The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Thanksgiving Honors: Chris Boswell

When the Steelers got the ball in Cleveland twice during the last five minutes in a tie game, did you ever have a doubt that Chris Boswell would boot it in if the offense could get him close enough?

No. Neither did I.

That’s because Chris Boswell has redefined what it means to be “Mr. Automatic.” And for that Chris Boswell wins 2023 Thanksgiving Honors.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Crisis Opens the Door to Opportunity

The NFL lexicon is littered with clichés. Not For Long. You’re hired to be fired (ask Matt Canada about that one.) Another is that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

  • In Chris Boswell’s case, 3 men’s misfortunes combined to open his door to opportunity.

The Steelers started the 2015 preseason thinking they were set at place kicker, behind the trusty leg of Shaun Suisham. But Suisham injured himself on the terrible truf in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio.

So the Steelers signed Garrett Hartley. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rooney family is known for their Catholicism, because Garrett Hartley is kind of the Pope John Paul I in the Steelers kicking Parthenon. We never got to know him, because he got injured at the end of free agency.

Kevin Colbert sprung into action and traded for Josh Scobee. Scobee started out OK, but missed an extra point in week 2 against San Francisco. He was OK in week two, but in week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens he missed two field goals in the last 2 and half minutes of regulation of a tie game.

The Steeler won the toss in over time, but on 4th and 2 from the Ravens 39, Mike Tomlin opted to run it with Mike Vick. The Steelers got the ball back, but again on 4th and won Tomlin opted to let Vick try to hook up with Antonio Brown.

  • The two failed to connect and 8 plays later Justin Tucker won it for the Ravens.

The Steelers sign Chris Boswell a few days later, and haven’t looked back since.

Boswell Best in Long Line of Excellent Steelers Place Kickers

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was recently asked about Chris Boswell, and responded:

Its automatic. I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially had three kickers. That continuity, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency, we don’t talk about it enough, but its appreciated.

The only issue with Mike Tomlin’s statement is that it isn’t inclusive enough.

Gary Anderson, Harry Newsome, Steelers vs Oilers, 1989 Steelers overtime upset of Oilers at Astrodome

Gary Anderson splits the uprights in overtime at the Astrodome. Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been blessed with excellent place kickers since the 1980s. In his day, Gary Anderson was known as “Mr. Automatic,” and Jerry Glanville can tell you just what that means. Norm Johnson succeeded Anderson, and his role in Steelers place kicking lineage is under rated. After an interregnum covered by Kris Brown and Todd Peterson, Jeff Reed took the mantel in the middle of 2002 and remained with the team until the middle of 2010.

  • But if you compare the numbers it wouldn’t take long to see that Chris Boswell is best of all.

Bob Labriola provided the stats on the Steelers elite place kickers and Boswell just about leads them all almost every key metric. Suisham’s career field goal percentage is still a hair higher than Boswell’s, but Boswell has improved in the 3 weeks since Labriola published his numbers.

More importantly, Boswell’s been perfect in the playoffs. Indeed, he kicked the game winner on a ucky, rainy night in Cincinnati following some late game heroics from Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Boswell’s boot that put the Steelers into the AFC Championship in 2016.

Yes, Steelers fans really should give thanks for Chris Boswell.

A Word on Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

“Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” is a home-grown award here at Steel Curtain Rising. The tradition began during 2009’s five game losing streak and the first award winner was Rashard Mendenhall, who’d picked himself up off the turf and ran nearly the length of the field to prevent an interception and a pick six.

And we’ve continued this each since. Here are previous winners:

2009 – Rashard Mendenhall
2010 – Marukice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Al Everest
2011 –  Antonio Brown
2012 – Keenan Lewis
2013 – Cam Heyward
2014 – Le’Veon Bell
2015 – “The Understudies” – Alejandro Villanueva, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace
2016 – Ryan Shazier
2017 – Ben Roethlisberger
2018 – JuJu Smith-Schuster
2019 – Kevin Colbert
2020 – T.J. Watt
2021 – Cam Heyward (second time)
2022 – Larry Ogunjobi

As always we close with a reminder that it is our hope that everyone reading this has many, many reasons to be thankful that have nothing to do with the Steelers or football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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II Art Rooney Remembering His Roots Evident as Steelers Oppose Thursday Night Flexing

A few weeks back when the Steelers voted against the NFL’s decision to flex Thursday night games during weeks 13-17, I wondered, “Maybe Franco told Art Rooney about Mateo?”

