´ Steel Curtain Rising: August 2011

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Kevin Colbert Named GM, Batch on IR, Leftwich Surgery

When I asked my 9th grade government teacher, Mr. David P. Walzack, what he thought of the 1987 NBA finals (where Magic's Lakers knocked off Bird's Celtics) he answered, "I think it stinks. I am not that big of a Celtics fan, but I am a real big Larry Bird fan."

I responded, "I just don't like the Lakers because they're from California."

To which Mr. Walzack responded: "That is a typical Pittsburgh attitude." Walzack was from Pittsburgh, teaching me in the heart of Washington DC suburbia.

The relevance of all of this you, those who haven't clicked away, ask?

There must be something to what Mr. Walzack said.

I always liked to break big news to the folks on the sly. Straight A's (yes, it happened Sr. year in high school), don't say a word, just leave it on the table.

Scholarship? Same deal, just leave it on the table.

The Rooneys it seems, share that same Pittsburgh trait.

Dan Rooney learned of his promotion to President of the Steelers when the team's media guides were handed out.

Art II learned the same way.

Now the Rooneys have done it again, naming Kevin Colbert to be the team's first general manager. In Dawn of a New Steel Age Ed Bouchette explained that Dan Rooney brought Tom Donahoe on as "Director of Football Operations" because "General Manager" was 'a title that Rooney detests and has vowed never to name.'

Apparently Art II has other ideas.

In all likelihood this "promotion" is merely ceremonial, but it is significant nonetheless. Hat's off to you Kevin Colbert.

Barron Batch Goes on IR, Byron Leftwich Has Surgery

The Steelers yesterady put rookie training camp sensation Barron Batch on IR. Batch suffered a torn ACL in training camp, so this move was enitrely expected.

Byron Leftwich, who broke his arm against the Falcons, had it operated on, but might be spared IR, according to various sources.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Leftwich, Lewis, Pouncy Injured in Steelers Preseason Victory Over Atlanta

Preseason results indicate little, but it is always better to play well and win rather than lose.

On that front, it was a good night for the Steelers as they defeated the Falcons 34-16.

The men in Black and Gold paid a price however, seeing Byron Leftwich, Keenan Lewis, Casey Hampton and Maurkice Pouncey all injured.

Based on Twitter reports and Mike Tomlin’s press conference the prognosis appears this way:

  • Byron Leftwich’s injury, a broken arm, is the most serious, and will likely go on IR

  • Maurkice Pouncey was walking fine after the game and will be OK

  • Keenan Lewis will also play in the preseason finale, according to Lewis
No one appears to be talking about Hampton’s injury, so it appears that it is not serious.

As usual the game was not show here in Buenos Aires, so any observations are most welcome.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Steelers Resign Lawrence Timmons the Right Move

“Follow the money” implored “Deep Throat” the inside source of the Watergate scandal.

If you want to know what the Pittsburgh Steelers see as the strength of their team, look at where they put their money.

And today the Steelers announced that they’d signed Lawrence Timmons, starting inside linebacker, and the first pick of the Mike Tomlin era for six years and a cool 60 million dollars, including 18 in bonuses.

For those of you keeping track at home, that averages out to about a quarter of the 120 million dollar salary cap paid out to the starting linebacking corps.

The Right Move

As a rookie Lawrence Timmons had difficulty getting on the field due to some nagging injuries. Although he failed to break the starting line up in his sophomore season, he nonetheless made his share of “Splash plays” – his work in relief of James Harrison in the Washington game sticks out.

Timmons graduation to the starting line up in 2009 fell below expectations, but who didn’t fall short of expectations in 2009?

But in 2010 Lawrence Timmons came into his own.

While James Harrison and Troy Polamalu (rightly) filled the highlight reels for their eye popping plays against Tennessee, Timmons was flying around and seemingly in on every play and played a key role in shutting down Chris Johnson.

The Steelers defense played one of the best games in its history that hot and humid day against Tennessee, and the game also served as a metaphor for Timmon’s season. Guys like Harrison, Polamalu, and Woodley got most of the accolades, but Timmons led the team in tackles.

Locking Timmons up for six more years is the right move.

The Right Move II

In reporting Timmons signing, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette concludes that the Steelers have finished with their signings for the year. (The Steelers have had a contract negotiation black out since 1993.)

That means that Troy Polamalu and Mike Wallace, both in the final years of their contracts, will have to wait.

That too is wise on the part of the Steelers braintrust.

