Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line – Invest in the Future Now

Draft picks on defensive line have a way of defining eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Greene’s arrival pivoted the franchise from loser to champion. Passing on Dan Marino for Gabe Rivera was a mistake it took 2 decades to atone for. And the selection of Aaron Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft is one of the unsung moments in the building of the Steelers second Super Bowl Era.

As the 2022 NFL Draft arrives, defensive line is clearly an area of need for Pittsburgh. Lets find out just how deeply that need runs.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart at: The Starter

The bad news? Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers only have one confirmed starter on the defensive line.

When the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert pronounced it a “historic day” for the franchise. Those were perhaps the truest words of post-draft praise since Chuck Noll proclaimed his love for Rod Woodson during the 1987 NFL Draft.

In playing 11 years, 166 games and 131 starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cam Heyward has become more than a dominant player on the field, a locker room leader off the field and a pillar within the community of Pittsburgh, Heyward has arguably become the face of the franchise.

In 2021, at age 32 and playing alongside junior varsity defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, didn’t simply turn in an All Pro performance with his 10 sacks, 17 QB hits, interception and nine defensed passes, he showed himself to be worthy of mention alongside franchise legends Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.

Heyward will be 33 in 2022, and if he’s shown little sign of slowing down thus far, the Steelers must be mindful of his age.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Could Be Starters

If you are surprised to read that Cam Heyward is the only confirmed starter on defensive line, you should be. Thus far there’s been no public indication that Tyson Alualu will not be back in 2022. And Steel Curtain Rising has zero access to sources that would contradict this.

However, Alualu is 35 and he is coming off of an injury that cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2021 campaign. If Alualu can stay healthy and can return to something resembling his former level, he’ll be an asset to the team.

The Steelers defense dominated at the beginning of 2020 and only began to slip with Alualu’s injury against the Ravens. The run defense took a noticeable hit when he went out against the Raiders in week 2 of 2021 and never improved.

Unlike Alualu, there has been question about whether Stephon Tuitt will return to play football in 2022. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all expressed optimism, but they’ve all been non-committal.

Stephon Tuitt had a monster year in 2020, 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Mike Tomlin likes to say that backups are really just “starters in waiting.” Yeah. That might be true in many cases, but it certainly was false for the Steelers in 2021. The absence of Tuitt and Alualu exposed the Steelers defensive line’s dearth of depth the way a root canal without pain killers exposes a nerve.

  • The Steelers had the worst run defense in franchise history since the 1940’s.

The unit was so bad that the Steelers signed Montravius Adams in week 13 off of the Saints practice squad, started him and saw the unit improve. Adams pushed Isahiah Buggs off the team, and will be back in 2022.

One potential “benefit” to the injuries to Tuitt and Alualu is that the Steelers got Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field. The Steelers traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get Loudermilk, and many questioned the move. However,  Loudermilk played reasonably well with on sack and 3 passes defensed and appears to have upside.

They also have Chris Wormley who started 14 games in 2021 and recorded 7 sacks, shining brightly against Baltimore.

In addition to Wromely, the Steelers have Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis. Mondeaux saw action in 15 games and Davis played in 4 games, or 3 fewer than his rookie season.

The Steelers 2022 Defensive Line Draft Needs

A best case scenario for the Steelers in 2022 would see Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu rejoin Cam Heyward as starters. That would be great, but it wouldn’t change the fact that all are over 30. Loudermilk’s sample size is small, but he has potential to be at least starter capable.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Wormley and Adams’ appear to be serviceable backups, but both are replaceable. As for Henry Mondeaux and Davis? The Steelers trade for Loudermilk reminded me of Mondeaux and Davis faux tussle on the sidelines of the ’20 finale against Cleveland.

That in turn reminded me of my high school wrestling coach, the amateur Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, who once stopped practice admonished two wrestlers who were staring each other down with, “If either of you was as tough as your pretending to be you’d both be state champions. Now get back on the mat.”

  • Neither Mondeaux nor Davis is as tough as they were pretending to be that day. Instead, they’re roster bubble babies.

How does all of this impact the Steelers draft needs? Well, the Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need to draft a starter this week, but they really must to use this draft to find future starters, so their need at defensive line must be considered High-Moderate.

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Strengthening the Center: Steelers Sign Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker to 2 Year Contract

Free agency officially began for the NFL as Pittsburgh continued its prolific free agent spending spree that saw the Steelers sign inside linebacker Myles Jack from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

These moves carried costs, as the Steelers parted ways with Zach Banner and Myles Jack’s arrival almost certainly means that Joe Schobert will be released.

