´ Steel Curtain Rising: July 2013

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

5 Steelers Fighting for Their NFL Lives this Summer

Steelers Nation finds its hallowed ground on the fields of St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe. Since the mid-60’s the Steelers shifted their home from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium and to Heinz Field but, through it all, St. Vincent’s has remained a constant.
  • Every summer dreams are born at St. Vincent’s. 
In 1969 Andy Russell saw Joe Greene toss a veteran aside like a rag doll in his first Oklahoma drill and knew the franchise’s fortunes had changed. 20 years later Bubby Brister earned jeers of from the press for scrawling “Playoffs 89” on a St. Vincent’s chalkboard, later that January after the 1989 Steelers story book season, it was Brister who was laughing.

But if St. Vincent’s is where the Steelers have forged their dynasties then it is also the venue where NFL dreams end:

Dwayne Woodruff, the last of the Super Steelers, drove to Latrobe to call it a career in the summer of 1991 on the first day of what would be Chuck Noll's final Steelers training camp. David Little got cut in 1993 when it was clear Levon Kirkland, Jerry Olsavsky, Chad Brown and Reggie Barnes had played him out of a roster spot.
  • Woodruff and Little were lucky. 
Their dreams came to an end at St. Vincents only after long careers. Others have not been so lucky, nor will several this summer, as the Steelers first training camp cuts have reminded everyone.

While few players, other than first and second round draft picks, hold down roster spots on merit alone, others make it because they can play a role and for what they will contribute, not what they can contribute.

But there comes a time when the proverbial “Future is now” when players must transform potential in to production, or else get a visit from The Turk.

Steel Curtain Rising now takes a look at 5 Steelers fighting for their NFL lives they work their way into training camp.

Baron Batch
The Steelers drafted Baron Batch in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and during his first training camp he impressed the press, his teammates, and his coaches before tearing his ACL. Batch’s work as both a writer and an artist also gave him a connection with fans.

Batch dutifully went about his rehab and in the Steelers 2012 Training Camp was to be Batch’s time to shine.
  • The good news? Baron Batch was the second leading Steelers running back during the 2012 pre season.
  • The bad news? Despite getting 45% more carries than the next highest back, Batch only managed 3.0 yards a carry and didn’t catch a pass.
Batch made the final regular season roster, at least in part by virtue of the fact that Rashard Mendenhall was recovering from a torn ACL, and Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were both injured. During the regular season Batch gained 49 yards on 25 carries and had 4 catches for 31 yards.

Having played in 12 games with the Steelers, Batch has no practice squad eligibility left and with the acquisition of Le’von Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft and LaRod Stephens-Howling in free agency, Batch is facing now or never time.

Stevenson Sylvester
The Steelers picked Stvenson Sylvester in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, that year he did what rookie linebackers are supposed to do – he excelled on special teams. Big things were expected of Sylvester in 2011, and injuries to James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and James Farrior would seemingly have been a blessing to Sylvester.
Training camp injuries to several linebackers in 2012 likely saved Sylvester’s spot in 2012. During the year he saw little action at linebacker, and the attention he called to himself on special teams was generally for penalties (ok, we can say that about just everyone last year).

The Steelers chose not to protect Sylvester as a restricted free agent in 2013, yet no one showed an interest (in contrast to Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon) let alone made an offer.

Sylvester’s biggest asset in making the cut in 2012 was his knowledge of Dick LeBeau’s system. This year Marshall McFadden and Adrian Robinson both have a year under their belts.

Clearly Stevenson Sylvester is going to need to do something both special and unexpected to make this roster.

Demarcus Van Dyke
The Steelers thought enough of Van Dyke to commit to his salary for the 2012 season by signing him to prior to their opener vs. Denver. The Steelers had looked at Van Dyke in the 2011 draft, and Van Dyke had the bad luck to be caught in a roster purge in Oakland.

Early on Van Dyke made his presence known, showing off his speed by getting down field on punt coverage. But those flashes faded quickly, and were replaced by special teams foul ups.
  • Corner is one area where the Steelers are deep in, and Van Dyke probably entered camp as the odd man out.
Alameda Ta’amu
The Steelers thought enough of Ta’amu to trade up to get him in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, declaring him as the last pure nose tackle on the board. Pundits quickly declared him as Casey Hampton’s heir apparent, and predicted he would push Steve McClendon, if not Hampton himself, for playing time.

Ta’amu barely got playing time in the pre-season. And of course there was his drunken rampage though the South Side in October. During mini camp he found himself behind Al Woods on the depth cart – despite the fact that Al Woods had never played nose tackle.

Ta’amu entered camp on the PUP list with a bad hamstring, which could leave his already precarious hold on a roster spot hamstrung (pun fully intended)

Ziggy Hood
OK, this one is a bit of a misnomer. Barring injury, Ziggy Hood land a spot on the Steelers 2013 opening day roster.
  • But then what? 
Ziggy Hood was a first round pick in 2009 and Steel Curtain Rising singled Hood out in 2010 as one player whom the Steelers needed to ascend for Pittsburgh to contend. Hood stepped in after Aaron Smith’s injury and, after a slow start, caught fire late in the season and during the playoffs, helping spark the team’s appearance in Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, however, little has been seen of Hood. Statistics indicate that on a snap-per-snap basis, fellow first round pick Cameron Heyward out preformed Hood in 2012.
  • Word is that the coaches will give Cameron Heyward a chance to unseat Ziggy Hood as a starter. As well they should.
As Hood enters his 5th summer at St. Vincents the questions he faces are whether he becomes the first bust in a long line of Kevin Colbert first round draft successes, and whether he proves himself worth of a second NFL contract with guaranteed money measured in 7 figures, or a series of contracts for around the veteran minimum….

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Steelers Cut Nigel Malone, Omar Hunter; Sign Ryan Steed, John Rabe

It is barely 24 hours after the Steelers first 2013 training camp practice in full pads, and already the NFL dream appears to be over for two youngsters. Ed Bouchette is reporting on PG Plus as is Steelers.com that the Pittsburgh Steelers have waived defensive tackle Omar Hunter and cornerback Nigel Malone.
This of course does not mean that Malone’s difficulty cost him his dream, but clearly he did not help himself. Malone was originally signed to replace fellow cornerback Justin King. King fell victim to the Steelers infamous June curse, and was placed on injured reserve in June for undisclosed reasons.

