tom Donahoe Leaves Kevin Colbert Tough Third Round Act to Follow

The NFL Draft’s third round is often called “the value round” as that is the spot in the draft where you still have a high probability of finding and impact player, yet the risk associated with missing on a third rounder is lower than the first and second rounds.

  • The NFL Draft’s third round was the Steelers money round during Tom Donahoe’s tenure.

Colbert’s predecessor simply excelled in the third round drafting Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Amos Zereoue, Mike Vrable, Jon Witman, Brenden Stai, Jason Gildon, Bam Morris, Andre Hastings, and Joel Steed.

Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s Steelers did draft a few busts in the third round – Kris Farris, Chris Conrad, Steven Conley and Paul Wiggins all come to mind, but looking look across the 8 Donahoe-Cowher drafts  and you’ll literally cannot find a year in which the third round was a total loss for the Steelers.

How well has Kevin Colbert done by comparison? Time to find out.

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Steelers 2000 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kendrick Clancy and Hank Poeat

Joel Steed remains an overlooked key to the 90’s Blitzburgh defenses, but his abrupt in January 2000 left newly arrived Kevin Colbert with a gaping hole to fill in the Steelers defense. First Colbert’s signed Kimo von Oelhoffen and second he drafted Kendrick Clancy in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clancy played in nine games as a rookie. In 2001 he actually kept Casey Hampton on the bench – for three games, before yielding the starting spot. Clancy never started another game in Pittsburgh, but he played in 15 games in 2000 and 17 games in 2002 and 2003. The Steelers cut him in 2004, but brought him back after Hampton torn his ACL. Clancy went on to play – and start, for the Giants, Cardinals, and Saints, playing all the way until 2009.

It’s hard to call a guy a “bust” because he couldn’t beat out Casey Hampton and Kendrick Clancy certainly wasn’t a bad pick. But still you expect more from a third rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Kevin Colbert used his second third round pick in 2000 on Hank Poeat, a cornerback from Pitt. Yet Poeat’s primary contribution in Pittsburgh was as a kick returner, where he excelled as a rookie, returning a punt for a touchdown in the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

But Poeat’s fortunes as a return man declined after 2000, and he never made an impact as a corner. The Steelers let him go after 2003, but Poteat played for Tampa Bay, New England, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns until retiring in 2009. Grade: Disappointment

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Steelers 2001 3rd Round Draft Pick – Forfeited

When the Steelers signed Will Wolford to play guard in 1996 his contract contained a stipulating that Wolford got an extra $500,000 if he got switched to tackle. The page of paper that that clause was typed on (yes, typed) got lost, but Dan Rooney remembered it, and the Steelers honored their word to Wolford.

Unfortunately, paying that extra $500,000 resulted in a salary cap violation, which the Steelers turned themselves in for. As a result, they lost their third round pick in 2001.

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Steelers 2002 3rd Round Draft Pick – Chris Hope

The Steelers drafted Chris Hope in 2002 with an eye towards replacing Bret Alexander, who was turning 31. Hope neither started as a rookie nor as a sophomore, but earned a starting slot by his 3rd year, which was 2004 the year the Steelers went 15-1 and had the NFL’s number 1 defense.

Hope returned to start 16 regular season games in 2005 and started throughout the playoffs, playing his last game for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers never really felt that Hope was a long-term answer at safety – and Ryan Clark represented an upgrade there – but he did what a third round pick should do – develop into a reliable starter. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2003 3rd Round Draft Pick – Traded to Kansas City

The Steelers didn’t have a third round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft because Kevin Colbert traded it to Kansas City, as part of moving up to take Troy Polamalu….

…That was perhaps his wisest draft day decision.

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Steelers 2004 3rd Round Draft Pick – Max Starks

Kevin Colbert’s third round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Max Starks, has perhaps the most colorful history of any in the group.

Max Starks gets knocked around a lot. He even had doubters on both Bill Cowher’s final coaching staff in 2006, which carried over to Mike Tomlin’s initial staff in 2007. The Steelers front office disagreed, making Starks their transition player in 2008. The coaching staff was unmoved, starting the season with Starks on the bench in 2008, and even giving Trai Essex the initial nod when Marvel Smith went down in the critical Steelers 2008 road win over Jacksonville.

