Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Steelers Trade of Kendrick Green Highlights the Danger and Unavoidability of Drafting for Need

The Steelers decision to ship Kendrick Green off to the Houston Texans for a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft is a pure admission of failure on the part of the front office.

  • Third round picks are supposed to grow into starters.
Kendrick Green, Kendrick Green Fullback

Steelers guard/center takes reps at fullback. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Kendrick Green’s trajectory with the Steelers went in the opposite direction. He started immediately, got benched late in his first year, stood in street clothes his second year, and was dealt at fire sale prices in his third year.

  • NFL teams don’t give up on third round picks so easily. The Steelers offer no exception.

The Steelers gave the boot to just one year Bruce Davis after drafting him third in the 2008 NFL Draft. Two Septembers, they also cut rookie Kraig Urbik, but that move was a miscalculation on their part, forced by the need to carry Charlie Batch on the 2010 roster.

As the stories of Curtis Brown, Sean Spence and Senquez Golson reveal, the Steelers normally bend over backwards to give a third round second, third and fourth chances to make the team.

And in a sense, the Steelers did that with Green. They moved him to guard in 2022, sort of giving him a Redshirt year as he was inactive for all 17 games. In 2023 they gave him work at both center and guard and even repped him at fullback.

Mike Tomlin singled him out after the Bills game, making no bones about the fact that his errant snaps to Mason Rudolph were unacceptable. Green saw action at both center and guard in the win over the Falcons, and in this observer’s opinion he did pretty well.

  • Pat Meyer, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin reached a different conclusion.

Thus ends the Kendrick Green experiment, after over a little over two years and 15 games. For a franchise that boasts a lineage at center that begins in the ‘60s with Ray Mansfield, dominates the 70’s with Mike Webster, continues into throughout the 1990’s with Dermontti Dawson and extends into the 21st century with Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey, Kendrick Green represents a tremendous disappointment.

But if Kendrick Green’s footnote in the Definitive History of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be short, his story leaves a lasting lesson:

  • Drafting for need is dangerous. But sometimes its unavoidable.

Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement hit the Steelers at the worst possible time. Neither the coaches nor the front office were expecting it, particularly since Ben Roethlisberger returned for one more go.

Not only did the Steelers need to find a center, COVID-19 had plunged Pittsburgh into salary cap hell, cutting off free agency as a means to signing a new center. That left the draft. The Steelers tried to stick to their board picking Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth in the 1st and 2nd rounds (cue the arguments that the Steelers should have taken Creed Humphrey before Najee Harris) but their hand was essentially forced by the third round, when they took Green.

You can argue that they were in the same position in the 4th round, and were essentially forced to pick Dan Moore. More, like Green struggled on, but he starts his third year by keeping 2023’s first round pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

So sometimes you can get away with drafting for need. But as The Wire’s Omar Little reminded us, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Yep, the Steelers missed on Kendrick Green.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center & Guard – Is Pittsburgh Set?

Let’s face it. Offensive line isn’t “Sexy.” An offense might need to field five lineman, but the other six men are said to play “The skill positions.” Even then, interior offensive lineman get short shrift.

Quibble you do?

Take a look at how NFL teams prioritize Center and Guard in the draft and in how they spend their salary cap. Heck, offensive tackles get Hollywood movies made about them. Try making On the Blind Side about a guard.

True as that may be, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more interior offensive lineman in the Hall of Fame, see Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca, than they do wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth).

During the last two springs both Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan have invested heavily in interior offensive line positions. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore them in the draft? Let’s take a look.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The leader of the Steelers offensive line is unquestionably James Daniels. Kevin Colbert signed him last spring to a 3 year 26 million dollar contract, after Daniels had finished four years as a starter in Chicago.

James Daniels not only leads the team in terms of talent and salary, but also in terms of attitude. When the Buffalo Bills hit Kenny Pickett late, Daniels wasted no time in defending his quarterback – just what you need to see from your top offensive lineman.

Last year Colbert also signed Mason Cole to play center, after Cole had played for 3 years in Arizona and 1 Minnesota. Cole helped shore up a position that had been a weakness was solid all season.
Here’s where it gets interesting.

Officially speaking, Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starting guard. Kevin Dotson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and while he missed games in both 2019 and 2020, the Steelers line was certainly stronger with him playing. Dotson fortunately played all 17 games in 2022.