Franco Harris, Art Rooney II,

Art Rooney II announces retirement of Franco Harris’ jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mateo Labriola (no relation to Bob, or so he insists) is an Argentine Steelers fan who was fortunate enough to meet Franco Harris on a while visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I shared their story in my eulogy for Franco. Here’s the digest version:

It was December 2017 and Mateo was visiting the United States to see the Steelers. He was at Paul Brown Stadium the night Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

But Mateo’s journey wasn’t making a one-act show.

He had tickets to see the Steelers vs the Ravens at Heinz Field the following week. In between, he stopped in Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where fortune brought him together with Franco Harris. It’s a good thing for Mateo that there was no flexing of Thursday night games back in December 2017, or otherwise their encounter may never have happened.

Had the NFL, in their infinite greed, been able to flex either of those games, Mateo would have been forced reprogram his entire trip. Fate could have easily forced him to sacrifice his trip to Canton.

Franco Harris, Mateo Labriola, Steelers Argentina

Franco Harris with Argentine Steelers fan in Canton, Ohio, 2017.

And truthfully, that would have been the least of his problems. In December 2017 the Argentine peso US Dollar exchange rate was 17.4 to 1 (today it is 250.5 to 1 – the black market rate is nearly twice that, but that’s another story.) Rebooking hotel rooms and travel could have easily been cost prohibitive.

  • He even might have been forced to miss one of the games.

Mateo is hardly the only international Steelers fan to scrimp and save to make pilgrimage to see the Steelers. Shortly after news of the decision to flex Thursday night games broke, I got this in a WhatsApp feed hosted by Mexican Steelers fans.

Mexican Steelers Fans, Mexican Steelers fans 2023 trip

For those who don’t speak Spanish, this is a flyer advertising a trip to see the Steelers December 3rd and December 7th games against the Cardinals and the Patriots, with a return flight to Mexico on December the 8th.

This seems like a petty good deal, but those games fall on weeks 13 and 14, inside the NFL’s Thursday night flex window. That means if both the Cardinals and Steelers are hot late in the season, the NFL could decide to pull that game to Thursday night.

Conversely, if either the Steelers or that Patriots are struggling come December, the NFL could simply decide to push their Thursday night game to Sunday.

I asked friend who knows organizers of the trip and he replied, “…No tienen plan B” – they don’t have a plan B. So  if the NFL decides to flex either of those games, then I guess those Mexican fans will simply be SOL.

Sure, they’ll be 28 days advanced notice before a game is flexed to Thursday night, but changing international flight plans will still be an expensive nightmare.

  • I opened this article with a bit of a while lie.

Yes, I did think of Mateo when I heard about flexing Thursday night games. But no, I don’t really think that Franco Harris mentioned anything about meeting Mateo to Art Rooney II. He didn’t need to.

Like his father Dan Rooney and his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. before him, Art Rooney II understand that the fans who bust their asses day in and day out, the ones who revel in tailgating, the ones who wouldn’t dream of trading in an Iron City and seat in Section 188 for chardonnay and a spot in the luxury box are what make the NFL the power house it is.

That’s the same sentiment that led Dan Rooney to buy hundreds of delivery pizzas for fans waiting in the snow to buy tickets to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship game.

In that light, it is fitting that the New York Giants, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Las Vegas Raiders, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals joined Pittsburgh Steelers in opposing Thursday Night flexing.

With the exception of the Jets, those teams make up what’s left of the league’s “old guard owners” – owners of teams who have enough institutional memory to recall a time when the NFL didn’t dominate popular culture, when the NFL had to fight for the attention, loyalty and and yes, the money of the “average fan.”

That’s something the other 25 NFL owners now take for granted.

