´ Steel Curtain Rising

Screwed by Bloggers Polling, Again

Folks, it looks like Blogger's polling has decided to stop working. We had a good poll on the Steelers draft which suddenly got dropped to zero.

Guess you get what you pay for on these free platforms. Thanks to all those who voted.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

4 Less Frequently Ask Questions @ Steelers Training Camp

As the Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2014 training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, PA, Steel Curtain Rising took the chance to review 5 Key Challenges facing the team.

While the roster battles and player development at inside linebacker, defensive end, offensive line, safety, and wide receiver are among the most critical issues the team must address, they are not the only ones.

There are other, “Less Frequently Asked” questions the Steelers must also answer.

What About Depth at Running Back?

The Steelers seem to have set themselves up for an effective 1-2 punch at running back with Le'Veon Bell coming into his own late last year, and the acquisition of LeGarrette Blount as a free agent in the off season.
  • After that, however, the depth chart remains sparse.
Johnathan Dwyer is in Pittsburgh West, and Felix Jones remains unsigned (and should stay that way.) Early in the off season some speculated that LaRod Stephens-Howling, injured (who wasn’t?) in last year’s opener, might be back, but that move has not materialized.

Pittsburgh also selected Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he is listed as an WR/RB and his number assignment of 13 suggests where he’ll play most.

Outside of Archer, the Steelers have rookie Jordan Hall and journeymen Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole. They also have Alvester Alexander on the PUP list, who spent 2013 on the practice squad.
  • None of these names is likely to inspire fear in the hearts of opposing AFC North defensive coordinators.
During the off season, yours truly made a plea for bringing back Isaac Redman on a no bonus (as in no risk) veteran minimum contract. Steelers Nation resisted the idea of Isaac Redman's return and likely was never considered on the South Side.

Even if Bell and Blount stay healthy all year, the Steelers need someone to establish himself as the up and comer.

Can Jarvis Jones Make the Second Year Leap?

NFL coaches are fond of saying that players typically make their biggest leap from years 1 and 2 in the NFL. Experience has shown that to be true. Aaron Smith appeared in just 6 games as a rookie and came out of nowhere to put a decade-long strange hold on the starting job.

Jarvis Jones impressed coaches enough during the 2013 preseason to win the week 1 starting job,  but outside of an impressive tackle in the backfield, he struggled and ultimately gave up his starting job.

The Steelers let LaMarr Woodley go in off season in part because of injury and salary cap concerns, but also because they expected Jones to step up.
  • Jarvis Jones must make that leap.
This is not a question of something fans want, it something the coaches need to have happen.

Speaking of the Jones Keeping Up….

Jarvis wasn’t the only Jones whom the Steelers drafted in 2013. They also expended a 4th round pick on quarterback Landry Jones, thus ending the Charlie Batch’s days as a backup. Jones then struggled in training camp and in preseason.
  • The Steelers of course did not draft Jones to play, in either 2013 and God willing not in 2014.
But they clearly thought enough of him to bring him along as a backup. Bruce Gradkowski is only signed through the end of this season, and it is likely the Steelers had Jones in mind as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in 2015 when they made the decision.

The Steelers took a lot of flak for investing a fourth round pick in Jones, and Jones must begin vindicating their decision and that must begin now.

How Will the Pecking Order at Cornerback Evolve?

This is one of the most interesting non-conversations in Steelers Nation, by far. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to pick a cornerback in the first round. The only question it seemed, was who.
The justification for the apparent certainty was the fact that 2013 made it clear that Ike Taylor could not outrace Father Time indefinitely. And that’s led to another question that has been all but ignored.
  • Will Ike Taylor start at corner?
Kevin Colbert was asked about this during an off season interview, and refused to commit to Taylor as the starter, but in and of itself isn’t terribly important, as those decisions are made by Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, and Carnell Lake.

But that doesn’t mean that the Ike Taylor’s status as a starter should be a given.

