Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.
Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Bring Back Marcus Allen? Why Not?

On March 5th,2018 Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell made it his mission to “Bring back Marcus Allen.”

Ah, yes, of course Wexell was trying to unmake the Steelers status as victims of circumstance when they missed on drafting USC’s Marcus Allen by two slots in the 1982 NFL Draft and instead had to settle for Baylor’s Walter Abercrombie. Right?

  • Well, no, not even close.

Wexell was doing a pre-draft profile on the a multi-talented Penn State safety named Marcus Allen, whom he thought would be a good fit for the Steelers. Pittsburgh indeed drafted Marcus Allen, who is now and Exclusive Rights free agent, and today we look at his future.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen Career with the Steelers

The Steelers indeed drafted Marcus Allen in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. And the truth is that the notebook on him remained pretty thin for his first two years. He made the final roster but only saw appearances in two games, logging a total of 20 plays, and giving up completions on two of 3 passes he was charged with covering.

Allen failed to make the final roster in 2019, but returned to the practice squad, getting activated for 1 game where he played on special teams. In 2020, the Steelers moved him from safety to inside linebacker. This allowed him to get in on a full 20% of the defensive snaps, thanks to injuries to Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams.

  • The truth is Allen looked mismatched at inside linebacker.

He struggled against the run, and still gave up 8 of 10 passes that he was charged with covering. It would be unfair to scapegoat Allen for the defensive disaster that was the loss to the Bengals, but he certainly contributed.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The truth is that the Steelers neither have depth at inside linebacker nor do they have it at safety and the team clearly is looking to transition to hybrid linebacker-safety type players. (See Morgan Burnett’s displeasure at having to play such a role.)

As an exclusive rights free agent, the Steelers can have Marcus Allen back at essentially the same salary cap charge as an undrafted rookie free agent. Allen also is experienced on special teams.

Who would you rather have as a role player at inside linebacker, safety and special teams? A guy with 3 years of experience under his belt or an inexperienced rookie?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The Steelers have seen Marcus Allen for 3 years at multiple positions and he’s not delivered much at either. In fact, it took injuries to both starting inside linebackers AND the number one backup to get Marcus Allen his first sustained snaps with the defense, and opposing offensive coordinators were only too happy to oblige.

  • Sure, Marcus Allen’s salary cap charge is negligible, but you get what you pay for.

The Steelers have seen enough to know there’s nothing to indicate that Marcus Allen is the next Lee Flowers – another 5th round Safety who sat on the bench in obscurity for 2-3 years before emerging as a serviceable starter.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

Expect this one to be a non-event. The Steelers will give Marcus Allen and exclusive rights free agent tender and allow draft picks and/or rookie free agents to push him during training camp and, assuming it is played, preseason. This is a no-risk move for the Steelers.

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

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Do Steelers Playoff Hopes Hinge on Alex Highsmith Imitating Ziggy Hood? Actually, They Might!

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to surprise the skeptics and make a serious Super Bowl run they’re going to need players like Alex Highsmith to find a little something extra during the playoffs. There are signs that Highsmith might already being doing that.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Highsmith’s pressure helped force Mike Hilton’s interception. Later, Highsmith helped pressure Rivers into throwing incomplete on 4th down. Against the Browns, Highsmith’s sack of Baker Mayfield helped stop Cleveland’s 2 minute drill cold.

These trends are encouraging and Alex Highsmith must build on this in the playoffs by following in the footsteps of Ziggy Hood

…Yep, you read that right!

Ziggy Hood Teases at Becoming the “Special Man”

Ziggy Hood was of course the Steelers 1st round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, number 32 overall due to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It is both unfair and incorrect to hang the label “bust” on Ziggy Hood (if you really think he was a bust, I invite you to Google Keith Gary, Daryl Simms or Aaron Jones).

  • But if that’s true, its also true that Ziggy Hood disappointed.

Just as Walter Abercrombie had the ignominious fate to replace Franco Harris, Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith, one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Ziggy Hood wasn’t up to the task.

  • However, for a time it seemed like he might be the time Ziggy “…Became the special man”

When injuries ended Aaron Smith’s 2010 season, this site declared that Ziggy Hood’s moment had arrived, leading off the post with the quote ““When the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band” from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The idea was Smith’s injury signaled the end of an era on the Steelers defensive line, and that a torch was being passed

With 20/20 hindsight, it would seem like Ziggy Hood fumbled the moment and then it was gone. But that’s not true. Ziggy Hood just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle.