But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Andy Wedil from going out and signing Isaac Seumalo, who brings 7 years of NFL experience with the Philadelphia Eagles totaling 81 games and 60 starts, including 17 last season. The money the Steelers are paying Seumalo makes it clear that they’re not bringing him to Pittsburgh to be a backup.

Steelers Guard and Center Depth Chart: The Backups

When talking about depth at guard and center it would remise not to point out that both James Daniels and Isaac Seumalo have some experience at center. As does Nate Herbig, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from the New York Jets (although he is another ex-Philadelphia Eagle.)

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers also have Kendrick Green, their 2022 3rd round pick who was their starting center for most of 2022. Green also has position flexibility at guard, and many feel he’s more naturally suited there.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

“You can never have enough good offensive lineman” the old adage goes. And that’s a sound philosophy. But the Steelers have three if not four starter-capable guards, a former 3rd round pick, and an established starter at Center.

And oh, by the way, 3 of those guards have experience playing center. And the Steelers only have 7 picks this year. Therefore, their need at both center and guard going into the 2023 draft should be considered as Negligible.

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Former Steelers Personnel Director Dick Haley, 1937-2023, Embodied the “Steelers Way”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley passed away at the age of 85 on Friday March 10, 2023. Haley, along with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr. architected the most dominant dynasty that the NFL has ever seen.

In many ways Dick Haley’s story is the antidote to the “me” centeredness that plagues modern narratives of organizational success.

Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Steeler Training Camp 1991

Dick Haley and Chuck Noll at St. Vincents in 1991. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via FOX News.

To hone in on what I’m talking, just think of how the smart advice to job hunters today is to be ready to show the value that you added to company and to always use the word “I” aned never “we” during interviews. Scaling up a bit, think of how the story of every successful tech startup gets tethered to the biography of entrepreneur who gets credit for it all. If you doubt this then ask if the names “Jobs,” “Musk,” “Gates” or “Brandsen” ring a bell.

For the last 50 years the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in professional sports, and it certainly is tempting to apply this same “who is the singular genius behind it all” mentality to them.

  • Tempting, but ultimately unsuccessful.

I once asked Ed Bouchette during a Post-Gazette on-line chat, “Who was most responsible for the scouting success of the 70’s? Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn or Dick Haley.” Bouchette’s response was unequivocal: Each one of them always insisted that it was a team effort.

How refreshing.

Refreshing, if not surprising, because this emphasis of team over the individual is the very essence of the Steelers Way.

Dick Haley’s Role in Architecting the Steelers Dynasty

Art Rooney Jr. professionalized the Steelers scouting organization. Bill Nunn used his connections with the HSB network to give the Steelers “Ace in the Hole” on draft day. But Dick Haley’s contributions were equally critical.

Sure, Rooney spotted Jack Lambert pulling cinders out of his skin while practicing on Kent State parking lot, just as Nunn got near-exclusive access to John Stallworth’s tapes from Alabama A&M. But Dick Haley validated the evaluations of both players.

John Stallworth, Super Bowl XIII, Steelers vs Cowboys, Lynn Swann, Benny Barnes, Charlie Waters

Super Bowl XIII: John Stallworth is headed to the end zone. Benny Barnes and Charlie Waters can only look on. Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images via FanSided

Art Rooney introduced the use of computers, making the Steelers one of the first NFL teams to bring IT into the scouting department. But Dick Haley balanced the quantitative with the qualitative by trusting his eyes.

As he explained to Pittsburgh Sports‘ Ron Lippock in 2012, “Yeah…I say it often I know – ‘Don’t tell me how fast or big a player is, just tell me how good he is.’ Just big and fast won’t work. Big, fast and good….we’ll take that player!”

He further detailed to Lippock, “Lambert was a good example. He was only 202 pounds in training camp. He was 6’5″. Ham was 209 pounds. Webster was only 250 pounds – tell Webster he wasn’t big enough.”

The results of this team driven approach to scouting speak for themselves:

  • 4 Super Bowls in 6 years
  • 73 Pro Bowl selections during the 70’s
  • 2 Super Bowl victories over a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, the team to accomplish that
  • The 1974 Draft yielding 4 Hall of Famers plus 1 undrafted rookie free agent Hall of Famer
  • 10 Hall of Famers

Dick Haley’s role in architecting that dynasty should be enough to earn him a spot in Canton alongside Bill Nunn (Art Rooney Jr. belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.) But Haley’s contribution to the Steelers legacy extends beyond the 70’s. And since its seldom discussed elsewhere we’ll do it here.

