´ Steel Curtain Rising: March 2008

Monday, March 31, 2008

Clark's Status as Starter Signals Steelers Dissatisfaction with Current Free Safeties

The Tribune-Review has reported that the Steelers have named Ryan Clark as the starting free safety going into mini-camp. After injuring his spleen against Denver, Clark was in serious trouble, far more serious than was known to the public.

Clark lost had both his spleen, then his gall bladder removed. His sickle cell trait was aggravated, he lost thirty pounds, and apparently was too weak to pick up his babies. Clark has apparently been given a clean bill of health, and he is fully recovered, save for ten more pounds that he needs to regain.

Steeler coaches say the move is based on their analysis of Clark’s performance prior to his injury. Doubtlessly, Clark was missed, but naming Clark the default starter also signals how deeply dissatisfied coaches must be with its current free safeties.

Let’s hope that Clark is indeed back to 100%. But he has been through a lot, and there is no guarantee he’ll will return to full strength. Although they’ve signed no one, the Steelers did work out three free agent free safeties. A number of mock drafts have them picking a corner in the first round, and if that happens Desha Townsend could be headed to safety.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Watch Tower: Tribune Review Was Right on McFarland

It turns out that the Tribune-Review got it right. McFarland is not a Steeler. The Post-Gazette mistakenly reported on Wednesday the 26th that McFarland had reached an agreement with the Steelers. The Tribune-Review article of the same day had explicitly said that no deal had been reached.

Credit the Tribune-Review’s Scotty Brown for bringing Steelers Nation the hard facts.

By Thursday the 27th, the Post-Gazette had taken the previous day’s article off their main page, and the version that was available on the site’s search engine had been edited. The headline referred to an agreement, the text however did not. (As of today, both the text and the headline have been edited – no correction was announced however.)

How Nick Eason’s signing impacts the Steelers interest in McFarland is still ambiguous. The Post Gazette reported today that the re-signing of Eason ends the Steelers’ interest in McFarland. The Tribune-Review states that it is unclear how reinking Eason affects potential interest in McFarland.

Given that both papers clearly indicated that no negotiations have taken place, it is unlikely that the Steelers will make an offer to McFarland. He might have been an interesting pick up, but given his injury history and the team’s limited salary cap space, this move is understandable.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Watch Tower: Steelers Sign Warren, Eason… and McFarland?

The Steelers continue to make moves in free agency, although a cloud of mist appears to shroud the exact nature of some of team’s latest personnel decisions.

In resigning Greg Warren, the Steelers shore up the small, but highly significant position of long-snapper. You don’t hear Warren’s name much, and that’s a good thing.

Nick Eason’s resigning is more interesting, if for no other reason that the confusion surrounding Anthony "Booger" McFarland. On Wednesday March 26th, the Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers had signed defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, whom the Colts had recently released. However, on the same day the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that McFarland had been “ecstatic when he got back,” from his meeting with the Steelers, but Scotty Brown made clear that no agreement had been reached.

Wednesday’s article disappeared from the Post-Gazette’s Steelers section on Thrusday, although the paper reported Nick Eason’s re-signing.

Interestingly enough, Wednesday’s article was available via the Post-Gazette’s search engine. The story’s headline proclaims: “Steelers sign Warren; McFarland agrees to deal.” As currently posted, however, the text in the article does not refer to any agreement between the two parties. If memory serves, the original text did (I remember reading that in wondering why dollar terms had been disclosed.)

What’s going on here? Is McFarland a Steeler or not? It would appear that he is not, in light of the Tribune-Review article and the mysterious disappearance/editing of the Post-Gazette article.

The 24 hour news cycle is unrelenting, and concrete facts can be incredibly elusive in the age of cyber-journalism. If the Post-Gazette made a mistake, so be it. But if Wednesday’s article was in err, then why not issue a clarification?

If McFarland is not a Steeler, then that raises the more pertinent question for Steelers fans is did that fact impact the decision to resign Eaton? At this point, the Steelers probably could have signed Eaton at their leisure. McFarland most certainly would have been an upgrade over Eaton, and so there’s a strong possibility that they would not have resigned Eaton if McFarland was still in their plans.