But Ziggy Hood enjoyed one great flash in his career and that flash came right when the Steelers needed it the most.

  • Hood took over from Aaron Smith at the end of October and authored a pretty ho-hum November.

But he came alive in December, sacking Joe Flacco in the Steelers AFC North Division clinching win over the Ravens. He followed that with sacks in the Steelers win over the Panthers two weeks later and in the 2010 season finale win over the Browns. And if you’re tempted to write off that as garbage time glory in meaningless games then consider what Hood did in the playoffs.

Ziggy Hood, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Super Bowl XLV

Ziggy Hood sacks Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

In the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens, Hood sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 10 with 1:15 left to play, setting up a 4th and 18 which Baltimore failed to convert. In Super Bowl XLV he sacked Aaron Rodgers on Green Bay’s final drive.

For those of you counting at home, that’s 5 Ziggy Hood sacks, several coming at critical moments during 8 must-win games for the Steelers.

Never would Ziggy Hood broach that level of production again.

The Playoffs Can Prime Players to Step Up

Long term, if Alex Highsmith succeeds in Bud Dupree his career ceiling will need to be higher than Ziggy Hood’s. But the take away from Hood’s story is that the playoffs can coax the best out certain players.

During the Steelers 2010 playoff run offensive tackle Jonathan Scott also enjoyed his career peak as had as offensive guard Darnell Stapleton during the Steelers 2008 run to Super Bowl XLIII.

Go back further, and you’ll find that that a good regular-season Merril Hoge became playoff great with 100 yard games for the 1989 Steelers in their upset Wild Card win over the Oilers and heartbreaking loss to the Broncos.

  • It doesn’t always work this way of course as we’ll detail in a future story.

But if Alex Highsmith can step it up and help T.J. Watt give the Steelers defense the 1-2 punch on the edge that they enjoyed with Bud Dupree healthy, Pittsburgh’s road to Super Bowl glory will become much more plausible.

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Simple Math: Steelers Beat Bengals 36-10, but Number 7 is Key for Pittsburgh

Football is grounded in physics. Chuck Noll opined that the purpose of training camp was to teach players to use their bodies as projectiles. In his book, A Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell argues that success and failure in football often comes down to subtle changes in angles, stances and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fan.

  • Physics is driven by numbers
  • And in many senses, numbers and the measurables they represent determine outcomes on football fields.

But in the Steelers 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh proved two things:

  • All numbers are not created equally on the gridiron
  • And for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one certainly more equal than others

Lets look at how the men in Black and Gold delivered their lesson in math and physics.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger takes the snap. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sometimes Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

Football fans love statistics. Before the age of Direct TV, streaming and even shows like ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime, reading the stats in the paper at the breakfast table was as close as some citizens of Steelers Nation got to the game itself.

  • Sometimes, stats can be revealing.
  • At other times they can be deceiving.

Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard both have better career rushing averages than Jerome Bettis. Who would you rather draft for your all time Steelers team? Case closed. If I grabbed the stat sheet from the Steelers-Bengals game and told you that:

  • James Conner would rush for 36 yards at 2.8 yards a carry…
  • The Steelers would give up a fake punt that went for 39 yards…
  • Samaje Perine averaged 6.9 yards per carry…
  • The Steelers would convert 2 fumble recoveries for 3 points…
  • Pittsburgh would go 6-16 on third down…
  • The Bengals would convert 2 of 3 4th down attempts…

You could easily concluded that Cincinnati came out of Pittsburgh with an upset. But you’d have been wrong, because those numbers just don’t add up.

A Few Numbers that Offset the Ones Above

Football is the ultimate team game and it’s important to remember that because the conclusion of the next two

Cam Sutton, Tee Higgins, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Sutton strips the ball from Tee Higgins. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

sections could suggest otherwise. (Keep reading, we’ll go quick – no skimming down.)

The numbers above are at once accurate and imprecise because they’re counter balanced by statistics like these:

  • T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane, and Bud Dupree combined for 4 sacks
  • Ray-Ray McCloud ripped off a 42 yard punt return to the Bengals 15
  • Cincinnati went 0 for 13 on third downs
  • Joe Haden tipped way 3 passes
  • The Steelers would hold a mere 62 second advantage in time of possession

Take those stats, and look at them alongside the first set of numbers and it paints a picture of Pittsburgh perhaps pulling out another barn burner thanks to a little Minkah Magic magic.