For as strongly as Steel Curtain Rising defended Troy Polamalu against the “overrated” charge this past summer, the truth is that Polamalu has missed games because of injury in four of the past five years, and he’s finished the functional equivalent of two of those in IR.

Make no mistake about it, the Steelers defense cannot be great without Troy Polamalu, and it would be a tragedy should wear any other uniform before beginning his “life’s work.” But the Steelers will have the option to franchise him at season’s end, and after making an honest assessment as to how much Polamalu has left in the tank.

Mike Wallace will be a restricted free agent next spring. The Steelers do run the risk that some other team will make an inane offer that they cannot match, but it is a risk worth taking.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Keenan Lewis - Fighting for a Roster Spot, Fighting History

For as much as popular pro football culture bemoans preseason football, this part of the NFL calendar is laden with opportunity.

And perhaps no Steeler has more on the line than Keenan Lewis.

To win Lombardi Number Seven, the Steelers must improve their secondary. Bryant McFadden and William Gay are known commodities. While serviceable, neither man has much, if any, upside.

Lewis' slate is a little less cluttered.

Injuries kept Keenan Lewis on the bench in 2009. But Lewis vaulted past Joe Burnett last summer and earned himself a preseason start…

…And then fell flat on his face against Denver, getting torched so badly he had to be pulled from the game only to break a sign in a temper tantrum.

Lewis wasn’t seen much for the rest of 2010, and what little Steelers Nation saw was not good.

Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin, seldom one to coddle, gave Lewis a vote of confidence in the off season, explaining that Lewis “needed snaps” to get better.

And now Tomlin is giving Lewis his shot.

History as a Guide?

- History teaches everything including the future.

Conventional NFL wisdom holds that a player makes the biggest leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons.

The Steelers history validates this. Leon Searcy, Troy Polamalu, Ziggy Hood, and Chad Brown played sparingly as rookies only to snatch strangle holds on starting spots in their second years.

In contrast, as Brett Keisel and James Harrison illustrate, late picks often undergo multi-year apprenticeships emerge later as starters.

But what of third round picks? What’s their typical development path?

If the history of the Steelers 3rd round draft picks since 1987 serves as any guide, Lewis has little hope.

The vast majority of Steelers third round picks’ career trajectory was clear by the time they entered their third training camp.

Going into year three most of the Steelers 3rd round picks were locked into bumbling towards ‘busthood’, flashing and fading, settling into supporting roles or sprinting towards stardom, with only a few reversing course.

Bumbling Towards ‘Busthood’

Chuck Lanza’s, ’88, final NFL play was the faulty snap that ended the ’89 Steelers shot at their own Mile High Miracle. Craig Veasey, 3b ’91, Chris Conrad, 3a ’98, and Steven Conley, ’96, all played spot roles in their first two years before getting their walking papers. Kris Farris, 3b ’99, never played a down in Pittsburgh. Paul Wiggins, ’97, dressed just once his rookie season and got cut next summer.

Anthony Smith’s, 3a ’06, big words and little actions ensured that his third year with the Steelers was his last. Willie Reid, 3b ’06, played all of seven games in two seasons. Bruce Davis, ’08, was one-and-done after he couldn’t contribute on special teams.

Flashing and Fading

Charles Lockett, ’87, and Derek Hill, ’89, both started games in their first two years but were out of football thereafter. Bam Morris, ’94, looked liked a 3rd round steal until drug problems sent him packing. Amos Zereoue, 3c ’99, played little in ’99 and ’00 and, although he did improve, he was never able or willing to fulfill his potential. Matt Spaeth, ‘07 caught what little the Steelers threw his way in his first two years then saw his progress level off in ’09 and ’10.

Settling into Supporting Roles

Guys like Jon Witman, ’96, and Kendrick Clancy, ’00, both established themselves as role players going into year 3. Much the same can be said of Andre Hastings, ’93, who did the same as a part-time starter/slot receiver and effective punt returner. Entering his third year Max Starks, ’04, had shown himself to be the serviceable, if not solid starter. Likewise, going into year three, the skinny on Trai Essex, ’05, was that he was a marginal “sixth” lineman.

Sprinting Towards Stardom

Guys like Neil O’Donnell, 3a ’90, Ernie Mills, ’91, and Chris Hope perhaps weren’t “stars” but all three were growing into their upsides when they began their 3rd summer at Latrobe.

