´ Steel Curtain Rising: May 2011

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Harrison Blasts Owners; Litna Offers to Mediate

The NFL is stepping up its war against the Steelers defense, er um, hard hits, by further clarifying and clamping down on helmet-to-helmet hits, expanding the definition of defenseless players, and expanding the players covered under defenseless concept.

Harrison Reacts Harshly

Steelers stand out outside linebacker James Harrison wasted no time and minced on words, offering on Twitter:
I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots.

Harrison’s frustration is more than understandable.

For the past several years the a good portion of the NFL’s officials have implicitly (or explicitly) turned a blind eye as offensive lineman have routinely held, horse collared, and often wrestled James Harrison to the ground with nary a flag thrown.

In 2010, James Harrison found himself as the focal point of the leagues new “no hard hits policy” as he was routinely fined and penalized for hits on quarterbacks.
Harrison’s fines also equaled or exceeded those levied on players who commited far worse offenses, such as attempting to cold cock Ben Roethlisberger with a sucker punch in between plays.

Balance Anyone?

While Steel Curtain Rising obviously supports James Harrison, I also recognize the need to protect against head trauma.

The NFL is indeed wise to take this issue very seriously, lest the sport’s popularity plummet the way boxing’s has since the late 1970’s.

But where’s the balance?

Ever since the imposition of the Mel Blount rule the NFL has done more and more to promote the passing game.

Defensive coordinators have reacted by ratcheting up the pressure in the backfield, and hitting hard in the secondary.

Rules changes like these would be easier to support if the league were to say, modify the pass interference rules. No one is talking about repealing the Mel Blount rule, but too often defenders get flagged for even the most minor occasions of incidental contact.

This was not always the case, and if the NFL is going make even difficult for defenders to use force to limit the offense’s ability to move the ball, why not also make corresponding rules changes that enhance the defense’s ability to stop offense using technique?

Litna Offers to Mediate

Joe Litna, a Pittsburgh native and long time NFL agent, made an interesting offer, as reported by Ed Bouchette in PG Plus.

In essence, Litna, who by representing 45-50 NFL players, is asking to see a copy of the latest offer from the NFL owners so that he can present it to his players.

He further clarified that he thinks there’s a good chance his players would be ready to accept it.

Finally, Litna offered to help mediate the dispute.

The idea of accepting mediation from an agent might seem like allowing the fox to guard the chickens, given that agent-driven bonus increases are a big part of the problem.

But Litna has always seemed reasonable. After re-negotiating Jim Miller’s contract prior to the start of the 1996 season, Litna reportedly told his client, “You don’t deserve a contract like this. Now go out and earn it.”

If nothing else, Litna’s comments perhaps provide a clue that the NFL rank and file are getting frustrated with the stalemate that the lockout is locked in (pun intended.)

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Aaron Smith Still Not Fully Recovered?

Steelers Nation got some good news Friday when Gerry Dulac reported on PG Plus that Troy Poalamlu’s recovery from a slight Achilles tendon tear is healing well. Dulac further reported that Polamalu is under the care of an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles.

If Dulac is right about Polamalu, everyone in Steelers Nation can say a prayer of thanks, because number 43 is one of the true game-changing players in the league today.

The news on Aaron Smith is less welcome.

Aaron Smith of course tore a triceps in early October. The Steelers however did not put Smith on IR, opting to give him a chance to make a come back before year’s end, a decision which ultimately forced them to cut Thaddus Gibson, whom they'd picked in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft.

While Dulac reports that “Smith has suffered no set backs” he also indicates that “it is still unclear at this point if he will be 100 percent recovered in time for training camp” (assuming there is a training camp….)

Should Have Put Aaron Smith on IR

I am not medical expert, but this new information really calls Tomlin’s decision not to put Smith on IR into question.

Let’s be clear:

  • The outcome of Super Bowl XLV would not have been different had Thaddus Gibson been on the roster.
According to Pro Football Reference, Thaddus Gibson got into two games in San Francisco, and the site did not track any tackles or other stats for the player. If Gibson is to be this generations Dwayne Board, as Ed Bouchette never tires of suggesting each time the Steelers cut a young defender, he’s given zero indication of that thus far.

But in hind sight the decision to keep Smith active did perhaps limit roster flexibility in other areas.