But once again, you’d come away with the wrong image. This game was a blow out instead of a barn burner, and that’s because one number is more important to Pittsburgh than any other.

7 Stands as Steelers Magic Number

The two BIG known unknowns for the Steelers heading into 2020 were how would COVID-19 impact the team, and how well would Ben Roethlisberger rebound from surgery.

  • The confluences of both issues met at Heinz Field this past week.
Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger was unable to practice, due to potential exposure to COVID-19, but it Big Ben’s performance was the definitive difference maker for the the Steelers.

No, Ben Roethlisberger was not perfect. His long passes remain a work in progress. A couple were too short, a few more flew too long, and a few failed to escape the line of scrimmage without getting batted away.

But that really doesn’t matter when you can:

All of that amounted to the Steelers going 4 of 5 in the Red Zone, while tacking on a Chris Boswell field goal on their other trip, in addition to two other Boswell scores from father out. Two other stats help complete number 7’s tale: Zero sacks and Zero interceptions.

7 is the numeral that means so much more than any other number to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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The Steelers, Le’Veon Bell Reach the Beginning of the End

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have reached the beginning of the end. As expected, the 4:00 pm July 16th deadline for Steelers to reach a new contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell came and went without a deal. Now Le’Veon Bell is bound by the franchise tag.

  • As this site observed during the spring, perhaps a 2nd franchise tag isn’t what sides need but not what either wants.

It didn’t have to be this way. The contract offer the Steelers made and agreed to with Bell’s agent last year would have befitted everyone. Bell would have had more money in his pocket than he does now, the Steelers would have more cap space, and have locked in Bell’s services for the duration of his prime.

"Le'Veon

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bell a 5 year 70 million dollar deal, with 30 million coming in the first two years. Word on how much of that was to be guaranteed has not yet leaked. But if the total is much higher than what the Steelers had on the table last year, Bell might have done the Steelers a favor.

And I write that as someone who likes Le’Veon Bell, thinks he’s got championship caliber talent, and knows he can’t be replaced by a squad of Stevan Ridley clones.

But as DeMarco Murray’s retirement poignantly reinforces the reality that the shelf-life of an NFL feature back is ever so short. In 2014 Murray led the NFL in rushing. Dallas didn’t lift a finger to resign him. Murray floundered in Philly in 2015, bounced back nicely for the Titans in 2016, but struggled in 2017. He’s now called it quits after 7 years in the NFL.

Last year’s deal made sense for the Steelers and for Bell. But Bell is a year older with another 400 plus carries on his body. Art Rooney II has seen enough running backs hand their shoes in Pittsburgh to know which ones are keepers, and he stuck his neck a bit in his bid to keep Bell, but didn’t stick it out too far.

Steelers Fans Might Get Their Running Back by Committee Wish

The next move is up to Le’Veon Bell.

Rumor is that Bell is considering holding out for all or part of the season, although he’s assured Steelers fans this will be the best season yet. Bell will lose just over $900,000 dollars a game for each game he sits out.

  • Yet Le’Veon Bell is weighing that against the toll that another 400 touches will take on his body.

Fans won’t like it, but in pure business sense, Bell might be making the right decision, however disloyal it will feel. On the flip side, those fans who’ve been clamoring for a running back by committee should be careful for what they wish for, because they may be about to get it.

Running back by committee is in vogue in the NFL, and a large contingent of Steelers fans would prefer to see Pittsburgh go that route, most of whom presumably are not old enough to remember the days when Chuck Noll and Tom Moore split carries between Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, and Frank Pollard.

In limited action in 2017, Ridley showed he could be a competent backup, Conner ran well when given the opportunity, but then got hurt and Fitzgerald Toussaint isn’t a bad number 3 back, but I’d trade him for a 1995 version Fred McAfee any day of the week.

Its possible that running back by committee can give Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the ground game they need to do their thing, but something tells me fans who don’t think they’ll miss Bell today, may feel differently come mid September.

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The Pro’s and Con’s of the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Every NFL personnel decision carries its own pro’s and con’s, and each choice a team makes comes with its own opportunity costs, especially in the salary cap era.