They should not.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Inside Linebacker – More Questions than Answers

Perhaps its fitting: It was in a win against Cincinnati in December 2013 that Vince Williams stood out enough to signal that stability was returning to the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker. Four years later Ryan Shazier’s injury at Paul Brown Stadium would destabilize that spot on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker and the franchise is still shuffling to regain its footing.

Might they find that footing in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The (Presumed) Starters

Everyone expected the Steelers to move on from Devin Bush. And they did, without a second thought.

Who expected Robert Spillane to bolt? But bolt he did. But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin from cutting Myles Jack, the Steelers other starter from 2022 and to look outside the franchise’s comfort zone and sign not one but two inside linebackers in the form of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb brings four years and 48 games of starting experience from Washington. Elandon Roberts brings seven years of experience and 76 starts from seasons with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers once unexpectedly lost a free agent inside linebacker (Earl Holmes) and reacted by signing James Farrior, one of their best free agent pickups ever. They also reacted the the loss of Shazier by signing Jon Bostic who was pretty good on first and 2nd downs, but had to leave the field after that and hence had to leave town.

Are Holcomb and Roberts Farriors or Bostics? Today there’s no way to know.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backup

In contrast, there are a few things we know about the Steelers lone backup at inside linebacker. While conceding that he wasn’t comfortable giving rookie Mark Robinson a leading role in late season contests against the Ravens and Browns, Mike Tomlin doled out rare praise complementing the rookie:

He’s a guy that likes physical confrontation. That’s the one component of his game that has never been in question, growth and development and all other areas due to youth and lack of experience is.

The Steelers drafted Mark Robinson in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft as a project. Robinson played for three schools during his college career and only moved to linebacker as a senior, spending time at running back during one of his colligate stints.

Robinson was inactive for most of 2022, only seeing his first action against Carolina, but he still played 50% of the defensive snaps against the Ravens, helping shut down a running attack that had embarrassed the Steelers just 3 weeks earlier.

The Steelers also have Tanner Muse who played safety and then “linebacker” for the Seattle Seahawks. Muse is seen mainly as a special teams signing, but Pittsburgh is listing him as a linebacker.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker

The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Yes, they appear to used free agency to bring one legitimate starter and one starter capable linebacker in free agency and they have a solid up and coming rookie. But is that enough to be comfortable?

Not by a longshot. The Steelers started 2020 with Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as their top three linebackers, and by December their starting duo in the middle was Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen.

Everyone remembers Ben Roethlisberger‘s horrible performance in 2020 disaster at Cincinnati, but check the running stats to see how well the Allen-Williamson duo worked out. (Yes, there’s that Cincinnati-Inside Linebacker-Steelers axis rotating again.)

Taking that into account, the Steelers need at inside linebacker going 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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“Don’t Fear the Reacher” – Steelers Fans Need Not Fear a Reach in the 2023 NFL Draft

The dreaded reach.

I believe Steelers fans fear this more than anything when preparing for the annual NFL Draft.

Think Terrell Edmunds, a player the Steelers definitely reached for when they selected the safety out of Virginia Tech in the first round (28th, overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Of course, Edmunds went on to have a solid-to-good five-year career in Pittsburgh before finally spreading his wings and becoming an Eagle in free agency. Just try telling that to the Steelers fans who could never get over the lack of Troy Polamalu-like splash and pizzazz.

  • Artie Burns provides another great example of a reach. 
Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Everybody and His Brother knew that cornerback was a prime need for the Steelers heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. The Steelers wanted William Jackson. The Bengals got him first. So the Steelers reached for Artie Burns. After a respectable rookie year, Burns started off year 2 OK but got shaky as the year progressed, opend 2018 as the starter but got benched and his career imploded shortly thereafter.

Fear not, Steelers fan, because it doesn’t look like your favorite professional football team will have to reach for a position of need when the 2023 NFL Draft kicks off on the evening of Thursday, April 27.

For one thing, the Steelers will be drafting damn-near in the middle of the first round (17th).

That’s right, unlike the 2018 draft when Pittsburgh, selecting near the end of the first round due to having an excellent 2017 regular season, missed out on three highly-thought-of inside linebackers (unfortunately, the organization was in desperation mode after the horrific spinal injury suffered by Ryan Shazier on December 4, 2017), the Steelers should have a shot at at least one high-pedigreed prospect who would address a specific position of need.

