5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

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.

Devin Bush,

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, Mason Rudolph

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.

 

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One World 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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Troy Polamalu Picking Dick LeBeau as His Hall of Fame Presenter = Pittsburgh Perfection

Legendary Steelers safety, Troy Polamalu, took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce that he has selected another legend, his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to present him at his Hall of Fame induction this August in Canton, Ohio.

  • Of course, Polamalu chose LeBeau.

I wish I would have been smart enough to see this coming, but it just goes to show you how stupid I am for not spotting the obvious this whole time.

Polamalu is the first inductee out of a group of Steelers’ defenders that helped the organization win its fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But Dick LeBeau was going to be the presenter regardless of who made it into Canton first.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame, Larry Foote

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu in December 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today.

In fact, even though most are long-shots to join Polamalu, if any or all of the players that took LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense and made it famous were to get that call for football immortality — including James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Ike Taylor — there’s no doubt that every single one of them would pick LeBeau to be their presenter. Heck, by the time he got through doing all that presenting, LeBeau would have enough training for a second career as a motivational speaker.

It’s amazing how much universal love there is for Dick LeBeau, who was already a popular figure with his players during his first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s under head coach Bill Cowher.

  • The late Kevin Greene, a big and tough football player if there ever was one, wasn’t shy about expressing his love for LeBeau.
Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

But it was during LeBeau’s second stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 2004-2014 when the love affair between him and his players really became a sight to behold.

It became a tradition around the holidays for LeBeau to read the classic, “The Night Before Christmas” to his players–and those big, tough football players sat there and listened like little kids!

The next time you hear a former player say anything bad about LeBeau, it will be the first time. And if word ever got back to the likes of Harrison and Brett Keisel, I’d hate to be that former player.

Speaking of Harrison, perhaps the biggest, baddest defender LeBeau ever coached, he once broke down in tears on national television while talking about his former defensive coordinator. This was back in 2013, months after Harrison was released by Pittsburgh and then signed with the Bengals. No player ever forgets LeBeau, the man they affectionately called Coach Dad during his second stay in Pittsburgh.

In the lead-up to the 2005 regular-season finale against the team that he spent his playing days with–the Detroit Lions–every single one of his defenders bought and wore a No. 44 throwback Lions jersey in LeBeau’s honor.

The kind of connection LeBeau often developed with his much-younger players was rare then and it’s rare now. I guess that’s because LeBeau treated his players like men and genuinely cared about them. He didn’t command respect through words and a presence; he earned it through his actions and the ability to teach them.

In typical Troy Polamalu fashion, he couldn’t have been more humble when he revealed the name of his presenter, Tweeting, “Can you please tell them that all I did was follow you…#eachoneteachone

Sure, LeBeau was a great leader, but in my opinion, it wasn’t because he got people to follow him; he was a great leader because he got his players to believe in the same defensive philosophies that he did.

Maybe it’s fitting that this kind, gentle man once described his zone-blitz scheme as “Tweaking someone’s nose while you go behind them and kick them in the tail.”

The zone-blitz scheme was all about deception, but it was still a rough and tough defense, one that allowed his players to wreak havoc on opponents week in and week out.

I’ll leave you with one more quote about LeBeau courtesy of a 2006 ESPN.com article and courtesy of another player who deeply admired him, Kimo von Oelhoffen:

“Probably the best man, and not just one of the best coaches, I’ve ever met in my life. The things I’ve learned from him about football and about life, I’ll cherish forever, really. Every minute you’re around him, believe me, is a minute where you’ve benefited in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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

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

  • And now we can finally assign draft grades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Actually, far from it.

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

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

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

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

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

But appearances can be deceiving. As our grades reveal:

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Artie Burns the Burn Out

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

  • Artie Burns looked and felt like a reach.

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

  • Unfortunately, Artie Burns burned out after that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Round: Javon Hargrave – The Grave Digger Finds Gold

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

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

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

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

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

5th Round: Travis Feeney. Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Final Grade for the Steelers 2016 Draft Class

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

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Steelers Draft Tre Norwood, Cornerback, Safety, “Swiss Army Knife” in 7th Round

With their first pick in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft the Steelers bolstered their secondary by drafting cornerback/safety Tre Norwood, who played his college ball at Oklahoma.

The NFL’s draft site labeled Tre Norwood as a cornerback the Steelers announced him as a safety, but Mike Tomlin called him a “Swiss Army Knife/utility back/safety.”