By his third training camp Joel Steed, ’92, was the anchor of the Steelers of the 90’s defense. Jason Gildon, ’94, was embarking on the first of 8 straight starting seasons. Hines Ward, 3b ’98, started his third season on the bench behind Troy Edwards, but Hines was clearly a keeper. Finally, by the time he entered his third season, Joey Porter clearly wasn’t going to merely live up to the Steelers Linebacker Legacy, he would add to it.

Reversing Course

Brendan Stai, ’95, helped turn around the season for the Steelers and played well in both ’96 and ’97, but his play dropped off after that.

Hank Poteat, 3b. ’00, and Mike Vrabel, 3b.’97, for different reasons both had difficulty defining their roles with the Steelers, but both went on to contribute elsewhere.

Define History or Be Defined by History

- You must always know the past, for there is no real Was, there is only Is.
William Faulkner

What does all of this mean for Keenan Lewis?

Ask Mike Tomlin he’d probably be less poetic than Faulkner but he’d likely explain that “Keenan’s story is about Keenan. The stories of other 3rd round picks are irrelevant.”

The Steelers-Eagles preseason game wasn’t shown in Buenos Aires (surprise), so I can offer no analysis of my own, but here’s what others say:

Tony DeFeo of Behind the Steel Curtain offered this:

I focused my attention on Keenan Lewis most of the night, and I have to say, he really impressed me with his coverage ability.

Mark Kalboy of the Tribune Review said:

Give Keenan Lewis credit for not being overwhelmed against the Eagles. Now, he had just as many bad plays as good ones, but he never gave up the big play and seemingly was in the right spot the majority of the time. That’s a positive sign for this kid.

In Yoda-speak, one should caution, “One successfully preseason game does not a career turnaround make.”

Keenan Lewis cannot change the past, but he make his own history in the future, starting now. It looks like he took a first step towards that the other night against Philly.

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Steelers Resign Trai Essex

Throughout the preseason there has been a lot of speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers would welcome back one of their departed offensive lineman.

They surprised Steelers Nation today by doing just that.

Early in the day Ed Bouchette reported on PG Plus that Trai Essex stopped by the South Side to pick up his AFC Championship ring. While Bouchette did not rule anything out, his post made it pretty clear nothing else was afoot.

As it turns out, Bouchette was wrong, as the Steelers resigned veteran tackle/guard/tight end? Trai Essex to a one year deal. To make room for Essex, the Steelers waived unrestricted rookie free agent Nevin McCaskill.

Prior to Essex's return, it was widely expected that the Steelers would either bring back Max Starks and Flozell Adams, both of whom they waived ealier this summer in salary cap moves.

Essex is a lesser player than both Starks and Adams, but he does bring versitility, or as Mike Tomlin likes to say, "position flexibility." Essex can step in at either tackle or guard position, and last year lined up as a blocking tight end on a number of occasions. Indeed, Ed Bouchette has even suggested that the Steelers resign Essex and use him as the number two tight end.

With the Steelers offensive line in a state of flux, it will be interesting to see if this is the final move that they make.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eagle Eyes on Keenan Lewis

The Pittsburgh Steelers take to the field tonight against the cross-state Philadelphia "Dream Team" Eagles in their second preseason contest of 2011.

For all of the moaning about preseason football (not that I blame those who complain about paying full price), these exhibition game are the arena where young men can take the first steps towards making their NFL dream a reality.

Everyone outside of the established starters is looking toward tonight as their take advantage of an opportunity that everyone boy who has tossed the pigskin fantasizes about but only a select few get a chance to make real.

But perhaps no one has more on the line for the Steelers than Keenan Lewis.

Keenan Lewis' play since being selected in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft has earned him more shaking heads than nods.

Tonight he can begin to change that.

The Steelers Eagles preseason game is not being show here in Buenos Aires (surprise), so Steel Curtain Rising is asking you to share what you see from Lewis.

Simply take a moment to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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Limas Sweed Saga Ends for Steelers

Some things were never meant to pass, and Limas Sweed’s success as a Pittsburgh Steeler is one of them.

Three years ago things appeared to be different.

Entering the 2008 NFL draft needing both offensive and defensive lineman, the Steelers found Sweed, whom many had graded as a first round pick, on still on the board late in the second round.

When Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert ignored need and stuck to their board many thought they’d landed a steal.

Everyone’s a winner on draft day.

Unfortunately reality set in after that.

And then to add injustice to injury, Sweed injured his Achillies tendon in OTA’s in June of 2010, costing him his third season.

This summer the Steelers gave him one more shot, but Sweed could not take advantage – the coaches not even seeing fit to play him against the Redskins in preseason.