The defensive line is a need area for the Steelers, and it would be interesting to know exactly what has gone on these last few days.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Steelers Recent Personnel Moves Set Stage for Shell Game at Offensive Line

Out of the many needs the Steelers took into 2008 off season, the team had one overriding imperative: Improve the offensive line. On this front the only two certainties were not good: Alan Fanaca was leaving, and Sean Mahan was a bust at center. Everything else was up in the air.

The Steelers recently signed free agent center Justin Hartwig and agreed to one year-tenders with both guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Trai Essex. While these are good moves, they only ensure that offensive coaches have options when training camp convenes in Latrobe. “Unknown” remains the dominate variable in the Steeler’s offensive line equation.

Justin Hartwig is a new face and an experienced NFL starter, but Carolina didn’t feel he was worth his cap number. Even if Hartwig represents an improvement at center, unanswered questions remain at every other position on the line.

Tackle – Will Marvel Smith be back, and will the Steelers attempt to resign him before he becomes a free agent in 2009? Pittsburgh insists that Smith will return to full strength in 2008, but what of his long-term durability? When healthy, Smith is the team’s best offensive lineman. Management’s decision to seek or not seek a long-term deal with Smith will speak volumes.

Max Starks and Willie Colon present two more mysteries. Starks started from opening day to the Super Bowl in 2005, yet he found himself on the bench at the end of 2006 as coaches gave Colon a look. It’s important to note that the line actually gave up more sacks in 2006 than in 2007. Perhaps that’s why the coaches began phasing out Starks, yet Starks played very well in relief of Marvel Smith…

The decision to slap the transition tag on Starks perhaps betrays some of buyer’s remorse on the part of management. Using the transition tag in-and-of-itself is riddled with its own complexities. The team felt that Starks’s performance in spot duty had raised his free agent value, and by protecting him they gambled that no other team would pony up the minimum needed to sign Starks.

So far, nobody wants Starks at this price. But is this a good thing? Steel Curtain Rising agrees with transitioning Starks. But the fact that only the Steelers appear willing to reserve nearly 7 million dollars in salary cap space raises eyebrows. As the Tribune Review’s John Harris asked last week, does the team know something that everyone else doesn’t?

The situation at guard is no clearer. Hartwig’s signing appears to end talk that Kendall Stephenson would move to center, yet Hartwig also plays guard. Many feel that Willie Colon is better suited to guard, but many also felt that line play would improve with Colon replacing Starks at right tackle. It’s too early to label Colon a bust, but he clearly needs to show more than he has, regardless of where he plays.

Unable to secure a long-term deal, guard Chris Kemoeatu has signed a one-year tender. At 6-3, 344, Kemoeatu has the tools, but he has played little. Ideally, he’d take up Faneca’s, but the team is projecting that he’ll compete with Sean Mahan for the starting job. Kemoeatu is yet another unknown.

The draft only adds to the mystery. By signing Hartwig, the Steelers will not need to reach for a lineman in the first round. Nonetheless, they would be fool hardy not to draft at least one lineman on day one. How draft picks fit into the offensive line equation is beyond speculation.

For all of their moves in free agency, the Steelers offensive line strategy remains a picture of uncertainty. Will 2008 see Smith-Kemoeatu-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon? Or perhaps Smith-Colon-Hartwig-Stephenson-Starks? Or maybe it will be Starks-Mahan-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon? What about Smith-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon-Starks -- the possibilities are almost endless.

The Steelers recent personnel moves have given Mike Tomlin the ability to shuffle offensive line combinations like a Shell Master at a carnival. But unlike his carnival counterparts, Tomlin will not know what he has until he lifts up the shell.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dan Rooney Must Choose His Words More Carefully

Domestic violence is a very serious issue, the Rooneys were right to take strong action when a second Steelers was involved in a domestic dispute in the span of eleven days.

