Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

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

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Safety – Pittsburgh Has Luxury of Being Strategic

Safety has been one of the most intriguing areas on the depth chart during this off season. The Steelers said goodbye to a former first round draft pick in the form of Terrell Edmunds, resigned an older veteran, brought in one free agent and made a trade that could someday impact the position.

So how does all of this impact their approach to the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have a safety who is already adding to the legacy left by the likes of Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

By any measure, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a play maker. In just four years he has 17 interceptions, including three pick sixes. And as true playmakers do, he makes them at timely moments in games. Just ask Joe Burrow who threw right to Fitzpatrick on the second play of the 2022 season.

Fitzpatrick is far more than a ball hawk. He comes away with deflections with the game is on the line, manages to make tackles in bounds when the clock is running, and is on the field wherever the action is.

Starting opposite Fitzpatrick is Damontae Kazee. Kazee is new to Pittsburgh but he had 2 interceptions in 9 games for the Steelers last year, and he made those at critical moments of the game. Kazee’s durability is an issue, however.

Steelers  Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The Steelers have also signed Keanu Neal. Like Kazee, Neal has durability issues, but he also brings 80 games and 61 starts of experience to the Steelers. With his resume, Neal could conceivably push Kazee for the starting job, but his contract suggests the Steelers are not projecting him as a starter.

The Steelers also have Tre Norwood the proverbial “Swiss Army” knife. Norwood arrived in Pittsburgh as a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and appeared in 17 games as a rookie. While his snap count dropped from 33% of defensive snaps to 26%, he’s still an asset.

The Steelers also have Miles Killebrew who mainly plays special teams, but did has played 50 defensive snaps over the last two seasons.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Finally, the Steelers have Patrick Peterson. Peterson arrived in Pittsburgh as a cornerback, but its been suggested and perhaps even implied by Mike Tomlin that he could play safety.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Safety

The Steelers have positioned themselves well at safety. While neither Kazee nor Neal project as long term starters at the strong safety position, both are viable options for Pittsburgh in 2023.

So the Steelers could strength the position in the draft, should do so if they get the opportunity, but do not need to reach to fill a need.

In other words, they have the luxury of being strategic.

When all is said and done, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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

The dreaded reach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strengthen the Center: Steelers Sign Keanu Neal, Breiden Fehoko, Sustain Omar Khan’s Free Agency Trend

Strengthen the center.

That’s been Omar Kahn’s singular focus in free agency. It was evident in the Steelers signings of Inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and resigning of Damontae Kazee. On the offensive side of the ball the Steelers signed guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Khan doubled down on the third week of free agency by signing safety Keanu Neal and nose tackle Breiden Fehoko.

Keanu Neal, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Keanu Neal celebrates after making a play against his new team. Photo Credit: Buccaneers.com

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting, David Cantner the agent for both players, has tweeted that Neal’s contract is for 2 years. Cantner did not tweet a length for Fehoko, which Rutter indicates that this likely means it is a one year deal.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal with the 17th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal played in Atlanta for five seasons. He was their starting free safety for two straight seasons before injuries ruined both his third and 4th seasons.

Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 opener and then his Achilles in 2019. The Falcons extended him a 5 year option but let him walk to the Dallas Cowboys in 2021where Neal played middle linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Neal in 2022, where appeared in all 17 games, but was limited to 8 starts due to a hip injury.

With Terrell Edmunds gone to Philadelphia and his background as a middle linebacker, Keanu Neal will likely split time with Damontae Kazze at strong safety and function as the “dime linebacker” in the Steelers three safety set.

Jim Wexell has suggested and Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Patrick Peterson could also see sometime at safety, suggesting that Minkah Fitzpatrick could work a little at strong safety.

  • Nose tackle Breiden Fehoko fills an obvious need for the Steelers for depth at defensive line.

Fehoko got his start in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the San Die… er um, the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s made his bones in the NFL as a backup, appearing in just 19 games over three years with 4 starts.

Although four of those starts came in 2022, the Chargers did not offer him a restricted free agent offer. Breiden Fehoko will likely work in behind Montravius Adams and compete with Isaiahh Loudermilk for playing time, if not a helmet on game days.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette retweeted this shot of Fehoko from late last season:

If this is an indication of the level he’s playing at, Karl Dunbar will find a way to get him on the field.

Draft Impact of Neal and Fehoko

While these moves address needs and add depth, they’re impact on the Steelers draft plans is likely minimal. Keanu Neal’s addition makes it less likely that the Steelers will draft a safety on day one or day two of the draft. But his injury history, along with Kazee’s injury history and his age suggest that neither is likely seen as a long-term answer.

So a safety in round 3 or 4 wouldn’t be out of the question.

Breiden Fehoko could be an interesting under the radar pickup for the Steelers. But at this point has to be seen as Tyson Alualu’s replacement. And even if he does turn out to be a free agent steal, that doesn’t change the fact that Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger.

