´ Steel Curtain Rising: May 2008

What position(s) should be the Steelers highest priorities in the draft?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Watch Tower: Steelers Digest Enters Protection vs. Weapons Debate

An earlier post discussed the myths about the Steelers offensive line, namely that an upgrade in skill position players can compensate for deficiencies on the line. This idea has been expressed by Steeler coaches, and was endorsed by Ed Bouchette. Most recently, Steelers Digest Editor echoed similar sentiments.

In the May edition of the Steelers Digest, Labriola contends, “…this running back [Mendenhall] will help protect Roethlisgerger…..” Two paragraph’s later, Labriola continues arguing that the offensive line “only need become functional to give the time and space necessary to make plays.”

To support this argument, he asserts that the prospect of having Parker and Mendenhall in the same backfield will eat “… up more time in opponents defensive meetings than figuring out a way to neutralize some offensive tackle.”

Labriola is right of course. The possibility if having Parker and Mendenhall in the same backfield is enticing. Indeed, this writer has long bemoaned the steady disappearance of the two back backfield where both backs get carries.* The prospect of Parker and Mendenhall platooned behind the line of scrimmage gives the Steelers the kind of awesome one-two punch out of the backfield that many hoped would evolve during training came in 1990, when both Barry Foster and Tim Worley teased All Pro greatness.

But Labriola also misses the point. Defensive coordinators do already know what offensive lineman are doing to do, but if the offensive lineman are good, there is nothing they can do to stop them. As Chuck Noll used to say, “They know we’re going to come at them and play some good, hard-nosed football, so there’s nothing we can do but to go out there and do it.”

A dominate offensive line imposes its will on opponents, regardless of defensive scheme.

In all fairness to Labriola, he offers no illusions about the Steelers line, going on record to indicate that “It’s inaccurate to label the Steelers offensive line a team strength.” Labriola is also right when he claims that no offensive lineman drafted outside of the second round could have made an immediate impact. (Indeed, one of our commenting readers made a similar point.)

Steel Curtain Rising fully agrees with Labriola’s fundamental argument: The Steelers did the right thing by sticking to their draft board. The only quibble that it’s completely coherent to argue, “The Steelers came away with what might develop as steals in the draft, but the same circumstances that led to that also conspired to prevent them from upgrading their offensive line.”

*Steel Curtain Rising did not exist in 1993. But if it had, the Steelers failure give more carries to Merril Hoge after Barry Foster went down would have been lamented. Loudly. Indeed, after they lost Foster, the Steelers finished 3-4, and it is no coincidence that they won the three games were Hoge carried the ball. (God that feels good to finally get that off of my chest.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

AOWL from Steelers OTAs.... And Its a Good Thing

Missing off season workouts is normally a caution flag…. Such and such is unhappy…. So and so is lazy…. So and so is in coach’s dog house….

Steelers fans, however, should take heart that starting safety Troy Polamalu will not be joining his teammates for OTA’s.

Not only is it pleasing that Polamalu is working out with his personal trainer back in southern California, but so is the fact that his trainer has some unorthodox methods. Polamalu trained with the Steelers instead of his personal trainer during the 2006 and 2007 off seasons and the results were not encouraging.

In 2006 he missed three games to injury, he registered one sack, made fewer tackles, and the number of passes he defensed dipped into single digits for the first time since he became a starter. (He did, however intercepted more balls in 2006 than he had in 2005.)

The 2007 campaign was worse for Polamalu. He missed five games to injury and he registered neither a sack nor an interception. Saddest of all, Polamalu’s trademark playmaker style was notably absent even when he did take the field.

Polamalu’s personal trainer Marv Marinovich focuses on training athletes to match velocity with force, arguing that traditional weight lifting does not prepare them for the speed of the game. In fact, in a Post-Gazette profile, Marivonovich asserted: “What I found is the sports science in this country is not very good. Athletes succeed in sport despite what they do, not because of what they do.”

