Like characters in a story, every NFL player’s career has an arc. Follow a player’s arc and most of the time it reveals a lot about the individual’s talent, dedication and character. Just think of Jerome Bettis‘“face of the franchise” career journey and you’ll see what I mean.
Yet sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes a player’s career arc reveals more about the team than the player. Such is the case with J.C. Hassenauer who is about to become an Restricted Free Agent.
Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP
Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers
After watching undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Hassenauer spend 2018 going on an off the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad, the Steelers signed him in the spring of 2019 and he made the practice squad earning a promotion to the active roster for the season finale against Baltimore.
In 2022 Hassenauer only logged 46 snaps with the offense, but he did log 71 special teams snaps, a slight increase from two years before.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
The Steelers know what they have in J.C. Hassenauer. He brings position flexibility to the interior of the offensive line.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
J.C. Hassenauer isn’t going to keep any opposing defensive line coach up at night. Position flexibility is nice, but is it really worth $2.627 million? For a guy that in his third year play 46 snaps? You’re kidding right?
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer
At first glance the J.C. Hassenauer’s career arch of starting 7 games at two positions in 2020 and 2021 and then failing get on the field in year 3 seems pretty damning. But in reality, this reveals more about the sorry state of those Steelers offensive lines than it does about J.C. Hassenauer.
J.C. Hassenauer has some serviceable skills and an ability to step in and play or even start of a pinch at guard or center. Kind of a modern day Doug Legursky lite.
But even if that is true, is Hassenauer worth $2.627 million restricted free agent tender?
Probably not. Even without thinking about who the Steelers might draft, Kendrick Green brings the same position flexibility at a far lower salary cap hit. The Steelers should most certainly bring Hassenauer to St. Vincents, but they can do so for far less than 2.6 million.
Brian Flores was head coaching material, having just been fired from the Miami Dolphins largely because – as Flores argues, he refused to tank for draft position. So there was a bit of a question over whether Flores would find a cold shoulder from the rest of the NFL.
But the Cleveland Browns leapt to interview Flores for their defensive coordinator spot. And that was followed by several other interviews, including a 2nd interview with the Arizona Cardinals.
So instead of a cold shoulder, Flores found a warm embrace. Steelers fans may have held out hope that Mike Tomlin and/or Art Rooney II could have convinced Flores to stay in Pittsburgh for another year. But the reality is that moving into the Vikings defensive coordinator chair provides Flores a better path to a head coaching job.
Flores Made an Impact in Pittsburgh
Judging the impact of an assistant coach from the outside in is difficult. Sure, when an assistant does a great job such as Mike Munchak their influence is obvious. But the reverse isn’t always true.
The 2013 Steelers opened the season 2-6 and a horrendous offensive line was the main culprit. Yet they fought back and kept their playoff hopes alive until a blown call in overtime swung victory and the final playoff spot to San Diego Chargers. Improved offensive line play had driven the ’13 Steelers surge during the 2nd half of the season.
Other times the influence of an assistant is more subtle. Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach following he 2018 season and announced that Keith Butler would take over his responsibilities. Fans snickered an jeered Butler’s apparent demotion.
Yet under Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally began to play like a first round draft pick.
So if it is hard to pinpoint Brian Flores’ influence on the Steelers 2022 defense, there’s no question that he made his mark. And that mark is helping turn around a unit that was one of the worst run defenses in franchise history into a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top ten.
Brian Flores’ departure marks the first coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff this off season, as Tomlin has already decided to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Jerry Olsavsky remains as inside linebackers coach while Denzel Martin is on staff as assistant outside linebackers coach.
Mike Tomlin likes to promote from within although his best coaching choices have been veterans, like Flores and Munchak, that he’s brought in from the outside.
You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.
What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.
Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.
In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.
As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.
Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.
Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.
Believe it or not.
I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.
The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).
File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.
Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.
Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.
What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.
At least youth was on its side, though, right?
Not if you were Dotson and Green.
Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.
Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.
As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.
It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.
And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.
Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.
Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.
Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?
What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisbergerat quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?
Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.
James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.
Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.
The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.
Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.
There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.
For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”
Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?
Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.
Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters
The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.
Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.
To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.
Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.
Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups
The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard
The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.
The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.
The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.
But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.
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.”)
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 Alualuand 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 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:
Honestly, nobody can say what was going through Roethlisberger’s head at that moment. Perhaps he really did think that might have been it for him. Maybe he was crying over what he assumed would be the final game for his long-time center, the great Maurkice Pouncey, who was seen commiserating with Roethlisberger at the close of that postseason debacle.
Perhaps, like most Steelers fans everywhere, Roethlisberger was simply showing his disappointment over the finality of what once looked like a magical 2020 Steelers campaign, one that saw the team get out to a franchise-record 11-0 start. Of course, we all know how the 2020 regular season began to spiral out of control last December and didn’t stop spiraling until Pittsburgh was one and done in the playoffs.
Looking back on last year, it really was bizarre, wasn’t it?
Thanks to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of NFL stadiums were empty for actual games last year. It was such a sterile environment, one that most players, coaches and even the fans watching on television had little choice but to adapt to. But now that I’ve had a chance to revisit last year,
I can’t tell you how happy I am to see Heinz Field — and most other NFL stadiums — rocking once more.
And for that reason, I’m glad Roethlisberger decided to come back for this presumed final season as an NFL quarterback. It might seem corny, but he needed to feel the love of the fans one last time. He needed to hear the cheers and experience the tears, not just from himself but from the faithful that have watched him do his thing since the Steelers 2004 season.
There are fans in their 20s who have never known another Steelers quarterback other than Roethlisberger. They don’t remember all the mediocre ones that came along after Terry Bradshaw. Heck, they might not even know or care one bit about Bradshaw and his legacy.
For them, it’s all about Big Ben. He’s a god in football pads as far as they’re concerned.
He needed to say goodbye to them, to all of us, in person in 2021. And not just Steelers fans, Roethlisberger needed to say goodbye to the folks in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore. He needed to hear those barks from the Dawg Pound one more time and whatever it is they do in Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Most importantly, Roethlisberger needed to hear the roar of those folks as he ran out of the tunnel at Heinz Field. Can you imagine your last time out of your home tunnel being met with dead silence thanks to a pandemic? You talk about a truly surreal end to a career.
With four games left to go in the 2021 regular season, it remains to be seen how Ben Roethlisberger’s career will end with the Steelers.
But, at the very least, we’re going to have a chance to say goodbye. We needed to say goodbye to one another the right way.
Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.
But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.
So what can we expect?
J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today
Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One
Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.
That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.
First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:
Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
The running game disappeared
Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group
Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.
When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:
Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?
Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.
So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.
The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.
After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.
But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.
The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.
Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.
But does change equal improvement?
That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.
Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.
As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.
It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?
Wimp Out Disclaimer
After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”
The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.
The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.
You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.
The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.
The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.
Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.
Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.
With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.
But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.
Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports
1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?
The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.
That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.
Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”
That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.
But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.
2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?
With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.
With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.
The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.
3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?
In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.
The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.
It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.
As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.
4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?
Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.
The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.
But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.
Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.
5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?
Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via
IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.
It really is that simple.
Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.
This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)
Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.
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 gets in Eric Reid’s face during the Steelers 2018 win over the Panthers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.
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.
Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.
The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.
After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.
Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.
As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.
Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review
Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.
In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.
It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.
Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.
The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.