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Jack had been cut by the Jaguars, and reported signed a two year, $16 million dollar contract. Jacksonville drafted Jack in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Jack went on to start 82 games for the Jaguars.

During that time with the Jaguars, he has 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 15 passes defensed and 19 tackles for losses. That interception count doesn’t include one that Steelers fans would doubtlessly like to forget, as he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the 2017 Heinz Field playoff loss to the Jaguars, setting up an easy score for Jacksonville and allowing them to go up 14-0. Despite being in the NFL for 6 years, Jack is only 26.

In 2021 the Steelers defense was, in a word “soft in the middle.”

While much of this weakness ties directly to the losses/absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush struggled in his return from his ACL, and Joe Schobert had a tough time against the run. Hopefully, Myles Jack will strengthen the center.

Tender Moments

The first official day of free agency brought some other news regarding the team’s restricted free agents. First, Dwayne Haskins signed his original round restricted free agent tender — this was proforma, as no team was going to give up a first round pick for Haskins.

The Steelers also issued restricted free agent tenders to Robert Spillane as expected, but surprisingly issued one to Marcus Allen. While he struggles in pass protection (see the Myles Jack signing), Spillane has been stout against the run. In contrast, Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker and has not been very effective in that role.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Montravius Adams has Done Enough for the Steelers to Extend his Stay in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh rarely does practice squad poaching. When they do, it is out of desperation. Think Deon Cain and Kerrith Whyte during 2019. “Desperation” accurately describes the Steelers 2021 defensive line, which caused Kevin Colbert to grab Montravius Adams from the New Orleans Saints practice squad.

That happened in late November, but that was sufficient for Montravius Adams to start 4 games with the Steelers. Did he do enough to get invited back?

Montravius Adams, Patrick Mahomes, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger last playoff game

Montravius Adams sacks Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs. Photo Credit: Ed Zurga, AP via AL.com

Capsule Profile of Montravius Adams’ Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Montravius Adams and started him in their home game against the Ravens, and Adams contributed to a strong defensive effort that neutralized Lamar Jackson.

Adams would start 3 more games for the Steelers and appear on one more, only missing their home win over the Titans. That was enough for 8 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and 3 quarterback hits as Adams played in 48% of the possible snaps.

During the playoff loss to the Chiefs, Adams played 42% of the snaps, and sacked Patrick Mahomes for a 10 yard loss on Kansas City’s opening drive of the second half.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Montravius Adams

Montravius Adams may not have fooled anyone into thinking he was the second coming of Tyson Alualu let alone Stephon Tuitt, but he came in off the street and became an immediate starter. Moreover, he pushed Isaiah Buggs off the team.

The Steelers had had their eye on Adams and he can provide cost-effective defensive line depth where it is sorely needed.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Montravius Adams

The Steelers run defense might have been marginally better with Adams in the lineup, but the operative words are “might” and “marginally.” The Vikings ran for 242 yards and made it look easy while the Ravens closed the season rushing for 249 more.

Montravius Adams simply isn’t the answer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Montravius Adams

Montravius Adams is a third round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft and is now on his third NFL team. He did play 4 years with the Green Bay Packers, but only started 3 games and didn’t get a second contract.

  • He only lasted 5 games with the Saints.

Does that mean he’s a lost cause? No, not necessarily.

The fact that Adams was able to step in off the street and contribute something to a defense that was struggling shows he has some skills. While he’s not “starter capable” nor does he likely have much “upside” at this stage of his career, he is someone who can provide depth and do so at an affordable second contract.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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No, the Steelers Should NOT Trade for Aaron Rodgers. Here’s Why

What is it with Green Bay quarterbacks and drama? In the not too distant past, ESPN off season ratings rose and fell on Brett Favre’s latest retirement whim. It seems that his successor, Aaron Rodgers, has taken up the mantel.

If Pro Football Talk”s Mike Florio is to be believed, and folks the operative word here is IF, Aaron Rodgers has decided on 3 teams he’ll play for IF he in fact decides he won’t retire and if decides he wants to play and doesn’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers.

  • Get that? Ok, good. Because those teams are the Broncos, the Titans and the Steelers.

And, if Florio’s reporting is accurate, and folks the operative word here is again IF, “…Rodgers has specific deals lined up with other teams — and those teams have trade compensation lined up with the Packers.”

Devin Bush, Aaron Rodgers, Steelers vs Packers

Devin Bush sacks Aaron Rodgers on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

[Editorial aside: Hum, this sounds like something an agent would leak to create a buzz around his client, doesn’t it? Just maybe. Hum, did Florio bother to confirm this with either the Packers or the teams involved? Yeah. Maybe he even talked to Art Rooney II himself. Think so? No, neither do I.]

