Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

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Steelers 2018 Losses in Free Agency – Chris Hubbard Might Be Pittsburgh’s Only Defection

NFL Free Agency isn’t a week old yet, but hundreds of millions, if not billions of contracts have been thrown around. Yet, as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, its been (almost) All Quiet on the South Side Front.

The loss of Chris Hubbard as a free agent, while unfortunate, was completely expected. And as far as Steelers 2018 Free agency, are concerned, Chris Hubbard’s the only free agent defection the Pittsburgh suffers.

  • Now, is that a good thing, a bad thing or is it simply a neutral factoid?
Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers 2018 Free Agency losses

Chris Hubbard might well be only free agent defection the Steelers suffer in 2018. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the surface it seems like a bad thing. It is harsh, but fair to look at Steelers remaining unrestricted free agents, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers Greg Ducre, Daniel McCullers, Arthur Moats, Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley and simply say, “Why would any other team be interested?” The only ones who offer much of a track record is Arthur Moats and Eli Rogers, and Rogers is injured.

  • Kevin Colbert pulled Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley off the couch as injury replacements last December.

Ridley did fairly well, Spence struggled for a couple of games, looked good in the last two regular season contests, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars he did nothing to make Ryan Shazier’s absence less noticeable. But players like these typically don’t get signed until after the draft.

Daniel McCullers   phone will stay quiet unless some team suffers a series of injuries on their defensive line during preseason.

Its unlikely that any team will be willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get Chris Boswell. Anthony Chickillo might be a little more appealing because he would only cost a team a 6th round pick, but NFL general managers seem to value draft picks more than players. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick to get J.J. Wilcox, and J.J. Wilcox had 39 starts under his belt to Chickillo’s 9.

  • The fact that the Steelers most appealing free agents are their restricted free agents speaks well of Pittsburgh’s personnel policies.

Since free agency arrived in the NFL the franchise’s focus has always been to resign players before they hit the open market. You can see that at work in two names that don’t appear above, Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt. Last summer the Steelers inked new contracts for Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt who otherwise would be free to sign with any other NFL team at this moment.

  • With so much going on in the rest of the NFL, it can understandably be a little frustrating to see the Steelers standing pat.

But this spring at least, the reason why the Steelers have so few free agents worthy of attracting attention from the rest of the NFL is because they’ve wise personnel decisions, not foolish ones. Ditto the reason why the Steelers salary cap situation doesn’t allow them to go on any shopping sprees.

Love it or hate it, what we’re seeing this spring is the Steelers Way in action.

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Steelers 2018 Free Agency Poll Who Stays? Who Goes? Sound Off Steelers Nation!

There’s been a lot of Sound and Fury in Steelers Nation since the playoff loss to the Jaguars and finally its almost time for it to mean something. In a few hours the Steelers will need to decide to place the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, and if reports are correct, that is exactly what they’ll do.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

And, in a little over a week, the rest of the Steelers 2018 free agents will be free to sign with other NFL teams. Steel Curtain Rising has already provided detailed profiles on each of the Steelers 2018 free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, giving our views on who should stay and who should go.

Now it is your turn to sound off in our Steelers 2018 Free Agency Poll:

[yop_poll id=”64″]

Le’Veon Bell is of course the biggest and most consequential decision the Steelers face, and after that there’s a sharp drop off as the only other real “Starter capable” unrestricted free agent the Steelers have is Chris Hubbard.

The Steelers 2018 restricted free agents are and Fitzgerald Toussaint, Chris Boswell, Anthony Chickillo, Greg Ducre (who??? Yeah, we asked that too; you can find out more about Greg Ducre here) and Eli Rogers.

Jordan Berry and Roosevelt Nix were also set to become restricted free agents, but the Steelers have already resigned them. Still, you can vote on whether you think it was a good idea for the Steelers to sign them or not.

So please take a moment to cast your votes, better yet cast your vote and make your case in the comment column! Thanks in advance for voting!

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This Time There’s No Suspense over Sean Spence’s Impending Free Agency with Steelers

25 years ago the arrival of free agency breathed life into the once staid NFL off season by introducing an element of the unknown. Once, after the games ended, news on the NFL would dry up, except for the draft.

  • Now February is filled with speculation over what will happen, while free agent moves dominate the news in March.

Sean Spence has been around long enough that this is his second go-around as a Steelers free agent. Two seasons ago there was legitimate speculation about his fate and future with the team. Today there’s little suspense behind Sean Spence’s free agency. Let’s look at why.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers win Texans Christmas

Sean Spence in Steelers Christmas win over Texans. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Steelers Career

The Steelers picked Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft hoping to replace James Farrior and/or Larry Foote. Early returns indicated Spence was that player until devastating knee injury threatened to end Sean Spence’s NFL career before it began.