It says here that Max Starks saved the Steelers season in 2008. Arguably, he did it again in 2011 and one can shudder to think of what would have happened had the Steelers not brought him back in 2012. Max Starks started 2 in Super Bowl XL and again in Super Bowl XLIII. Can you really ask more of a third round pick? Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2005 3rd Round Draft Pick – Trai Essex

Kevin Colbert again went the tackle round in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, this time picking Trai Essex.

Essex never developed into a full time starter at tackle, nor could he hold down the starting job at guard. But Trai Essex became a valuable 6th lineman who was able to back up at all five positions on the line. While that’s commendable, you do expect a third round pick to become a starter. Essex never quite fit that bill. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2006 3rd Round Draft Picks — Anthony Smith, Willie Reid

Bill Cowher’s last draft left a lot to be desired particularly in the third round. First the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith. Smith was a hard hitter.

But he was an even bigger prima donna, showboating after a big play in 2006, and then moronically guaranteeing victory prior to the Steelers game vs. New England in 2007, only to have Tom Brady torch him with relish. He also injured a player in during the 2008 training camp, drawing Mike Tomlin’s ire. There’s a word for players like this. Grade: Bust

Willie Reid, the Steelers second 3rd round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, didn’t generate the ink that Anthony Smith did, but he was just as disappointing. He appeared in 1 game as a rookie returning 1 kick and 1 punt in a loss vs. San Diego. He returned six more kicks in 2007 and caught 4 passes in that season then was done. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2007 3rd Round Draft Pick – Matt Spaeth

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin surprised a lot of people when they picked Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. And since that time it has become clear that the Steelers picked Matt Spaeth too early. That’s not a knock on Spaeth per se. It’s not his fault he was drafted so early. But he really never delivered value commensurate with his status as a third round pick.

Certainly, the Steelers have a quality second tight end in Matt Spaeth. His blocking has been a critical element to Le’Veon Bell’s success. And he’s far underutilized in the passing game. But third round picks should perform at a higher level. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2008 3rd Round Draft Pick – Bruce Davis

During training camp 2008, Jim Wexell reported in Steelers Digest that Mike Tomlin would pit Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together in one-on-ones while yelling, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you, I just don’t know which one yet.” The infamous Steelers 2008 Draft Class will go down as Colbert’s worst, with perhaps Bruce Davis serving as the poster boy.

  • As it turns out, Tomlin failed to make a player out of either man.

The Steelers drafted Bruce Davis as an outside linebacker, but he only played in 5 games on special teams, and he couldn’t cut it there. The Steelers wasted little time in cutting him in training camp the next summer. Davis resurfaced with the Raiders in 2010 and 2011 were he recorded 4 tackles in 10 games, and then Cincinnati in 2012 although he never played for the Bengals. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2009 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis

As a rookie Kraig Urbik didn’t play a down, but the Steelers had high hopes for him as they saw great progress in his second summer at St. Vincents. Word was that Urbik, a guard, skills as a back up center were part of what sent Justin Hartwig to the waiver wire. Alas, Byron Leftwich’s preseason injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster, and that meant Urbik had to go.

The Steelers wanted to sneak him onto the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills had other ideas. Urbik has started 53 of 69 games for them since then…. Grade: Farm Team

The Steelers knew Hines Ward’s time was coming to an end by 2009, and drafted Mike Wallace with the second of their 3 third round picks. While the decision not to offer Mike Wallace a long-term deal was controversial at the time, the Steelers wisdom in choosing Antoinio Brown instead has been vindicated.

But that doesn’t alter the evaluation of Mike Wallace as a draft pick, because he it was an excellent pick. Wallace made an immediate impact as a rookie, posted in inhuman yards-per-catch average in his first season as starter, and was a legit home run threat on every play. The drop off in his play during his second two years does impact his overall grade, but clearly Colbert made the right pick here. Grade: Over Performer

With their final 3rd round pick in 2009 NFL Draft the Steelers picked Keenan Lewis. Lewis was a late bloomer, as injuries ruined and Joe Burnett kept him off the field. 2010 was little better, as Lewis disappointed. Carnell Lake personally oversaw his rehabilitation, and Lewis began to work himself into a quality corner in 2011 and established himself as the starter by 2012.