  • It makes it sound so simple doesn’t it?

Ben Roethlisberger retires and instead of rebuilding, the Steelers welcome a reigning NFL MVP to the fold. And who would shy away from adding an NFL MVP and one of the best quarterbacks of his time? What’s not to like?

A lot, actually.

  • The Steelers trading for Aaron Rodgers would be a bad idea for so many reasons.

Start with how the story has evolved. Rodgers doesn’t know if he wants to continue playing, and if he does, he’s not even sure he wants to stay in Green Bay. But he sure knows where he wants to go, if does play and doesn’t want to stay in Green Bay.

  • Boys and girls, men and women of all ages, this is how you spell Drama Queen.

Now add that to Rodgers’ other recent off the field distractions. Is this something you really want to import into Pittsburgh?

Even if these subjective considerations don’t’ concern you, the Steelers trading for Aaron Rodgers would be a bad football decision on many levels. Go back to point one of the 4 Point Roadmap to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, published earlier here.

Point One was “Embrace the Suck.” In a nutshell, that means that the Steelers need to begin the post-Roethlisberger era being honest with themselves about where they stand as a football team. And any honest assessment will conclude that this team is not a franchise quarterback away from a Super Bowl.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the NFl’s best. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP, Via Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Sure, Stephon Tuitt is indicating he wants to play again and if he does and if Tyson Alualu returns and stays healthy, the Steelers run defense figures to be exponentially better next year, (OK, could it get worse?) And that improvement should come even if Devin Bush doesn’t return to pre-ACL tear form.

  • But there are still too many other holes on this roster.

Bringing in Aaron Rodgers means sacrificing the draft capital and the salary cap space needed to start fixing them. It is easy to Monday Morning Quarterback the personnel decisions that Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have made since, say 2015 with an eye toward “Reloading while we still have Roethlisberger.”

  • Most, if not all of those were probably justified when they were made.

But that mentality led the franchise to make mistakes. The 2016 NFL Draft offers an excellent example. The Steelers went in needing a cornerback. Several got taken before Pittsburgh could pick, including William Jackson, the one who they really wanted.

So the Steelers reached for Artie Burns instead. Now Artie Burns had talent. But he never developed it, and he ended up becoming one of the 2 true Kevin Colbert 1st round busts.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

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

But maybe if the Steelers aren’t feeling the frenzy to “Reload for Roethlisberger,” they don’t reach for Artie Burns. Maybe they instead draft Kenny Clark or Chris Jones.

No, I don’t care if either player would have been a good fit for the Steelers system – that’s not the point. The point is that both men went a handful of picks after Burns and together they have 5 Pro Bowl selections, or one more than Burns’ career interception total.

The Steelers are at crossroads in their history where they need, to use Jim Wexell’s term, “foundational pieces.”

They need young players who can infuse the locker room with the mix of talent, work ethic and attitude necessary to build the foundations for a Super Bowl run.

Sending multiple 1st round picks, a few seconds and thirds, and restructuring contracts to free up 40-something million in salary cap space for a 39 year old drama queen short-circuits that process.

  • Let Aaron Rodgers enjoy the buzz on social media his agent has churned up for him.

Let the resident Twitter General Managers in Steelers Nation map out the free agent signings, contract restructures and late round draft picks Kevin Colbert would need to make to position Aaron Rodgers for a run.

They can have all of it. All of it as long as this remains nothing more than noise to those on the South Side whose opinions actually count.

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Steelers 2022 Free Agent Tracker – Follow Pittsburgh Through Uncharted Waters

The 2022 off season has arrived and with that the Steelers enter uncharted waters. Ben Roethlisberger has retired so for the first time since 2004, Pittsburgh has no franchise quarterback.

They are also coming off their 3 straight one-and-done playoff appearance where they again were embarrassed. This came on the heels of a 2021 season that saw the Steelers run defense and first half offense reach historic lows, with futility levels not seen since the 1940s.

  • And don’t look now, but the Steelers have 24 free agents, setting another franchise record.