Steelers of the 80’s: Friction Between Coaching and Scouting = Stagnation

Business analysts love to talk about “process.” And Pittsburgh’s process for building the dynasty of the 70’s was simple: Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and other Steelers scouts would evaluate prospects and build the draft board, and Chuck Noll would draft the players.

  • Peek back at the bullet points above to see how well it worked.

But then in 1976 the NFL moved the draft from just after the Super Bowl to March. In theory the extra time should have helped an organization like the Steelers.

  • Instead, the exact opposite occurred.

The increased time allowed Chuck Noll to start micromanaging the process. He started challenging draft board rankings. He got his assistant coaches more involved in scouting. As Art Rooney Jr, declared in his book Ruanaidh, some of them weren’t up to it.

The organization also began to outthink itself. They’d pass on guys whom they’d rated highly thinking, “How’s he gonna beat out Stallworth or Lynn Swann?” or “Is this kid really gonna push Greenwood or Mean Joe for playing time?”

David Little, Mel Blount, Marcus Allen, 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs

David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen

At its best, that led to the Steelers trying to replace guys like Lambert and Ham with the likes of David Little and Bryan Hinkle. At it its worst it produced draft picks like Darryl Sims.

  • That created tension and communication dysfunction between Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll.

By the 1986 season tension got so bad that Dan Rooney had to make a decision, and he fired his brother, leaving Dick Haley as head of scouting.

Haley’s Role in Building the “Blitzburgh” Teams of the ‘90s

The quick and easy take away from Dan Rooney’s decision to fire his brother is to look at what happened next and say, “Well, that I didn’t work.” After all, Chuck Noll only won one more playoff game (but man, it was a heck of a win) followed by deeply disappointing campaigns in 1990 and 1991.

  • However, communication did improve between scouting and coaching, for a while at least.

In both 1987 and 1988 Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers in the form of Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. And while the Steelers did need a lot of luck to land Woodson, those weren’t isolated examples.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The Steelers 1987 draft also delivered Thomas Everett, Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd and Merril Hoge. 1988 brought John Jackson to Pittsburgh. The Steelers 1989 draft featured Carnell Lake, Jerrol Williams, D.J. Johnson, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig.

And it is true that by 1990 some of the same communication breakdowns between scouting and coaching resumed, but even those drafts delivered players like  Justin Strzelczyk, Neil O’Donnell and Ernie Mills who helped the 1995 Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX.

Dick Haley left the Steelers after Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe to Director of Football Operations when Chuck Noll retired. Haley worked as the New York Jets Director of Player Personnel from 1992 to 2000, and then served as their General Manager during 2000 and 2001.

But even if Dick Haley left Pittsburgh in 1992, his finger prints are just as much a part of the success first part of the Cowher Era as they are of the first Super Bowl Era of 1970s.

No, when they write the story of Super Bowl XXX, they don’t list a tally of players from the Dick Haley era just as they don’t do a tally of Tom Donahoe players on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII squads. Nor should they.

  • Because each front office executive’s success = the Steelers success.

Indeed, the late Dick Haley was a walking embodiment of “The Steelers Way.” May he rest in peace.

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DeMarvin Leal’s Right. The Steelers 2022 Rookie Class Will Be “Scary.” But Will It Be “Scary Good” or Just Scary?

Steelers.com did a profile on rookie DeMarvin Leal this week where Leal spoke at length about the Steelers 2022 rookie class. Looking to the future Leal made an eye catching comment:

For a rookie class to be thrown into the fire that brings confidence. Looking back at year one, looking at the film, we know what we can do. We know we can do better. Going into year two it feels like it’s going to be scary.

Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers 2022 Draft class

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens celebrate. Photo Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune

Yes, the future of the Steelers 2022 draft class will be scary. Now, is it “scary good” or just scary? If that sounds like a strange question lets take a quick quiz on some notable past Steelers rookie classes.