Few can blame the Steelers for giving him one more chance; who can forget how unbelievably fast he looked in getting open deep against Baltimore?

Sweed will most assuredly get a shot at the NFL with another team – as well he should, he’s too talented for someone else not to take a chance.

But he’s had his chances in Pittsburgh but unfortuantely could not take advantage.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Kemoeatu Activated, Harris Waived

The Pittsburgh Steelers made two roster moves in the wake of their preseason loss to the Washington Redskins. They activated starting guard Chris Kemoeatu, who had opened camp on the physically unable to perform list. To make room for Kemoeatu they cut 2009 7th round draft pick Sunny Harris.

Chris Scott had been drawing rave reviews throughout camp and was believed to have a serious shot at one of the starting guard positions. But Scott performed poorly in the preseason opener.

Perhaps the Steelers had planned to activate Kemoeatu all along at this point in training camp, but with Kemoeatu active Chris Scott will get fewer chances to start.

The decision to waive Sunny Harris likely spells the end to this young man's NFL dream. Drafted in 2009, Harris impressed a lot of folks in the Steelers organization, and Ed Bouchette even drew comparisons between the decision to cut Harris to the Steelers decision to cut Dwayne Board back in 1979.

Carolina prevented the Steelers form keeping Harris on the practice squad, but he did not last long on Carolina's active roster. The Steelers brought him back after Aaron Smith's injury, but cut him again in training camp last year.

Harris popped around a few practice squads last year until returning to Pittsburgh's when Aaron Smith went on IR again.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Watch Tower: Bouchette Exaggerates the Impact of Kicking Off From the 35 Yard Line

One of the new NFL rules adopted this year is the decision to move kickoff from the 30 to the 35 yard line in the name of safety.

The more correct way to describe the rule is return the kickoff spot to the 35 yard line.

It would be difficult for younger NFL fans to know that based on the coverage the rule change got. Most writers simply praised or criticized the move and, in one tone or another, discussed how safety was bringing another change to the game.

Few bothered to remind readers that kickoffs had been made from the 35 yard line for generations, and even fewer bothered to talk about what impact the previous rule change had had.

The reaction to the rule changed seemed exaggerated then.

Fans who cut their teeth watching the game in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s and share memories of dramatic kickoff returns changing the course of pivotal games. Indeed, Rod Woodson’s 84 kickoff return for a touchdown against San Diego not only sparked a comeback victory by the 1989 Steelers but arguably their remarkable playoff run.

During the first Joe Gibbs era Redskins return man Mike Nelms might not have been as popular as Theismann, Riggins, or “the Hogs” but even young Steelers Nation members growing up in exile in the DC area such as yours knew who he was.

Fans from that era certainly remember names like Detroit’s Mel Grey, Indy’s Clarence Verdin, or Philly’s Vai “You can’t hope to stop him you can only hope to contain him” Sikahema.

Much To Do About A Lot Less

The NFL preseason brings the first test of the new kickoff rules, and veteran Steelers scribe Ed Bouchette wasted little time in assessing the impact:

The kickoffs, moved from the 30 to the 35, worked well. They were moved to help avoid injury and they did that last night. All but one were touchbacks. They should have just removed the kickoffs all together and have the offense start at the 20 after each score. Save time. As it stands now, it's a charade. [Emphasis added.]

Such an attitude from someone born in the ‘80’s or ‘90’s would be easy to understand. But coming from someone who has covered the NFL since the early 1970’s?

That peeked my interest, and prompted me to do some research into the actual impact of the original movement of the ball from the 35 to the 30 yard line.

For points of reference, I looked into kick return data from 1993 and 1994, the years before and after the last rule change. To get a basis for how things had been from before then, I went back through 1989, 1985, 1981, and 1977 that’s four seasons at separated by four years. Likewise, I did the same, moving forward, taking data from 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010.

The results were interesting:

From this snap shot, we can draw a couple of quick conclusions:

  • We’ll see fewer long runs now that the kickoff is back at the 35 yard line

  • Touchbacks will be more common, as more balls were returned after the kickoff was moved to the 30 yard line

  • Overall impact on field position, however, will not be greatly impacted

  • Steelers fans can expect to see the Steelers score about half as many touchdowns on kick returns

  • Steelers fans can expect to see far fewer touchdowns cored against the Steelers

The Steelers, playing in the AFC Central/AFC North and with a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde nature to their special teams performance, should not be considered representative of the NFL.

