Running Back Depth is a Need, but Steelers Can (and Will) Do Better than Kalen Ballage

Running back depth, or lack thereof has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers during the latter part of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Just how bad has the problem been?

Well, consider that after their 2014 Divisional Playoff loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field, none of their top 3 running backs, neither Ben Tate, Josh Harris nor Dri Archer ever saw another NFL carry.

A year later, the Steelers went into the playoffs starting their 5th and 6th string running backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Thin running back depth hobbled the Steelers a year later in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, with Le’Veon Bell leaving early and DeAngelo Williams ineffective.

In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?

Kalen Ballage, Pittsburgh Steelers free agent

Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.

Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers

Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.

  • Here’s where memory plays tricks.

Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage

A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.

It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.

The point isn’t that Kalen Ballage isn’t even 2022’s version of Mewelde Moore, it’s that he’s not even Gary Russell.

Expect the Steelers to move on.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Resigning B.J. Finney Should Not Be a Steelers Priority in Free Agency

Munch’s Millionaires is what they called them. These were unheralded players that Mike Munchak mentored and molded into quality starting NFL lineman who cashed in on that coveted second contract.

Others, such as Chris Hubbard and Matt Feiler found greener pastures outside of Pittsburgh. B.J. Finney was once considered part of this group. And while he did get a second contract, he found that the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side of the NFL and was back with the Steelers in 2021. Will he remain there in 2022?

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers

B.J. Finney joined the Steelers as part of their 2015 Undrafted Rookie free agent class and although he did not survive the final cut, returned to the Steelers practice squad in late September of that year. He made the final cut a year later and from 2016 onward, B.J. Finney was a key part of the rotation on the interior line.

Over the next four seasons, Finney would start 13 games while appearing in a total of 59 contests, including the 2016 road game win over the Buffalo Bills where the Le’Veon Bell set the franchise single game rushing record.

The Steelers did not offer Finney a second contract during the 2020 off season, and he instead signed with Seattle, where he mainly played on special teams before getting traded to the Bengals. Ironically, his one game with the Bengals came in their 2020 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

  • After that, he finished the season on Cincinnati’s inactive.
  • The Steelers haven’t beaten the Bengals since, so maybe they were on to something.

Finney resigned with the Steelers during the 2021 off season, but only saw limited duty, despite a flurry of injures at tackle and later center. Finney did start the Steelers second loss to the Bengals but was injured in the following week’s win against the Ravens and ended the season on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

B.J. Finney has been with the Steelers organization for over a half decade. He knows the system, the coaches know him. While he might not be “starter capable” as some of Much’s other pupils, he can step in and play either guard or center.

That, given his low price tag makes it a win-win situation for all sides involved.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

The interior of the Steelers offensive line was as bad as it has been in a generation this past year. And B.J. Finney was not only not good enough to push any of the 3 starters, he wasn’t even the proverbial “Next man up.”

  • B.J. Finney is at the “What you see is what you get” point in his career.

His experience gives him and advantage, but he is on the wrong side of 30. Even though the Steelers have a young offensive line, they could still stand to get younger and certainly must get stronger.

You don’t do that with B.J. Finney.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

The Steelers have a bit of luxury here. No NFL team is going to wave a lot of money at B.J. Finney. The Steelers can go into free agency looking to add a guard and/or a tackle continue to add to that in the draft, and B.J. Finney will probably still be available in May if they need more depth.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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Did Le’Veon Bell Pave the Way for the Steelers Trade of Melvin Ingram to the Chiefs? Maybe.

Perhaps the best take away out of Stephen King’s On Writing is his argument that compelling stories are never scripted. Instead, they evolve through the actions of their characters.

  • And so it is with Pittsburgh Steelers blogs.

When the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram on July 19th, the article the photo that yours truly picked for the post discussing his signing was one of him tackling Le’Veon Bell in the 2015 game against the Chargers.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

As it turned out, it was quite a fitting photo, because it Le’Veon Bell may have blazed the trail that led the Steelers to trade Melvin Ingram to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 6th round pick after just 6 games in the Black and Gold.

When asked to explain the decision, Mike Tomlin conceded that “I enjoy working with Melvin. It just didn’t work out the way we envisioned, the way he envisioned.” Then he clarified, “And sometimes it happens in free agency and that’s really, you know, culturally, why we build our team primarily through the draft.”

  • Rumors have circulated for weeks that Ingram wanted out.

The Steelers had an offer from the Chiefs, but wanted to send him to the NFC. Ultimately they couldn’t. “What the team needs is first and foremost,” Tomlin insisted, before pivoting “Also, it’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages, so that’s good for the team as well.”

If the “hostages” and “volunteers” colocation sounds familiar (OK, it’s not a true collocation, but how many ESL teachers are gonna read this anyway?) it should.

Nearly 3 years ago, almost to the day, Mike Tomlin explained to ESPN’s Dianna Russini “We need volunteers, not hostages,” when asked about whether the Steelers needed Le’Veon Bell to end his holdout.