The Steelers kept him on IR for two seasons, but drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier to hedge their bets.
By the time Steelers OTAs in the spring of 2014, both Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier had passed him on the depth chart, but Sean Spence was back to full health, and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and entered the season as “The next man up” at inside linebacker. Injuries quickly paved the way for Spence’s to get playing time, and he 8 games where he:

Spence didn’t have quite as many “Splash Plays” in 2015, but he continued to rotate with Williams in relief of Shazier, and started four games during the course of the season. Spence’s strong resume led to speculation that the Steelers might resign him with an eye toward replacing Lawrence Timmons.

  • That never happened.

Sean Spence looked like a “Starter Capable” player and he followed Dick LeBeau to the Tennessee Titans. Despite some solid numbers in 2016, Spence didn’t get an offer after playing on his one year deal. The Colts signed him, but cut him before training camp, brought him back for a few games, but Spence was on the couch out of football when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Bengals.

The Steelers resigned Spence and he started immediately, looking ever bit like a player coming off the couch in the Steelers games against the Ravens and Patriots. He played better against the Texans and Browns, but was part of an atrocious defensive effort in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

Sean Spence knows the system, having come up under Dick LeBeau and playing for Keith Butler. Perhaps Sean Spence isn’t a long-term answer or a long term starter for the Steelers at inside linebacker, but his experience suits him to serve as a bridge starter and mentor to the inside linebacker the Steelers will likely chose early in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

The Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich in a matter of minutes, and it was clear through the rest of the game that L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats weren’t up to replacing him in the middle caused Kevin Colbert to look to Sean Spence.

  • But Steelers defense was flatfooted without Shazier, and Spence did little to change that.

Sure, he improved during the regular season, but he really didn’t give much of an indication that he was even a short-term answer. The Steelers need to improve at inside linebacker, and its hard to make the case that Sean Spence’s return helps make that happen.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Spence

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how twin injuries have forever linked the fates of Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier. It was an inspiring story.

  • But inspiration isn’t what the Steelers need at inside linebacker, what they need is a dynamic playmaker.

Word is that Lawrence Timmons will be on the free agent market, and speculation is that the Steelers would bring him back. Its entirely possible that Timmons would do more for this unit than Spence, which should tell you what you need to know.

After the dust of both free agency and the draft settles, Sean Spence may be worth a considering bringing back at a veteran minimum contract, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

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What Should The Steelers Do With Restricted Free-Agent Anthony Chickillo?

“Depth is the first victum of the salary cap.” It might be a cliche, but most cliche’s era their idiomatic status because they’re true. Unlike 70’s and 80’s, the salary cap has made it near impossible for any team to be as deep as it wants to be.

  • Sure, a team that drafts exceptionally well can stock its backup slots with true rising stars, but free agency renders such situations temporary.

Think of the Steelers recent history at inside linebacker.

Just a few years ago Pittsburgh boasted Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence AND Terence Garvin. Bob Labriola described the Steelers depth there as “obscene.” That was then, this is now. In the space of a few series against Cincinnati, the 2017 Steelers went from having inside linebacker as a team strength, to having to call Sean Spence off of a couch in Florida to start the next week.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers gear up for 2018’s free agency period, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would do well to keep that experience front-of-mind as they make decisions regarding restricted free agent linebacker Anthony Chickillo.  

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo closes in on DeShone Kizer. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

 

Capsule Profile Of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

Anthony Chickillo was a defensive end for the University of Miami Hurricanes who came to Pittsburgh as a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Given the Steelers long history as a 3-4 defensive team, Chickillo’s size (his draft profile listed him at 267 pounds) wasn’t going to translate well to the pro level–at least not in Pittsburgh. Therefore, the plan was for Chickillo to transition to outside linebacker under the tutelage of position coach Joey Porter.

But there was the matter of Anthony Chickillo making it onto the final roster during his rookie training camp. While Chickillo did initially make his first roster, he was waived days later and signed to the practice squad.

Fortunately for Anthony Chickillo, he was quickly promoted to the active roster and, according to his Wikipedia page, he made his NFL debut at Heinz Field against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6.

  • All-in-all, Chickillo appeared in seven games in 2015, forcing one fumble and recovering another.

However, it was in his second season when Anthony Chickillo, now fully transitioned to the outside linebacker position, would learn his craft via baptism by fire.

Anthony Chickillo was not only part of the team’s early-season plan to rotate its outside linebackers, he actually started seven games, after 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree was placed on Injured Reserve following offseason surgery.

