´ Steel Curtain Rising: February 2011

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Unrestricted Free Agents, Part I

The NFL Lockou.... er, um, free agent signing period is about to start.

Seriously, the NFL Players and Owners are headed to a work stoppage. But at some point there will be some kind of free agency, and here is a look at some of the decisions the Steelers face:

Ike Taylor – Drafted in 2003, Ike Taylor has been a fixture at corner for the Steelers, save his mid-season benching at during Bill Cowher’s final year. Taylor is the team’s top corner. He does not have the interceptions to be considered an elite corner in the league. At age 31, this figures to be Taylor’s last big money contract.

Cutting to the Chase on Ike Taylor: The Steelers need Ike Taylor, and after having franchised him he appears to be their top priority. Taylor is never going to evolve into a shut down corner at this stage of his career, but if he will never be a “great” corner in this league is already a very good one.

  • Expect Taylor to stay.

Nick Eason – Joined the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2007 and has served as a reliable back up, rotating into the starting role in the face of injuries to Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. In five starts in 2010, Eason recorded 1.5 sacks.

Cutting to the Chase on Nick Eason: Eason gives you everything you want in a back up, versatility, knowledge of the system, enough ability to so that opposing offenses know he is no push over, and an ability to make a play.

  • The Steelers should and most likely will bring Eason back.

Jonathan Scott – Joined the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2010, largely on the strength of his relationship with offensive line coach Sean Klugler and his ability to play in a “musical chairs” type environment. My God, did that ability come in handy in 2010. Only projected to be a back up, Scott played in all sixteen game and started nine.

Cutting to the Chase on Jonathan Scott: Yes Scott did appear to be the weak link on the Steelers line in any number of games, but Max Stark’s injury forced him into the starting line up at left tackle, the most difficult position. Scott may not have always excelled, but no one will question his tenacity.

  • The Steelers made it to Super Bowl XLV because guys like Jonathan Scott stepped up and refused to pay the naysayers any mind. The Steelers should bring him back.

Matt Spaeth – Joined the Steelers as a 3rd round draft pick in 2007. Spaeth has started a fair number of games in the two TE set, and early in his career the Steelers threw to him infrequently, but Speath did catch it fairly well. Speath got more action in 2010 due to Heath Millers injury and his performance was so-so.

Cutting to the Chase on Matt Spaeth: Spaeth has not lived up to his potential as a 3rd round draft pick, and David Johnson made some strides this year.

  • Matt Spaeth will likely test the market but almost as likely return to the Steelers.

Daniel Sepulevda – Joined the Steelers as a fourth round draft pick in 2007, but has only completed two full seasons as the team’s punter.

Cutting to the Chase on Daniel Sepulevda – Like his counter part Matt Speath, Sepulevda has failed to live up to his potential, and now has 3 ligament tears in two knees.

  • The Steelers could do worse than Dan Sepulevda but they can and have made two Super Bowls without him. And Justin Kapios looked pretty good….

Chris Hoke – Joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2001, and has played in 108 games and started 16, including 10 in 2004 the year the Steelers went 15-1.

Cutting to the Chase on Chris Hoke: Is there a more under recognized player on the Steelers defense? Chris Hoke’s value to the team defies statistics. When Casey Hampton must come out, the Steelers do not miss a beat with Chris Hoke.

  • The Steelers must do what they have to in order to keep Chris Hoke. Given his lack of notoriety, Hoke may draw little interest, but the Steelers must not be complacent.

So concludes part I of Steel Curtain Rising's annual Steelers Free Agent Focus. Stay tuned for part II, coming soon to a lock out near you.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

LaMarr Woodley Signs Franchise Tender

When the Steelers placed the franchise tag on LaMarr Woodley last week many in the press wrote it off as an academic move.

After all, the current CBA between the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association expires on March 4th and everyone fully expects a protracted lock out. If there is no franchise player provision in the next CBA, then the Steelers move would mean nothing.

Woodley, however, signed the tender, binding him to the team for the coming year and assuring him a salary of 10 million dollars.

Although a signed tender is tantamount to a contract, Ed Bouchette cautioned readers on PG Plus that any new CBA might void any signed tenders. In a legal sense it is kind of difficult to see how that could really happen, but courts generally respect the terms of collective bargaining agreements.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Steelers 2010 Report Card

Ah, what a year it was. An up year, but a bumpy ride.

Breaking with the scholastic theme of previous report cards, grading the Steelers 2010 season is like grading the guy who went through 3-4 rounds of job interviews, passed pre interview tests, had excellent references, but slipped up just enough in the final interview to swing the decision the other way….

…And alas, unlike high school, they do not award partial Lombardi Trophies for “showing your work.”

Nonetheless, these grades do reflect an overall evaluation of the Steelers 2010 performance.