To draw a more representative sample, data from the same years was collected for the Cowboys, 49ers and Giants. Those three teams were chosen because they provided a good mixture of Super Bowl contenders/champions as well as bottom feeders at various points during the survey.

Those results are a little more thought provoking:

If you’ve read this far, you almost certainly ask “How does this affect the Steelers” when you hear of a new rule change. Let’s see:

  • Prior the moving kickoffs back, the Steelers were right on average in terms of balls returned against them, return average, and both touchdowns scored for and against

  • Since kickoffs were moved back, the Steelers have had fewer kicks returned against them – this could perhaps be a function of them being scored on less

  • Individual long returns for the Steelers have been well above the league average

  • Opponents have scored touchdowns against the Steelers with relative ease

  • The Steelers return averaged in at about the norm

As for kick off returns in general, these four teams did score touchdowns on kickoff returns about 40% more of the time and there were 20% more returned kicks following the movement of the kickoff spot. Likewise, the average “long” return increased 16%. However, return yardage only increased by about 6%.

At the end of the day, we can say that this mini-set of data indicates that returning the kickoff spot to the 35 yard line will impact the game at the expense of fewer touchdowns and shorter “long” kick off returns.

But does that mean that the return game will now become a “charade?” as Bouchette argues?

It may be counter-intuitive, but I’d argue for the opposite. If anything, I’d argue that the return to the old kickoff spot rule gives a greater advantage to the team that can consistently open holes for a return man who is a treat to “go all the way.”

I don’t mean to criticize Ed Bouchette for expressing the opposite opinion, nor would it be fair to single him out for ignoring the fact that kickoffs used to be spotted at the 35 as he is far from alone. He could have, however, backed up his argument with a little bit of research however….

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Steelers Lose to Redskins in Preseason

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2011 preseason with a lackluster loss to the Washington Redskins. Mike Tomlin kept most of his key offensive starters in for a series, but opted to keep much of his defense in until the second quarter.

The defense nonetheless gave up a long drive and a touchdown.

The only real news to come out of the game is that Ike Taylor may have injured his thumb. Isaac Redman looked sharp, running for a 22 yard touchdown. Steelers first round draft pick Cameron Heyward also apparently looked good in his first taste of NFL action.

A quick look at the stat sheet reveals that some of the guys on the bubble did little to advance their case for a roster spot. Running back Jonathan Dwyer managed a partly 7 yards on 5 carries; Tyler Grisham did not record a catch, and Dennis Dixon completed one of ten passes.

Fortunately, for Steelers Nation, our Beloved Black and Gold get three more dress rehearsals before the games count.

The game, of course, was not shown down here in Buenos Aires, so please by all means share your insights. Did young rookie unexpectedly turn any heads? How did Keenan Lewis look? Any and all observations are welcome.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Steelers Sign Jerricho Cotchery

The last time Jerricho Cotchery was at Heinz Field, he was catching passes from Mark Sanchez and putting the New York Jets within striking distance of pulling off one of the AFC Championship game’s biggest comebacks in history.

With the New York Jets focusing on more expensive toys, Cotchery’s final choice came down the Steelers and the Ravens.

Cotchery chose the Steelers yesterday, coming to terms with the team. He will not join the team for workouts until Sunday, however.

Terms of Cotchery’s deal were not disclosed, but one must expect that the signing came on the Steelers terms given that he left Latrobe without and offer only to return.

Roster Spots at Risk?

Cotchery provides immediate depth for the Steelers at wide out. Entering camp wide receiver appeared to be one of the Steelers strong points, but lingering nature of Emmanuel Sanders injury is cause for concern.

Limas Sweed, who separated his shoulder last week, did not figure to make the team barring a gang busters performance in the preseason, is the most threatened by Cotchery’s arrival. So too, however, are Arnz Battle and Tyler Grisham.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Barron Batch Injured, Steelers Sign Kenny Moore

Steelers Nation got its first read does of bad news this evening with reports that 7th round draft pick and the Steelers 2011 Training Camp sensation Barron Batch injured himself in practice.

As the Steelers Depot reports, the injury occurred after Batch had made an impressive 40 yard run. Batch was not hit on the play, and had to be carted off the field.

Unconfirmed rumors have the injury as an ACL tear, which would spell the end of the rookie's season. Steelers Depot quote Ken Laird as saying that Batch's facial expression confirmed the severity of the injury.

Although only a 7th round pick, Barron Batch had won near universal acclaim from the press corps assembled at St. Vincents for the talent and toughness he displayed this summer in Latrobe.