To make things fun I’ve scrambled their chronological order. Here goes:

A. By midseason 3 rookies cracked the starting lineup helping spark a rally of a defense that had been struggling. The rally continued until sputtering out in the AFC Championship.

B. 2 rookies were season-long starters, 1 got spot duty, the Steelers activated a 4th late in the season to boost the defense. The defense melt down anyway as the Steelers suffered one of their biggest playoff upsets ever.

C. 4 rookies started from the season’s start, another for 1 half of the season due to injury and four more saw extensive time as this Steelers team “shocked the world” with a Wild Card upset of a rival on the road and was only a bad snap and a dropped pass away from the AFC Championship.

D. This draft class was declared DOA by one of the best in the business. 1 rookie won a starting job due to injury. Another rotated with a decorated veteran. An undrafted rookie earned a sport and started 1 game. Two other rookies did special teams and spot duty on this Steelers Super Bowl team.

So, if you were building a franchise which Steelers rookie class would you pick? You’d probably pick C. If you’d lean into your salary cap savvy and grab “A” thinking there’d be no way you could get all those guys from C to 2nd contracts.

Groups B and D would be a toss up as to which one you wanted less, but maybe you’d lean towards B because at least that group had two full season starters.

And based on how those Steelers draft/rookie classes looked at the end of their respective years, those would be the wise choices. But draft classes do not mature equally.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Just look at Groups A and B. Group A is the Steelers 2016 draft class, Group B is the Steelers 2017 draft class. At the end of their rookie years, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave looked like solid picks, if not steals given how late the Steelers were drafting them. And while T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster had great rookie years, James Conner had done nothing and Cam Sutton was a question mark.

  • Which draft class would you take today?

Groups C and D are more interesting yet. Group C is the 1989 Steelers draft class and Group D is the 1974 Steelers Draft/rookie class.

At some point, when the 1989 Steelers were shocking the NFL, some TV commentator actually compared their draft class to 1974. Although I’m old enough to remember that, I was too young to understand the comparison at the time.

Even if I had, I’d have agreed, because those rookies clearly contributed to their turn around. But, as I’ve written before, the 1989 draft did deliver some gems, but they came with a lot of fool’s gold. Case in point: That bad snap and that dropped pass that doomed the ’89 Steelers came at the hands of rookies.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV

In 1974 the Steelers authored the greatest draft in history, picking Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster with Donnie Shell arriving as an undrafted rookie free agent. Yet Lambert was the only full time starter on that Super Bowl team.

The takeaway from this Steelers draft history lesson isn’t to open a can of buzz kill on DeMarvin Leal’s praise for his fellow rookies.

Far from it. Kenny Pickett showed a lot of poise. George Pickens flashed something special. Leal and Mark Robinson came on strong late in the year, but neither came on as strongly as Connor Heyward. Calvin Austin shows potential.

The 2022 Steelers draft class has given us many reasons to be excited. But let’s temper that excitement with the understanding that drafts take time to develop and that rookies only really succeed when they can sustain a strong start.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

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, Steelers vs Broncos

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.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

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.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

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.

 

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Steelers Represented Well in The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. Troy Aikman? He Got Screwed

With the Steelers bye week upon us let’s delve into something that there simply wasn’t time for during the off season, namely The Athletic’s NFL Top 100.

The Athletic kicked off their series on July 8th with Derrick Brooks at 100 and closed it on September 8th with, you guessed it, Tom Brady at number 1.

  • Overall, the series was an interesting and ambitious effort.

And like most Steelers fans my focus was to see how well (or poorly) the Black and Gold fared. Fortunately, the Steelers did well, landing 8 players on the list:

98. Dermontti Dawson
71. Mel Blount
69. Terry Bradshaw
57. Mike Webster
52. Jack Ham
37. Jack Lambert
26. Rod Woodson
14. Joe Greene

(Technically you could argue the Steelers have 9, as Bobby Layne made the list at 89 and Layne played 5 seasons in Pittsburgh.)

Sure, one can quibble (as many did) over Troy Polamalu not making it while Ed Reed did. One could also protest Franco Harris’ absence. (Few did, even though Franco still owns several Super Bowl records and of course authored the Immaculate Reception, greatest play in the history of the sport.)

  • On the flip side, naysayers could (and did) object to Bradshaw’s inclusion.

But no matter how you cut it, the Athletic’s writers clearly give the Steelers the respect they’ve earned.