But if the dream ends for some, for others it takes on new life. To take their places, the Steelers signed tight end John Rabe from Minnesota and cornerback Ryan Steed from Furman. According to Pro Football Reference, Ryan Steed spent time on the New Orelans Saints roster in 2012, although he accumulated no stats and did not appear in any games.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Steelers 1st Day at St. Vincents: Roethlisberger's Knee and PUP List

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 47th training camp at St. Vincent’s college in Latrobe to a subdued atmosphere as the franchise attempts to retool, recalibrate, and refocus after a disappointing, inconsistent, injury-plagued 8-8 finish in 2012.

The first day’s agenda consists of little more than players moving and Mike Tomlin’s run test, but there was a little news for Steelers Nation to consume.

Big Ben Sits Out Run Test, Gilbert Carted Off

Ben Roethlisberger had minor knee surgery in early June and while the quarterback reported the he felt fine, Mike Tomlin held him out as a precautionary.

The quarterback spoke about the infamous Roethlisberger-Haley relationship, and admitted to being “frustrated” with Todd Haley’s offense last season, although he confirmed that most frustration lay in new terminology.

While Roethlisberger downplayed the absence of former locker room leaders like Hines Ward and James Farrior, he said he planned to take a larger leadership role this season, and had asked Maurkice Pouncey and Heath Miller to follow suit.

In what might not be so good news, Marcus Gilbert, the Steelers projected starting tackle, passed the Tomlin’s run test but had to be carted off the field after that. Given the utmost important role that the offensive line will play for the Steelers this season, this is not encouraging news.

Miller, Johnson, Spence and Ta’Mau Head Steelers PUP List

The Steelers also began camp with four players on the physically unable to perform list, or PUP list. As expected Heath Miller and Sean Spence headed the list. Reporter Dale Lolley indicated “…[Miller] looks closer to a guy who intends on playing from the get-go than he does somebody who will be out the first six weeks.”

Sean Spence stated that his goal is to make the active roster by mid season.

The other two players starting on the PUP amount to somewhat of a surprise. David Johnson is one, who reportedly is still working his way back to health from the ACL tear he suffered last year in preseason.

The other is Alameda Ta’amu, who reportedly has a hamstring issue. This is very bad news for Ta’amu. The Steelers traded up in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft to get Ta’amu and he has done nothing but disappoint since then.

Adams, Cleared to Play

Steelers Nation did get good news on the injury front. Starting tackle Mike Adams, who was stabbed last month on the South Side continuing what has become the Steelers "June Curse", has been fully cleared to participate in all activities.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Back to School: 3 R's to Guide the Steelers at Saint Vincents: Retool, Recalibrate, and Refocus

It is fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers still hold training camp at a college, because this franchise needs to concentrate on the 3 R’s while at St. Vincents.

Of course the 3 R’s in question are not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic but Retool, Recalibrate, and Refocus. While each of the Steelers "3 R's" represents an area of individual urgency, all of them are interrelated.

Steelers First "R" for 2013 Training Camp:  Retool

The Steelers personnel philosophy since opening Heinz Field has been simple:  Keep the core together.
But a shift away from this philosophy began after 2009 (see the departures of Willie Parker and Deshea Townshend) and has continued in fits and starts (see the return of Foote and Randle El in ’10) since then.
  • Now the Steelers strategic personnel pivot has reached its end-game.
Whether the draftees and rookie free agents of 2012 and 2013 can win starting jobs and roster spots is now a moot question. They will win them because there are no veterans left to hold them back. Max Starks is in San Diego, Willie Colon is in New York, James Harrison is in Cincinnati.

The question now is can players like Jason Worilds, David DeCastro, Cortez Allen, and Mike Adams produce at high enough level for the Steelers make a Lombardi run while Ben Roethlisberger retains some youth (and health).
  • The Steelers have been here before.
Precisely 30 summers ago a fair contingent of the Super Steelers had retired, and Pittsburgh found itself with some aging, yet viable, stars mixed with untested youth.

We now know that there were too many Keith Gary’s, Walter Abercrombie’s and not enough Tunch Ilkin’s, Brian Hinkle’s and Louis Lipps for the Steelers to snatch the elusive “One For the Thumb.”

But in 2013 Mike Tomlin has two advantages that Chuck Noll lacked in 1983:
  • Terry Bradshaw was 35 and Ben Roethlisberger is 31
  • Free agency, yes, free agency
The benefit of a younger franchise quarterback is self-evident. Free agency’s is not, but perhaps it should be.

Historically Steelers Nation has had a hate-hate relationship with free agency, viewing it has a force that has robbed Pittsburgh of talented players as they reach their prime. And that of course has happened.

But free agency also gives the Steelers the ability to divest itself of players who are not up to par or might be good but don’t fit their system. In practical terms this means that Mike Tomlin can get rid of Ryan Mundy whereas Chuck Noll was stuck with Lupe Sanchez.

The story of the Steelers 2013 off season was Kevin Colbert’s attempt to get the most bang out of the Steelers salary cap buck.

They made hard choices, saying good bye to tenured veterans and promising youngsters alike. At St. Vincent’s this summer Mike Tomlin's challenge is to simultaneously develop and mold that talent into a winning roster.

Steelers Second "R" for 2013 Training Camp:  Recalibrate

We all know the story of the Steelers 2012 season.
  • When the offense was effective, the defense lacked
  • When the defense began shutting down opponents, the offense imploded
Injuries were at the core of some of this ineffectiveness and inconsistency in 2012, but not all of it.

On offense Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley kept denying friction existed between the two of them until the Steelers Digest itself outed them, labeling the improvement of the Roethlisberger-Haley relationship as the off season imperative.
  • On defense the issues are both trickier and more challenging.
Statistically the Steelers have fielded a dominating defense each of the last two seasons. But statistics can deceive. For as strong as the Steelers were in limiting yards, taking away the big play, and winning on third downs turnovers and sacks remained in short supply in both ’11 and ’12.

And this was also the case for the Steelers in 2009.
  • There’s a pattern here, and one that reveals a deficiency that Dick LeBeau must rectify.
It won't be an easy task, and a single example suffices to show this.

The Steelers defense has been predicated on stopping the run. Casey Hampton took away the middle of the field almost single handedly, and James Harrison, for all of his hell raising in the backfield, was phenomenal vs. the run.