How many teams make the Super Bowl after starting their 4th string quarterback for 3 games?

Ben Roethlisberger showed some rust following his 4 game suspension. While this rust was hardly toxic it went. Still Roethlisberger returned to top form before season’s end. His release was faster, accuracy up, and he gave up fewer sacks despite what at times was non-existent protection.

Roethlisberger made some costly errors in Super Bowl XLV and, although it may not be fair, many will hold that against him arguing it disqualifies him as an elite quarterback. (Never mind that those same "many" refuse to hold Peyton Manning to the same standard.)

2010 was not Ben’s best year under center, but his play did leave indications that that year is yet to come. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall
did not have a breakout year in 2010. After flashing so much promise in 2009 Mendenhall plateaued in 2010, sometimes hitting holes decisively, while other times he shuffled tentatively.

His performance in the post season was emblematic of the year – the Steelers defeated the Jets because of Mendenhall’s power and ability to impose his will. Yet he committed costly turnovers against Baltimore and then in Super Bowl XLV.

Isaac Redman lived up to his cult-hero status. The question about Redman at this point is why he doesen’t carry more? Mewelde Moore made few splashy headlines, but played solid football when called upon. Jonathan Dwyer looked OK in one outing against Cleveland.

The Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to in 2010, a marked contrast to 2009. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Santonio Who?

The Steelers discarded their youngest Super Bowl MVP wide out, doing some addition by subtraction. This unit made plays.

Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown both developed and made impacts as rookies far beyond what anyone had the right to expect.

Mike Wallace’s playoff production indicates he still needs more development, but his 20 plus yards per catch average indicates he is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in this league.

Health Miller had a "quiet" year, if you consider calmly making clutch catches "quiet."

Hines Ward remains driving force behind this unit. He may have had more 1-2 catch games that Steelers Nation is accustomed to, but he made those catches count.

The fact the Arnaz Battle was a special teams Ace and Antwaan Randle El had the catch of the year and are still afterthoughts speaks volumes of the rest of the unit. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Has a Steelers offensive line ever experienced such turmoil? The 2010 offensive line sage makes the 2008 offensive line double rebuilding project look trite. Guards played tackle. Tackles played guard. Back ups were called into replace the… backups.

No, the offensive line was neither dominate nor consistent. Outside of Maurkice Pouncey, few members of the unit would get poached in a hypothetical expansion draft. Yet, when examined collectively, the offensive line remained “above the line” in 2010, against all odds. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
Another unit that stared upheaval in the face and refused to blink. Unlike their brethren on the offensive line, the Steelers do have defenders who are the envy of their peers, and their ability to step up in the face of injury is a major reason why the Steelers finished just shy of setting an NFL rush defense record. Grade: A

The strength of the team in 2010, the Steelers linebacking corps was also the NFL’s best. Every Steelers linebacker made plays in 2010, despite finding themselves squarely in the crosshairs of the NFL’s new “Thou Shalt Not Hit” policy. James Harrison continued to, in Mike Tomlin’s words, “make plays in timely fashion,” James Farrior defied father time, LaMarr Woodley had a Pro Bowl year, and all Lawrence Timmons did was lead the team in tackles. Grade: A

The secondary finished 2009 a maligned, shell-shocked unit which played with zero confidence absent their leader, Troy Polamalu. 2010 brought a different story as Ryan Clark and William Gay rebounded, Bryant McFadden made good on his return, and Troy Polamalu made game changing play after game changing play. With these improvements duly noted, the Steelers were more vulnerable to the pass this year than in years past, and the secondary must bear responsibility for that. Grade: B

Special Teams
At mid season, Al Everest was looking like a miracle worker, but then the Steelers special teams started slipping. The Steelers special teams improved in 2010. Two victories can be directly traced to their “splash plays.” That they made this improvement despite the departure of Jeff Reed and injury to Dan Sepulveda is all the more impressive.

Still penalties and inconsistencies in the return and coverage units were at issue. While we laud the improvements, playing championship football will require the special teams to move beyond simply not being a liability. Grade: B

Why Bill Belichick won AP Coach of the Year Honors is beyond me…
…The Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff began the year in crisis and spent the rest of the year managing injuries, suspensions, and some selective prosecution from the officials. Mike Tomlin always maintained a clear head, kept his team focused, refused to make or allow excuses, adjusted game plans and approaches, and made tough personnel calls.

Pittsburgh measures success in Lombardi’s and the Steelers failed to nab one this year. But the truth is the coaching staff did one hell of a job. Grade: A-

Unsung Heroes
This is a tough award to give out because so many men stepped up at so many critical times. But how about singling out Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster, Jonathan Scott, and Trai Essex, the offensive line’s key backups. These men not only rotated in and out of the starting line up, they rotated from position to position – often multiple times in the same game. Lacking that selflessness, absent that versatility, or without that will to win, the Steelers don’t even sniff a chance at Lombardi number Seven.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Steelers Lose Frank "The Tank" Summers

Perhaps some things are just not meant to be.