I am no position to assess Marinovich’s claim. The fact is that the same article highlights that, under Strength and Conditioning coach Chet Furmann, the Steelers starters averaged less time lost to injuries than any other NFL team.

Polamalu’s free-wheeling, high-flying style of play is distinctly unique. So only logical that he has a training style all of his own.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Steelers Failure to Franchise Fanaca One of the Top Ten Worst Offseason Moves?

The Steelers recently came in at 9th on Yahoo.com’s list of “10 Worst Moves (and non-moves) of the NFL Off Season.”

Their sin, according to Mike Florio, is not franchising Alan Fanaca.

Florio brings up a very interesting point. Why spend just under seven million dollars to transition Max Starks, a man whom Mike Tomlin has decribed as “starter capable,” when they could have kept a legitimate All Pro for only a half million more (pocket change in today’s NFL).

The poor play of the offensive line over the last two years makes this a no-brainer in Florio’s view.

But would franchising Fanaca have been the right thing to do?

The answer is no, even though we already know Fanaca is better than whoever takes over the left guard spot.

The Steelers don’t operate that way. Fanaca was unhappy in Pittsburgh and wanted out and, generally speaking, the Steelers don’t try to force players of Fanaca’s character to stay against their will.

Beyond that, Steelers always tie big money to long-term contracts. Fanaca would have excelled for another year, and then he’d have been gone. They thought (and claim they still think) they can agree to a long-term deal with Starks. An agreement for a multi-year contract during training came might be unrealistic, but perhaps such an accord can be reached prior to free agency’s start in 2009.

Finally, franchising Fanaca would have been a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Chris Kemoeatu is the heir apparent at left guard. Coaches insist that he’s ready. Yet Kemoeatu has proven nothing.

If Chris Kemoeatu delivers as advertised, there’s no guarantee that the Steelers can keep him off the market in 2009, but they’ll be able to make an informed decision. If Fanaca stays, Kemoeatu sits and the Steelers never learn if he’s a player or not.

The other side of Florio’s argument, that transitioning Starks was a mistake, has more merit. Regular readers of this blog know that Steel Curtain Rising is guilty of some equivocation when it comes to Max Starks. The Starks situation is so confusing because Starks play has been so inconsistent. He was good enough to start all the way through the Super Bowl in his second year, yet by the end of the next season Willie Colon was pushing him out of the starting lineup. Yet, he was impressive in relief of Marvel Smith at the end of 2008.

The Steelers have made s risk reward move. If Starks ends up as nothing more than a 7 million dollar third offensive tackle, they’ll look pretty dumb. If Starks services are needed at left tackle should Smith get hurt, or right tackle should Colon falter and/or need to move to guard, they’ll look pretty smart.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Steelers Must Thin Out Glut at Back Up Running Back

No team runs the ball like the Steelers. Although offensive coordinator Bruce Adrians seems intent on beefing up the passing game, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly expressed his love for attrition football.

Last year, the Steelers were in no position to play attrition football. In fact, they gave up several games in the fourth quarter. There are many reasons for these late game give aways, one of those is that they lacked the backfield to pound opponents into submission.

Until Verron Hayes rejoined the team late in the season, the team’s backfield did not feature a single back that had been drafted by the Steelers. In fact, only one of their backs, Najeh Davenport, entered the NFL through the draft. The rest were rookie free agents.

One offeseaon has seen a dramatic change with the Steelers selection of Rashard Mendenhall in the draft and the signing of Mewelde Moore, who was Minnesota’s 4th round pick in 2004.

That gives the Steelers Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Najeh Davenport, Cary Davis and Gary Russell. (They also have Billy Lasto and Justin Vincent, neither of whom figures to hold a roster spot beyond the first mandatory cuts.)

That leaves six backs when the Steelers normally carry only five. Who is the odd man out?

Baring injury, Parker and Mendenhall are both locks to make the 53 man roster. You’d have to figure that Moore is too, given that the team invested significant money to sign him. He’s also projected to work as a kick returner, which is certainly a need area.

That leaves Davenport, Russell, and Davis. Who is more expendable?