But Dan Rooney dropped a verbal bombshell with comments explaining why the team decided to cut Cedric Wilson after he hit his wife but not James Harrison after he had done the same Rooney stated:

"What Jimmy Harrison was doing and how the incident occurred, what he was trying to do was really well worth it," Rooney said of Harrison's initial intent with his son. "He was doing something that was good, wanted to take his son to get baptized where he lived and things like that. She said she didn't want to do it."

Just as there is no excuse for domestic violence, there is no excuse for anything but a clear condemnation of it.

Rooney’s clarification later in the day, helped rectify things somewhat, but the damage has been done.

The Steelers are one of the NFL’s marquee franchises, and the Rooney’s rightly hold a reputation for integrity in the league.

Cedric Wilson’s crime was clearly premeditated, and if the Steelers if they want to judge player indiscretions on an individual basis, that is their right.

But both men committed a crime, and with respect to that fact, Rooney’s statement should not have left any room for equivocation.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Watch Tower: Errors in the Steelers Digest?

Steelers Digest is an excellent publication. It provided Steelers Nation a vital lifeline in the pre-internet days, and today it continues to serve as the source of some of the best Steelers analysis available. It also serves as a pleasant counter-weight to some of the knee-jerkism that tends to inflict the Pittsburgh media from time to time.

I have been a proud subscriber since 1990, only succumbing to the on-line version in 2007 when Correo Central simply refused to stop losing my issues.

Suffice to say it caught my attention when I found not one, but two glairing factual errors in its pre-draft edition. On page 15, the “Fast Fact” under running back states that the Steelers have drafted more Tight Ends in the first round than running backs, listing Eric Green in 1990 and Health Miller in 2005. True. It also leaves our Mark Bruener, our first round pick in 1995.

They add to the mistake on page 16, stating that Matt Spaeth was highest pick the team spent on a tight end since their number two pick in 1984. Again, this leaves out Mark Bruener.

The errors continue on page 17. Again, in the fast fact section, it states that the Steelers have only drafted three offensive tackles (Jarmain Stephens, 1996; Leon Searcy, 1992; Mike Taylor, 1969) in the first round during the last 40 years. Opps! This leaves out 1989’s second first round pick Tom Ricketts. (Ok, we all might want to forget that one, and he did play a few games at guard during his rookie year. Still, he was drafted and played as a tackle.)

Steelers Digest is normally a rock-solid publication, so I am quite surprised by these mistakes, especially since first rounders have such a high-profile. I plan to send a letter to the editor, and we’ll see if it gets printed.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Free Agent Free Safety Parade Revealing

As the NFL’s attention shifts away from “big ticket” free agents to the upcoming draft, the Steelers continue to operate under the radar, and reveal a lot about how they view their needs in the process.

Mike Tomlin has promised to look under every loose stone in his quest to fix what ails the Steelers, and he is making good on his pledge.

Offensive line and special teams were obvious need areas long before the final gun sounded against Jacksonville. The Steelers have hosted several offensive linemen, and signed running back Mewelde Moore and line backer Keyaron Fox to bolster their special teams.

But the Steelers most interesting free agent moves have come on the defensive side. In the last two weeks they have brought in New England’s Eugene Wilson, Atlanta’s Chris Crocker, and Donnie Nickey from Tennessee. All three are safeties.

Pittsburgh’s tendency to fade in the final two minutes was the most alarming negative trend of the 2007 season. With the benefit of 20/20 hind sight, three of these games, (four if you include the playoffs) came with free safety Ryan Clark out of the lineup.


Without the ability to go back and review those games it is impossible to say. The rest of the defense is not off of the hook if its not a coincidence, but poor free safety play can cost a team dearly when it comes to closing close contests.

Each of Clark’s replacements earned himself a moment of ignominy – Tom Brady burned Anthony Smith, badly, after Smith’s “victory guarantee,” and David Garrard made Tyrone Carter look like a deer caught in the headlights while he sealed Jacksonville’s victory with a third down run.

Can any of these guys make a difference? I don’t know. When you get to free agents at this level you’re looking at getting more bang for your buck, as opposed to getting an immediate impact. I don’t know anything about these players, but you’ve gotta like it that Donnie Nickey got into a fight with Vince Young because Nickey hit him too hard in practice.