But all news is not grim. The Steelers enter this bold new era with between 28 and 32 million dollars in salary cap space, and that number could rise depending on the fates of players like Stephon Tuitt and Joe Schobert.

steelers press conference,

The Steelers 2022 Free Agents Signings and Profiles

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

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Signings

Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback
3/14/2022, Steelers sign Trubisky to a 2 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle
3/14/2022, Steelers resign Okorafor to 3 year contract
Miles Killebrew, Linebacker
3/11/2022, Steelers resign Killebrew to 2 year contract
Arthur Maulet, Cornerback
3/12/2022, Steelers resign Maulet to a 2 year contract
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/guard
3/15/2022, Steelers offer exclusive rights tender
Dwayne Haskins, Quarterback
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
3/16/2022, Haskins signs restricted free agent tender
Mason Cole, Center/Guard from Minnesota Vikings
3/14/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive tackle
3/15/2022, Steelers resign to 3 year contract
James Daniel, Center/Guard, Chicago Bears
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Levi Wallace, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Montravius Adams, Defensive Lineman
3/15/2022, Steelers resign Adams to 2 year contract
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
3/16/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback
3/18/2022, Steelers resign him to 2 year contract
Gunner Olszewski, KR/PR, Wide Receiver from the New England Patriots
3/18/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Genard Avery, Outside Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
3/28/2022, Steelers sign to 1 year contract
Karl Joseph, Safety
4/1/2022, Steelers resign Joseph to 1 year contract
Terrell Edmunds, Safety
4/23/2022, Steelers resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 year contract

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Losses

Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 2 year contract with San Francisco 49ers
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs
James Washington, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Dallas Cowboys
Taco Charlton, Outside Linebacker,
4/5/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with New Orleans Saints
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback
4/8/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted Free Agents


Joe Haden, Cornerback
Trai Turner, Guard
Eric Ebron, Tight End
B.J. Finney, Center
Kalen Ballage, Running Back

Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Demarcus Christmas, defensive line
DeMarkus Acy, Cornerback

Restricted Free Agents

Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper (signed)

That’s a daunting number and there is no way the Steelers can keep all of those players, even with their salary cap surplus.

But the truth is the Steelers don’t and shouldn’t want to keep all of them. As Mike Tomlin often says, about free agency, “Its free for them and its free for us.” While the Steelers have never been “splash” players in free agency, there are numerous times when they’ve let one player walk and quietly upgraded the position with another, under the radar signing.

As we do every year, staff writer Tony Defeo and I will be doing free agent profiles highlighting the pros and cons of signing or letting the players above walk, and updating movement as time allows.

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Resist the Restructure: Steelers Should Start Post-Roethlisberger Era with Sound Salary Cap Management

The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.

  • And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.

A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.

  • Things are different this year.

Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

Of course. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.

  • That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?

No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.

Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”

NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.

  • For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.

This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.

The Steelers resigned essential stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. They brought in under the radar free agents like Kevin Greene, Ray Seals and John Williams.

  • But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.
Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.

  • The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.

That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.

  • These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”

But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.

The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.

  • It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.

  • The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?

No one knows.

But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.

 

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns for Steelers vs Chiefs! Plus Pittsburgh Must be Cautious with Najee Harris

The Pittsburgh Steelers uphill battle to upset the Kanas City Chiefs tomorrow night just got a little more level. In move that was totally unexpected as recently as five days ago, the Steelers have activated wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuter from the injured reserve list.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith Schuster. Photo Credit: Twittter

On Wednesday JuJu Smith-Schuster suddenly appeared in practice, with teammate Diontae Johnson confirming that he had idea this was coming until he saw JuJu putting on his cleats. Still, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would sit this game out.

The Steelers have confirmed their decision to activate Smith-Schuster from IR while releasing backup punter Corliss Waitman.

JuJu also shared this Tweet with followers:

It is huge move by JuJu Smith-Schuster. He could have very easily opted out of playing, eyeing the calendar and his next contract and no one would have thought any less of him. Instead, JuJu opted to prove his commitment to winning.

One might ask, with the emergence of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and to a lesser extent Ray-Ray McCloud, can JuJu Smith-Schuster, who only had 15 catches for 129 yards before injury, really help the Steelers after not taking a snap in over a month?

The answer is yes, he can.

As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly explained:

His return would be most noticeable on third downs. With Smith-Schuster in the lineup, the Steelers converted 46 percent of their third downs. Without him, they fell to 36 percent. A year ago, he was tied for second behind Keenan Allen with 24 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.

Defenses will be forced to respect Smith-Schuster and even if that doesn’t directly translate in to catches for Number 19, it will allow Ben Roethlisberger to hit targets like Pat Freiermuth

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return also yields intangible benefits. Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver, as Vontaze Burfict found out when JuJu decked him as a rookie, forcing him from the field on a gurney.

While Smith-Schuster isn’t going to transform this team’s running game into well-oiled, road-grading machine, his physicality will help set the tone for blocking at the second level.