Carey Davis would appear an inside track on staying, by virtue of his play at fullback last year. Dan Krieder currently off the roster, Davis would figure to inherit the starting role. Davis averaged four yards a carry, but only had 17 of them. Davis got the nod over Krieder at certain points because of his supposed versatility, but he never did much to justify the coach’s faith in him.

The easy money would peg Gary Russell as the prime candidate depart. He played little last year, only rushing the ball 7 times for 21 yards. Russell’s potential is his upside. He drew comparisons to Barry Foster during preseason last year, and he only played two years in college. Russell has more room to grow.

Then there’s Davenport. Steel Curtin Rising speculated that the signing of Moore might have signaled the beginning of the end for Davenport. Yet that was before that draft. Ironically, it’s conceivable that Mendenhall’s arrival actually favors Davenport making the team.

The logic is that while Davenport will never give the Steelers the 1-2 punch capability they wanted, his 500 yards, 4.7 yards rushing average, and combined 7 touchdowns do show that he can be a role player. Perhaps Mendenhall gives Davenport room to be that kind of role player. Perhaps not.

Heading into the Steelers OTA’s (or mini-camp as they used to call it) the weeding out process at running back comes down to three things.

Who plays full back? Here its hard not to make a sentimental plea for Dan Krieder’s return, as the man embodies attrition football. But even if Krieder is fully recovered from his injury, as Kevin Colbert asserts, one has to wonder if how much longer he’ll use his body as a human battering ram.

Davis has a year under his belt at FB, but he did nothing to dazzle. If Russell or Davenport can fill that role Davis could be in trouble.

Salary cap impact is the next factor. The Steelers have invested serious money in Parker, Mendenhall, and Moore. Throw in the reality that they’re paying Max Starks seven million dollars and projecting him as a back up. The team also might want to dip into the free agent pool to sign Anthony McFarland or some other offensive or defensive lineman. Najeh Davenport reportedly makes a million a year, and could easily become a cap casualty.

Finally, there is special teams. The Steelers sorely lacked special teams stand outs in 2007. If any of the three men demonstrates an ability to make an impact on special teams its safe to assume he will greatly enhance his prospects of making the team.

The success or failure of the Steelers running game hinges more on the offensive line’s run blocking, Willie Parker’s ability to bounce back from injury, and Mendenhall’s development, than who occupies the back up spots.

Nonetheless, one of the tricks to winning in the salary cap era is stocking your team with back ups that provide the best bang for the buck. Finding those players is what needs to guide this back up running back competition.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Time to Debunk Steelers Offensive Line Myths

“...A good RB can help an OLine look better, as can better receivers.”
- Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on-line chat, 4/28/08

The Steelers may very well have succeeded in making a virtue out of necessity by stockpiling offensive weapons for want of offensive (or defensive) lineman in the 2008 draft. Time will tell.

In the here and now one thing is certain: There are myths circulating about the Steelers offensive line, and they will be debunked right now.

The source of the first “Weapons vs. Protection myth” is Ed Bouchette himself. In making reference to some comment (not available on-line) by Mike Tomlin, Ed Bouchette suggested that “Yes, I thought Tomlin’s answer was a good one. A Good RB can help an OLne look better, as can better receivers.”

That sounds nice. It even has a certain, if superficial, logic to it. But the simple fact is: Winning on offense begins with the offensive line.

One need not look back too far for proof. Flash back: 2003. The Steelers offensive line is such disarray that Alan Fananca has to shift from guard to center depending on what down it is…. The Steelers finished 6-10.

Look a little farther: 1998, One year after running roughshod over the league Jerome Bettis yards per-carry drop from 4.4 to 3.8, his total yards drop by almost 500, and he scores a mere three touchdowns. The difference? John Jackson departed for San Diego, wreaking havoc with the Steelers offensive line.

1999 was worse. The offensive line was weaker, and Bettis barely cracked a 1000 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Indeed, many argued that the Bus was washed up, and that Richard Huntley was the better back.

The fact that that argument looks so foolish today is as much a testament to the improved offensive line as it is to Bettis himself.