Regardless of what happens, watch the free safety slot. In addition to these moves, both the Tribune Review’s John Harris and the Steelers Digests' Jim Wexell reported on various scenarios that involve moving Deshe Townshend to safety. One way or another, the Steelers are actively exploring ways to improve play at free safety, which is a good thing.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Assessing Mike Tomlin: The Quest for Objectivity

Some have asked why Steel Curtain Rising’s 2007 season “Tomlin: Glass Half Empty-Glass Half full” post-mortem did not appear until recently. The simple reason is that making an objective assessment of Mike Tomlin is damm difficult for me.

Understanding why requires understanding that I tirelessly defended Bill Cowher through the dark days of 1998-1999, the heart rendering AFC Championship losses, and the gut wrenching 2003 season.

In evaluating Tomlin’s first year, I am torn by this penchant for loyalty, wanting to recognize the positives, and wondering if I am overreacting to some brutally apparent caution flags.

That Cowher’s rookie record was almost identical to Tomlin’s only adds to the irony.

Cowher finished 11-5, Tomlin 10-6. Both lost in the fist round of the playoffs. Cowher’s squad was blown out, Tomlin’s lost a heart breaker, but the 1992 Steelers were a 1# seed, and the #4 seed in 2007. There’s more. Both started out 3-1. Both suffered their first losses to inferior opponents (Cowher to the Browns, then led by the then “bumbling” Bill Belichick, Tomlin to a Cardinals team who was rotating its quarterbacks by series.)

Cowher’s team did finish the season at 2-2, and while that’s better than 1-3, on the back half of the 1992 season Cowher’s teams needed some last minute heroics to overcome such 1992 light weights as the Lions and Seahawks.

Indeed, both men were embarrassed by weak teams. The memory of the beloved Black and Gold giving away games to the Jets and Broncos in the final two minutes sears. But so does the one of Steelers falling flat on their faces in a week 15 game against a Bears team that ultimately finished 6-10. (This was a national TV game, and one where the league seemed ready to anoint the Steelers as official “contenders.”)

This dilemma comes down to two things. While Cowher was also following a legend, he returned home 11 years removed from Super Bowl XIV.

In contrast the memories of Super Bowl XL are still fresh.

Then there’s the difference between the two men. Cowher lets his emotions flow. He acted out what every fan felt. When we pumped our fists, he pumped his. When we wanted to yell at a player, he got in their face.

Tomlin has a different style, one that is more reserved. While it’s important to respect that, it’s hard not to think of it when you’re examining some of the teams obvious faults.

It’s hard not to look at the loss against the Broncos and say “Cowher would have put that one away….” Or to look at the New England game “Cowher would have pounded it in so close to the goal line….” Or, there is no way Cowher wouldn’t have fired his special teams coach after the 2007 highlight reel of special teams disasters.

This is natural, but is it fair?

Ultimately, its not.

While Cowher was a great closer, he did give up games occasionally, the 1998 away game against the Bengals comes to mind. So do the last minute 2000 losses to the Browns, Titans, and Eagles.

Cowher helped define Smash Mouth Football, but he too resorted to gadget plays when he didn’t have the personnel, just think of the flea flicker late in the game on third and one against the Jaguars in 1999.

Put graciously, Tomlin’s decision to retain Bob Ligashesky is perplexing. In contrast, Cowher had a flair for canning special teams coaches. But Jay Hayes should have been fired after the 2000 season, instead two blocked kicks cost us the AFC Championship game in 2001….

The bottom line is that Tomlin’s first year offered much promise, but it also raised a lot of uncomfortable questions. Regardless, Mike Tomlin deserves to be judged on his own merits.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mike Tomlin: The Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full?

March is as good a time as any analyze Mike Tomlin Era thus far. As mentioned elsewhere, it is difficult to render an objective assessment Mike Tomlin, which is why an article like this did not get posed until now.