  • The decision confirms a shift the franchise’s policy and attitude in these situations.

Four summers ago Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell raised eyebrows when they suggested James Harrison was a candidate for the waiver wire. Social media decried the story as “click bait” but Harrison neither played nor practiced at St. Vincents. And when the season started, some Sundays he didn’t get a helmet and he seldom played when he did.

  • Much of this happened outside the public eye but privately James Harrison was furious and did little to hide it when the cameras weren’t rolling.

The Steelers of course cut James Harrison just before Christmas, the Patriots signed him, started him, Harrison got a few sacks on national TV and a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers suffered their worst public relations debacle since Chuck Noll’s “Franco Who?” comment that ended with the ghastly sight of Franco Harris wearing a blue No. 34 Seattle Seahawks jersey.

The Ingram trade depletes the depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith leaving the Steelers with only Derrek Tuszka and Taco Charlton was backups. An injury to either Watt or Highsmith could derail the Steelers season just as James Conner’s injury derailed the 2018 season.

But that’s a gamble the Steelers are willing to make in exchange for locker room harmony, which might be the lasting lesson that Le’Veon Bell left to the team.

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One Word Defines David DeCastro’s Steelers Career: Attitude

With David DeCastro’s Steelers career coming to an end it is time to assess his legacy. That can be tricky with offensive lineman, who don’t generate statistics to compile and compare. But that doesn’t matter with David DeCastro, because DeCastro defined himself with his attitude.

Every great player authors signature plays. Think:

Offensive lineman author signature plays too, but these by definition come in a supporting role. Alan Faneca’s block that swung Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL comes to mind. But each of those has something common: They all they shifted the outcome of playoff games at critical junctures.

David DeCastro’s signature play is unique because it came during the regular season and actually cost the Steelers 15 yards during a 2 minute drill!

David DeCastro, Eric Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Panthers

David DeCastro gets in Eric Reid’s face during the Steelers 2018 win over the Panthers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.

IT came on a balmy Sunday night during September 2014 in Carolina. The Steelers had opened the season with a nail biter win over the Browns and then gotten ripped apart by the Ravens. The Carolina Panthers were coming off of a 12-4 season and were seen as NFC contenders.

As half-time approached, the Steelers hung to a slim 6-3 lead thanks to two Shaun Suisham field goals. Ben Roethlisberger was running the two-minute drill and the Steelers were sniffing the Red Zone. Roethlisberger hit Justin Brown for a 4 yard gain.

Luke Kuechly tackled him. He stripped the ball from Brown after the whistle and held him down as he tried to get up. Then, when both got to their feet, Luke Kuechly pushed Brown, as if to remind him who was the biggest boy on the block.

  • David DeCastro saw it from across the field and was having NONE of it.

He crossed the distance and unloaded on Kuechly. The linebacker remained on his feet, but DeCastro had put him in his place. All this happened right in front of the official, who flagged DeCastro for 15 yards and essentially ended any chance of a touchdown. (Suisham did make a 45 yarder for a 9-6 half time lead.)

You call a 15 yarder at the 28 with 33 second to play a costly penalty? Fine, I’ll call it addition by subtraction.

  • It may have been the most important play authored by the offensive line during the Tomlin era.

Offensive line is one spot on the depth chart that transcends measurables. Sure, offensive lineman must be big. They need strength, a lot of strength. Agility is essential. But more than anything else, they need attitude. And they need a little streak of nasty. Because at their core, successful offensive lineman impose their will.

  • David DeCastro embodied it all on that one play.

Justin Brown was first year player and roster bubble baby who’d worked himself up from the practice squad. The Steelers cut him before the season’s end. Most fans didn’t who he was then let alone remember him today.

None of that mattered to David DeCastro. He made it clear to Kuechly, the Partners and the rest of the NFL that these Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t going to be intimated, they were going to be the intimidators.

  • To be generous, the Steelers offensive line had been a mess up until that point in the Tomlin era.

During those early years, the team’s strategy on offensive line was “Plug and Patch.” They’d sign guys and then cut them in the middle of their contract. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began moving away from that in 2010 by picking Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert in 2011 and DeCastro in 2014.

  • But DeCastro’s shove of Kuechly marks the moment when the offensive line turned a corner.

The late, legendary scribe Ivan Cole labeled the offensive line’s performance against the Panthers as “scary good.” Scary good it was. The game marked the last time that the Steelers had two 100 yard rushers in the same game, as Le’Veon Bell ran for 141 yards and LeGarrette Blount ran for 118 – in mop up time.

Sure, Bell and Blount had runs of 81 and 50 yards, but that’s the point: The offensive line was in full road grading mode that night, open holes that you could drive trucks through.

  • From that point on until the 2019 season the Steelers offensive line wasn’t just a team strength but one of the NFL’s best.

David DeCastro was one of the foundations of that group and attitude was the difference maker that DeCastro brought to the table.

 

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

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

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

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

  • That appears far less likely now.

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

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

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

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

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

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

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

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

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

Seriously.

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

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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

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