The two most important positions of need for the Steelers (in my humble opinion) are cornerback and offensive tackle (and not necessarily in that order).

If you go by the many big boards and the endless mock drafts that are produced on the regular, it’s easy to see that there are a lot of high-end prospects at both cornerback and offensive tackle.

By my count, there are no less than six corners who could go in the first round–including Christian Gonzalez (Oregon); Devon Witherspoon (Illinois); Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State); Cam Smith (South Carolina); Deonte Banks (Maryland); and Kelee Ringo (Georgia).

As for offensive tackles, there are at least five–including Paris Johnson Jr. (Ohio State); Pete Skoronski (Northwestern); Broderick Jones (Georgia); Anton Harrison (Oklahoma); and Darnell Wright (Tennessee).

That’s 11 prospects from two different positions who would very well go in the first round.

You throw in the handful of quarterback prospects who will likely be drafted before 17–including C.J. Stroud (Ohio State); Bryce Young (Alabama); Anthony Richardson (Florida); and Will Levis (Kentucky)–and there is no way Pittsburgh won’t have a shot at a promising cornerback or offensive tackle.

And we can’t forget about the likes of Will Anderson, EDGE, Alabama; Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Texas Tech; Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia; Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia; Calijah Kancey, DL, Pitt; Lucas Van Ness, DL, Iowa; Bryan Bresee, DL, Clemson; Bijan Robinson, running back, Texas; Quintin Johnston, WR, TCU; and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State.

  • Many of those prospects will also be off the board by the time Pittsburgh selects at 17.

It’s going to be damn-near impossible for Pittsburgh to reach at cornerback or offensive tackle.

Also, if the Steelers, an organization that perhaps has a better grasp of its needs than I do, decides that an edge, receiver, defensive lineman or safety (can’t forget about Alabama’s Brian Branch) is too good to pass up at 17, well, they also have the first pick of the second round (32, overall) to address either cornerback or offensive tackle with a quality prospect–likely someone from the aforementioned pool of players.

Or, since the depth at corner appears to be greater than the depth at offensive tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh could snatch up one of the top linemen, knowing that a quality defensive back will probably still be there at 32.

Obviously, the draft is a crapshoot, and for every Troy Polamalu, there is at least one Devin Bush (usually three or four, unfortunately).

But the more high-end prospects there are at positions of need, the better chance a team will have of not reaching for a player.

The Steelers should be sitting pretty in that department in 2023.

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Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost free agent Terrell Edmunds to the Eagles, as their 2018 first round draft pick signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.

Given that the Steelers and Andy Weidl have signed Guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark away from the Eagles and as well as Nate Herbig, who is also a former Eagle, the tempting headline might be, “Eagles claw back, sign Terrell Edmunds from the Steelers.”

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

While that might be accurate and attention catching, the real story here behind Terrell Edmunds departure is that the Steelers shuffle at strong safety continues. Sure, the Steelers resigned Damontae Kazee. But Kazee’s 2-year, team-friendly deal shows that neither Omar Khan nor Mike Tomlin think he’s the long term answer at strong safety.

No one has been for the last ten years when the Steelers quest to fill this critical position began.

  • In 2013 the Steelers traded up for Shamarko Thomas, hopping he was Troy Poamalu’s successor – Thomas started 2 games
  • Will Allen served as the stopgap safety in 2015, following Polamlau’s retirement
  • In 2016 the Steelers drafted Sean Davis, who started for two years
  • In 2018 the Steelers signed Morgan Burnett and drafted Terrell Edmunds. Burnett was one and done.

The short hand version of this story would read, “The Steelers had suffered a succession of busts at strong safety since Troy Polamalu retired.” That’s the superficial conclusion, the quick conclusion but also the wrong one.

Yes, Shamarko Thomas was a bust. The Steelers smashed franchise precedent in trading up to get him, and he was a disaster.* Will Allen was probably one of the unsung free agent signings of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and played pretty well for a 33 year old safety in 2015.

Sean Davis had a spectacular rookie year, and he really played well during the first half of his second year. Of course the second half was a different story, but whose play didn’t decline after the injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier?