Defensive line remains a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2023 draft.

“Que Pasa con Gentry?”

Last weekend news broke that the Steelers had resigned Zach Gentry. All of the major outlets went with it. However, the Steelers have yet to announce that they’ve come to terms with their erstwhile number 2 tight end.

The signing could still happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a NFL Network reporter broke the news of a deal, only for that deal to never appear.

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

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Comings and Goings: Steelers Sign Zach Gentry, Le’Raven Clark, Lose Steven Sims, Trent Scott

Last week saw a lot of under the radar activity by the Steelers in free agency.

The Steelers resigned tight end Zach Gentry. As news of the deal broke on a Saturday, there are no contract details. They also signed offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark from the Tennessee Titans, making him the 3rd ex-Eagles offensive lineman to follow Andy Wedil to Pittsburgh.

That latter move was necessary, as the Steeler lost offensive tackle Trent Scott to the Washington Commanders. They saw wide receiver and kick returner Steven Sims sign with to the Houston Texans. And of course the Eagles struck back, a bit at least, by signing Terrell Edmunds away from the Steelers.

We covered Terrell Edmunds’ departure at length here, today we’ll take a look at the other moves.

Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers vs Chiefs 2021 Wild Card, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger last pass

Zach Gentry catching one of Ben Roethlisberger’s last passes. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One for One Replacements and Votes of Confidence

Le’Raven Clark brings 6 years and 64 games with 18 starts to Pittsburgh, having played for the Colts, Eagles and most recently the Titans. That’s a very similar to Trent Scott, and based on that resume its clear that Clark is seen as a backup. This is a 1 for 1 depth replacement, and should do nothing to alter the Steelers (God willing) plans to add a tackle with one of their premium picks in the 2023 NFL Draft.

  • The loss of Steven Sims isn’t terribly surprising.

He’s shown himself to be a solid returner and a wide receiver with serviceable skills. The Steelers left him, along with James Pierre unprotected as a restricted free again. Omar Khan won his gamble and got James Pierre back, but has now lost Sims.

The fact that the Steelers left him unprotected also has to be seen as a vote of confidence for Gunner Olszewski. Sims replaced Gunner as the return man after Gunner Olszewski’s fumbling issues followed him from New England to Pittsburgh.

  • The biggest surprise of the week was the decision to resign Zach Gentry.

The Steelers drafted Gentry as a project in 2019. Injures limited him greatly in his first two years, but he had a strong 2021 season, looking like a legit number 2 tight end  along side Pat Freiermuth . He really didn’t make much of a leap in 2022 with and the emergence of Connor Heyward appeared to make him expendable.

  • Obviously, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan see it differently.

Still, the decision to resign him is understandable, given the fact that the Steelers don’t have a 5th round or a 6th round pick in this spring’s draft, which is about where you’d find a backup tight end.

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Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I have.

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

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

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

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Najee Harris, Elandon Roberts, Steelers vs Dolphins.

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

Ripple Effect from Shazier’s Injury Continues

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

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

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

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

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

  • So the Steelers turned to Cole Holcomb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except he wasn’t.

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

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

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Time to Learn to Spell Their Names: Steelers Resign Larry Ogunjobi and Damontae Kazee

The Pittsburgh Steelers reinforced their defense by “promoting from within” so to speak on the second day of free agency when they resigned defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi and safety Damontae Kazee.

Both were excellent football moves, but there’s a real downside for bloggers.

Both men arrived as potential short timers. It was an open question whether they would remain in Pittsburgh. So it made little sense to try to learn to spell their names. Now we don’t have a choice.

T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi. Combine to make a critical stop. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Larry Ogunjobi, by far the one with the most difficult name to spell, signed a three-year contract totaling $28.75 million. Information on how much is guaranteed hasn’t been released, but just over 21 million coming in the first two years of the deal.  Ogunjobi’s injury history explains the lack of detail about guaranteed money and his contract’s structure.

  • Damontae Kazee signed a 2 year contact but terms of the deal have not been released.

That latter factoid could spell hope for Terrell Edmunds. The conventional wisdom heading into free agency was that the Kazee/Edmunds decision was an “either/or” proposition for the Steelers. One would sign and the other they would let walk.

That still may happen, but the fact that the details of Damontae Kazee’s contract haven’t surfaced more than 24 hours after news of his signing broke suggests that it is for a modest sum – otherwise his agent would have made sure reporters knew how much he just made his client.

Spillane to Las Vegas

One player who won’t be back is inside linebacker Robert Spillane. Spillane is a Steelers success story. He went from starting 2020 as the one player the Steelers couldn’t afford to end up playing, to they guy who kept Devin Bush to the bench by the end of 2022.

He’s someone you’d want to keep in Pittsburgh. But the Raiders signed him to a 2 year deal worth 9 million dollars with 4 million dollars in guarantees – that’s a lot of money to pay someone who generally leaves the field on passing downs.

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