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Frank “The Tank” Summers in the 5th round of the 2009NFL draft to great fanfare.

Summers made the squad despite arguably being out-preformed by 2009’s training camp sensation Isaac “Redzone” Redman. Summers played in two games, starting one as the team’s fullback, but he looked lost.

After the Steelers loss to Chicago, Summers went on IR with what at the time appeared to be a mysterious back injury, but the injury was later corroborated by media reports of surgery.

Summers returned to training camp in 2010, where many suggested that despite his size he was miscast as a full back, that he should have been used as a conventional running.

Regardless, it was Isaac Redman’s chance to turn the tables, as Redman made the team, relegating Summers to the practice squad.

Summers neither attracted interest while on the waiver wire nor while on the Steelers practice squad, but the San Diego Chargers signed Summers, where he’ll get a chance to compete for a slot on their 2011 roster – assuming there is a 2011 season.

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Rod Woodson Returns to NFL as Raiders Secondary Coach

The Steelers have not announced who will replace departed secondary coach Ray Horton yet. But we know for sure that former Pittsburgh Steeler and NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson will not be under consideration.

Not any source had associated Woodson’s name with the vacancy.

Six years ago, things were different, however.

After he retired from the Radiers, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher tried to entice Rod Woodson into the coaching booth, but number 26 declined, instead opting for the press box.

The Oakland Raiders announced today that Rod Woodson had joined Hue Jackson’s staff as the team’s cornerbacks coach.

As a general rule of thumb, great players do not make great coaches – look at Mike Singletary’s stint in San Francisco for proof.

Woodson however, offers potential to be an exception. Rod Woodson matched his athletic gifts with a cerebral approach to the game. At any number of points both during and after his career, Woodson went at great pains to single out coaches who’d improved his understanding of the game.

Acknowledged defensive geniuses like Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers have toped his lists, but so have men like Tony Dungy and Rod Rust, two mentors whose time with Woodson was far more limited.

Because he’s a Steelers great, Steel Curtain Rising wishes Woodson all the best in his new coaching endeavor – last long he fails to find success at the Steelers expense.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Decline and Rise of the Steelers Secondary and Ray Horton's Changing Fortunes

My what a difference a year makes.

A little over a year ago Steelers Nation was still smarting in the aftermath of a 9-7 season. While plenty of blame was to be passed around, one of the main culprits of the Steelers 5 game slide was the secondary.

The once proud unit, albeit in the absence of Troy Polamalu, stood in shell shock. The unit had failed to protect fourth quarter leads in five of the Steelers 7 losses , worst yet, members of the secondary dropped game-saving interceptions on not one but two of those loses.

While no one was ready to label these miscues as secondary coach Ray Horton’s “fault,” few wanted to sing his praises.

Horton did get a job interview for a position at a University in Texas, but Gerry Dulac reported on PG Plus that Horton had been encouraged to “find another job” by Mike Tomlin, and was only kept on the Steelers staff at Dick LeBeau’s urging.

That Was Then, This Is Now

A year later the Steelers are coming off a record trying 8th Super Bowl appearance, and while the secondary might been one of the Steelers short comings in their in ability to defeat Green Bay, the unit as a whole was never a liability to the Steelers in 2010.

Which made Horton a hot coaching commodity.

Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 fire zone-blitz defense was at center stage in Super Bowl XLV, with Dom Capers running his own version, and in this outing, to greater effect.

Dallas was reportedly interested in Ray Horton, but Ken Whisenhunt in the end convinced him to set sail for “Pittsburgh West.”

I do not pretend to know enough to evaluate Horton’s job as Steelers DB’s coach – he did a great job in bringing William Gay and Ryan Mundy along, not so much with Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnette but Lewis’ problems at least seem to be between the ears.

Nor do I pretend to offer predictions on how he’ll do as a defensive coordinator.

Even if I could, all of it would miss the point.

Horton’s transition in one year from cast-away to coordinator just underlines how much of a “what have you done for me lately” league the NFL is.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Steelers Self-Destruct in Super Bowl XLV

As we all know, the Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV, largely because they self-destructed through 3 turnovers and pointless penalties.

Unfortuantely, I did not see the game, as it was not being shown in the part of Brazil that I was vacationing in.

Beyond that, a family medical emergency reared its ugly head during the game itself.

As disappointed as I was at the outcome, the medical issues helped me keep things in perspective.

Thanks to everyone who has commented -- I will get the corrections up on the Steelers-Packers history page, and I will attempt to get more into the swing of things with what is going on with the Steelers in the off season.

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