Anthony Chickillo recorded 19 tackles and the first 2.5 sacks of his career in 2016, before ultimately taking a backseat to veteran James Harrison and the newly-activated Dupree down the stretch.

Anthony Chickillo’s finest hour occurred against the Browns in Week 1 of last year, when he posted two sacks while starting in place of Dupree and recorded the Steelers first touchdown of the season, after recovering a blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich in the end zone early in the first quarter.

Chickillo appeared in all 16 games a year ago, but he only added one more sack to his Week 1 total.

The Case For The Steelers Tendering Anthony Chickillo 

It shouldn’t take much more than a low tender to keep Chickillo around for another year. With veteran Arthur Moats about to hit unrestricted free-agency, the Steelers could soon be lacking in proven depth at the outside linebacker spot behind Dupree and second-year man T.J. Watt.

  • However, the Steelers need to be smart here.

Anthony Chickillo body of work, while not jaw dropping, certainly shows his can play in the NFL and his development is trending in the direction of “starter capable.” Offering Anthony Chickillo a tender that is too low might invite a team to extend him an offer.

And, if anything will be different than previous years, we know that James Harrison isn’t going to be around as an emergency outside linebacker.

The Case Against The Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo 

The case against the Steelers offering Anthony Chickillo a restricted free agent tender would go like this. At age 25, hasn’t evolved much beyond that of a depth player since making the transition from his college position. Sure, he’s trending towards “starter capable status,” but is he there yet?

  • The Steelers have to be stingy about using their salary cap space.

Its true that Pittsburgh’s depth at outside linebacker has befitted the team over the past few seasons, but depth isn’t a luxury that a team that borders on salary cap purgatory can afford.

While its true that Anthony Chickillo is the kind of player you’d like to get back for at least another year, the harsh realities of salary cap dollars an sense suggest that Pittsburgh’s best choice is to take the risk of making him a free agent, and bringing him back for the veteran minimum.

Curtain’s Call On The Steelers And Anthony Chickillo 

To reiterate, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker could be severely lacking if the veteran Arthur Moats decides to ply his trade elsewhere. At the end of the day, the Steelers really just need bodies at the position. Perhaps that’s not  a ringing endorsement for Anthony Chickillo, but he does know the Steelers system, and he has seen an awful lot of playing time over the past two seasons.

  • Besides that, Anthony Chickillo has been a regular on special teams, a unit that’s often overlooked during the free-agency period, as fans are more focused on the big names on offense and defense.

Anthony Chickillo might just be a backup outside linebacker, but he’s an extremely competent backup, and the Steelers may not be looking for much more than that for 2018.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Free Agency Tracker

Franchise tags are being slapped on star players. Teams, real NFL teams not fantasy ones, are putting together blockbuster trades that they can’t even execute. Instead of talking about sacks, Red Zone performance and third down conversion, football fans fling around words like “cap value,” pro-rated, roster bonus and “dead money.”

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers 2018 free agent focus

Roosevelt Nix blocking for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

The start of NFL Free Agency is almost upon us, and with that Steel Curtain Rising rolls out our Steelers 2018 Free Agent focus, by publishing what will be our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Tracker.

Let’s look at who the Black and Gold at risk of losing during the 2018 Free Agency signing period.

Steelers 2018 Free Agent Acquisitions

Jon Bostic
3/18/18 – Steelers sign Jon Bostic, inside linebacker, to 2 year contract

Morgan Burnett
3/20/18 – Steelers sign Morgan Burnett, safety, to a 3 year contract

Nat Berhe
4/5/18 – Steelers Sign Nat Berhe, special teams, safety

Steelers 2018 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a full free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
3/7/18Steelers place franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell
Arthur Moats
Chris Hubbard
3/15/18Chris Hubbard signs with Cleveland Browns
Justin Hunter
4/6/18 – Steelers resign Justin Hunter
Daniel McCullers
3/22/18 – Steelers resign Daniel McCullers to 1 year contract.
Sean Spence
Stevan Ridley
4/4/18 – Steelers resign Stevan Ridley.

Steelers 2018 Restricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a full free agent profile.