Morgan Burnett, like the rest of the 2018 Steelers defense started to come on at the end of the year – it was Burnett who batted away Tom Brady’s final pass in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. But Burnett couldn’t beat out the rookie first round pick Edmunds, and wanted out of Pittsburgh so Mike Tomlin let him go.

  • And of course, many fans will always consider Terrell Edmunds “A bust.”

That’s simply wrong. Terrell Edmunds started 75 of the 79 games he appeared in. And if he was never a superstar in a defense that was on the rebound, he was always a force for stability. Yet in those five seasons, only picked off 5 passes, sacked the quarterback 5 times, recovered 1 fumble but never forced one. That’s 11 “Splash plays” out of 4,897 snaps on defense.

So his “Splash Play Percentage” was a mere 0.22%.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

As Jim Wexell, (who compiled those numbers above – although the “Splash Play Percentage” is my own creation) observed, “He’s the strong safety. Should we review the playmaking numbers of the strong safeties who’ve played in Super Bowls for the Steelers? … you can look up the numbers for Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu.”

Well, I have.

  • Mike Wagner had 36 interceptions and 4 sacks in 116 starts for the Steelers
  • Donnie Shell had 51 interceptions and 9.5 sacks in 162 starts for the Steelers
  • Carnell Lake had 16 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in 154 sacks for the Steelers
  • Troy Polamalu had 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles in 142 starts for the Steelers

In that light, Terrell Edmunds’ stats look similar to those of Lee Flowers, who had 4 interceptions in 75 starts with the Steelers. But even Lee Flowers, who didn’t have Edmunds’ athletic ability, had 12 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. in 75 starts with the Steelers had 4 interceptions and 12 sacks.

In 2022 as well as in 2023 I wrote free agent profiles on Terrell Edmunds arguing that while, he wasn’t a superstar, he was “good enough” to deserve a second contract.

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

After comparing Edmunds’ stats to his predecessors, I don’t know that I can disagree with them.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

*Here’s morsel for Steelers trivia buffs: After the Steelers drafted him, Carnell Lake commented that had Thomas been 2 inches taller, he might have been a first rounder. When Lake said the same thing 2 years later after they drafted Senquez Golson, I almost wonder if he was dooming the kid. Maybe he did….

 

 

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Solution or Stopgap? Steelers Signings of Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts Symptoms of Struggles @ Inside Linebacker

One of the core achievements of the 2022 Steelers season was the improvement of the run defense. Just how bad was the Steelers run defense in 2021?

Consider this: The 2021 Steelers were 32nd against the run and that’s not even the most damning stat against them – you have to go back 1946 when Jock Sutherland’s team had a worse yards-per carry allowed average (it was 5.8 if you’re curious.)

In 2022 the Steelers run defense improved to 9th overall in the NFL and allowed 4.2 yards per carry as opposed to 5.0 yards per carry.

So of course one of Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin’s first personnel moves was to obliterate the Steelers inside linebacker depth chart up and start over.

In the course of two days the Steelers signed Cole Holcomb from Washington Elandon Roberts from Miami. As those gentleman were walking through the indoor, Robert Spillane and Devin Bush were taking their leave through the outdoor, while the Steelers shoved Myles Jack out the backdoor.

This is actually like one of those scenes in a sitcom where someone gets caught cheating on their spouse and says, “Oh, but this isn’t what it looks like.” And in a certain sense that’s correct, because upheaval at inside linebacker has become par for the course in Pittsburgh.

Najee Harris, Elandon Roberts, Steelers vs Dolphins.

Elandon Roberts (No. 52) lies on the turf as Najee Harris runs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Ripple Effect from Shazier’s Injury Continues

Sometimes the truth hides in plain sight. In this case the Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo helped bring it to light.

Actually, he’s not going far enough. In addition to signing Myles Jack, Mark Barron and Jon Bostic in free agency, they also traded up to get Devin Bush, traded for Avery Williamson in addition to trading for Joe Schobert during preseason.

And, on some level at least, saying this amounts to apologizing for failure, but the blunt truth is that each of this moves counts a ripple stemming from the need to replace Ryan Shazier. So the question is, are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts long term answers or are they just additional stopgaps?