Stopping the run has been cited as a weak point for both Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward – two potential starters on the front seven.

Dick LeBeau has a delicate balance to strike.

Steelers Third "R" for 2013 Training Camp:  Refocus

Friend and Behind the Steel Curtain scribe (full disclosure I also write for BTSC) Ivan Cole recently submitted were that were it not for a fumble in Oakland and one in Dallas that the Steelers would have finished in a three way tie for the AFC North crown.
  • That’s a tantalizing hypothetical, as success or failure in an NFL season often does boil down to a handful of plays.
But the picture in Pittsburgh in 2012 was far more complex. Several times in 2012 in the comments supporting the Steelers post-game report cards it was observed that coaches shouldn’t be held responsible for fumbles and inopportune penalties.
  • And that’s true.
Neither Mike Tomlin nor Amos Jones forced Antonio Brown to fumble in Dallas, just as momentum swung to Pittsburgh.

But Brown’s fumble wasn’t an isolated incident. There were myriad lapses vs. Oakland. The Cleveland road game was a comedy of errors, and vs. Chargers nearly everyone wearing black played just like they’d exited shock treatment. (Heck Mendenhall didn’t even grace the team with his presence that day.)

It is ironic, but not coincidental that the Steelers followed their best game of the season, the backup-powered road victory over Baltimore, with their worst, at home against San Diego where they did their best to make Norv Turner and Philip Rivers look like a modern day Air Croyle
  • Such erratic performance generally boils down a lack of focus.
Fortunately focus is something that can be taught, practiced and bred into a football team. Chuck Noll called it "Singleness of Purpose." Neither Greg Lloyd nor Merril Hoge were gifted with natural athletic talent. But both men became household names in Steelers Nation because they with competing on every play in every practice, did extra reps and always put in the necessary physical and mental preparation.

A generation later, Hines Ward and James Harrison followed their example.
  • And so it must be with 90 men the Pittsburgh Steelers have brought with them to Latrobe.
Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher both referred to training camp as the time to lay a team’s foundation. Mike Tomlin is no different. The summer the Steelers spent at St. Vincient's in 2013 needs to be a time where they lay a foundation based on fundamentals and focus.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Steelers Road to Super Bowl XL: Remembering Pittsburgh's Greatest 9 Weeks Ever (Part IV).

Still Feeling the Afterglow of the Steelers Upset at Indianapolis

I can't tell you how stunned I was at the time that the 2005 Steelers went into Indianapolis and knocked off the Colts. Up to that point in NFL history, most teams that had seasons like Indianapolis had in'05--flirting with perfection--usually went on to win the Lombardi trophy. I was pretty optimistic before the game like any fan would be, but even I knew that I witnessed something special.

The next day on craigslist, the fans from Denver were coming onto the Pittsburgh board and thanking the Steelers for allowing the Broncos to host the AFC Championship game.
  • Much like the Colts and Pats fans from a week earlier, they were acting as if victory was all but certain and the AFC title game would be a mere coronation for the their team. 
And I can't really blame them. The Broncos were the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and the fans probably figured the upstart Steelers were out of miracles. After all, Denver had just knocked off the two-time champion Patriots, and the Steelers took care of the No. 1 seed. Another thing working in Denver's favor was the fact that no number six seed had ever made it to the Super Bowl. If the Steelers were in a similar situation, I would be feeling pretty good, too.
  • At work, everyone was talking about the near-disastrous ending of the Colts' game and the almost miscarriage of justice because of the blown-call on the Polamalu interception that wasn't.
But what had some of the female customers just gushing was when Troy kissed his wedding ring as a tribute to his wife after he made what should have been the game-sealing interception. At that moment, Polamalu endeared himself to millions of women and was probably the most perfect man in the universe.

Tuesday evening, I went to yet another television taping of the Joey Porter Show at the Firehouse Lounge in the Strip District, and at that point, Steeler-mania was in full-swing and the place was jumping. In previous weeks, I was able to sit right near the front, but on this night, I was back by the bar, trying to watch it as best I could. This was the only taping I attended by myself since my aunt couldn't make it that night.
  • I talked to some very interesting people, including a woman who had a home-made terrible towel that she made in the late 70's. That was neat to see.
Joey's Steeler-guests that night were Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Hoke. I'm assuming that Roethlisberger taped his interview earlier because he wasn't there when I arrived, but Hokey's interview was pretty insightful and funny. He commented on the playoff beards that all the "white guys" were growing for the playoff run. He seemed like a cool guy. It was a pretty fun night, all the way around.
  • Of the three AFC playoff games the Steelers played, the AFC Championship game in Denver was the one I was most confident about, but that didn't stop me from being nervous. 
I had a right to be, of course, as that round of the playoffs was a real source of frustration for many years. The Steelers played in the AFC title game five previous times under Bill Cowher, all at home, and lost all but one time. And here they were on the road in Denver, a place where the team never played well, trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 seasons.
  • For my money, losing in the round before the Super Bowl is even more frustrating than losing the Super Bowl. 
I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but that's how I've always felt. Losing in the Super Bowl is like going to Kennywood on a rainy day. Sure, it sucks, but at least you get to go to Kennywood.
There is nothing worse than spending an entire week confident that your team will win and make it to the Super Bowl only to see those hopes and dreams hit a brick wall. I have a hard time watching the Super Bowl after the Steelers lose the AFC Championship game. The Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams was one of the most exciting ever, and I missed most of it because I just couldn't stand to watch New England play in a game I thought the Steelers were locks to make.

But I was confident leading up to the Denver game because I thought the Steelers had the better team and the better quarterback. The Broncos' quarterback, Jake Plummer, was having an almost flawless season, rarely turning the ball over.
  • But I knew if he was pushed and confused by Dick Lebeau and the Steelers defense, Jake "The Snake" he would be forced into turnovers. 
I commented to a friend of mine that Plummer would play like Kordell Stewart did in the 1997 AFC Championship game against the Broncos.