The Steelers offensive line improved tremendously in 2000 and 2001. It’s no coincidence that the play of Bettis, Kordell Stweart, and the receiving corps dramatically improved.

Myth number two comes from offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. He recently informed the Pittsburgh media that he’d changed some blocking techniques when he arrived in 2007, and that the players should improve in 2008 as they become more comfortable.

Yeah, right.

If that is the case, then why didn’t the offensive line improve as the 2007 season progressed? Instead, the line played above expectations during the early part of the year, and only to get progressively worse as the year season wore on.

Fate did not allow the Steelers to address this area in the draft. So be it.

Solid play at center coupled with a healthier Marvel Smith continued development by Willie Colon, could result in better protection for Ben Roethlisberger and more daylight for the running backs.

But until that scenario plays itself out on the field, the Steelers offensive line remains an area of concern. And no amount sophistry from Larry Zierlein or the press will alter that reality.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Anthony McFarland to Make News Again in June?

The Freeman McNeil verdict, which brought free agency to the NFL, also ushered in the era of the NFL as a year-round sport. Between training camp, prep for the draft, free agency, the draft, mini-camp, and well, the season itself, about the only slow month for NFL news June.

This trend is pretty universal in the NFL, and Pittsburgh is no exception.

But perhaps Pittsburgh will the exception this year, because of, you guessed it, Anthony McFarland.

For those of you haven’t been following it closely, the Anthony McFarland saga is perhaps the biggest story, or non-story to be precise, of the off season short of the Ben Roethlisberger signing and the draft.

Here’s a quick recap. In March McFarland visited the Steelers. All sides agree that the meeting went well. The Post-Gazette even erroneously reported that McFarland had signed a contract. A few days later Nick Eason resigned with, and the Post-Gazette reported that event signified the end of the Steelers interest in McFarland.

Not so fast. During the spring owners meeting Mike Tomlin confirmed that McFarland was physically not ready to play yet, but that the Steelers definitely remained interested.

The Tribune-Review’s John Harris, who has been diligently reporting the McFarland story, now informs us that Anthony McFarland is set to give a private workout in Tampa, Florida.

Harris clearly thinks the Steelers should sign McFarland. McFarland will not inject much youth into the Steelers defensive line, but he could provide valuable depth.

Regardless of whether or not the Steelers sign him, regardless of whether or not that turns out to a good decision or good non-decision, the date of the workout is June 4th. Which, if nothing else, means that McFarland will provide Steelers Nation with yet another story/non-story….

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Parker is Wise to Embrace Mentor Role

After the Steelers selected Rasheed Mendenhall with the 23rd pick of the 2008 NFL draft, the Tribune Review’s John Harris was the first to proclaim:

“The clock on Parker's career with the Steelers is now officially ticking toward its inevitable conclusion.”

Given that Parker is coming off a major injury in a league where running backs seem less and less durable, there’s a certain ring of truth in Harris ominous words.

But Parker is having none of that, and has vowed to take Mendehall under his wing. This is the right thing to do, for several reasons.

First, it shows that Parker is a good man. Being a good man might not bring the Steelers a Super Bowl, but it’s a quality that should earn Parker praise.

Second, Parker’s embrace of his newly found mentor role is good for the team. Locker room cohesion might be an intangible, but its importance should never be underestimated. Both Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney have been on the record stating that while the Cowher era might have had more talented teams, the 2005 Super Bowl Champion edition was the closest.

If you’ll remember, that was the team that won eight ‘must win’ games in a row, including three playoff road wins. That kind of streak only happens if the guys in the trenches are certain that their buddies have their backs.

Finally, Parker’s attitude is also very much in his own self interest. Durability is one factor that separates good from great running backs. There’s a lot of research to show that the wheels of a running back start to fall of after he’s run for more than 350 carries in a season.

For the record, Parker carried the ball 337 times in 2006 and 320 times in 2007. He very well may have surpassed his 2006 total had he not gotten hurt in week 16.