Taylor agreed to take a pay cut and would likely take umbrage at having to compete for a starting job. The job should remain Taylor's to keep, but if Cortez Allen and William Gay prove themselves to be better, there is no reason to keep them on the bench.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Steelers Open Training Camp, Put Roethlisberger Extension on Hold

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 49th training camp on the campus of St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe and, aside for the usual fanfare, there was little real news. Nonetheless, a few morsels of interest did break.

steelers training camp st. vincents 2014 latrobe
Steelers Open 2014 Training Camp
Roethlisberger Extension on Hold

Steelers President Art Rooney II firmly stepped out an end all speculation on the status of Ben Roethlisberger’s contract extension negotiations, declaring that the team intends to resign Roethlisberger, but will wait until 2015 to complete a deal.
  • Rooney cited salary cap concerns as the team’s main motive.
With an expected spike in the salary cap coming in 2015, the move might make sense. And analysis by Behind the Steel Curtain shows that the Steelers really could not expect to get any real salary cap benefit by inking the extension now.
  • However, the move is not risk free.
Quarterbacks such as Tony Romo and Jay Cutler, to name two, who’ve accomplished far less than Roethlisberger has, have seen themselves get mega-deals. There are likely several more quarterback deals to be made between now and February or March of 2015, further inflating the price the Steelers will need to pay.

Still, while the Steelers have managed salary cap purgatory well, they’re by no means in a “good” situation yet as they’re still forced to carry dead money from LaMarr Woodley and Willie Colon’s contracts on this season’s leger.

In that light, it does make sense to seek smaller deals with players like Cortez Allen.

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Mike Mitchell on PUP; Kion Wilson Cut, Tolor Signed

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2014 off season by making a splash – a rare day one free agency signing in the form of Mike Mitchell, who started last year for Carolina. The move was ballyhooed as an immediate boost to the secondary and signaling the departure of Ryan Clark.
While this news is unfortunate, as it robs Mitchell time to learn Dick LeBeau’s system as well as bonding with Troy Polamalu, it could serve as a boon for Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas, who stand poised to benefit from the extra reps.

Wilson Cut, Toler Signed

Regardless of whether first round pick Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence or Vince Williams wins the starting slot at inside linebacker this year, one thing is certain – should the starter get injured on opening day or God forbid Lawrence Timmons should fall injured – Kion Wilson will not replace him as the Steelers waived Wilson as their first training camp transaction.

steelers ryan shazier training camp st. vincents
Ryan Shazier Signs Autographs
Last year that is exactly what happened when Larry Foote got injured.

Wilson’s tenure as a starter quickly gave way to Williams, who himself struggled, but at least Williams primary role was to play linebacker, whereas Wilson was on the active roster to play special teams. 

To take his place, the Steelers signed former Rutgers cornerback Lew Toler, who joined them for mini-camp in May.

Such bottom roster moves are normal for this time of year, and relflect the Steelers depth at inside linebacker, which figures to be a strength in 2014 in contrast to the glaring weakness it was in 2013.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

5 Key Challenges the Steelers Face as Training Camp Commences!

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 49th training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, the franchise’s best hope for reclaiming championship form after  back-to-back 8-8 seasons lies in its ability to transform weakness into strength.
  • Such clichés get thrown around too often, simply because they're true: achieving a strength-from-weakness transformations is the mark of a true competitor.
Poor drafting plagued the Steelers for 40 years, yet Chuck Noll turned that trend on its head and made the draft  the life-blood of 4 Super Bowl Championships. That took several seasons; the 2014 have only weeks to find out if they can pull off similar switches in 5 key areas:

Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?
Might Mitchell Modify His Methodical Ways?
Have the Steelers Increased their Safety Margin?
Can Muchak’s Tennessee Blue Turn into Titan Sized ROI on Offensive Line?
Will the Steelers Avoid a Brown Out @ Wide Out?

Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?

Just how bare was the Steelers cupboard at inside linebacker in 2014?