Fitzgerald Toussaint
3/15/18Steelers sign Fitzgerald Toussaint to 1 year contract
Chris Boswell
3/12/18Steelers extend Chris Boswell as 2nd round restricted free agent tender
4/5/18 – Chris Boswell signs restricted free agent tender
Anthony Chickillo
3/14/18Steelers place original round restricted free agent tender on Anthony Chickillo
Greg Ducre (who????)
Roosevelt Nix
Steelers have resigned Roosevelt Nix to 4 year contract
Eli Rogers
3/14/18 – Steelers opt not to tender Eli Rogers, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Jordan Berry
Steelers have resigned Jordan Berry

Steelers 2018 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

B.J. Finney
Steelers have resigned B.J. Finney to 1 year contract
Matt Feiler
Steelers have resigned Matt Feiler

The Steelers will make plenty of moves that don’t involve the men above. The Steelers 2018 Salary Cap situation is fairly tight and that means that several roster cuts are coming, as well as some restructures. A potential extenstion of Ben Roethlisberger, which Art Rooney II has suggest may happen, could also provide short-term Steelers salary cap relief.

The Steelers 2018 secondary is likely to have a very different look, as William Gay, J.J. Wilcox and perhaps Mike Mitchell will likely become cap casualties very soon. Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey could also find himself looking for new work.

Steel Curtain Rising will be following all of the action and we will update this page as news breaks.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Difference in Sunday’s Debacle? The Jacksonville Jaguars Played Playoff Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers Didn’t

The Steelers offensive superstars looked the part in Pittsburgh’s AFC Divisional Playoff match-up against the Jaguars at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Injured receiver Antonio Brown turned in a courageous effort, pulling in seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. And running back Le’Veon Bell was the dual threat he’s been his entire career, tallying 155 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns–one through the air; and one on the ground.

  • Yes, the Steelers high-paid offensive stars gave fans their money’s worth.

Only problem was, they didn’t give them a victory, as the Steelers fell 45-42 to end their season one week before most thought it would, and three weeks before everyone wished it would.

Why? Because, while the Steelers stars were dazzling their fans with perfect throws and breath-taking catches, the Jacksonville Jaguars were executing playoff football.

What’s that, you ask?

Part of it is winning the turnover battle.

Ben Roethlisberger, Lerentee McCray, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Jaguars sack ben roethlisberger

The Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger at critical moments. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Turnovers are a big deal during any football game–and they become absolutely vital after the calendar changes from December to January.

While the Jaguars defense collected 33 takeaways during the regular season, to Pittsburgh’s 22, they also took seven of them back for scores, while Pittsburgh put up one giant zero in that department.

Perhaps then it was no surprise that Jacksonville collected two turnovers on Sunday and turned both into touchdowns. The Steelers, meanwhile, couldn’t turn any takeaways into points, because their defense didn’t come up with a single one.

Speaking of Pittsburgh’s defense, after leading the NFL in sacks with 56 during the regular season, it barely got a hand on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Jaguars defense that collected 55 during the regular season didn’t exactly hound Roethlisberger, who was sacked just twice in 58 attempts. But one of those sacks was of the strip variety, and the fumble was taken to the house by linebacker Telvin Smith.

  • What about third down conversions?

The Steelers were seven for 16, which isn’t exactly horrible. Jacksonville, meanwhile, was eight of 14. This doesn’t seem like a huge disparity, that is, until you consider the Steelers were battling back from a 21-point deficit.

When you have a team on the ropes, which the Steelers did after cutting their 28-7 deficit to 28-21 with back-to-back touchdowns to end the first half and begin the second, your defense needs to get off the field as quickly as possible in-order to give the football back to your red-hot offense.

But not only were the Jaguars pretty efficient on converting third downs, they had no three-and-outs the entire afternoon.

  • That’s right, ZERO three and outs for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Steelers. Zip.

What about fourth downs?

The Steelers were four of six in that category, but the fact that they had to attempt so many is indicative of a team that was playing from behind the entire afternoon.

Jacksonville had the lead right from the beginning.

Why?

Because it converted on its only fourth down attempt of the day, when running back Leonard Fournette dived through the tackle attempt of Sean Spence and into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown on the game’s opening series.

  • The Steelers two failed fourth down conversions came when the yard to gain was less than one.
  • The Jaguars simply out-executed Pittsburgh in every important measurable that a head coach holds near and dear to his heart.

Maybe that’s why they rushed 35 times, to Pittsburgh’s 18.

  • Why pass 55 times, when you’re averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the ground?

Like Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said afterwards, Pittsburgh’s porous defense couldn’t really get aggressive on second and third down, because Jacksonville was continuously winning on first down (were you as sick as I  was of seeing second-and-five or six after just about every run by Fournette and T.J. Yeldon?)

The Steelers out-gained the Jaguars 545  to 378, and in many ways, they were the more spectacular offense.

  • But statistics are nice, winning is even nicer.

The Jaguars did just about everything a team needs to do in-order to advance in the playoffs.

And that’s why Jacksonville is packing for the AFC Championship game, and the Steelers are packing for the offseason.

 

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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