The Steelers were expected to sign an inside linebacker in free agency. However, many of the top prospects came off of the board. The idea of the Steelers signing Tremaine Edmunds and getting Terrell Edmunds back on a package deal seems quaint in light of Termaine’s 72 million dollar contract.

It also stands to reason that the Steelers did hope to resign Robert Spillane. Spillaine after all was playing 100% of the snaps by year’s end and could have been a force for stability. But it is easy to see Omar Khan balking at guaranteeing 4 million dollars for Spillane the way the Raiders did.

  • So the Steelers turned to Cole Holcomb.

Cole Holcomb has played 4 years in Washington, appearing in 50 games and starting 48. His best year was 2021 when he made 142 tackles, registered 1 sack and had 2 interceptions. Stylistically, he’s been compared to Vince Williams, although Jim Wexell pointed out that Holcomb’s 40 time was 4.51 compared to Williams’ 4.76.

That quarter of a second difference can be a big deal when covering opposing running backs and tight ends, particularly close to the line of scrimmage.

Jon Bostic’s 40 time was 4.61 and the knock on him was that he was too slow to cover and therefore a liability on third down.

The Steelers signed Holcomb to a 3 year $18,000,000 with a 4.92 million dollar signing bonus as the only portion of the contract that is fully guaranteed. So in other words the Steelers can get out of this deal fairly easily if he doesn’t work out – just as they did with Myles Jack.

If the Steelers weren’t expecting Robert Spillane to leave, the decision to move on from Myles Jack wasn’t surprising. They’re replacing him with Elandon Roberts, a seven year veteran with 107 games under his belt including 76 starts.

He started as a 6th round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 2016, when Brian Flores was their linebackers coach. Flores brought him to Miami in 2019. Roberts is known as a “thumper” who excels in playing against the run.

Elandon Roberts signed a 2-year 7 million dollar contract with 2.33 million fully guaranteed. So its possible that Mark Robinson pushes him for playing time and certainly a deal the Steelers can walk away from next spring.

So are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts the answer for the Steelers at inside linebacker or just two more stop gaps?

  • Looking at their pedigree and their contracts, the smart money would say they’re stop gaps.

But you never know. In the 2006 off season, coming off Super Bowl XL, Kevin Colbert signed as free agent safety and then invested a 2nd round pick in Anthony Smith in the 2006 NFL Draft. Clearly the free agent was brought to Pittsburgh as a bridge player.

Except he wasn’t.

By the time he left Pittsburgh in the spring of 2014, he’d made 11 interceptions in the regular season while forcing 2 fumbles and logging another interception in the post season. If you’ve forgotten him, his name was Ryan Clark.

So while its unlikely that neither Cole Holcomb nor Elandon Roberts is the next Ryan Shazier, if one of them turns out to be the next Ryan Clark it will have been a very produtive week in franchise history.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

 

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Why Steelers Free Agent Damontae Kazee Reminds Me of Dave Moquin, My Old Wrestling Coach

When I think of Damontae Kazee reaching free agency, I can’t help but remember my old wrestling coach the late Dave Moquin.

Moquin is an amateur wrestling Hall of Famer who coached for 42 years at Wheaton High School in Maryland. To understand why Kazee’s rendezvous with free agency reminds me of Moquin, let’s jump right into his time with the Steelers are the case for keeping him in Pittsburgh.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Capsule Profile of Damontae Kazee’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Damontae Kazee last spring shortly after the 2022 NFL Draft. Injuries limited him to 9 games with the Steelers.

It is safe to say that no player with such a thin Steelers resume has reached free agency and generated the type of attention that Kazee has. And that’s where Mr. Moquin comes in.

One of the things that made Moquin a Hall of Famer is that he was open to letting anyone come out for the team. Whether you were a senior who’d never wrestled, a late season transfer, a kid coming off the ineligible list, or just curious, Moquin would give you a shot at any point in the season. We’ll explain how this ties to Kazee in a moment.