The same cannot be said, however, for Troy Aikman.

Levon Kirkland, Troy Aikman, Kevin Greene, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30,

Levon Kirkland after sacking Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A Steelers Fan Takes up for Troy Aikman? Yes.

Troy Aikman remains only one of four quarterbacks to win 3 Super Bowls having pulled off that feat in 4 years failed to make The Athletic’s NFL Top 100 list.

This is insane.

It might seem odd for a Steelers fan to take up for Troy Aikman, let alone one who insisted that the ’89 Steelers would should regret not having a shot a drafting Aikman because “we’ve got Bubby Brister.”

  • Six year later, Aikman would show that same 23 year old just how naïve his 16 year old self had been.

Against the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Troy Aikman played better than any other Dallas Cowboy on the field. As the legendary Will McDonough argued, he should have been the game MVP. True, Aikman’s Super Bowl XXX stats might not knock you on your ass.

Emmit Smith, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30

Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd tackle Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But he played a mistake free game, and he did it against the Blitzburgh defense. Sure, that Steelers secondary was stuck together with spit, duct tape and bubble gum, but that same defense made Emmitt Smith look like a mere mortal (OK, like a mere mortal except for when he was in the Red Zone – but there’s a reason why they called it the “Emmitt Zone” back then.)

  • Troy Aikman didn’t do it just once against the Steelers, but he did it two other times in the Super Bowl.

“Ah, but performance in Super Bowls only goes so far….” Frankly, I’m not sure of that. A quarterback’s success or failure to get it done on the game’s biggest stage is one of the most critical metrics of his mettle. Terry Bradshaw would have zero justification for a place on this list had he not played so well in his Super Bowls.

  • But a “Stats not Super Bowls” argument falls flat when applied to Aikman.

Dan Marino’s (No. 18) career passer rating was 86.4. Brett Favre’s (No. 22) was 86. By comparison, Troy Aikman’s was 81.6. So maybe The Athletic used a passer rating of 85 as some sort of cut off? Nope. John Elway (No. 15) was 79.9. Roger Staubach (No. 78) had a career passer rating of 83.4.

It says here that all of the other quarterbacks discussed here as well as others not mentioned deserve a spot on The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. But if they do then Troy Aikman certainly does as well.

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John Stallworth’s Steelers Career: An Improbable Journey from Overlooked Draft Pick to Hall of Famer

NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.

The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.”  That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.

In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr.

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years of the Super Steelers

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

  • But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

  • Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

  • Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

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

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

  • It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.

But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Class Balances Offensive Yang Against Defensive Yin

Grades for the Steelers 2021 Draft Class will have wait a few years. But there’s already one word that can describe this group of 9 players chosen by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin: Balanced.

  • The Steelers 2021 Draft class is a group where the defensive yin balances out its defensive yang.
  • The addition of a special teams player at the tail end wraps a bouquet around the balance concept.

Whether they strengthened themselves enough at offensive or boosted their defensive depth sufficently remains to be seen. But the Steelers went all in on their plan. So lets take a glance at exactly who falls on the side of yin and how falls on the side of yang.

Steelers Yin an Yang

Image credit: Sybildeckerdf via Pin Interest

Steelers 2021 Draft Class at a Glance

1st Round: Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
2nd Round: Pat Freiermuth, tight end, Penn State
3rd Round: Kendrick Green, center, Illinois
4th Round A: Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle, Texas A&M
4th Round B: Buddy Johnson, inside linebacker, Texas A&M
5th Round: Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end, Wisconsin
6th Round: Quincy Roche, outside linebacker, Miami
7th Round A: Tre Norwood, cornerback/safety/Swiss Army Knife, Oklahoma
7th Round B: Pressley Harvin, punter, Georgia Tech

Has there ever been a draft when the Steelers have gone down their needs and ticked them off in almost clockwork like fashion? I don’t know, but if there is the Steelers 2021 Draft class will provide immediate competition.

  • For two years, decline has diseased the Steelers offense.

Black and Gold Yin and YangSure, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the need to alternative between Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019 exacerbated that condition. But the unit lost its way. The Steelers offense’s MO shifted from sacrificing itself by feeding the ball too much to its feature back, to throwing 50 times per game.

  • Attempts to convert 4th and inches became utter embarrassments.

In Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green the Steelers have three players who could and should start on opening day. If you believe offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, Dan Moore could also be in the mix to start.

After focusing exclusively on their offensive yang, Pittsburgh pivoted to fulfilling their need for defensive yin in the middle of round 4. There they went and addressed four straight defensive positions.

  • Perhaps they didn’t quite come in the ideal order, but each pick addressed a clear area of need.

And unlike the offense, even if these defensive players exceed all expectations, it is very hard to see any of them earning a starting spot or pushing for non-spot duty playing time. An injury or two could change things in a hurry. Think back to the 2013 opening day. But on paper, the defensive players were picked to provide depth and play roles on special teams.

2021 Draft’s Immediate Impact

Going into the 2008 season, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded readers that improvement would have to come from within, that it would be a mistake to count on the Steelers 2008 Draft class to deliver the difference.

  • Labriola was right. The 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, and the rookie class contributed nothing.

With that in mind, should we interpret the fact that the Steelers drafted 3 potential starters as an ominous sign? Hard to say. Other than Jack Lambert, other Hall of Famers the Steelers drafted in their legendary 1974 Draft class, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, were role players on the team that won Super Bowl IX.

On the flip side, the 2016 Steelers got immediate contributions from the top three members of their 2016 Draft class, and that season ended with them knocking on heaven’s door in the AFC Championship.

Suffice to say, the Steelers need 2021’s draft class to be more like 2016 than 2008.

 

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Steelers Draft Kendrick Green in 3rd Round of 2021 Draft. Illinois Center has BIG Shoes to Fill

They say its “Not easy being Green.” I suppose that’s true. It also can’t be easy being tapped to play center for the Pittsburgh Steelers because let’s face it, you’ve got enormous shoes to fill.

Nonetheless that’s exactly what the Steelers asked Kendrick Green to do when they drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft to be their next center.

When asked to describe what Pittsburgh liked in Kendrick Green, Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm expounded:

That’s a guy we had our eye on. We love the way that he plays in terms of what we have been talking about and in terms of changing our demeanor. Just the type of attitude that we want to carry onto the field, he embodies all of that. He has great leadership qualities. He was an alpha in that program and he is just a tremendous player. He can do it all – the pulls, physical in the run game, pass protect, all those different things. I’m just really ecstatic to coach him going forward.

You of course expect a position coach to speak glowingly of the player that he’s just had a huge hand in drafting.

  • But Adrian Klemm’s view is shared by others with zero skin in the game.

Klemm has been the favorite of several of the staff at Steel City Insider. Just under one month ago Roy Countryman exuded “He originally came to Illinois as a defensive lineman and you can observe that level of tenacity in his blocking style as he seeks to bury and destroy his opponents.”

On two separate occasions Doug Martz went as far as to argue, “….those who research Green will realize he could be next up in a long heritage of great centers for the Steelers.” Those great Steelers centers would be Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey.

If you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, then look no further than the words of Matt C. Steel, never one to shy away from criticizing Steelers coaching or personnel decisions, was somewhat prophetic, indicating that:

Green offers potential for the Steelers to have another athlete at center who can pull and get out on the move. Should the top three centers be drafted before the Steelers pick in Round Two, Green could top the Steelers’ Round Three wish list.

If nothing else, the opinion on Kendrick Green is unaminmous of at least one sub-segment of the Steelers draft pundit class.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Kendrick Green Video Highlights

Kendrick Green played guard for most of his time at Illinois playing a guard and he of course started his college career as a defensive lineman. Here is his highlight reel:

Yes, Kendrick Green does seems to have some of that nasty, ass-kicking streak that an offensive lineman really needs to excel in the NFL.

How Kendrick Green Fits into the Steelers Plans

Kendrick Green has something in common with Steelers 2nd round pick Pat Freiermuth and Pittsburgh’s first round pick Najee Harris: He’s got a very strong shot at starting on opening day.

The Steelers cupboard of offensive lineman is very bare, and while Steel Curtain Rising has rated tackle as a greater need than guard, the truth is that neither B.J. Finney nor J.C. Hassenauer projects as a starter at center.

Indeed, if Green can come in and win the starting job at center, his contribution will have a ripple effect, as it will allow B.J. Finney to be the “next man up” at both guard and center.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Kendrick Green.

 

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