Well, on opening day 2013 when Larry Foote left the field injured, he took with him his 119 starts and 479 tackles, and on walked Kion Wilson, he of 8 game appearances and 1 assisted tackle.
  • Worse yet, Wilson wasn’t even the preferred replacement.
That fell to Vince Williams, who struggled mightily during the early course of the season. Linebacking excellence has long been the backbone of Steelers defensive dominance; suddenly in 2013 linebacking was a liability.
  • The Steelers have a chance to affect a 180 degree shift.
By the end of 2013, Williams had improved (at least vs. the run) and Terence Garvin was working in on third downs. Add to that, Sean Spence’s recovery, and the Steelers depth chart is already much stronger.

Yet, the Steelers wasted no time in drafting Ryan Shazier in the 1st round and inserting him as the starter during OTA’s. Even those quick to caution against evaluating based on “football in shorts,” appeared to be awed by the athletic prowess displayed by Shazier’s during OTA’s.

The Steelers inside linebacking crops is laden with potential. But Lawrence Timmons, who at age 28, is already 7 year veteran, is the only proven performer. At St. Vincent’s it’s Keith Bulter’s task to tap production out of that potential.

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Might Mitchell Modify His Methodical Ways?

Immediately after the 2014 NFL Draft, Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell heaped uncharacteristic praise on a draft pick, labeling second round pick Stephon Tuitt a “Young Aaron Smith.” Such words are encouraging, but fans would do well to remember that Aaron Smith only appeared in 6 games as a rookie.

Few tears were spent on Ziggy Hood’s departure to Jacksonville, but he nonetheless leaves a void for the Steelers at defensive end. The Steelers have swapped Cameron Heyward over to Brett Keisel’s traditional slot, signaling that the Steelers clearly want Tuitt to win the starting job.

Nonetheless, history is against Tuitt.
  • In 20 years, Casey Hampton is the only rookie to start for Johnny Mitchell; in fact few others have even played.
Mitchell’s record in training talented defensive lineman speaks for itself; yet for the Steelers defensive line to take a step up, the old dog Mitchell might need to learn new tricks.

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Have the Steelers Increased their Safety Margin?

The decline of the Steelers’ defense wasn’t simply notable on the defensive line and among the linebackers. The secondary also slipped, too. After spending several seasons where he was arguably the league’s most underrated safety, Ryan Clark finally began slowing a step in 2013.



Age is also catching up with Troy Polamalu, although how much is an open question as he essentially played linebacker in 2013.
  • The Steelers have made two moves to address this issue.
First they traded up in 2013 to select Shamarko Thomas, with an eye towards grooming him to act as Polamalu’s replacement. Next they made a dramatic break from tradition by signing Michael Mitchell on the first day of free agency.

While that’s smart move, they key for the unit here is Thomas’ development. Polamalu played all 16 games last year, and so if his luck holds he’ll struggle with injuries this year. Sharmarko had better be ready to shine.

In 2013 the Steelers depth chart at safety was top heavy with age, and that as much as anything else resulted in long gain after long gain. On paper they’ve positioned themselves for success at safety. But the operative word is “on paper.”

The Steelers could just as easily field a safety squad that clumsily cobbles age together with inexperience, or they could finely calabrate veteran wisdom with youthful athleticism.  It’s up to Carnell Lake to ensure that they do the latter.

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Can Muchak’s Tennessee Blue Turn into a Titan Sized ROI on Offensive Line?

As a rookie, Mike Munchak had  the honor of blocking of Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Later he’d square off against David Little and Bryan Hinkle, and then against Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, while continuing to coach against Chad Brown, Joey Porter, and James Harrison.
And that’s fitting, because Munchack was on the opposing sideline on opening day 2013 when the Steelers number 3 tight end, (who was also the number two tackle and number two guard) had to step in and replace the number 1 center, thus manning the position for the first time in his NFL life.

Yes, the Steelers  offensive line has been the subject of turmoil during the Mike Tomlin era, as the Steelers have played plug and patch, while signing lineman to contracts only to cut them a few years later.