The Steelers did get some value out of Lewis before he left via free agency, but just a little short of what you’d expect and need as a third round pick. Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, his grade would be higher, but this draft evaluation only covers performance of players as Steelers. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2010 3rd Round Draft Pick – Emmanuel Sanders

The third round pick in 2010 of Emmanuel Sanders got covered in our analysis of the Steelers 2010 NFL Draft. Emmanuel Sanders impressed coaches as a rookie, even keeping Antonio Brown on the bench early in the season, with Mike Tomlin invoking the “Two dogs one bone” metaphor. Sanders got hurt in Super Bowl XLV, and injury that Bruce Arians said hurt the team’s game plan.

Injuries limited Sanders in 2011 and then again in 2012, but he emerged as a full time starter in 2013 and made the most of his opportunity. The Steelers optned not to resign him, but Sanders was still a quality third round pickup. Grade: Quality Value Pick+

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Steelers 2011 3rd Round Draft Pick – Curtis Brown

Super Bowl XLV made it glaringly clear that the Steelers needed to improve at cornerback, and Kevin Colbert addressed the position in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by picking Curtis Brown….

…And he undoubtedly regrets the pick to this very day.

As a rookie, Brown forced a fumble during an ugly Steelers loss vs. Houston. He apparently played well on special teams, but it was Cortez Allen who saw action at corner. Brown never started a game, but saw a lot of action as a nickel back vs. San Diego in 2012, which was one of the most horrific performances by the Steelers of the Tomlin era. Brown only played in 7 games in 2013 and the Steelers gave up on him after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 3rd Round Draft Pick – Sean Spence

The Steelers had already parted ways with James Farrior and were looking to groom a replacement for Larry Foote by the time the 2012 NFL Draft arrived. Kevin Colbert picked Sean Spence out of Miami. Early in preseason, Spence looked like a stud in the making. Then disaster struck, costing Spence not only his rookie year, but also his sophomore year.

Nonetheless, Spence returned for his third season, and started nine games splitting time with Vince Williams after Ryan Shazier’s injury. Spence helped force a fumble in the Steelers 2nd quarter explosion vs. Houston, and recorded a sack vs. Cincinnati. Any formal grade on Spence will need to wait, but he looks like a solid pick up on Colbert’s part. Grade: Too Early To Tell

Steelers 2013 3rd Round Draft Pick – Markus Wheaton

Kevin Colbert drafted Markus Wheaton in the 2013 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Mike Wallace and the soon to depart Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton did next to nothing as a rookie, but he did earn the starting nod in 2014 and turned in a solid season.

Wheaton might not have gotten the ink that Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant get, but he made a lot of key catches. Again, one season as a starter is NOT enough to evaluate a player, but right now he has the look of a quality value pick, if not more. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Draft Pick – Dri Archer

The Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get Shamarko Thomas in 2013, but got a compensatory pick for losing Mike Wallace. They used it on Dri Archer, who was the fastest man in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers idea was to use Archer as a kick returner and utility back/wide receiver in the mold of Eric Metcalf (yes, I just dated myself!)….

It’s way, way too early to write off Dri Archer, but his rookie year can only be described as disappointing. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Conclusion – Kevin Colbert’s Checkered Third Round Record

The NFL Draft’s third round has not been as kind to Kevin Colbert as it was Tom Donahoe. Which is OK, as Colbert’s money round has been the first round of the NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin discuss the Steelers Draft

Still, Colbert is charged with making the right pick in each round, and the record shows that he’s done it several times for the Steelers, most notably with Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Hope, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.

However, Colbert has had his share of under performing third round picks, and he’s picked more than one outright bust with both Cowher and Tomlin (see Willie Reid Davis and Curtis Brown.)

While its too early to tell on some of his later picks, the arrow does appear to be trending up for Colbert’s third round record, but for now his grade must reflect a balance between his 3rd round successes and 3rd round failures. Grade: C+

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Steelers Secondary Coach Carnell Lake: Revisiting the “Lake Effect”

With Dick LeBeau officially out and Keith Butler officially in at defensive coordinator slot, focus should now shift to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake and the so-called “Lake Effect.”