Harris Expected to Play, Steelers Must be Cautious

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return isn’t the only bit of good injury news coming out of the South Side. It was also announced that Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were both…

…Got you, didn’t I? Alas, the Steelers aren’t getting either defensive lineman back this week, although Lord knows either man would be an instant upgrade alongside Cam Heyward.

The good news that the Steelers did get comes on the other side of the ball and involves Najee Harris. Harris of course injured his right elbow in the Steelers 2021 season finale against the Ravens. His participation was limited throughout the week and when asked about his status for the game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted he was “Concerned.”

As of Friday Harris was listed as questionable, but the Steelers have removed him from the injury list and will play him against the Chiefs.

The reality is simple – with Harris, the Steelers have a chance against the Chiefs, without him they do not. Najee Harris is clearly the most talented player on the Steelers offense and his 188 yard performance against the Browns in Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field signified a changing of the guard.

  • Still, the Steelers need to be careful here.

A decade ago RGIII led Washington to the playoffs en route to earning rookie of the year honors. However he was injured during that first playoff contest, but was put back in the game. Whether this was due to Mike Shanahan’s mistake or Daniel Snyder’s meddling the world will never know. It matters little now, as RGIII never the same.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff must avoid a similar mistake at all costs.

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Super Bowl Legends Dissing Steelers Defense Isn’t New. But It Still Hurts

“There’s absolutely no physicality. There’s no energy defensively. There’s no tone-setters.”

“Pittsburgh football ain’t about having fun. Pittsburgh football is about dominating people on the field because of your physicality.”

“But that ain’t what y’all want. What y’all want to do is show up, and y’all want to live on the backs of legends. Don’t nobody care about that no more. Young people aren’t respectful to the past. In the past, Pittsburgh was something. This Pittsburgh defense ain’t jack.”

Those quotes, courtesy of Fox News, are all from the same person, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, during a rant on Monday while making an appearance with his current employer, ESPN.

Ryan Clark, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu

Ryan Clark celebrates after an interception. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy.com

Clark, a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII team, a championship team that was spurred on by one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the NFL (Dick LeBeau‘s unit finished number one in just about every important category in 2008), was upset about the performance of Keith Butler‘s 2021 version, a version that has allowed 586 rushing yards over the past three games (the Steelers have lost two of those games and had to settle for a tie against the pitiful Lions in the other).

Clark isn’t the only former Steelers defensive player to chime in on the struggles of the current defense. Former linebacker Arthur Moats has been very critically, especially of the effort put forth by linebacker Devin Bush: “Your tape is going to tell me everything I need to know so don’t tell me you want to make plays when I cut the tape on you, you’re not showing that effort.”

I realize that Bush has come under the microscope with the media and fans because of his lack of productivity this year, but Moats’ comments had to cut deep like a surgical procedure with no anesthesia.

It’s easy for us to just arbitrarily proclaim that a player isn’t putting forth the effort, but when a former player, an actual expert, accuses you of that, again, ouch!

Of course, former Steelers, especially former Super Bowl heroes like Ryan Clark, expressing strong opinions about the team’s defensive struggles is nothing new. In fact, I think the most famous quote from an old legend about such things came from Dwight White, a four-time Lombardi winner and member of the famed Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, once famously (or infamously) described Pittsburgh’s mediocre defense of the mid-’80s as “Soft and cheesy.

Guys like Clark, Moats and White know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two, especially Clark and White who, again, played on some of the best defenses in the history of the NFL.

It can’t be easy for a former player to sit back and watch a unit that he once helped to make legendary, intimidating and dominant regress into something that wouldn’t put fear into a high school team’s offense.

It has to be especially frustrating to watch the 2021 unit because, despite the injuries, there should be more than enough star power to still be quite effective. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s unit, one that was hovering around the top 10 in total yards fairly recently, has dropped to 21st in that category.

  • As for the run defense, it’s near the bottom of the NFL, allowing 133.1 yards per game.

Pathetic.

Also, a defense that was one of the more opportunistic units in the NFL the past two seasons has just 10 takeaways in 11 games. Heck, even the pass rush, the hallmark of the defense–the entire team, really–since the second half of the 2016 campaign, is having a down year and is on pace for just 37 sacks–and that’s with an extra regular-season game.

What has happened to the Steelers defense in 2021? It can’t be just about the injuries; if it is, guys like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu deserve a lot more money than what they’re currently earning. If it’s indeed about attitude, want to and being on the details, well, the unit better figure things out and quick.

Former players aren’t just watching, they care deeply. And when a legend like Ryan Clark, one of the most charismatic and vocal former NFL players currently working in television, puts you on blast, he isn’t going to turn the volume down until you get it right.

 

 

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