OK. 350 holds no mystical value, and assuming he bounces back from his current injury, Parker’s natural shelf-life might be a little longer than the average running back by virtue of the fact that he played so little in college. But that will only come to fruition if he has someone who can share the load with him.

The Steelers’ luck with first round running backs is checkered. They hit the jackpot with Franco Harris. Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, and Tim Worley chose to sniff his signing bonus up his nose. Mendenhall arrives with no guarantees.

But Rashard Mendenhall's very presence has the potential to extend Willie Parker’s career. For that to happen, Mendenhall has to make and impact in the pros. That’s more likely now that he’s under Willie Parker’s tutelage.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Ike Taylor Set to Zig Zag Again?

Zig zags define Ike Taylor’s career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As a rookie, his pure athleticism displayed as a kick returner one of the few bright spots during the dark 2003 season. Accordingly, he went into the 2004 season with great expectations.

Unfortunately, Taylor disappointed in 2004. Not only did he fail to crack the starting lineup, it was Willie Williams and not Taylor, who stepped into the starting role when injuries felled incumbent starter Chad Scott.

Things turned up for Taylor in 2005 in a big way. He played so well as a starter that coaches used him to shadow opponents’ leading receivers – something Bill Cowher had not done since its secondary sported the likes of Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.

Indeed, a source no less authoritative than Dan Rooney cited Taylor’s interception in the Super Bowl as one of the game changing plays.

Taylor’s stock was high heading into 2006, so high that the Steelers rewarded him with a long-term big money deal that kept him off the free agent market.

Taylor again fell short of expectations. While he might have been unfairly scapegoated for the team’s woes in 2006, there is no doubting that Taylor got torched in several big games.

At the close of the 2006 season, many wondered if the Steelers had not jumped the gun in giving big money to Taylor. Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola even labeled Taylor as “another new job the new coach [Mike Tomlin] must dive into quickly.”

Taylor bounced back once again in 2007. He led the team with three interceptions and 17 passes defensed while adding 90 tackles. He also moved from left to right corner for the Jacksonville playoff game, and in the process secured his third consecutive interception in as many playoff games.

Credit the Tribune Review’s John Harris for reporting that Taylor has continued to play on the right side throughout mini-camp. Although the coaches and Taylor himself are intent on minimizing the significance of this move, Harris does not. Such a move would pit Taylor against many of the opposing teams’ best receivers.

Tomlin was coy when queried about this, but he did let on that: "We want to have flexibility where we play those guys wherever. Whether it's right or left, whether we match receivers. We're just giving ourselves flexibility."

While Tomlin stopped short of saying that Taylor will shadow opposing receivers in 2008, the fact that he’s open to the possibility represents a tremendous vote of confidence in Ike Taylor.

The league’s toughest schedule will test the Steelers 2008. During that ordeal we might see Ike Taylor moving back and forth from right corner to left corner. If that comes to pass let’s hope that this latest zig zag for Ike Taylor turns out to be a positive one.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Draft 2008: Steelers Stockpile Potential at Important, If Less Critical Need Areas

At 2008 off season’s outset Steelers coach Mike Tomlin reaffirmed his commitment to attrition football – in other words to fighting and winning games in the trenches. To that end he, declared Steelers “need to get bigger and younger on both lines.” The Steelers then proceeded pick a single lineman in the 2008 NFL draft, Texas offensive tackle Tony Hills….

The Rolling Stones once opined that while you can’t always get what you want, you sometimes you get what you need. More recently Cold Play warned that those who got what they wanted but not what they needed would require fixing….

The dust from the 2008 NFL draft has settled, but the question remains, did the Steelers get what they wanted or what they needed?

The answer is that what the Steelers got in the draft, they needed.

Prior to the draft, Steel Curtain Rising was firmly on the record in support of drafting a offensive lineman. Yet we’ve also endorsed Tomlin and Colbert’s “draft the best man available” philosophy.