No matter how Dick LeBeau apologists (of which I am one) attempt to dress it up, the Steelers defense has been in decline for years. While the question of whether aging talent or poor coaching fueled the decline is now irrelevant, the question of what actually defined the decline is not.

Seriously.

If you take total yards allowed as your metric of choice, the Steelers defense really only started to slip in 2013, having finished number 1 overall in 2011 and 2012, before slipping to 13th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.

But expand choice of metrics just a bit, and you’ll see that the roots of the Steelers decline on defense dig deeply into 2011. And there’s where the tale gets complicated….

Super Bowl XLV Exposes Steelers Secondary as Glaring Weakness

The 2011 NFL Lockout created an off season void, which Steelers Nation largely filled for itself by repeating what became accepted as iron-clad fact:

  • In Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers exposed the Steelers secondary and specifically its corners as Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel.

It followed then that Bryant McFadden was a failure, Ike Taylor was slipping, Keenan Lewis was a bust, and William Gay a waste of a roster spot. Respected Steelers author and blogger, Tim Gleason aka “Mary Rose” of Behind the Steel Curtain went so far as to suggest that Art Rooney II order Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to take a cornerback in the first round of the draft.

It was settled then. The Steelers needed to upgrade at corner, and they need to do it fast….

Steelers Pass Defense Rebounds in 2011 and 2012. But…

2011’s Debacle in Baltimore introduced “Old, Slow and Done” into NFL’s lexicon for discussing the Steelers. Yet it only 4 games into the season my friend and colleague at BTSC Ivan Cole (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) noted a trend.

The Steelers pass defense wasn’t playing so badly. And in fact William Gay was playing pretty well. And Keenan Lewis, who’d been written off as a draft-day mistake, began to show signs of life. Ivan had a name for this. He called it, “The Lake Effect.”

Gauging the role of position coaches in player development is tricky.

  • Yet Carnell Lake’s tutelage undoubtedly had an impact on these young men’s careers.

Another BTSC scribe, Rebecca Rollet, documented how Steelers coaches had essentially given up on Keenan Lewis before Lake arrived on the South Side.

Today William Gay is the unquestioned leader of the Steelers secondary, boasting more pick sixes in a season than Mel Blount had in his career, while fans (and perhaps the front office as well as the coaches) universally lament letting Keenan Lewis get away.

Beyond those individual accomplishments, during the first two seasons following Lake’s arrival, the Steelers pass defense ranked number despite the absence of a consistent pass rush.

So Carnell Lake is an unqualified success as Steelers secondary coach right? Not so fast.

Turnovers Scarce for Steelers Secondary

Another trend emerged in 2011 alongside the “Lake Effect,” and it’s one that continues today – namely a chronic inability on the part of the Steelers defense to produce turnovers. Interceptions are only one half of the turnover equation, they’re an important part.

And while interceptions can come from the defensive line or linebackers, often to great effect (see Brett Keisel vs. Houston), they’re the primary responsibility of the secondary. Numbers do not like on that measure, Lake doesn’t look so good:

steelers, interceptions, mike tomlin, carnell lake, secondary, corner, dick lebeau

Picks in short supply for Steelers secondary

Graphically, the trends are even more dramatic (note, inverse values have been used to chart the Steelers NFL rank in order to achieve visual congruity):

steelers, interceptions, turnovers, tomlim, carnell lake, dick lebeau, ray horton

Steelers interceptions, by number and by rank

Looking at the numbers as a whole, it is clear that Pittsburgh has had trouble intercepting the ball throughout Tomlin’s tenure, with 2008 and 2010 standing out as exceptions. But even if the roots of the problem stretch back to Ray Horton’s tenure as defensive coordinator, the Steelers worst performances have come during Lake’s time.

In another era, the term “Number One Defense” meant yards allowed. But today, both thanks to information technology and to the way the game’s evolved itself, defenses are measured by points allowed and increasingly, by their ability to take the ball away.