While the extent of Batch's injury has yet to be confirmed, I cannot help but think of Henry Bailey, a young agent wide receiver for the Steelers in 1997 who showed promise in camp only to fall to injury. He was back in 1998, but fell victim to a broken collar bone at the hands of Lee Flowers, a hit which drew an angry rebuke from Bill Cowher.

Hope is not lost, but by all reports this does not look good.

Steelers Sign "Veteran" Wide Receiver

After entertaining some high-profile wide receivers, have the Steelers in fact found their man?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the Steelers signed veteran wide receiver Kenny Moore. To make room from Moore, the Steelers waived rookie Adam Mimms. Free lance reporter Jim Wexell reports on Twitter that Moore has made three catches for 59 years with three fumbles with two lost fumbles during his illustrious NFL career.

For the record Kenny Moore played in 2009 for Carolina and in 2010 for the Colts.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Steelers Training Camp 2011 - Unasked Questions

The Steelers are knee-deep into training camp, the camp roster is more or less set, and position battles are well defined.

Everyone knows that James Harrison’s back, Aaron Smith’s health and Troy Polamalu’s durability and Manny Sanders feet are the chief injury concerns. The issues of if, how and when the Steelers will renew the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, Mike Wallace, and Troy Polamalu are on everyone’s mind.

Yet questions remain which few from the press or public take the time to pose, which Steel Curtain Rising again presents here:

Are the Steelers Grooming an Adequate Safety Valve?
How Good is Klugler Outside of a Crisis?
Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?
Can Everest Reverse the Special Teams Sputter?
Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?

Are the Steelers Grooming an Adequate Safety Valve?

Ryan Clark turns 32 in October 31. Troy Polamalu is 30. Will Allen is 29.

Ryan Mundy, 26, is following in Lee Flowers footsteps in terms of development. Mundy still has an upside, but even if he does develop into a Lee Flowers-caliber safety it would still mark a drop off from the level that Clark, let alone Polamalu brings to the secondary.

Crezdon Butler, a 5th round draft pick in the 2010 NFL draft, is the only other potential safety the Steelers have, and he’s an unknown commodity.

In the age of the salary cap it is impossible for every team to have quality starters and developing depth at each position area, but after Polamalu and Clark the Steelers cupboard is particularly thin at safety.

How Good is Klugler Outside of a Crisis?

If you find yourself saying, “well, yeah, there’s a reason why no one’s asking this question” let me say that I hope events vindicate you. And I expect they will.

Sean Kugler did a phenomenal job in 2010. In the Steelers Digest’s 2010 Year-in-Review, Bob Labriola mentions how Kugler is Tomlin’s first coaching here, observing:

Why would the Pittsburgh Steelers hire the offensive line coach from a 6-10 Bills team that allowed more sacks than any team in the NFL in 2009. In about six months that will become a stupid question.

Injuries kept the Steelers offensive line in constant chaos, and under Kugler guidance the unit preformed better than anyone had a right to expect.

Ironically enough, success in a crisis environment doesn’t always portend to success under ‘normal’ circumstances – history honors Winston Churchill for his role as Prime Minister during World War II; few remember his second stint in the 1950’s.

Kugler of course, almost certainly is up to the task of coaching in a non-crisis environment, but that belies a more fundamental point.

By waving Max Starks and Flozell Adams the Steelers are trusting their offensive line the hands of Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Marcus Gilbert.

A good coach will coax the best out of the talent he is given. Kugler has and will continue to do that, but can he do that well enough to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl and then over the hump?

Who Will Be the Lead Blocker?

The signing of John Gilmore explains why few are asking this question. But the fact remains that both David Johnson and Doug Legursky lined up as full backs and sprang Rashard Mendenhall lose on a host of key plays in 2010.

If Johnson ascends to the number two tight end position and Legursky wins a starting guard job then who plays the role of human battering ram out of the backfield for Rashard Mendenhall?

Can Everest Reverse the Special Teams Sputter?

This is not only one of the most pertinent unasked questions of the Steelers training camp 2011, it was also one of the major unreported stories of the second half of 2010.

Under Al Everest the Steelers special teams made a dramatic turn around. Not only did special teams shed its liability status, it transformed itself into a strike force, directly providing the Steelers with their margin of victory against the Titans and the Bengals.

But there was a decided drop off late in the year. Antonio Brown started with the look of a return man who could go all the way on every kick and then ceased to be a threat.

