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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butler Did it, But….

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

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butler Did it, But….

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

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

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

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

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

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

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

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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Steelers Draft Buddy Johnson with 4th Round Compensatory Pick, Two ‘n a Row for Texas A&M

Last year it was Terrapins from the University of Maryland. This year its Aggies from Texas A&M. At least in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

12 picks after calling Don Moore Jr.’s name with their own 4th round pick the Steelers went to the Texas A&M well a second time when they picked Aggies inside linebacker Buddy Johnson.

The decision to look to inside linebacker departs from the (definitive) Steelers Draft Needs Matrix which rated cornerback as a higher need, which in no way suggests that this move is a mistake. While a best case scenario for both Buddy Johnson and the team will be for Johnson to shine on special teams this year, the Steelers certainly need depth at inside linebacker.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski pointed out, Buddy Johnson was the leading tackler on the best defense in what is considered to be the NCAA’s toughest conference. But, Adamski reminds us that none of those statistics meant anything to Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers inside linebackers coach.

Jerry Olsavsky, himself a former Steelers inside linebacker taken as a 10th round pick out of Pitt in the 1989 NFL Draft, explains his attraction to Johnson:

I don’t look at the production numbers, OK” I look at the film and I see production, and I say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a good player.’ I didn’t know (about Johnson’s stat superlatives). … The SEC is great football. But if you watch one game, you would be like, ‘Wow, this guy is active.’ And that’s what I’m looking for.

One would expect no less from Jerry Olsvasky. While Olsvasky has worked with superior athletes such as Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush, he was once described by the Monday Night Football broadcast team as “One of those players who isn’t big enough, isn’t fast enough, but just simply good enough.”

Buddy Johnson, Steelers 4th round pick 2021 NFL Draft

Buddy Johnson during the LSU-Texas A&M game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Buddy Johnson Video Highlights

So just what is that that Jerry Olsvasky sees when he looks at the tape of this 6’, 229 pound, 23 game starter for the Aggies who led Texas A&M in tackles for the last two years? Well, let’s take a look:

That’s a nice tape. What is particularly encouraging is that Buddy Johnson appears to have sound tackling technique. While the Steelers tackling has been better of late, failure on this fundamental skill has been at issue in the not too distant past.

How Buddy Johnson Fits In

The Steelers obviously have a lot invested in Devin Bush’s development, but with Vince Williams and Robert Spillane playing on one year deals, Pittsburgh clearly needs to think of the future. While Johnson will get a fair shake and a reasonable shot at earning a helmet on game day, he doesn’t need to come in and made an immediate impact.

That can change in a hurry, as Vince Williams learned during his rookie year, but for now Buddy Johnson adds depth in the present, offers potential for the future and hopefully can begin contributing on special teams immediately.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Buddy Johnson.

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NFL Draft 2021: Is Cornerback Back as a Steelers Need?

Steel Curtain Rising has been doing the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix for the better part of the last decade.

  • A year ago something new, and dare we say exciting, happened.

In previous years, cornerback would invariably stand out as a top Steelers need. But last year was different. Last year we went as far as to rate Pittsburgh’s need at cornerback as Low-Moderate. Can history repeat itself in 2021? Time to find out.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers may not draft cornerbacks very well (see Artie Burns.) Nor can they keep them healthy (see Senquez Golson, and Cortez Allen after a fashion.) Nor do they seem to have a knack for trading for them (See Brandon Boykin and/or Justin Gilbert.

  • But they do seem to transform other team’s trash into Pittsburgh’s treasure.

Such is the case with Joe Haden, whom the Steelers swooped up after Cleveland Browns cut in him 2017. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked back since, as Joe Haden started 56 games, hauled in 10 interceptions (or 3 fewer than Ike Taylor’s career total), taken home a pick six, and batted away 48 passes.

Joe Haden will be 32 next year and may be slowing a step, but the Steelers made clear how much they valued him when they opted to cut Steven Nelson who started alongside him.

In his place, Pittsburgh will start Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who, as fate would have it, saw his first action in the 2017 road game against Cincinnati where Ryan Shazier’s career ended. Since the Sutton had developed slowly, but steadily.

He’s logged 3 interceptions during his first four years, and started 6 games in 2020 and his forced fumble was one of the lone bright spots in a remarkably ugly loss to the Bills.

  • In today’s NFL the slot corner is essentially a starter.