The Steelers have struggled to do that. The struggle didn’t begin with Carnell Lake, but he hasn’t improve the situation either.

Of Cortez, Brice and Blake….

Cortez Allen was an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. He was supposed to be the secondary’s savior, instead he was put on injured reserve because the team needed his roster spot. Shamarko Thomas was also expected to push for time at safety, but couldn’t get off special teams. While it is unfair to hang that on Lake’s neck, neither Allen nor Thomas are not one of his success stories…

  • For those you can look to the men who played in their places.

Brice McCain and Antwon Blake arrived at Latrobe as two players salvaged from the NFL’s scrapheap fighting for a roster spot. They finished the regular season by making the turnovers the Steelers needed to secure victory over the Bengals, and ultimately the AFC North Championship.

  • Again, we don’t know how much impact Lake’s had in their growth.

But we do know its Lake’s job to guide it, and he didn’t bat an eye in mentioning Blake’s name when asked why the Steelers didn’t take a corner early in the 2014 NFL Draft. Do two better than expected corners make up for the Cortez Allen disappointment? Do they vindicate Mr. Cole’s “Lake Effect Thesis.”

Who knows?

But Keith Butler is going to need to find a way to get the Steelers to produce more turnovers, and he’ll need to determine of Carnell Lake is capable of coaching the secondary to help do that. Butler’s choice will be interesting.

 

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Keenan Lewis Returns to Pittsburgh; Should the Steelers Have Kept Him?

Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh with the Saints this weekend, which begs the question – should the Steelers have kept him?

  • The answer doesn’t require a lot of football wisdom, nor does one need the proverbial “20/20 hindsight to answer it.”

The answer was crystal clear in during the Steelers 2013 off season – in a perfect world the Steelers should have and probably would have resigned Lewis.

The Steelers drafted Lewis in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL draft, but his first year in Pittsburgh was lost to injury. Lewis struggled in his second year, but under the tutelage of Carnell Lake, Lewis showed signs of life in 2011, and had a breakout season in 2012.

Ike Taylor had played well in 2012, but was already pushing 33 in a position that is decidedly a young man’s game.

  • In pure football terms, bringing back Lewis would have been a no-brainer.

The problem was the Steelers only had 2 million dollars in salary cap space, the 4th worst in the NFL. To gain breathing room the Steelers needed to restructure multiple contracts, and cut James Harrison and cut Willie Colon.

  • This forced Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan to delve into the NFL’s variant of “Dollar Ball.”

They resigned William Gay and they placed their faith in the development Cortez Allen, who in just 3 starts accounted for six turnovers.

Personnel success in the salary cap isn’t about simple talent evaluation, its about getting the best bang for your salary cap buck. By signing Gay instead of even more painful salary cap cuts needed to make an offer to Lewis, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomin gambled that they’d come out ahead.

As Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, its time to put that decision under the microscope

Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor and William Gay Compared

keenan lewis, cortez allen, ike taylor, william gay, steelers, saints, pittsburgh, new oreleans

Lewis, Allen, Taylor and Gay Compared, 2012-2014

Keenan Lewis had a very strong year in 2013 for the Saints, coming down with four picks and 1 forced fumble. There’s an irony there, because the word was the Steelers brass favored Allen precisely because he was better at creating turnovers.

Allen, for his part has four picks between 2013 and 2014, and had an equal number of passes defensed in 2013. Still, those numbers do not indicate his struggles, particularly in this year where he’s been so bad he got benched.

  • However, judging by the numbers, here in 2014 Lewis play has dropped off. He’s got only 1 interception and as many passes defensed as Allen.

Ike Taylor struggled in 2013 in ways the numbers don’t show. Here in 2014 he played well vs. Baltimore and was strong vs. Carolina, but has been hurt since then. While its no indictment on him as a player, you don’t get much for your salary cap buck when your guys are in street clothes on the sideline.

  • William Gay presents the most interesting case of all four.

With a cap number of 1.6 million, Gay is easily the cheapest of the four and perhaps his production has been the most consistent. Gay’s had 2 pick sixes this year, another in 2013, and while his pass defense numbers don’t look good, he made a key stop vs. Cleveland in the opener.