Worse yet the coverage units suffered, costing the Steelers the game against the Jets, and where it not for a very lucky call, almost sabotaging their playoff comeback against the Ravens.

These kinds of things are easy enough to forget when a team is on a Super Bowl run, but Tomlin and company had better be asking themselves this question, and Everest must rise to the challenge.

From Where Will the Improvement Come?

During the 2008 training camp Bob Labriola postulated that any improvement the Steelers would see over 2007 would have to come from within, not from the 2008 draft.

Labriola was right. 2008 rookie of the year was Patrick Bailey, who found himself on the waiver wire less than a year later. But the ’08 Steelers did improve from within. Consider:

  • Justin Hartwig proved to be a step up from Sean Mahan

  • Nate Washington stepped up his game

  • LaMarr Woodley showed that his six sacks as a rookie were no fluke

  • Mewelde Moore made everyone remember why Najeh Davenport lacked as a number two back

  • Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu stayed healthy for the entire year

The 2010 Steelers made it to the Super Bowl in large part because contributions from rookies such as Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown improved key position areas from the disappointing 8-8 2009 squad.

The Steelers got close, very close to a 7th Super Bowl in 2010. To get over the hump some element of their game must improved markedly.

  • Will Keenan Lewis or one of the rookie corners provide a true threat opposite Ike Taylor?

  • Can Marcus Gilbert or Keith Williams come out of nowhere to become a Pouncey-like presence on the offensive line?

  • Might Mike Wallace succeed in getting separation from the best DB's in the game?

  • Can a combination of Ziggy Hood’s, Cameron Heyward’s and Lawrence Timmons’s continued development and Dick LeBeau’s scheming solve riddle that has allowed the Rodger’s, Brady’s and Brees to bedevil the Steelers?

  • Could this be the year that Rashard Mendenhall consistently runs with the same power and authority that he ran with in his first start against San Diego and in the AFC Championship game?

Undoubtedly most if not all of these questions are on the minds of Mike Tomlin and his coaches. As they should be because the answers to these questions will determine the success or failure of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Jonathan Scott, Foster, Sweed Injured in Goal Line Drill

The Steelers held a goal line drill in at St. Vincent's today, and by all accounts it was a costly one.

Jim Wexell is reporting on Twitter that Jonathan Scott was carted off of the field and has injured his ankle. Ramon Foster was injured and joined Scott on the cart, although that injury appears to be minor, according to Mike Tomlin.

Wexell also reports that Limas Sweed separated his shoulder....

Ed Bouchette also reported on his Twitter feed that Hines Ward was not present at practice.

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Woodley Re-Signs. How Does He Stack Up Against Lloyd, Porter, Gildon et. al.?

The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed franchise player LaMarr Woodley today to a six year 61.5 million dollar contract with 22.5 million dollar signing bonus, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The deal makes Woodley the second highest paid Steelers player in history, second only to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The term “highest paid player in Steeler history” is a relative one – in 1993 alone that title passed from Kevin Greene, to Greg Lloyd, then to Rod Woodson.

Still, the deal amounts to a slight shock – not that the Steelers signed Woodley, but that they made such a tremendous investment in him, particularly in terms of guaranteed money.

In just four years, LaMarr Woodley has registered 39 sacks, caught 3 interceptions, and forced 7 fumbles. Together with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley forms the NFL’s most prolific outside linebacking tandem.

LaMarr Woodley vs. the Steelers Linebacker Legacy

The Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to any franchise when it comes to linebacking. Success at linebacker means contributing to that legacy; simply living up to it fails to suffice. (Don't believe me? Check out some reader comments when I mentioned Jason Gildon in the same article as Greg Lloyd.)

How then do Woodley’s first four years stack up against some of his predecessors in the Steelers 3-4 system:

Compared to those who came before him, LaMarr Woodley acquits himself quite well. He leads the group in sacks and forced fumbles, and ties for second most starts with Joey Porter. (James Harrison was not included, as he started very little in his first four years.)

Greg Lloyd trails him in sacks, but Lloyds other numbers reveal how special he is. The number of tackles is also telling, as it shows just how involved a player is in the defense, and here Woodley only trails Joey Porter and Lloyd. (Note on the stats, I’d thought that Lloyd’s high tackle number must be an error on the part of Pro Football reference, but the Steelers 1990 media guide confirms his 1989 total, which was 92 tackles.)

Of course stats can mislead. It isn’t just making plays, but making them in a timely fashion, and in this respect Woodley also excels, registering a sack in each of his post-season appearances, and of course Super Bowl XLIII effectively ended with Woodley’s strip-sack of Kurt Warner.