The Steelers don’t have one as Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals as a free agent after manning the positon for 4 years.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the Steelers two backups at cornerback will occupy the role of the slot corner. That player will be expected to slide over to the edge while Cameron Sutton moves over to the slot on third down just as Deshea Townsend did.

James Pierre made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent during 2020 training camp, and appeared in all 16 games, including 12% of the defensive snaps in the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns.

  • James Pierre’s playing time came at the expense of Justin Layne.

Justin Layne was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who was drafted on “measurable” as opposed to pedigree. Layne began at wide receiver and transitioned over to cornerback late during his time with the Michigan State Spartans.

He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and all 16 games during the regular season. But tellingly, the coaches after getting 26% of the defensive snaps in the regular season road loss to the Browns, coaches looked to Pierre over Layne for the playoffs. Justin Layne was of course arrested last week.

The Steelers also have free agent Trevor Williams, a five year veteran with 27 starts and 41 games under his belt from his time with the Chargers, Cardinals and most recently the Eagles. The Steelers also have first year veteran Stephen Denmark on their roster.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftWhen the news broke of Justin Layne’s legal troubles, my reaction was, “Better now than after the draft.” Over at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim Benz opined that Layne’s judicial woes probably won’t change the Steelers plans.

  • Benz may be right.

With Trever Williams the Steelers brought in some experience to supplement the youthful potential they have at cornerback, which is a wise move. But right now the Steelers have an aging quality corner on one side and a probably up-and-comer on the other side with little behind them.

Which is to say the Steelers need depth and/or a possible future starter, so their need at cornerback heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, Bud Dupree Bolts, Matt Feiler Flies

Free Agency has yet to officially start but with the official negotiating period already underway, things are already beginning to happen for the Steelers.

  • The biggest news of the day was word the the Steelers had resigned Cam Sutton to a 2 year, 9 million dollar contract.

Cam Sutton joined the Steelers as a 3rd round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Sutton began the year on injured reserve but was pressed into action in the Steelers road win over the Cincinnati Bengals, which coincidentally was that same night Ryan Shazier suffered his career ending injury.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Sutton played in each of the rest of the Steelers games in 2017, and saw his playing time increase in the coming year where he logged 46% of the defensive snaps, working in behind starters Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton.

During 2020, Cam Sutton intercepted one pass, defensed eight more passes, forced 3 fumbles and recovered one of those. Per Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sutton logged a career-high 53% of all defensive snaps. Of the Steelers “signable” free agents, keeping Cam Sutton in Pittsburgh was clearly their biggest priority.

Arguably, the next most important signings for the Steelers would be offensive tackle Zach Banner and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.

Why Only 2 Years for Cam Sutton?

On the face of it, Cam Sutton appears to have taken a “hometown discount,” as 9 million over two years is hardly big payday for a proven NFL cornerback. Obviously, if Sutton and his agent had harder offers from outside of Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t have agreed to a deal so quickly.

  • But what is surprising is the term of the deal.

A one year “prove it” deal wouldn’t have been a surprise, but a two year deal does surprise, given the the Steelers typically sign their players to 3 year second contracts. At the beginning of the off season, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic observed that Steelers most important contracts ran through 2021.

Kaboly’s conclusion was that this was where management had seen the team’s natural window of Super Bowl viability ending.

Could Cam Sutton’s two year deal indicate that the team is now projecting into 2022? At this point its far too early to to tell but it is worth keeping an eye on.

Bud Bolts, Feiler Flies

While the news that Cam Sutton would be staying in Pittsburgh was a positive and perhaps a bit surprising, several free agents announced their decisions to sign elsewhere. Bud Dupree has apparently reached a deal to play with the Tennessee Titans and Matt Feiler will join the San Diego Chargers.

JuJu Smith-Schuter has not annouced his new home, but has informed players that he will be departing, and rumors have tied Mike Hilton to Philadelphia.

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

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Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.
T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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Remembering and Honoring Ivan Cole, Friend, Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season kicks off tonight against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Thanks to COVID-19, this will already be the most unique Steelers opener in history.

  • Yet, even putting aside the specter of the pandemic, there’s something missing in the Steelers Nation.

Sure, professionals and bloggers alike have penned their Steelers pre-season previews, this site included. But this year the collective conversation is poorer for its effort, due to the absence of the voice of Ivan Cole.