AFC Championship Game: Steelers Dominate Denver in First Half

The AFC Championship Game vs. Denver began as the Steelers got a field goal on their first drive, but not before I almost had a heart attack when Champ Bailey nearly picked off Roethlisberger on a third down pass to Hines Ward. Thankfully, Ward came to the rescue and caught the deflected pass before getting smacked by John Lynch. We had our first Nate Washington sighting on that drive as he made the first catch of his career, a key pick up on another third down. A few plays later, Jeff Reed kicked a 48 yard field goal, and the Steelers were in front, 3-0.
  • On the next Broncos' drive, Plummer was hit by Joey Porter, who stripped him of the ball. Casey Hampton recovered and the Steelers were on their way.
Pittsburgh capitalized on the takeaway and made 10-0 early in the second quarter when Roethlisberger pump-faked a slant pass to Cedrick Wilson, who instead, turned it into an out and was wide open in the back corner of the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown pass. Bailey bit hard on the play and seemed to be stunned at the turn of events.
  • After Denver made it, 10-3, Pittsburgh marched down field and went up, 17-3, on a Jerome Bettis tough, three yard touchdown run late in the second quarter that turned out to be the last one of the Bus' career.
Instead of just running out the clock, Denver decided to try and move the ball and Ike Taylor, of all people, intercepted a lazy pass by Plummer and Pittsburgh was poised to take an even bigger lead into the half.

Pittsburgh advanced the ball to the 12 yard line, and with time running out, Bettis inched up to the line right before the snap, took a quick hand-off and raced untouched for a score. Unfortunately, it didn't count because Ward was called for illegal formation.

Thankfully, Ward made amends on the next play when a scrambling Roethlsiberger threaded a pass through two Broncos' defenders and hit No. 86 in the back of the end zone with a 17 yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 24-3, with just seconds left in the first half.

We were going nuts at my uncle's house. Just a year earlier, the Steelers were down, 24-3, to New England at halftime of the AFC title game and here they were on the positive side of the exact same score.

Steelers Play Rope-a-Dope with Denver to Start Second Half

Pittsburgh got the football to start the second half and a did a good job of burning clock on its first two drives but couldn't quite put the Broncos away. Denver's offense finally broke through and inched a little closer late in the quarter when Plummer hit Ashley Lelie with a 30 yard touchdown pass over a beaten Chris Hope to make it, 24-10, Pittsburgh.

But Pittsburgh's offense answered the Broncos' score by putting Reed in position to kick a 42 yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. Reed's attempt was successful, and the Steelers were sitting pretty with a 27-10 lead.

On the very first play of Denver's next possession, Larry Foote picked off Plummer, and Pittsburgh had the ball near mid-field. My confidence was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the offense couldn't really capitalize, and when the Broncos got the ball back, they marched down field with the help of several penalties on Pittsburgh's defense--including a questionable pass interference call on Taylor--and got to within 10 points thanks to a Mike Anderson three yard touchdown run.
  • At that point, I was pacing the floors, and almost fainted when Roethlisberger was nearly intercepted by Lynch on the Steelers subsequent possession.
Denver eventually got the ball back and had all the momentum.

Keisel puts Steeler Nation at ease

I had no need to worry.

It was fourth and 10 yards to go and precious few minutes left in the game. Plummer stepped back to pass and was almost taken down by Clark Haggans, who missed the often-elusive quarterback. However, Brett Keisel reached Plummer and knocked the football loose. To this day, I don't know who recovered the football, but like play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove exclaimed, "It didn't matter!"

By this point, victory was all but assured. However, I'm sure the ending of the Colts' game was still fresh in every fan's mind (I know it was for me), so nobody had stamped their ticket to Detroit just yet.

The Steelers eventually moved the football inside the 10 yard line, and during a break in the action, Cowher called over Bettis and had this smile and expression on his face. I couldn't read his lips, but I'm guessing what he was telling the Bus was something like, "We're riding you to the end zone, Bussy. Please don't torture us like you did last week."

After a couple of Bus rides, it was third and goal inside the five yard line. Instead of giving it to Bettis once again, it was a bootleg, and a four yard score by Roethlisberger to give Pittsburgh a 34-17 lead and assure a trip to Super Bowl XL.

When Roethlisberger scored, I jumped up and said, "We're going to the Super Bowl!" It was one of the best moments of my life, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Despite the few nervous moments in the second half, it was one of my all-time favorite Steelers games. It was nice to see the AFC Championship game be sort of a blow out with very little suspense.

Feelings of Euphoria in Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation

The feeling that I had the rest of the evening was euphoric. Something happens to you when your favorite team wins a game like that. You have this urge to get in your car and drive around so that's what I did. I found myself at my sister's house in Avalon, and my brother in law, a Broncos fan, was still talking trash and trying to remind me of the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl titles in '97 and '98. But he couldn't hurt me that night. I was in Heaven.

Ok, this concludes part four. I hope you all enjoyed it. Stay tuned for the conclusion!
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Watch Tower: Doing a Double Take on Tomlin's Coaching Changes, Plus Heyward vs. Hood

The NFL press credential unlocks access to a world that fans only dream of visiting – the NFL locker room. Many argue that social media diminishes if not eliminates the need and role of the traditional press.
  • There’s some truth there. 
The internet, YouTube, blogs, streaming video, Facebook, and Twitter connect players, coaches, scouts, front office staff, and owners with fans in ways that Joe Gordon, Steelers Communications director during the Super Steelers era, never dreamed of.
  • Yet a press credential remains invaluable. 
Simply because it gives accredited members of the Pittsburgh Pro Football Writers Association daily access to those self-same players, coaches, and scouts.

Yes can Steelers.com picks and chooses post-game quotes that Twitter, Facebook, ESPN.com, FOX Sports quickly recycle. Sure, Art Rooney II can change the spin of a story by using a video interview to explain that he didn’t mean the Steelers offense needed to run more just that it needed to be able to run better.
  • These mediums have their impact, but they also have their limits.
And that’s because beat reporters establish build relationships players and coaches. They make small talk by the water cooler and in the lunch room. They’re privy to numerous 60 second “off the record” 1-1 elevator rides, parking lot exchanges and, yes, urinal conversations.

Credentialed Steelers press writers have an excellent feel for what gets said in private, behind closed doors, when the tape records and cellphone cameras are put way.