To its credit, management has made a commitment to ending this process via the draft, but Steelers Nation has yet to see a solid return on investment.
  • Yes, the team’s bad luck with offensive line injuries has been Kafkaesque.
  • Yes, the line has “actually done well when you factor in….”
  • Yes, Ben Roethlisberger holds on to the ball too long.
Yet excuses be damned: consistency  has eluded the Steelers offensive line. Munchak’s job is to change that, and it starts right after the run test.

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Will the Steelers Avoid a Brown Out @ Wide Out?

Unlike the first four position areas mentioned, wide receiver was not a weakness for the Steelers in 2013 as Antonio Brown established himself as an elite receiver, Jerricho Cotchery became a touchdown scoring machine, and Emmanuel Sanders had his healthiest and most consistent year.
The Steelers responded by bringing Lance Moore in from New Orleans, but outside of Moore, the Steelers’ depth chart at wide out is almost as thin on paper in 2014 as the inside linebackers were in 2013.

Almost.

The Steelers do have players waiting in the wings in the form of Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown, and Derek Moye. They also have Darrius Heyward-Bey and they drafted Martavis Bryant.
  • The issue is that one of them needs to step up, and the Steelers need him to do it decisively. 
The Steelers plan is to for Wheaton to take that step, but Justin Brown impressed during Football in Shorts (aks OTA’s). Moye also flashed, some, in 2013. Now is their time to shine.
Steeler’s wide receivers coach Richard Manning is a consummate pro who has been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, old Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens. Now he must ensure that someone rises from the pack.

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A lot more will go on at training camp – unexpected position battles will emerge, unwanted injuries will strike, and rookies will both shine and disappoint. But the answers the Steelers find to these five questions will go a long way to defining 2014.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fernando Velasco Signs with Carolina Panthers

Behind the Steel Curtain editor Neal Coolong couldn't have put it better:  "The safety blanket has been removed."

That coupled with the headline "Steelers free agent signs with another team" coming less than 24 hours before the Steelers arrive at St. Vincent's in Latrobe for training camp could cover a number of players, from Brett Keisel to James Harrison to wild cards such as Plaxico Burress and and even LaRod Stephens-Howling.
  • No, this one involves someone with far less history with the team (well, he has more that LaRod Stephens-Howling, but how doesn't?)
No, this latest defection involves Fernando Velasco signing with the Carolina Panthers, a player who in less than a full season of starts, managed to develop something of a cult following in Steelers Nation.

Last year when David DeCastro was taking out Maurkice Pouncey's ACL 8 plays into the season opener vs. Tennessee, Fernando Velasco was sitting in a church in Nashville. A week later he was starting for the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Although the Steelers lost that night, and the next two nights, the play of the offensive line steadily improved, and the Steelers eventually started winning.
  • Unfortunately for Velasco, his ride on that train ended vs. the Ravens on Thanksgiving, when he tore his Acillies late in the season.
Cody Wallace did a respectable job in snapping the ball to Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers opted to resign Wallace instead of the recovering Velasco. Any thoughts that the Steelers might still opt for the Velasco-Wallace combo at center ended when the Steelers renewed Pouncey's contract in early June.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Foote Surprised He Got Boot from Steelers

On of the first moves the Pittsburgh Steelers made to open their 2014 off season was to wave veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote. And by Foote’s own account, the caught him by surprise.

Speaking on Pittsburgh sports radio station 93.7 “The Fan” Foote recounted:
My agent met with (the Steelers) down at the Combine in Indianapolis. The talk was that we couldn’t get lined up, we lost a few games early on because we couldn’t even get lined up.
Based on that conversation, Foote assumed he would be spending 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania instead of Pittsburgh West aka at the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers gave Foote the boot, clearly having made other plans.



The move itself is not surprising. While the Steelers did struggle with Vince Williams starting, Williams improved, and could certainly be expected to deliver more value for the salary cap dollar than 34 year old Foote.