Every year for at least a decade, Ivan Cole would pen his column “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in XXXX” where he’d lay out the most compelling case possible for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl during coming season.Ivan Cole

Today, Steel Curtain Rising takes time out to honor and remember a man who was a loving father and grandfather, a friend to many, and a scribe who can rightly be called conscience of Steelers Nation.

Getting to Know Ivan Cole

“Pleased to ‘meet’ you too. Thank you for sending such a long and detailed email. What a pleasant surprise for a Monday morning!”

That’s how my first interaction with Ivan Cole began sometime in the spring of 2011. Ivan had written something thought-provoking on Behind the Steel Curtain that prompted me to reach out. Even in those days, before communication was so thoroughly Twitterized, getting “thanked” for a long email was exceedingly rare.

  • Yet, that was Ivan Cole in a nutshell.

An Ivan Cole observation would get you thinking. You’d share your reaction with Ivan. A deeper conversation would evolve, almost always taking unexpected twists, and by the time it was over, you’d both be better for it. That was Ivan.

  • Love for the Pittsburgh Steelers might have brought Ivan and I together, but our friendship quickly grew beyond the Black and Gold.

Today it is all too common to find people talking at each other, rather than to each other. But you always talked with Ivan. If you’d pointed this out to Ivan, it is easy to imagine offering a non-sarcastic response along the lines of “I consider myself a practitioner of the dying art of discourse.”

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Measured in material terms, Ivan Cole was a person of fairly modest material means, but his desire to understand the world in which he lived gave his personality a richness that everyone he touched could appreciate.

Ivan had a passion for advancing civil rights and social justice, and his natural curiosity led him to explore the social and political issues tied to those twin core values.

While never shy about arguing for what he believed in, Ivan was always ready to consider new information on its own merits. In the same vein, Ivan had an ability to identify and connect with people whose viewpoints differed from his – a quality that is in increasingly short supply in our world.

And Ivan’s interest was hardly limited to his immediate surroundings, so he would often question me about Argentina’s perpetual political-economic crisis. He not only volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for my “Argentine Political History for Dummies” PPT, but his insights helped sharpen the final version I used with my exhcange students at Universidad Austral.

Later in life, Ivan took an interest in combating Human Trafficking, and issue which he explained, “Found him.” I don’t know many details about his efforts there, but I can assure you with his passion and his energy, he undoubted helped make the world a more jut place with his work at LATO, Life After Trauma Organizaiton.

But Ivan was hardly an “All work and no play” type person. Quite to the contrary, Ivan was rather gregarious. I can still remember the Saturday morning when Ivan emailed telling me that the owner of the local café he frequented had told him that Jerome Bettis had stopped in earlier in the morning.

To read the email, you’d have thought that Ivan had seen The Bus himself. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Ivan Cole, Steelers Scribe and Conscience of Steelers Nation

And of course, if you knew of Ivan’s passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’d understand why Ivan would be so giddy about almost crossing paths with Jerome Bettis (who apparently was very friendly with everyone in the establishment.)

Ivan was a Steelers scribe, writing first for Behind the Steel Curtain, during the site’s golden age under Michael Bean and later Neal Coolong, and then for Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site.

  • Ivan Cole wrote on a wide range of topics for both sites.

In doing so he never passed up an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the Steelers, whether that meant taking aim at the NCAA or discussing the role that the Pittsburgh diaspora plays in the team’s national fan base.

Ivan was as well versed in the team’s history as any professional beat writer, a knowledge which impressed Art Rooney Jr. enough to facilitat an interview between Ivan and the legendary Bill Nunn Jr.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

For a long time, Ivan Cole worte, among other items, the “Weekly Checkdown” which summarized all of the relevant Steelers news from the preceding week. If anyone wants to see just how thorough Ivan was, take a look at this article from June of 2012.

In his farewell column as editor of the site, Neal Coolong offered this:

…the Weekend Checkdown, the longest-running column on BTSC. I can count on two fingers the amount of weeks Ivan did not submit his column. Editors love that kind of thing, but only slightly less is how much they love the conversation Ivan creates.

As Coolong concludes, Ivan didn’t just offer Steelers nation consistency and quantity, but most importantly quality.

  • And when it came to analyzing the Steelers, Ivan suffered no fools.

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Ivan Cole had no time for what he labeled the “Fire everyone crowd,” the segment of fans who wished that Dan Rooney would run his team more like Daniel Snyder. If a fan argued that the locker room was “tuning Mike Tomlin out” Ivan would recount how he’d heard the same criticism leveled at Chuck Noll – just after the 1977 season and just before Noll next two Super Bowls.