  • The Sooners listed him as a “defensive back.”

Early in his career he played cornerback but gravitated to safety later in his career. As far as it concerns the Steelers, it really doesn’t matter – Pittsburgh is desperate for backups at both cornerback and safety.

Tre Norwood

Steelers 7th round pick Tre Norwood. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Tre Norwood Video Highlights

The 6 foot 192 pounder Norwood caught the attention of scouts thanks to his ball skills, as he intercepted 5 passes during the 2020 season, tying for 3rd national and leading the Big 12. Here’s a look at his highlight tape:

Looks good. He won’t find NFL quarterbacks throwing passes that are that easy to pick off, but he does know how to catch a ball.

How Tre Norwood Fits in with Steelers

The Steelers look to field a strong front four in their secondary, with Cameron Sutton, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The team is likewise high on James Pierre as a number 3 corner.

That latter of has proven nothing in 2 years in the NFL and Antoine Brooks is untested. But at the end of the day, Tre Norwood, the Swiss Army Knife, is a 7th round pick. 7th round picks can make a difference as rookies – just look at Kelvin Beachum in 2012. And in 1992 8th round pick Darren Perry won the starting job.

  • But the best case scenario for Tre Norwood is for him to contribute on special teams.

Hopefully, they’ll be no demand for his services in 2021 beyond that. Welcome to Steelers Nation Tre Norwood.

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Steelers Draft Dan Moore, Jr. in 4th Round. Tackle from Texas A&M

He arrived a day (or two) later than many expected and a few fans demanded, but the Steelers drafted Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle from Texas A&M with their first fourth round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

  • It is almost as if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are following our Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

The 2021 Draft Needs Matrix rated the Steelers needs going into the draft as running back, tackle, center and tight end. Had we heeded Tony Defeo’s rating, tight end would have come in as the Steelers 2nd greatest area of need.

(Editorial note to self: Never debate the Defeoman’s logic.)

Seriously and thankfully, neither Colbert nor Tomlin has ever set eyes on this site, and Steelers fans should be thankful for that, because this scribe’s first reaction to hearing of the Ben Roethlisberger pick back in 2004 was “This is a mistake.”

  • Hopefully the decision to bring Dan Moore Jr. to Pittsburgh is not a mistake.

Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm wasted little time in doubling down on his decision to draft Don Moore declaring, “I don’t view him as a project at all. We’ll throw him into the mix as far as competing.”

Dan Moore Jr., Steelers 4th round picks 2021 NFL Draft

Steelers 2021 4th round picks Dan Moore. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Dan Moore Jr. Video Highlights

Dan Moore Jr. stands at 6’5” and weighs in at 311 pounds. Played through his senior year at Texas A&M where he made 36 straight starts starting with his sophomore year. Moore also got a start during his freshman year, although that came at guard.

Here is a look at his highlight reel:

Looks impressive.

How Dan Moore Fits into Steelers Offensive Line

While there might not be much precedent for the Steelers starting a fourth round rookie at tackle, at his pre-draft press conference Mike Tomlin confirmed that Chukwuma Okorafor was penciled in to start at left tackle but made no bones about how temporary that status is.

  • And lest that sound like bluster, last year’s fourth round pick, Kevin Dotson, came in and started several games as a guard.

The addition of Dan Moore gives the Steelers four offensive tackles, and helps bolster an offensive line that has been seen a steep decline over the past two seasons.

  • Drafting an offensive tackle in the 4th round doesn’t signal a dramatic shift of direction, but it’s a start.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Dan Moore.

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Steelers Draft Pat Freiermuth, 2nd Round 2021, as Nittany Lion Return to Tight End Depth Chart

Well, I guess we know why the Steelers didn’t sign Jesse James, although its clear that someone on the South Side was had their ear tuned to the purr of the Nittnay Lions.

One night after playing it strictly by the book in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers departed from the script and drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second pick.

  • Well, maybe that’s a little strong. The move should not come as a surprise, as tight end is a clear area of need.

Our Steelers Draft Needs Matrix rated it a 4th level priority, and staff writer Tony Defeo marked tight end even higher at High need. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac went as far as to suggest the Steelers would draft Pat Freiermuth.