Dave Moquin, David Moquin, Dave Moquin wrestling Hall of fame, Dave Moquin coach Wheaton High School

Dave Moquin getting inducted into the Wheaton High Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: The Patch

Steelers coaches took a liking to Kazee during training camp, and devised a 3 safety scheme that featured Kazee, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds on the field at the same time.

  • Unfortunately, a late summer injury cost him the first 8 games of the season.

Analysis of the Steelers 2022 season generally breaks down along the “Before the Bye and After the Bye” storylines and then builds the narrative around T.J. Watt’s return to the lineup and Kenny Pickett’s improvement. And those storylines are by and large correct.

  • But they overlook Damontae Kazee’s contributions.

In Kazee’s first game, he played 100% of the snaps against the New Orleans Saints and intercepted Andy Dalton in the 4th quarter, setting up an insurance touchdown drive. In the third quarter of the season finale against the Browns, Kazee intercepted Deshaun Watson with the Steelers holding a 13-3, setting up Najee Harris’ touchdown.

During the last nine games of 2022, Kazee defensed two passes, and made 20 tackles while playing 54% of the defensive snaps.

The Dave Moquin Case for the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

The problem with Dave Moquin and the short-timers on the Wheaton wrestling team was that liked to tell fish stories about them. No, he LOVED to tell fish stories about them. Take “CJ” as an example.

CJ was a junior who’d joined the team in the 2nd week of January. He’d transferred from Oxen Hill where he’d wrestled, but had little experience. He wrestled about 8 JV matches for Wheaton in dual meets, winning a couple of those and won a match or two in the JV tournament. His senior year he was ineligible until February. He won one JV match, lost one on varsity, and then lost cleanly in the County tournament to the kid who went on to be a Regional champion.

But this is how Moquin told it:

CJ came two us in the last 2 weeks of the season his junior year. He’d never wrestled before but won both of the match we put him in . Then almost placed in the JV tournament. The next year he couldn’t wrestle until February, but he won both of his matches and almost upset the kid who went on to become the Regional Champion.

So if Moquin were to make the case for the Steelers resigning Damontae Kazee it would go like this:

We signed Kazee after the draft. Thanks to injuries he barely practiced in training camp. But stepped in for Minkah against the Saints and we didn’t miss a beat. He made a crucial, momentum shifting interception in that game, another in the season finale and played a critical role in subbing for Fitzpatrick again in the Christmas Eve win over the Raiders.

Or something like that.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

It would be a mistake to minimize Kazee’s contributions to the Steelers turnaround in the 2nd half of the season. But it would also be wrong to over-emphasize them.

Kazee’s ball-hawking ability is welcome and stands in stark contrast Terrell Edmunds’ lack of “Splash Plays” But Edmunds has been stabilizing influence on the defense. Edmunds is also only 27 whereas Kazee has just turned the big 3-0.

Kazee is a “nice to have” befitting from and off season of salary cap surplus. Like 2022’s salary cap surplus, the Steelers are in a different place in 2023.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Damontae Kazee

The Steelers situation with Damontae Kazee is similar to Benny Snell’s (see Snell’s free agent profile if you’re scratching your head.)

  • Whereas Snell provides depth, Kazee delivers a lot more.

Whether it’s been cycling in “the big safety,” linebacker Terence Garvin in on third downs back in ‘13, drafting Ryan Shazier in ‘14, signing Morgan Burnett in ’18 or trying to convert Marcus Allen from a safety to an inside linebacker, Mike Tomlin has coveted a player who can play the middle like a linebacker while covering deep like a defensive back.

  • Together Fitzpatrick, Edmunds and Kazee give Mike Tomin that versatility.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would resign both Damontae Kazee and Terrell Edmunds. But unless one of them accepts a very generous home team discount, salary cap realities mean that won’t happening.

Dave Moquin, Dave Moquin National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Dave Moquin

  • So which safety to sign?

Well Moquin was also a football coach, and I’d love to pick his brain on this one. Alas, he’s no longer around.

So I’ll just go with my gut and say the Steelers should stick with Edmunds and let Kazee walk – even as I smile to myself thinking that if Mr. Moquin were telling the story, Kazee would have earned a spot in the Steelers Hall of Honor after just nine games.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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