The Half Full Angle

Many others have said this, but it bears repeating. While Mike Tomlin may have walked into the best job in pro football, he did not do so under the easiest of circumstances. Bill Cowher was a native who returned home to become a legend. Cowher was very difficult to work with, but even his harshest critics in the Fourth Estate concede that the guy was loved by his players.

Filling the shoes of a legend who is loved in the locker room is hard. But Tomlin did it. He is his own man, and that’s been clear from day one. His success speaks not only to his self confidence, but to his ability to command the respect of others.

Going 10-6 and winning a division title is an accomplishment for a rookie coach. Pittsburgh woefully under achieved in 2006 at 8-8, and so all others things being equal an improvement to 10-6 represents real progress….

The Half Empty Angle

But are all other things being equal?

Or stated differently, which were the “real” Mike Tomlin Steelers? The team that started out 3-1, the one that put the fear of God into Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the one that started with a stout defense that did not yield to anyone, the one that shook off injuries to keep players to win big games….

…Or are they the team that lost to the Jets, the one struggled to beat the Dolphins, the one whose pass rush disappear, the one that failed to protect its franchise quarterback, the one that gave up four games in the last two minutes….

If 8-8 in 2006 was an underachievement, was 10-6 in 2007 an over-achievement?

Time Reveals All

In the internet age, its unsatisfying to say “we still have to wait and see….” The contemporary penchant to cite a quarterback’s passer rating for a single quarter shows that people are ready to judge and judge now.

But some things don’t work that way. Just as it always takes more than one year to assess a player, the same is true for a head coach. Jim Mora Jr. looked brilliant in taking the Falcons to the NFC Championship as a rookie…. Bill Belichick’s record in his first year with the Patriots was the same as his last year with the Clowns – 5-11.

It is worrying that Tomlin’s teams had a penchant for giving up close games, but how much of that is due to him, and how much is it due to the fact that we lost Ryan Clark and Tory Polamalu was hurt most of the year? You have to seriously question Tomlin’s decision to retain Bob Ligashesky, but Tomlin is dead on when he says the Steelers lacked special teams stand outs.

More than anything else, Tomlin does seem like the kind of man who can and will learn from his mistakes. Case in point: He’s already cut Allen Rossum.

Moreover, with Dan Rooney at the helm, Tomlin will have the chance to learn and grow. That more than anything else should give Steelers fans hope.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Missing the Good Ole Days… of Free Agency?

A week into free agency Steelers have lost Alan Fanaca, resigned Big Ben, and picked up Mewelde Moore. Fanaca’s departure was expected as was resigning Ben. While Pittsburgh continues to talk to low-level free agents, they have made it clear they will not be shooting for any big-game free agents. Which begs the question, why and when did they change their approach to free agency?

No, that last line was not a misprint.

Thankfully, Dan Rooney will never be confused with Daniel Snyder when it comes to free agency. The Steelers have always spent money wisely, and their success vindicates them.

During the 1990’s the Steelers were pioneers to free agent/salary cap success. Sure, the naysayers made hay when the Hardy Nickersons, Eric Greens and Yancy Thigpens departed for greener pastures, but the Steelers were already ahead of the game. They identified the players they needed to win, and they locked them up before they hit the market.

This approach generated little ink, but it worked. Another oft ignored, by equally important, fact was that the Steelers did dabble in the free agency market.

No, they never entered inane bidding wars for high profile free agents, but they did selectively target and sign impact free agents. Just who were these “impact free agents?”

In the 90’s free agency brought in players like Kevin Greene, Will Wolford, Erric Pegram, Todd Kalis, Ray Seals, and John L. Williams. These guys had big salaries, but all were impact players.

The inauguration of Heinz Field intensified the Steelers focus on keeping their own. Yet, during the early part of this decade, Pittsburgh continued making impact signings with players like Jeff Hartings, James Farrior, and Duce Stanley.

Since the signing of Duce Stanley in 2004, the Steelers have not signed, or even seriously attempted to sign, an impact free agent.

Why the change?

It’s impossible to say. Steel Curtain Rising posed this question to Ed Bouchette at the end of the season, but he declined to answer (in all fairness, it was at the tail end of the chat.)