The Watch Tower has long suspected that many if not most of the Steelers press corps writers frequently know a lot more about the stories than reaches the light of day.
  • And that’s what makes our first case so interesting.
Revisiting the Sean Kugler, Amos Jones and Scotty Montgomery’s “Resignations”

Steelers Nation knows well how Mike Tomlin said his coaching staff would be back in January 2012 after the Steelers suffered their playoff “Tebowing” in Denver only to have Art Rooney II pulled rank and fired Bruce Arians.
  • The move drew a firestorm converge, and the attempt to pass it off as a “retirement” made the Steelers look bush league.
Mike Tomlin started the Steelers 2013 off season off with three coaching changes, which collectively got less coverage than the Arians fiasco.

Perhaps that was a mistake, because it appears there was a story behind the story...
  • ...Depending on who you listen to.
But this plot takes an interesting twist. This is no case of local rivals peddling competing stories or even of the local press vs. the national press. No, this time the Watch Tower shines its light on divergent stories coming from the same publication….

Bouchette vs. Dulac with Blog Posts at 30 Paces….

In just two days in mid February PG Plus readers got a treat that gave them their money’s worth for a month.

On Monday the 11th, Ed Bouchette directly suggested that the resignations of Tomlin’s assistants were less than voluntary. And in doing so, he reported several interesting new facts.

Bouchette characterized Amos Jones move to Pittsburgh West, aka Arizona, as a “side ways move” and pointed out that Jones joined the Steelers as an assistant and only got the special teams coordinator job due to Al Everestt’s mysterious firing.

Although he doesn’t report any new facts, but reminds readers that Jones didn’t get the job after Bob Ligashesky got fired in 2010, and suggests that Tomlin either told him he would be demoted or suggested he find a new job or be fired.

Scottie Montgomery’s departure is Bouchette’s next target, and hits the bull’s eye with some new facts. Bouchette begins by reminding us that the Duke PR department was nebulous about what Montgomery’s new duties would be, and that a move from Pittsburgh to Duke is hardly a step up the career ladder. Then he delivers the goods.
We were told that Montgomery did not exert enough control over the wide receivers the past season and, with Hines Ward no longer around, the students ran the classroom and became more undisciplined. Their performance on the field certainly would back that up.
Although Bouchette does not mention this, the hiring of Richard Mann provides further evidence to support his claim. Anyone who saw his draft day press conference could easily see that Mann exudes and air of “Been there, Done that.

Bouchette closed by taking a look at Sean Kulger’s decision to accept the head coaching job at UT El Paso, suggesting that he might have at least been motivated by a philosophy class with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley’s new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell has in fact installed a new, run blocking scheme.

So here we have an inside story from the Dean of the Pittsburgh press corps telling us that Tomlin’s coaching changes were as much about house cleaning as they were climbing the career ladder. Case closed, right?

Not so fast.
Dulac began by attacking the notion that the changes were a case of “rats leaving a sinking ship” and went as far as to state:  “And none were made because of any conflict or dissatisfaction with Coach Mike Tomlin.”

Dulac pointed out that Kulger’s chance to return to his alma mater was simply “too good to pass up.” In discussing Amos Jones move, Dulac reported that Jones got more money and a longer contract than was presumably available in Pittsburgh.

In discussing Montgomery’s return to Duke, Dulac says:
But Montgomerie [sic] was said to very friendly with Tomlin and, according to one assistant coach, was reluctant to leave Duke the first time to join the Steelers.
Bouchette vs. Dulac Who to Believe? 

So here you have two reporters for the same publication, telling very different stories based upon what they see from behind the scenes on the South Side. Who to believe?

Of all of the moves, the departure of Kulger’s appears to be the most straight forward. He got the chance to return to his roots, and presumptively would have stayed in Pittsburgh had that opportunity not surfaced.

There’s likely truth in both men’s rendering of Amos Jones’ departure. Jones quiet likely could have stayed in Pittsburgh, but only in his old role as a special teams assistant.

In the case of Montgomery, the Watch Tower is prone to believe Bouchette. The wide receiving corps was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s strength last year, but "Young Money," aka Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, played more like a penniless group of receivers, much to Ben Roethlisberger’s chagrin.
  • There is one thing that both Bouchette and Dulac agree on, one that is perhaps a little disturbing for Steelers fans. 
In discussing Montgomery’s move, Bouchette observed this “If Tomlin – or someone above him – didn’t force Montgomery out, his move to Duke is a strange one indeed.”  Dulac went a step further, and finished his article suggesting:  “Of course, sometimes what Tomlin wants and what actually transpires are two different things. Just ask Arians.”

While the idea of Art Rooney II involving himself in Mike Tomlin’s staffing decisions  isn’t in and of itself bad, one would hope that Art II would emulate macro-manager Daniel Rooney and not micro-manager Daniel Snyder.

Which Way is Heyward Heading?

One of the the most important story lines at Steelers training camp in St. Vincent’s will be the development of Cameron Heyward, the Steelers 1st round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Cameron Heyward’s limited contributions as a rookie drew good reviews, however opinion of his second year development remains split.

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review wrote a feature-length article admonishing Hewyard to “step it up” commenting that:
The Ohio State product begins his third season amid a cloud of uncertainty.
He isn't likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup, but he can dictate how much playing time he'll get — and how his future will be shaped.
To back up his argument, Paulk cites any number of statistics on Heyward’s production, and quotes Heyward himself discussing how he’s fallen short of his goals.

However, Kyle Curry of the Pittsburgh Sporting News also ran an article on Heyward last week citing statistics that show Hewyard out performing Ziggy Hood on a snap-by-snap basis, and he informs that Ed Bouchette is reporting that Heyward has a chance to replace Hood in the starting lineup.
Heyward’s development, and the press’s coverage of it will be interesting to see.

Smizik on Wallace

The final off season installment of the Watch Tower would not be complete without comment about retired Post-Gazette columnist turned blogger Bob Smizik’s criticism of Steelers salary cap management and free agent decisions.
  • Mike Wallace, as everyone knows was one of the top available free agents, regardless of position and was expected to command at least 10 million per year and he eventually got closer to 12.
Keeping Wallace, in Smizik’s view was essential for the Steelers, and the retired scribe all but implied that the Steelers needed to do what was necessary to keep him. And in the same breath, he slammed the Steelers for being so tight against the cap that they couldn’t make an offer.
  • That’s right – slam the team for not writing Wallace a blank check in one breath, while slamming them for salary cap problems in the next.
Sounds like the same guy who criticized the Steelers for drafting Rashard Mendenhall without taking Willie Parker’s feelings into account, and then complained when Mendenhall wasn’t getting more carries early in ’08….