Still the expectation was that the Steelers would stick to the offensive line during round two, drafting either a center or an offensive tackle. However, two of the tackles Pittsburgh purportedly coveted were off the board before they could pick, and Kevin Colbert stuck to his pledge not to sacrifice draft picks to move up.

Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts explained the decision to pick Freiermuth: “He’s going to be a kind of throwback tight end. He can play different positions, do multiple things. His position flexibility will allow us to do a lot of different things.”

And the Steelers do need a tight end who can “do a lot of different things.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers second round draft pick 2021

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth out foxing Maryland defenders. Photo Credit Abby Drey, via Central Daily

Pat Freiermuth Video Highlights

At 6-5, 251 pound and having worn 87 for Penn State, Pat Freiermuth certainly fits the bill of a two way, throwback tight end. Here’s a look at his tape.

He certainly has good hands and definitely does not shy away from after the catch contact. Doing it in the NFL won’t be quite as easy as it was doing it in the NCAA, but he offers a lot of promise. It would be nice to see video on his blocking, but I guess that doesn’t generated page views.

How Pat Freiermuth Fits into the Steelers Scheme

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers have been wandering in the wilderness at tight end since Heath Miller. Heath Miller was a picture of dependability in the passing game, a strong blocker and a quiet force who led by example in the locker room.

Since Miller departed, Pittsburgh has thrown money at Ladarius Green, whose ankle and concussion injuries limited him to a handful of games and qualified him as one of the Steelers all-time free agent busts.

They traded for Vance McDonald, who was injured most of his first year in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald had a strong season in 2018, was inconsistent in 2019, and used sporadically in 2020. Things got so bad in 2019 that Kevin Colbert had to trade for Nick Vannett and Mike Tomlin started him that very week. (Nick Vannett played well in that first game, then disappeared.)

For a while there, it looked liked Xavier Grimble might have worked himself up from the practice squad to a competent number 2 tight end, but that was not to be either.

They signed Eric Ebron as a free agent last spring, and while Ebron did some nice things, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking skills are non-existent and he had trouble holding on to the ball. As for Zach Gentry he hasn’t done much other than get injured.

Suffice to say, Pat Freiermuth doesn’t even need to complete the run test at St. Vincents to immediately upgrade the Steelers depth chart at tight end.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Pat Freiermuth.

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Needs @ Outside Linebackers, Thin Depth Behind Watt & Highsmith

The Steelers boasted one of the best outside-linebacker duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, as both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 49 quarterback sacks. With But Dupree departing for the Titans as a much-sought-after free agent, where do the Steelers stand at the position in terms of starters and depth heading into the 2021 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in and find out.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, heads into his fifth season as not only the Steelers best linebacker; he’s their best player and most valuable asset. Furthermore, he’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, despite coming up short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons.

With 49.5 career sacks to his name, Watt is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ all-time mark of 84.5 set by the legendary James Harrison. But Watt’s pass-rush prowess can’t just be measured in sacks; the pressure he puts on opposing linemen and quarterbacks is non-stop game-in and game-out. In fact, some credited Watt’s presence with the sudden career uptick experienced by Bud Dupree starting in 2019. Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, struggled with injuries and consistency through four seasons before coming on strong to close out his Steelers’ career.

With that in mind, maybe Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte a year ago and the presumed replacement for Dupree as the weak-side starting outside linebacker can also benefit from playing alongside Watt. Alex Highsmith started five games in 2020 and recorded 48 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. Highsmith also notched a game-changing interception in an important road win vs. the Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium.

Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Backups

To say the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker is sparse would be an understatement. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi left as a free agent, leaving the newly acquired Cassius Marsh, a 28-year old journeyman originally drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks back in 2014, as the top backup.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart is Christian Kuntz, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of nearby Duquesne University.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftI believe there is optimism that Highsmith can continue to improve and make a huge enough leap from his first to his second year that Pittsburgh should have itself a fine replacement for Dupree in 2021.

  • But, again, the lack of depth has to be a major concern heading into the draft.

While it didn’t draw much discussion, in a normal year, the Steelers likely would have found a way to keep Ola Adeniyi, who if nothing else would have secured a proven special teams contributor who was familiar with the Steelers defense. 

As the Steelers depth chart at outside linebackers stands now, one has to wonder if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin won’t be tempted to hold Invincible like open tryouts just to fill out the roster.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Pittsburgh does need to improve depth and perhaps do it with someone who can develop into a future starter so the priority of outside linebacker for the Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be: Moderate

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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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