  • But the pro’s and con’s of the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell are perhaps a little more complex than others.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never faced a bigger, more consequential free agent decision than one that the now face with Le’Veon Bell. What will the Steelers do? What should they do? How will Bell react if the Steelers try to franchise him? Let’s take a look.

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

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

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Have the Steelers made a more ballyhood second round pick? Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell the best running back the draft as soon as Pittsburgh picked him. Later, Ed Bouchette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

To keep that in context, Bouchette had watched the preseason debuts of Steelers first round running backs Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. This was hardly his first rodeo with a highly hyped rookie. Yet, Bouchette seemed to be going a little too far over the top.

  • Five years later, it is clear everyone should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

What’s all the more amazing even if this is true, it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the summer of 2013. Injuries kept Le’Veon Bell from 2014 post-season. Both 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse suspensions, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

  • Then, in 2016 Bell dominated the NFL at a level the league has not seen in a generation.

In 2017 Le’Veon Bell logged his first injury and suspension free season, and while his production dipped, he clearly remains the NFL’s best running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Just how important is Le’Veon Bell to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense? Number don’t lie:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell rushing averages, Le'Veon Bell touches, Le'Veon Bell receptions

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

No disrespect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but the Steelers offense really does revolve around Le’Veon’Bell. In contrast to 2016, in 2017 Ben Roethlisberger had weapons like Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald at his disposal, Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense still increased.

The number crunchers can make all of the arguments that they want about running backs, their declining productivity and lack of durability, but all of those meta statistics, while valid to a certain extent, miss a fundamental point:

  • Le’Veon Bell is a championship caliber player.

This is a man who broke the Steelers regular season in 2016 and then a few weeks later broke the post-season record in his first playoff experience, accomplishing something that John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, never did.

Player like this do not come along often. When you find one, you keep him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

By all accounts, the Steelers gave Le’Veon Bell an offer that would have paid him considerably more than the next highest paid running back and guaranteed close to 30 to 32 million dollars over its first 3 years.

  • Bell balked, leaving the Steelers (and his agent) at the altar.

Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, but would he really go so far as to sweeten the pot beyond what the Steelers were offering a year ago? That’s simply not sound football sense.

Bell’s yards-per-carry dropped from 4.9 to just over 4.0 from 2016 to 2017. His longest run was only 27 yards, calling into question his ability to go the length of the field. He’s a year older and has another 400 touches – and hits – on his frame.

The Steelers could franchise Le’Veon Bell again, but that would wreak havoc with their salary cap, and there’s a real risk that Bell might sit out the season, acting as a martyr for his fellow running backs.

  • Aside from his injury history, Bell is one bong hit away from another suspension.

While James Conner isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered as a replacement, the Steelers could likely replace Bell with some combination of Conners, Stevan Ridley, a moderately priced free agent and a draft pick.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

This is a tough call because the Steelers are to some degree into uncharted territory. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly franchise running backs appear to be a thing of the past in the NFL. This site has suggested that Le’Veon Bell might change that, and Bell demands he be paid like a franchise running back.

  • Yet, Bell’s decline in production from 2016 to 2017 undercuts his own argument.

Even if that’s true, Le’Veon Bell remains a championship caliber player by any measure. The types of plays he delivers game-in and game-out, are not the type of plays you can simply make up with a “Moneyball” type approach to building your running backs depth chart. The tweet below offers only one example of that:

https://twitter.com/big_griffsfunny/status/962287853064527872

Franching Le’Veon Bell for another year might a wise option in the abstract, but that would complicate the already tight salary cap position the Steelers already face.

One way or another, it seems like Le’Veon Bell will be with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, but this is one time when yours truly doesn’t envy the decision that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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4 Keys to the Steelers Success in the 2nd Half of the 2017 Season

The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.

  • While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.

And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.

So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.

Bud Dupree, Alex Smith, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 season

Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports

1. Put It Together on Defense

8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:

  • The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
  • The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
  • That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory

Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.

But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.

2. Get it Done in the Red Zone

Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.

  • Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.

Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.

Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period

3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much

In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.

  • Ok. NFL offenses have changed.

In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).

And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:

Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.

But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.

4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected

OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.

  • Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
  • And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.

But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?

  • Steelers history provides its own examples.

In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.

  • The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.

The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.

The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.

  • Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t  have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.

That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.

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