Insight into How the Steelers Function?

The main function of stories like these is to tide Steelers Nation’s voracious appetite for news until training camp starts. This one might, however, offer some insight into how the Steelers do business.
  • Before proceeding, it’s important to acknowledge that Steel Curtain Rising has no inside information here.
It’s impossible to understand the meaning of Foote’s story without knowing the context of the conversation. What’s most likely is that Foote struck up a causal conversation with a Steelers coach or scout, who said something like “How’s Larry doing? You know, we missed him dearly last year. We couldn’t even get lined up right for the first half of the year….”

It’s also possible the Steelers arrived at Indianapolis intending to bring Foote back but saw enough of the available inside linebackers to make the veteran expendable.

But there’s also a chance that the conversation reveals a split between Steelers scouts and coaches over whether to bring him back or not. Such disagreements are common.
At the end of the day, Steelers Nation will never know and even if there was disagreement, it is healthy for coaches and front offices to have differing opinions.

Regardless, despite subtracting Foote and his 12 years of experience, the Steelers nonetheless have to potential to see inside linebacker swing from one of the thinnest to one of the deepest units on the team in years.

Lawrence Timmons will return to start, and 1st round pick Ryan Shazier is already projected as a fellow starter. Sean Spence recovery has progressed far enough to give him a serious shot at a roster spot, and the there’s incumbent starter Vince Williams. Free agent Arthur Moats can also play on the inside, and of course there’s Kion Wilson, the man who took the field when Foote got hurt vs. Tennessee.

That’s all on paper of course. Things will start sorting themselves out for real on the fields at St. Vincent’s very, very soon.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Watch Tower: Pouncey's Victims of Gold Digging Attempt; Brett Keisel Story Takes a Twist

Social media is a double edged sword for sports fans and sports journalists. On the plus side fans are no longer dependent on the whims and agenda’s of network, PR offices, and newspaper editors. On the negative side, every Tom, Dick and Harry has his (or her) chance of taking a stab at 15 minutes of fame.
Early Saturday afternoon word got out that the Pouncey’s were in the news for the wrong reasons again (OK, that was this site’s head line.) A man and a woman, whose instagram video and photos made it clear had been assaulted, claimed it had been the Pouncey’s. Behind the Steel Curtain published a story about it, but wisely stuck close to the facts, which were thin.
  • No other major outlet ran the story on Saturday, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review did a short summary the following day. The Post-Gazette remained silent, as did ESPN.
On Monday, Mark Kabloy of the Tribune Review informed readers that the Pouncey’s were not named in the initial police report and did not seem to be suspects. Today a staff report on the Trib reveals that the police have not even talked to the accusers.

By Tuesday the news surfaced that the individuals in question were suing the Pouncey’s. This prompted Dale Lolley to call them out as gold diggers (although he did not use expression itself) and there it appears the story will and should die.

Quick Kesiel Update

As Steelers training camp approaches, the BIG question is will the Steelers resign Brett Keisel. Steel Curtain Rising has invested a lot in the debate on Keisel's return and the Watch Tower has delved into the coverage.
  • And the only thing that is clear is that no one can agree on what the Steelers plans are.
Jim Wexell took to Twitter to answer a question from fans, sharing this:
Further on in the exchange, he doubled down:
Dale Lolley casts the story very, very differently. Talking about the Steelers additional personnel priorities, Lolley offers this:
No. 1 on that list would be defensive end Brett Keisel. Make no mistake about this. IF the Steelers bring Keisel back, it would not be to start. In fact, he would be, at best, a 10-snap-per-game player as a situational pass rusher.
This is truly an amazing story. Other writers, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, a reporter whose sources guide him to the story, have insisted that the Steelers will not bring Keisel back.

Lolley does add one interesting twist to the story, however. Keisel’s locker on the South Side has not been cleaned out. That would seem to imply that at least Keisel is planning on returning.

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