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Steelers Training Camp Preview: A Closer Look at Mike Tomlin's New Assistants

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 NFL Draft class won’t be the only new faces feeling their way through their first training camp at Latrobe. So will three new assistant coaches. And that's unusual.
  • Unlike his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin isn’t trigger happy when it comes to firing assistant coaches. 
So it’s understandable that Mike Tomlin’s coaching shake ups in after the Steelers 2009 and 2011 seasons captivated Steelers Nation’s attention. Yet Tomlin’s coaching changes in the wake of 2012’s disappointment’s barely raised an eyelid.
  • Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case – at the very least some patterns appear to be replicating themselves…
Let’s take a closer look.

Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin, From Trigger Happy to Trigger Hesitant on Assistants

In his first season Bill Cowher assembled a team of coaches who’d never worked together before. Dick Hoak was the lone hold out from Chuck Noll’s staff. Cowher had cold called offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt out of the blue.
  • Skeptics wondered if it could work and 1992 Steelers 11-5 take the league by surprise season shows it did.
But unity did not last long. The day after a blocked punt in a wild card game at Kansas City ended the 1993 Steelers playoff run Bill Cowher fired, in summary execution style, special teams coach John Guy, receivers coach Bob Harrison and defensive line coach  Steve Furness (Furness, a veteran of the Steel Curtain, dismissal was the most surprising, and friends said he never recovered.)

Assistant coach firings became the norm for the Cowher years as Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, and Tim Lewis all got the boot and that’s only counting the coordinators. Other coaches such as Bobby April left because they found Cowher difficult too work for.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin went two years without firing any assistant. Word is that he resisted pressure (who knows why) to fire Bob Ligashesky after special teams disasters sabotaged the Steelers 2007 season.

Tomlin likewise went to the mat in 2009 to defend Bruce Arians job, but he did nonetheless make other coaching changes.

A Closer Look at Tomlin’s Coaching Changes

Although he saved Arians job (with Ben Roethlisberger's help), Tomlin fired Larry Zierlin and Bob Ligashesky. Ken Anderson retired as quarterbacks coach creating another vacancy.

Back in 2010, to fill those vacancies, Tomlin hired:
  • Al Everest to coach special teams
  • Sean Kulgler to coach the offensive line
  • Scotty Montgomery to coach the wide receivers 
The vacancy at the quarterbacks coaching spot was filled by Randy Ficthner, who’d served as receivers coach.

Fast forward to 2012. Art Rooney II again pressured Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians, and this time Tomlin declined to stick his neck out for his coordinator, even though he’d already invited Arians back.
Despite the Steelers 8-8 finish, Tomlin fired no assistant coaches, but there’s been plenty of turnover nonetheless. Amos Jones followed Bruce Arians to Pittsburgh West (aka the Arizona Cardinals), Sean Kugler left to coach UT El Paso, and Scotty Montgomery returned to Duke University.

Those departures resulted in Tomlin hiring:
So, in two years time Tomlin has replaced the exact same set of position coaches…

…Does that mean anything? Perhaps not but it’s a coincidence that deserves recognition. Jack Bicknell has no ties to the Steelers or Tomlin, but the same cannot be said for Danny Smith and Richard Mann.

Danny Smith is a Pittsburgh and Central Catholic graduate. He coached at William and Mary, Tomlin alma mater and also coached in Detroit while Kevin Colbert was there.

Richard Mann has worked in the NFL long enough to coach for the original Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Ravens. He also happened to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just when Tomin was breaking into the NFL.

So while Tomlin might have shuffled some assistants some, not all of them are exactly new faces. Perhaps that will turn out to be a good thing. Time will tell.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Steelers Road to Super Bowl XL: A Fan Remembers Pittsburgh's Greatest Nine Weeks Ever (Part III).

Steelers vs. the Indianapolis in the AFC Divisional Playoffs 

The Steelers were the huge underdog going in and most people thought it would be a repeat of the game late in the regular season when the Colts outclassed Pittsburgh, 26-7, on Monday Night Football.

Cowher Decides its Time for Big Ben

One of head coach Bill Cowher's perceived faults in previous postseasons was being too conservative on offense and letting the other team dictate the action.
For the first time in over twenty years, the Steelers had a bona fide franchise quarterback in one Ben Roethlisberger, and Cowher cut him loose on the Colts right out of the gate. The first possession of the game saw the Steelers drive right down the field on the strength of Roethlisberger's arm. He got things started with a play-action pass to tight end Heath Miller for 36 yards that set Indianapolis back on its heals. The drive culminated in a quick slant pass to Antwaan Randle El for a six yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Two drives later, the Steelers took control of the game when Roethlisberger hooked up with Miller for a seven yard touchdown pass, making it 14-0 Pittsburgh in the first quarter. The key play on this drive was a third down pass to Hines Ward in which he picked up 45 yards and netted an additional 15, thanks to a face mask penalty on a Colts defender.

Defense has Manning on his Heals in Rematch

On defense, the Steelers had Peyton Manning and the Colts' offensive line totally confused. In the regular season game, Pittsburgh's defense barely touched Manning as he passed for 245 yards and two scores, but in this game, he didn't have much time to do anything, especially in the first half. Towards the end of the second quarter, the Colts embarked on their best drive of the game up until that point. They started at their own two yard line after a great punt by Chris Gardocki.

Thanks mostly to running back Edgarin James, Indianapolis moved the ball deep into Steelers' territory. Eventually, it was third and goal and it looked like James scored on a tough running play. Unfortunately for the Colts, a linemen moved too early and Indy eventually had to settle for a field goal to make it 14-3 at halftime.

The Defense, The Bus Impose Their Will in the Third Quarter

The second half started out pretty much like the first half, at least for the Colts on offense. They couldn't do much of anything, and Pittsburgh was winning the battle of field position.

In-fact, the defense sacked Manning just inches shy of his own goal line, nearly resulting in a safety. The ensuing punt gave the Steelers great field position at the Colts' 30 yard line. Passing was great early on, but on the previous drive, it looked like Roethlisberger injured his throwing elbow while being hit.
  • If ever there was a time to kick the tires and bring Jerome Bettis, the Bus, out of the garage, this was that time. 
Bettis was the workhorse on this very short drive, a drive that would eventually result in a one yard scoring leap by the big man and a 21-3 lead for Pittsburgh. I was hysterical. I remember picking up my two year old cousin and throwing her around. I was so happy! And even though the Colts had the best offense in the NFL that year, for some reason, I didn't think there was any way they'd come back on Pittsburgh's suffocating defense.