A possible explanation is that salary cap dynamics have changed. There are “middle class” or even “upper middle class” NFL free agents. Case in point, when the Steelers lost Plaxico Burress, they signed Cedric Wilson. Plaxico’s signing bonus was bigger than Wilson’s entire contract.
Another reason could be that coming off of 15-1 and Super Bowl seasons, the Steelers didn’t feel they needed fresh blood.

While these are plausible answers, they are purely speculation. This is a story that needs to be told, and Steel Curtain Rising calls on the Pittsburgh media and/or fellow members of the blogesphere to tell it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Steelers Sign Minnesota’s Mewelde Moore - A Telling Trial of Tomlin as a Talent Evaluator?

The Steelers made a minor move in free agency yesterday by signing Minnesota running back Mewelde Moore. They project that he will work as a kick returner and compete for the third down back duties.

At pure face value, this move makes sense as it addresses two need areas. It is hard to offer more than this superficial analysis.

Moore’s played spot duty in Minnesota, and garnered some decent stats, both as a back up and an occasional starter. His punt and kick return numbers are not stellar, but he could easily be an upgrade.

Are the Steelers tipping their hand as to what they really think of Najeh Davenport? Davenport was a great unknown going into 2007, a career back up with an injury history, but otherwise decent stats in limited playing time.

The Steelers talked good game about having confidence in Davenport, but the fact that they didn’t even once try to pound the ball in at the goal line against New England speaks volumes. Davenport did show flashes, but overall Davenport did little to indicate that he was anything beyond a serviceable back up.

Regardless, this move could tell us a lot more than the Steelers’ real feelings about Davenport. Moore is coming in form Minnesota, so it is a safe assumption that Mike Tomlin had a big role in his acquisition.

Therefore, this move bears watching because it serves as another test of Tomlin’s ability to evaluate free agent talent. One of the real knocks against Tomlin in his rookie year were his personnel moves. Sean Mann’s play at center was woeful at best, and Andre Rosseum’s play at kick returner was extraordinarily average.

These were Tomlin’s two signature signings, and both decisions turned out to be pretty poor. It will be revealing to see how Tomlin fares in this third test.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Steelers Sign Roethlisberger: Now Comes The Hard Part

The Steelers made their major off season move by signing quarterback Ben Bothlisberger to an eight year 102 million dollar deal. Signing Ben to a long-term contract is by far the most important move the team could have made this off season.

While handing out 102 million dollars deal is never a simple, this move was expected, and relative to all else on the team’s off season agenda, it was easy. Which is to say, they may have signed Ben to a long term contract, they have yet to secure his future.

Securing Ben’s future means shoring up the offensive line. If they don’t do that, all is for naught. The salary cap era is rife with examples of teams that mortgaged themselves to sign a star signal caller, only to fail to protect him. The Cleveland Browns and Tim Couch, the Houston Texans and David Carr, and the St. Louis Rams with Marc Bugler all should ring bells (no pun intended.)

There’s been talk on some internet boards that the Steelers should have signed Fanaca and let Ben go because “we are a smash mouth, pound the ball team….”

Winning on offensive does begin with the offensive line. And it is true that you don’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It’s also true that a solid offensive line can give an average or even good quarterback a huge lift. The Redskins of 1987 and 1991 and the Ravens of 2000 are perfect examples.

But the suggestion that we should have signed Fanaca and let Ben go is pure folly. A good offensive line is easier to find and develop than a franchise quarterback. And Ben is a franchise quarterback.

He had a strong supporting cast as a rookie, but so have other rookies, and no other rookie went 15-1. He carried us to the Super Bowl in 2005. In 2007 he bounced back phenomenally from an awful year behind a horrible offensive line and with a clock-eating running game.

Ben is the kind of quarterback that a team only gets a shot at once in a generation.

When you find a player like that, you keep him. Pittsburgh is doing that.

Now they have to protect him, which, given the immediacy of the Steelers needs and their limited salary cap space, will be complicated. Time will reveal how the Steelers brain trust goes about protecting Ben, but regardless, they took care of the first order of business today.

They have a winner, and they’re keeping him.

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