The Steelers followed their philosophy to the letter, and in the long run, that should reveal itself as a positive. Pro Football Weekly’s five year analysis of the Steelers draft record largely coincided with the analysis presented here in the Colbert Record. Namely that the Steelers success on day one of the draft has not carried over to day two. Pro Football Weekly concluded that this tendency has hurt the Steelers special teams play and their overall depth.

This conclusion is sound, and its one reason why reason to praise Colbert and Tomlin’s decision making, in spite of the team’s failure to land a blue-chip lineman.

All things being equal, the Steelers probably would have drafted a lineman early, but as fate would have it, drafting a lineman in the 1st or 2nd would have constituted a major reach. Reaching to fill a need in the draft is dangerous, remember Troy Edwards?

The Steelers draft score card is made up of a running back, a wide out, two outside linebackers, an offensive lineman, a quarterback and a safety.

The Steelers field Pro Bowl caliber talent at running back, wide out, and at outside linebacker. Yet at each of these slots, their depth is critically thin.

When Willie Parker went down, we learned why Najeh Davenport is and will be a career back up. Carey Davis and Gary Russell’s potential is just that, potential.

At wide receiver Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are backed up by a solid Nate Washington and the hope that Dallas Baker and Willie Reid will show something they’ve failed to show thus far.

At outside linebacker, James Harrison has established himself as a force, and Lamarr Woodley came on very strong in late 2007. But the cupboard is very, very bare once you look beyond these two players.

Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Mike Humpal have proven nothing at this level. The odds are against all four blossoming in the NFL, but their presence certainly strengthens the Steelers foundation in three key areas.

Quarterback is a little different. Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch give the Steelers the best 1-2 tandem in the league and if, God forbid, disaster were to strike both men, no one would say “If only Brian St. Pierre were still here…..”

Given this reality, Steel Curtain Rising whole heartedly concurred with Steelers Digest’s Bob Labrolia that “using [a pick] on a guy who would only be competing for the No. 3 spot would be a waste.”

With that said, Dennis Dixon is a player that would have gone on day one had he not been hurt. The Steelers have the luxury of letting him heal and develop. Time will tell if the Steelers can groom him into a number two, but if they do he will prove to be a wise selection.

The bottom line is, if Steelers determined the lineman who were on the board in the fifth would be unlikely to make the team in September, they were right to pick a high value player.

The Steelers did net offensive tackle Tony Hills in the draft. Even if Hills proves to be tougher than the pundits think him to be, the Steelers lines remain a major area of concern.

But the simple fact is that quality lineman were not available when the Steelers had to pick. Instead of panicking or allowing themselves to be victims of circumstance, they gave themselves a chance to strengthen other, if less urgent, need areas.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Steelers Sign Kyle Clement, Continue to Stockpile Undrafted Rookie Defensive linemen

The Steelers signed an additional undrafted free agent defensive lineman this week, when they came to terms with Division II stand out Kyle Clement from Northwood University (Michigan.) Clement posted more than 20 sacks and 50 tackles for losses in his college career. Those are impressive numbers, but alas other numbers are less impressive. He’s 6’4” but only listed at 266 pounds – VERY light for a defensive lineman in the NFL.

Correction -- We have been informed that Kyel Clement's current weight is about 316. Thx Blogger08! For further posts on Kyle Clement, click here.

Clement joins Washington’s Jordan Ruffett and Southern Mississippi’s Martavius Prince who were two more undrafted free agent rookie defensive lineman signed by the Steelers immediately after the draft. Martavius Prince worked as a two year starter at Southern Miss, and comes in at 282 pounds. Heavier still is Washington’s Jordan Ruffett, who weighs in at 292.

While Ruffett might still be considered light for a 3-4 defensive end, he is actually heavier that incumbent starter Brett Kiesel. Clement, Prince, and Ruffett will compete with Ryan McBean, a 2007 4th round draft choice who landed on the practice squad, to back up Kiesel and Aaron Smith at defensive end.
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In unrelated rookie free agent news, the Steelers waived KR/WR Dorien Bryant when he failed a physical, and replaced him with Wake Forest Wide Receiver Kevin Marion.