So as Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, it is still fair to say the Steelers should have signed him, but its also fair to say that in salary cap terms they’ve managed well nonetheless – although that analysis could change in future years. It is an open question as to whether Allen rebounds from a bad 2014, but his salary cap number is headed up regardless.

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Steelers Defense “Band Back Together” vs. Saints – Is That a Good Thing…?

For the Steelers Defense, the “Band Is Back Together” vs. the Saints as, something will occur that has not happened since Pittsburgh’s 2012 road victory vs. BaltimoreIke Taylor, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, William Gay, and Brett Keisel will play together once again.

It’s an interesting twist of fate for a franchise that worked diligently to shake the “Old, slow and done” moniker that followed the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore.

  • Does it, however, mean that the Steelers youth movement on defense has in fact failed?

On the surface, that’s the easy conclusion. Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith and fell short. They Steelers brought a lot of young defensive lineman to Latrobe, but ended up bringing Keisel back.

Brett Keisel, steelers, defense, veterans

At 36, Brett Keisel is Still Going Strong

Keenan Lewis was good enough to start at corner, but the Steelers lacked the salary cap space to sign him. They resigned William Gay instead, while Cortez Allen has been benched.

Troy Polamlau signed a multi-year extension the day before the Debacle in Baltimore, and rightly or wrongly many characterized Polamalu’s deal as a mistake.

James Harrison of course left Pittsburgh, played for Cincinnati, retired and unretired and he’s now tied for the team lead in sacks.

  • Again, at first glance, it doesn’t look good.

As usual however, things are not as simple as they seem.

On the defensive line, while Kesiel has played well enough to open the door for his return in 2015, the Steelers are working in Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt into the line up – a rarity for rookies in Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line. Don’t count out youth yet.

There was always an injury risk factor in bringing back Polamalu, but Troy has played well. His heir apparent, Shamarko Thomas has been hurt, which while bad, isn’t something you can “blame” on Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert.

Jarvis Jones was playing well before he got hurt, and the paucity of depth at outside linebacker forced the Steelers to break the glass and bring back Harrison. There are questions about what the Steelers will do with Jason Worilds, but again its way too early to write Jones off as a bust.

The real sticking point is at corner. Where fate and faith both seem to have failed the Steelers, which Steel Curtain Rising will take up tomorrow….

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Steelers Extend Contract of Cortez Allen for 5 Years

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about as conservative (in the non-political sense) of an organization as you can find. No cheerleaders. Decal on 1 side of the helmet. A single head coach press conference during the week.

  • But no one can accuse Kevin Colbert for lacking a flair for the dramatic. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a regular season contract negotiation black-out policy since 1993 that they never violate. So it appeared that the Steelers would take to the field vs. the Cleveland Browns without extending Cortez Allen’s contract.

This mark’s the second time in three years that the Steelers have had an 11th hour contract signing. In 2011, prior to the Debacle in Baltimore, Troy Polamalu signed his contract extension at the airport prior to departing for Charm City.

The Steelers drafted Cortez Allen in fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Allen showed promise on special teams, and even worked into the team’s Dime packages, seeing significant playing time in the Steelers 2011 upset of the New England Patriots.

Allen was expected to push for a starting job in 2012, but was held off by Keenan Lewis, who budded into top NFL corner during the course of the season. However, injuries to Ike Taylor brought Allen into the starting lineup during the end of 2012, and in just 5 quarters of play, Allen forced 5 turnovers.

With Allen on the rise, and the Steelers mired in salary cap purgatory, Keenan Lewis walked as the Steelers opted instead to resign William Gay. Allen won the starting job in 2013, but was injured vs. Tennessee  in the opener (who wasn’t?), and didn’t regain his penchant for splash plays until the end of the year when an Allen pick six helped put the Steelers over the top vs. the Packers.

While Cortez Allen’s 2013 season was inconsistent, his 3 year totals see him out performing Lewis and are on par with Ike Taylor’s (note, the totals in the graphic above are for 3 years, not four.)

Prior to signing this contract, Allen was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of this season. As the off season began, Art Rooney II declared that the team would wait to extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract in favor of renewing other deals.

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