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Troy Polamalu Graduates from USC

Troy Polamalu, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Year, is grabbing headlines again, in spite of the NFL lockout.

That's to be expected, because this time it is not with his body, but with his brain as the Steelers 2010 MVP walked the stage at USC's commencement ceremony.

Steel Curtain Rising salutes Polamalu's decision to go back and finish his education. He should be set for life and seems sensible enough to manage his money smartly so that that happens.

But athletic ability fades or, as we have seen with out beloved 43, can be robbed by injury.

Education is one of the few things that can never be taken away. Polamalu knows that and has finished his degree.

Polamalu Student of the Year Contest

Troy is not stopping with himself, he is sponsoring a student of the year contest, one open to students at the elementary, junior high/high school and college level.

I don't know any students well enough to nominate them and, truth be told, few Argentine student would know who Troy Polamalu is.

But if you're involved closely enough with education then I encourage you to nominate that special student who has crossed your path.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Reflections on Alan Fanaca's Retirement

Former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Fanaca, perhaps the franchises best player at that position, retired Tuesday ending a 13 year career.

Drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft, Fanaca broke into the starting line up and remained a fixture at guard for a decade.

During the team’s 2003 season Fanaca proved his value to the team yet again, by shifting to left tackle (on first and second downs) when injuries had decimated the team’s offensive line. Fanaca’s peers nonetheless voted him to the Pro Bowl.

Tom Donahoe’s Last Great Pick

Tom Donahoe, whose personnel moves had a huge hand in the Steelers return to contender status of the 1990’s, is oft remembered for a series of premium picks in the late 1990’s that either “didn’t pan out” (Troy Edwards) or were outright busts (Jermaine Stephens, Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat.)

But Fananca was has last great, and arguably greatest pick, and certainly his best first round pick overall. Coming to the Steelers in 1998, Fanaca got a unique vantage point into Steelers history.

Fanaca participated in (although did not contribute to) the decline of the Cowher-Donahoe era, helped usher in the rebirth and subsequent “knocking on heaven’s door” phase of the early Cowher-Colbert era, basked in the glory of Super Bowl XL, and stayed on for the beginning of the Mike Tomlin era.

No Money, No Honey….

Fanaca, who was drafted mere months after the Steelers 1998 AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos, would suffer through the agony of two more AFC championship losses, both at the hands of the Patriots, and both at Heinz Field.

Alas, Fanaca never had the chance to exorcise those AFC Championship demons with the rest of his teammates as he had departed for the New York Jets as a free agent in the 2008 off season.

Alan Fanaca’s departure was not without some acrimony. Pittsburgh wanted him back but, as is their nature, the Steelers were not ready to break the bank for Fanaca.

When it became clear an agreement was not in the offing, Fanaca asked for a trade, and criticized the team for failing to provide him with financial security – an odd comment from someone who’d been paid tens of millions of dollars by the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin inherited the situation, and managed it well. Fanaca might not have been happy, he might not have bought into Larry Zierlein’s new blocking schemes (not that he should have) but he certainly gave his all while on the field, right up until his final game against Jacksonville.

Fanaca of course played for New York for two seasons and then finished his career at Pittsburgh West, aka the Cardinals.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to who will be the first pure-Cowher era Steeler to enter into the Hall of Fame. While Jerome Bettis will likely beat him there, if there is any justice Fanaca will some day join him.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Greg Lloyd Jr.’s Shot at NFL Glory Begins Where Father’s Ended

Sometimes similarities become too strong to ignore.

The fact that for the first time in 13 years Greg Lloyd will play linebacker for a pro football team in Pennsylvania qualifies as one of those.

That Greg Lloyd of course is not the legendary Steelers linebacker from the 1990’s, but his son, Greg Lloyd Jr.

Consider some of the congruences:
  • Both Lloyds are linebackers
  • Hailing for Ft. Valley State and UConn, neither hails from a college football super heavyweight
  • Both men were drafted with their team’s second seventh round pick
  • Both Lloyd’s suffered knee injuries that they had to/will have to overcome during their rookie years
So far we have a warm and fuzzy story of son following in father’s footsteps, albeit at the other end of the PA Turnpike.