The Steelers have made a significant investment in LaMarr Woodely and anytime you write a check for 22 million you take a considerable risk.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers clearly believe in LaMarr Woodley, and so should Steelers Nation.

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Noll, Cowher, Tomlin Lombardi Photo Redux

The time has come once again to push for the Steelers to do something they should have done back in 2008.

If this idea sounds familiar, that's because it is. Yours truly suggested this back in 2008 and I am doing so again.

But this time, thanks to Michael Bean, I am putting out this call to action on Behind the Steel Curtain. The article ran yesterday, and undoubtedly by now more people have read it there than read the original post, the shout out from Blog and Gold not withstanding (thanks again Dan!)

So if you have not see it, click here to check out the 2011 version of the article on BTSC -- and more importantly, do your part to make the Steelers hear our voice!

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Steelers Sign John Gilmore, Greg Warren

The Steelers signed their first unrestricted free agent from another team today when they came to terms with tight end John Gilmore of Tampa Bay.

John Gilmore was drafted in the sixth round of the 2002 NFL Draft by New Orleans, but never played for the Saints, latching on with the Chicago Bears.

He played for six years in Chicago, mainly as a back up tight end, before playing for Tampa from 2008 through 2010. Gilmore played his college ball for Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Gilmore is primarily a blocking tight end, and is expected to compete with David Johnson for the number two tight end job, although his presence could allow Johnson to play the hybrid tight end/fullback or H-Back position which he played well in last season.

The Steelers also resigned long snapper Greg Warren, who was injured last year.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mewelde, Hoke, & Dixon Sign with Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers came to a string of agreements with free agents today, resigning Mewelde Moore, Chris Hoke and Dennis Dixon. All three were reported to be one year deals.

Punter Dan Sepulveda who was cut just a few days ago, was also resigned, presumptively at a lower salary.

What These Moves Mean

In Mewelde Moore the team gains an experienced back-up running back whose good hands the team can depend on when a 3 shows on the down marker. Steel Curtain Rising has been big on Moore since he joined the team in 2008, which Mewelde Moore's best year.

Moore saw his action reduced last year, as both his number of carries and his average dropped. However, he continued to produce in the passing game and his presence in camp will ensure that players on the bubble such as Jonathan Dwyer and the 2011 7th round pick Barron Batch take their fight for roster spots seriously.

Gerry Dulac was reporting last night that the Steelers were not considering resigning Chris Hoke. Dulac explained today on PG Plus that the two sides had not been able to agree on a contract, which put his signing in doubt. Fortunately for Steelers Nation the two sides came to an agreement.

The nose tackle is the fulcrum on which the success of the 3-4 defense swings, and Chris Hoke has been more than up to the task when Casey Hampton has to come out.

The Steelers clearly wanted Dixon back, but Dixon will have to fight for a roster spot, as the Steelers are unlikely to bring four quarterbacks into the regular season. Charlie Batch may be fragile, but he proved his worth to the team last year.

Sepulveda Gets a Bounce

Just a few days ago it seemed like Daniel Sepulveda’s days as a Steeler were over. Perhaps the Steelers had already seen enough of the punters they have in camp to bring him back, perhaps this move has been in the works all along.

One way or another Sepulveda knows it is now or never.

Unsigned and Unwanted?

Trai Essex, Keyron Fox, and Anthony Madison are all unrestricted free agents from the Steelers 2010 roster and all remain unsigned.

Gerry Dulac has already reported that Essex will not be back. Trai Essex falls into the category of being a jack of all trades and master of none. Although he can and has played each of the guard and tackle positions, he has played none of them with distinction.

Essex may not join Steelers at St. Vincents, but he’d likely be the first person they’d call in the event of injury.

Keyron Fox flashed a lot of promise in 2009, only to make a name for himself with idiotic penalties in 2010, not the least of which came as the Steelers were attempting to mount a come back in the final moments of Super Bowl XLV. It appears that Fox has worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Madison’s absence proves to be the most interesting, as the Steelers special teams have suffered dearly without him in the past. Madison also showed his versatility in 2010 by playing some cornerback.

If the Steelers can find cap space, they would be wise to welcome Madison back.

Roethlisberger, Harrison Renegotiating

The Steelers remain over the cap, but Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison are renegotiating their contracts to provide the team with relief.

Even still, the Steelers may need to release more veterans to get under the cap by Thursday.

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