To fans who complained about misfires on draft picks such as Jarvis Jones, Ivan would counter with stats on how Google was often disappointed with the results of its own recruiting efforts. When fans wanted to flail Mike Tomlin for the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore, Ivan reminded everyone that it was Mike Tomlin who cautioned that the Raven’s late week roster shuffling had made them so dangerous.

For those who wanted to go to town on Mike Tomiln and the Steelers for the ugly 2-6 start in 2013, Ivan argued that the fact that the Steelers had finished 8-8 and were a blown call away from the playoffs spoke to “the awesomeness of  the organization.”

After Ryan Shazier’s game-changing play turned the Steelers win over Cincinnati in the 2015 playoffs, Ivan quickly used it as an example to admonish fans who’d written Shazier off as a “Bust” just weeks before.

Ivan never shied away from taking on members of the professional press, such as his aggressive (and accurate) refutation of Colin Cowherd in early 2016.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

While it is fair to say that Ivan did border into homerism at times, but to the extent that was occasionally true it was simply because Ivan had been around long enough to appreciate just how special the Rooneys were and how special that made the Steelers culture.

  • And in that respect, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that Ivan Cole was, in many ways, the conscience of Steelers Nation.

That, in and of itself, is a reason to honor Ivan. But there are two life lessons Ivan left me that should give us all, even those who didn’t know him, to cherish his memory.

Life Lessons Left to Us by Ivan Cole

Although Ivan passed away in late April, his health troubles began before the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” entered our vernacular. I don’t know many details beyond Ivan suffering an accident late in 2020 which required hospitalization, followed by surgery, followed by post-op complications, which led to infections, more surgeries and ultimately more infections and other health complications.

In April, as Rebecca Rollett so poignantly observed, “… his body couldn’t support his great soul any more.”

  • The first lesson Ivan’s passing offers is personal and very bittersweet.

During Ivan’s final months, his daughter offered regular updates. At one point, she asked for friends and family to call her father to help keep his spirits up. I reached out to a few friends who might not have gotten the message from his daughter and a few of them connected with him.

  • Yet, I, myself, never made the call.

I’ve never been squeamish about reaching out to friends in those circumstances, but “…I was too busy with work at this very moment, there will be time later,” I told myself. To be both 100% truthful and 100% fair to myself, I honestly didn’t realize his condition was so critical or I would have made time.

Fortunately I was able to leave him a long voice mail, a positive upbeat message talking about how great it was that two people who lived 6,000 miles away could become such great friends. His daughter played that for him, and apparently this message, along with others, helped ease Ivan’s transition form this world to the next.

  • Still, I wish I’d had that one last conversation with him.

The lesson here is simple:  Always take advantages of chances to connect with people important to you. Work to do and bills to pay will always be there, but time with wives, spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends can be fleeting.

  • The second, and final lesson Ivan offered isn’t bittersweet, but simply sweet.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

Although I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ivan Cole lived in Reston, Virginia, I got to meet him in person several times. First at my parents house during a visit in 2014. After that I got to see him at various Steelers bars in Virginia, where on one occasion I was fortunate enough to meet his daughter, grand daugherters, brother and other friends from the BTSC and Going Deep blogging communities.

  • Those meetings were great, but unfortunately on those days the Steelers weren’t.

The first time we met was the first 2015 Bengals game, the first game of the season when all four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant would take the field together. That was also the game when Le’Veon Bell was injured and lost for the season.

The next time we met was in the fall of 2017, when the Steeler played the Jaguars and Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions.

A year later, I reached out to Ivan before making a trip back to the States, asking, “Dare we tempt fate” and try to watch the game together again?” We debated the question with Clark, Bill, Mike and the rest of the gang.

There was a lot of back and forth, until Ivan settled the question definitively by insisting, “Let’s live in our hopes, instead of our fears.” The Steelers of course won that game against the Bengals, but even if they hadn’t, I can’t think of a better life lesson left to us by Ivan Cole.

Click Below to read tributes to Ivan Cole by:

Rebecca Rollett (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Michael Bean (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site)
Mike Silverstein aka “Homer J” (on Medium)
Here are also links to Ivan’s best work on Going Deep:  An Introspective Steelers Site.

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Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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