Manning Steps Up to Impose his Will on Tony Dungy and the Steelers Defense

The following drive, however, the Colts got back in the game when Manning appeared to wave off the punt team on fourth and short, deep in his own territory and hit Brandon Stokley with a 13 yard pass on the last play of the third quarter to move the chains and give his team new life. Two plays later, Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark and Clark out-ran most of the Steelers secondary for a 50 yard touchdown to make it 21-10.
  • Just like that the Colts were back in the game after being dominated for three quarters.
The next drive, in my opinion, was the most important one of the game for Pittsburgh. They didn't score, but they took about eight minutes off the clock after converting twice on fourth and short. There was much controversy on the first conversion after the Colts jumped off-sides and touched one of the Steelers offensive linemen because they thought that Alan Faneca flinched.

Whether he did or not was immaterial because the officials didn't blow the whistle so off-sides should have been called. But nothing was called and after a lot of arguing from the Steelers' sideline, the refs just did a "do-over" and I almost had a heart-attack when it looked like Roethlisberger was stopped short. But thanks to a great second-effort and a little push from Jerome, he just barely made it.

Troy Polamalu Saves the Day for Pittsburgh........Not so Fast

As I said, Pittsburgh didn't score on that drive but they gave the ball back to the Colts with barely over six-minutes left in the game. At that point, one more defensive stand would all-but wrap up the game for the Steelers. And they appeared to make that stand when Troy Polamalu dove to intercept a Manning pass.

He got up to try to advance the ball and fumbled it, but fell on it and Pittsburgh had the ball at mid-field with less than six-minutes left. I went into celebration mode at that point. I figured the Steelers would just run the clock down and be on their way to Denver for their second straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game. The Colts challenged the play, but it just seemed like blind desperation from head coach Tony Dungy. It was obvious from every camera angle that Polamalu intercepted the ball and it never touched the ground. I walked around my uncle's living room with my arms raised in victory.
  • Mr. referee came out to give his verdict, it was just a formality, though, right? 
Wrong! He said that since Polamalu lost the ball before getting both knees off the ground while trying to advance it, it was an incomplete pass. So, in other words,  had Polamalu stayed there on the turf after intercepting the pass, it would have stood, but since he got up and tried to advance the ball, it was an incomplete pass? He was punished for doing more? Made no sense then, makes no sense now. I had never witnessed such a call before that day and not since. I don't know what the referee's thought process was or what rule he used as a reference for his decision, but he was clearly wrong and everyone knew it.

I remember turning to my uncle and saying, "I can't believe they're taking the game away from us!" My uncle said that he never saw me so angry and beside myself watching a sporting event, and he was right. I could not believe that happened. If you don't already know, you can probably guess what unfolded once the Colts resumed their drive.

They eventually scored a touchdown on a James' three yard plunge, and Manning hit Reggie Wayne for a two point conversion to make it 21-18 with a little over four minutes to go. Just minutes prior, it looked like the game was over and now suddenly, the Colts had all the momentum. 
The Steelers needed to run the clock out at that point. Roethlisberger, sore elbow or not, threw for a first down, but underthrew Ward on third down later in the drive, and the Steelers had to punt. So, there it was, the Colts had the ball with 2:42 left and I was so nervous, that I wussed out and left for a drive in my car. Can you believe that? Me, Mr. Steelers fan, chickened out and took a tour of Pittsburgh during the most crucial part of the Steelers season.

Missing Perhaps the Most Heart Stopping (literally) 2:42 seconds in Steelers History

I drove to Mt. Washington, for some reason, and decided to turn the radio on about 15 minutes later. At that point, the first thing I heard was Tunch Ilkin, the Steelers color commentator, saying his heart went out to Tony Dungy whose son committed suicide earlier in the year.

I didn't hear the Colts crowd going nuts. "What happened?" I wondered to myself. The Steelers were kneeling on the ball and Steelers play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove was singing, "turn out the lights, the party's over." I knew at that point Pittsburgh had victory in hand, so I stuck my hand out of my car and did the "No 1" sign as I drove to my mom's house, not knowing the pulsating events that led up to the Steelers' upset victory.
  • When I arrived at Mom's, she informed me that she prayed for a miracle during the last seconds of the game.
According to her, the miracle came true because Pittsburgh won. However, she wasn't quite sure what transpired that led up to the victory.

Do you remember what transpired in-between the time I left my uncle's with 2:42 remaining? I believe every Steelers fan knows what happened, but I missed it all. The Colts got the ball back and needed a field goal to tie it or a touchdown to win it.
  • Pittsburgh didn't allow an inch on defense, sacking Manning twice, the second time Joey Porter dropped Manning on fourth and long, in the shadows of Indianapolis' own end zone. 
After the sack, Manning screamed, "Yeah, that's the game, baby! It's on to Denver!" The Steelers had the ball 1st and goal with 1:28 left. Unfortunately, they couldn't just kneel on the ball because Indianapolis had all three time outs left. The offense had to punch it in to put the game on ice. On first and goal, Roethlisberger handed it off to Bettis, who unbelievably fumbled!

Nick Harper, the Colts defensive back, picked the ball up and was off to the races. Roethlisberger made a play for the ages as he zigged when Harper zigged and zagged when he zagged. Roethlisberger lunged for Harper's leg and brought him down near mid-field. Everyone was in disbelief, especially Bettis who was inconsolable on the sidelines.

(The Bettis fumble was shocking to everyone, both players and fans alike, and it was later revealed that Pittsburgh resident Terry O'Neil suffered a heart attack just seconds after the Bettis fumble and needed immediate medical attention--O'Neill would thankfully make a full recovery).