But there’s a rub.
  • The Lloyd’s are estranged, resulting for a bitter divorce followed by accusations, explanations, and counter accusations detailed in the Post-Gazette and in Jim Wexell’s book Steelers Nation.
This tension between father and son make this next juxtaposition all the more jarring:

  • Greg Lloyd Jr.’s shot at NFL glory in the same place where his father’s ended.
A Linebacker Struck Down in His Prime...

Greg Lloyd as Steelers fans know, seriously injured his knee on a hot and humid opening at the height of the Steelers-Jaguars rivalry in 1996.

Lloyd rehabbed with vigor and was back in 1997, but was slow to regain his old form.

Some even suggested Lloyd had lost it. But Lloyd revved it up by mid-season, registering a sack in consecutive games heading into an intra-state, inter-conference shown down vs. the Eagles at Veteran’s Stadium.

Greg Lloyd quickly made it three consecutive games, sacking Bobby Hoying early in the first quarter. The next time the Eagles had the ball, Lloyd was back at it again, terrorizing the Eagle’s backfield.

No sooner did I proclaim to the assembled host at Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon, “Greg Lloyd is back!” than did Lloyd lunge at the Hoying but miss and slide.

The play ended. Lloyd failed to get up. It was his leg again, this time his ankle, and a scrape with the turf gave him a staph infection which cost him 20 pounds. He never wore a Steelers uniform again, and played one more season as a situational pass rusher for Carolina.

Lloyd never got a shot at another Super Bowl and, with injury striking him down while he was still in his prime, he’ll likely never be considered for the Hall of Fame.

Poignancy in Being Picked By Philly?

And that brings us back to Greg Lloyd Jr.

Who knows if he’ll ever equal or surpass his father on the football field? He faces long odds but, then again, no linebacker from Ft. Valley State was ever supposed go to five straight Pro Bowls.

The similarities between the two Lloyd’s situations are almost too startling to be over ruled as coincidence. But Lloyd Jr.’s selection by Philly along with their reported estrangement punctuate the situation with a certain poignancy

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising wishes Greg Lloyd Jr. success – as long as it does not come at the expense of the Steelers.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Steelers 2011 Draft Class At a Glance

The 2011 NFL draft is now history.

Although the hype, pomp and circumstance, pontificating and subsequent “paralysis by instant analysis” can get tiring, let’s concede that this is a great day.

It is a day when everyone, from fans, to coaches, to scouts, front office execs, and most importantly young kids can dare to dream.

Soon enough (or perhaps not, if the lock out continues) these kids will get a chance to be tested by the best. But for now, everyone’s got a shot an doing when all of us dreamed about when we were 5 and 6 years old playing with a nerf or K-2 in backyards many years ago.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Draft

Here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 NFL Draft class at a glance:

  • Cameron Heyward, Defensive End, Ohio State, 31(31)
  • Marcus Gilbert, Offensive Tackle, University of Florida, 31(63)
  • Curtis Brown, Cornerback, University of Texas, 31(95)
  • Cortez Allen, Cornerback, Citadel, 31(128)
  • Chris Carter, Outside Linebacker, Fresno State, 31(162)
  • Keith Williams, Guard, University of Nebraska, 31(196)
  • Barron Batch, Running Back, Texas Tech, 29(232)
Potential on Paper to Meet Needs

Critics have howled from all corners at the Steelers failure to select a corner in the first or second round.

A 1st round corner would have been welcome indeed. But the need to inject youth into the defensive line is also a need, and players essential need to re-learn the positions they’re playing under Johnny Mitchell. The Steelers may not “need” Cameron Heyward in 2011, but they will certainly need him in 2012.

Many have criticized Marcus Gilbert as a reach, perhaps he will prove to be just that. Nonetheless, even if Willie Colon and Max Starks come back at full strength, the Steelers need help at tackle.

The Steelers walked away with a pair of corners, two mid-round picks in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. While some might think there are slim chances of finding a good corner in so late, remember that Ike Taylor was a 4th round pick.

In Chris Carter and Keith Williams the Steelers give themselves potential to add depth at one position which has quality but not quality depth, and another that has the reverse.

Barron Batch is being projected as a third down back, and he could spell the end of Mewelde Moore’s time in Pittsburgh.

Some of these guys are going to wash out, but for now let’s give these young men their day.

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