Naturally, the Colts drove the ball down the field on the Steelers' stunned defense and eventually had a second and two at Pittsburgh's 29 yard line. Manning went for the victory when he went deep for Wayne in the end zone. Wayne came within inches of catching the ball only to have it knocked out by Steelers rookie defensive back Bryant McFadden. People are always going to remember "the tackle," but I think McFadden's play is one of the most underrated in Steelers' history, and it was the best play of his career. Two plays later, Mike Vanderjagt, who hadn't missed a field goal at home the entire season, set up for a 46 yard attempt with seconds remaining.
  • I guess my mom must have prayed for intercession to the right Saint because, not only did Vanderjagt miss the kick, it wasn't even close.
I missed all of that, but maybe it was a good thing. My uncle was eating some dinner on one of those drop tables and when Jerome fumbled, he said he flung it across the room. In crucial moments of a big game, I usually stand right by the TV, so I might have been in the line of fire and had my face rearranged by that drop table and some mashed potatoes.

What an exciting victory. This concludes part three of my tale.
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Steelers Free Agency 2013: Colbert's Salary Cap "Loaves and The Fishes"

The debate in Steelers Nation as Pittsburgh entered the 2013 off season was whether the Steelers were in “Salary Cap Hell” or merely “Salary Cap Purgatory.” No one on the roster not named Ben Roethlisberger appeared safe.

Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that while the Steelers have/had cap issues, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pulled off the NFL Salary Cap equivalent of the “Loaves and the Fishes.”
  • How’s that you ask? Read on young Padawan…. 
(Note Steel Curtain Rising has a strict “no politics, no religion” editorial policy but hopefully you will excuse this deviation as the metaphors are irresistible.)

“The times, they are a changing….”

It’s true that Steelers Nation has not experienced such off season roster upheaval since the 90’s. Back then, in the pre-Heinz Field days, free agent exoduses became an annual rite.

The process was agonizing. Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher would draft and develop players, only to lose them as soon as they reached free agency.

What happened this off season is both similar and different. In the ‘90’s cash flow was the culprit, whereas during the Steelers 2013 off season it was lack of cap space, forcing Pittsburgh to swallow hard and cut contributors whose age, injury status, and cap values made them expendable.

Let’s look at how deeply the axe swung:

Steelers Salary Cap Casualties:
James Harrison, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Willie Colon, cut two years into a four year contract

Contracts Not Renewed by the Steelers:
Casey Hampton
Charlie Batch
Byron Leftwich

Steelers Players Poached in Free Agency:
Mike Wallace
Rashard Mendenhall
Keenan Lewis
Max Starks
Will Allen
Ryan Mundy
Doug Legrusky

Painful? Doubtless.

Consider this:  EVERY player that Pittsburgh lost in free agency, cut or declined to bring back started a game for the Steelers in 2013. Six of whom were full time starters.

In 2013 the Pittsburgh Steelers not only said good bye to a lot of talent, experience, and locker room leadership, but they also abandoned a fair amount of potential.

These loses will be felt. How badly? The answer to that question lies in what the Steelers did to compensate.

Steelers Free Agent Spending in 2013

The conventional wisdom is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are an inactive team in free agency. In the 2013 off season the Steelers were active, but many of Pittsburgh's free agent moves happened slightly below the radar.

Steelers ’07 Draft Class Revolving Door (former players reacquired):
William Gay
Matt Spaeth

Unrestricted Free Agents Resigned by the Steelers:
Ramon Foster
Larry Foote
Plaxico Burress
David Johnson
Greg Warren

Restricted Free Agents Resigned:
Emmanuel Sanders
Steve McLendon

Unrestricted Free Agents Retained via Tender for 2013:
Isaac Redman
Jonathan Dwyer

Steelers Free Agent Additions:
Brian Moorman
LaRod Stephens-Howling
Guy Whimper
Bruce Gradkowski

For a team supposedly on the precipice of Salary Cap disaster, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a lot of moves during the 2013 off season.

In pure quantitative terms, the Steelers came out ahead, signing/resigning 15 players while saying good bye, in one form or another, while losing 12.
  • Quantity is one thing. What about quality? Did the Steelers come out ahead? 
That’s a more difficult question and one with a more nuanced answer.

Colbert and Tomlin’s Loaves and Fishes Salary Cap Miracle 

Measured in terms of raw football talent, it is impossible to argue that the Steelers weathered their most difficult free agency period since the Donahoe years and came out ahead.

Anyone who tells you that Plaxico Burress’ value to the offense is equal to or better than that of Mike Wallace is missing a few fries from his Happy Meal. Ditto any attempt to equate William Gay's value with that of Keenan Lewis.
  • But success in the free agency era goes beyond questions of raw talent.
Yes, you need good players to win and great players are essential to winning big. This is true in any era. When asked about Steelers success, Dan Rooney’s stock response is “You have to start with the players.”

But success in the salary cap era doesn’t come down to who has the best talent, but who can get the most for their salary cap buck. And in that respect the Steelers have potentially positioned themselves to come out ahead.
  • Take the Steelers situation at cornerback.
Without argument, the threesome of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, and Cortez Allen beats the threesome of Taylor, Allen, and William Gay.

But the money the Steelers saved in not resigning Lewis didn’t just go to Gay. It allowed them to resign David Johnson and bring back Matt Spaeth. Now Johnson and Spaeth are marginal roster contributors to be sure. But that’s the point.

Assuming that Cortez Allen is the real deal and that Ike Taylor doesn’t slow a step, then the trio of Allen, Taylor, and Gay at CB combined with Speath, Johnson and David Paulson holding down the fort at tight end in Heath Miller’s absence arguably delivers more value for salary cap dollar than Keenan Lewis would have.
  • The same can be said of Mike Wallace.
Had the Steelers really wanted to, they probably could have kept Mike Wallace.

But at what cost? Certainly Plaxio Burress wouldn’t have been resigned. Emmanuel Sanders either wouldn’t have been tendered or would have been allowed to go to New England. Either Jonathan Dwyer and/or Isaac Redman would have been gone too. AND LaRod Stephens-Howling probably never darkens any doors on the South Side either.

To go with a baseball analogy, Mike Wallace is a legitimate home run threat on any down and defenses must plan for. The Steelers will miss his contributions.
  • But football is a team game, and the Steelers are calculating that they can make up for losing this home run threat with a series of base hitters.
Such strategies come with risks. Losing Ike Taylor for the year and fielding a Lewis/Allen corner tandem is quite different than fielding a Gay/Allen corner tandem. The same can be said for several other position areas, most notably offensive line and wide receiver.
  • But making such calculated risks is part of life under the NFL’s salary cap. 
On paper Kevin Colbert has made a series of excellent “best bang for the salary cap buck” decisions. Soon Steelers Nation will know how those decisions play out on the field.

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