´ Steel Curtain Rising: February 2014

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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Need to Keep (up with) the (Felix) Joneses?

Sometimes history and happenstance hook up to and make for some uncanny encounters. In the 2008 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Rashard Mendenhall precisely one pick after the Dallas Cowboys chose Felix Jones.

And so it was that the year that the Steelers said goodbye to Mendenhall, they ended up making a rare player-for-player trade to acquire Felix Jones from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Capsule Profile of Felix Jones as a Pittsburgh Steeler

Unlike other players in this series, Jones doesn’t have much of a body of work to summarize. He appeared in 15 games for the Steelers, starting in week 2 vs. the Bengals and week 3 vs. the Bears, until giving way to Le'Veon Bell in week 4 in London vs. the Vikings.

Even when he was starting, however, Jones never saw more than 10 carries in a game.

Case for Keeping Felix Jones

When seeking depth in the form of veteran back ups, some star power is a plus, but stability is sufficient. In that respect, Felix Jones appears to fit the bill. Although his chances were limited, a review of his efforts showed him to be a confident, competent change of pace back for the Steelers.

Or did they….?

Case for Letting Jones Walk

…The perception/memory of Felix Jones and his actual performance are perhaps two different issues. Like Issac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Bell, Jones numbers are not terribly impressive. 48 carries for 184 yards and no touchdowns, with 9 catches for 73 yards. Dwyer only ran for 13 more yards, but Dwyer’s was used much more frequently in short yardage situations, and by most accounts put more impressive runs on tape.

If the Steelers see it as a Jones or Dwyer situation, Dwyer gets the edge, despite his checkered history. Even if it’s not, Jones 2013 performance suggests the team can do better than him as a back up.

Curtain’s Call on Felix Jones

One of new running back’s coach James Saxon will be to provide input on who should back up Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers will likely look to bring in another running back in either mid or late rounds, but a veteran presence is essential.

2013 was bad year for the Steelers once vaunted rushing attack. Perhaps that’s because of offensive line instability. Perhaps its simply because the offense has evolved to the point where Ben Roethlisberger really is the focal point. While much has been made of Bell’s low rushing totals, he only played in 13 games, far less attention has been paid to Dwyer or Jones performance.

The Steeler’s number 2 rushers in 2011, 2009, and 2008 In were Isaac Redman, Willie Parker, and Mewelde Moore.
  • Each of those back up rushers out performed Dwyer and Jones combined rushing total for 2013.

The Pittsburgh Steelers could do worse than Felix Jones for depth at running back, but they owe it to themselves to see if they can do better and as such any move to resign Jones should wait until after the 2014 NFL Draft.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Could 3rd Time be Charm for Steelers, David Johnson?

Success in the NFL requires: 1. Atletic ability. 2. A strong work ethic powered by dedication and determination. If you don’t quite have enough of number 1, you can apply number 2 to give yourself number 3, which is versatility. Even then you need some of number 4 – luck.

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson has some of number 1, plenty of number 2 and number 3. What he hasn’t had is luck.

Capsule Profile of David Johnson with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted David Johnson in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Johnson did not make the final cut, but did hang on to the practice squad. By 2010 he was good enough to be the team’s 3rd tight end while lining up in the backfield as a fullback. Johnson wasn’t a world-beater, but he step it up and come down with a key third down catch in the all-important late-season win over Baltimore.
In 2011 many fans will fail to forgive him for dropping a would be third down conversion vs. San Francisco and, while that drop was critical, he showed himself to be a serviceable player.

With Todd Haley’s arrival in 2012, Johnson was asked to formally shift to fullback. He made the move, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason and was lost for the year.

During the early going in free agency in 2013, the Steelers made Johnson one of their under the radar signings. That move paid dividends as Matt Spaeth injured his lisfranc. Johnson opened the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end. While he may not have excelled in that role, with Heath Miller’s  return, Johnson showed himself to be a capable number 2 tight end, when disaster struck again, as he again tore and ACL and was out for the year.

The Case for Keeping Johnson

David Johnson is never going to be and all world tight end. He’s never going to remind anyone of Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski. But the Steelers don’t need him to be, the Steelers will be fine even if he matures into a Mike Maularkey type tight end.

Johnson’s odds of making the NFL were long given his draft position. Yet he’s worked to make it happen. He rehabbed tirelessly and was available for the Steelers home opener, and played well. He’s also got position flexibility, something which is vital.

Moreover, no other NFL team is going to target him. The Steelers can get him for the veteran minimum. On those terms, he’s a good pick up.

The Case for Letting Johnson Walk

Johnson’s only 26, but coming off of two consecutive ACL injuries. While David Paulson’s flashed something in 2012, 2013 was a disappointment. If Paulson can perhaps be counted on as a receiver, he’s not the blocker that Johnson. But with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, the Steelers don’t need him to be. Moreover, the Steelers have an entire NFL draft to find a younger, more athletic tight end who can do the same or better job than Johnson, for less money.

Curtain’s Call on David Johnson

 A year ago Steelers Nation responded to the Johnson signing with a might “ho hum.” Johnson however vindicated Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s faith in him, even if injury struck.

The Steelers should resign Johnson, if his rehabilitation is on schedule, because it’s a low-risk high reward move. If Johnson gets beaten out in camp by a rookie, so be it. Little will be lost. But in bringing him back, the Steelers get a full back capable tight end who knows the offense and has a proven work ethic.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Drafting Ziggy Hood Should Neither Haunt Nor Make Pittsburgh Happy

The Super Bowl winner picks last in the NFL Draft, which means that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only team to have that "honor" six times. They’ve used their pick on the likes of Dave Brown, Bennie Cunningham, Greg Hawthorne, Mark Malone, Santonio Holmes and most recently, Ziggy Hood.

How does Ziggy Hood fit in with the group above? Clearly, somewhere in the middle. Exactly where? The Steelers decision in free agency will tell us a lot about management’s answer to that question.

Capsule Profile of Ziggy Hood with the Steelers

The Steelers picked Hood with the 32nd pick in the 2009 NFL Draft – in other words, Hood would have been the fourth player taken in the second round had he come of age when Chuck Noll was still made the selections.

Hood didn’t play much as a rookie, and some in the press sought to make a big deal of that when Aaron Smith went down and the Steelers turned to Travis Kirschke instead of Hood. Hood got his snaps and helped the Steelers beat back the Ravens late in the season. Smith again would go down in 2010 and this time Hood assumed the starting role. His play was undistinguished until late in the season when he went on a tear, registering 3 sacks in the regular season’s final 3 games, as well as a sack in the playoffs vs. Baltimore and then again in Super Bowl XLV.

Hood seemed primed for a break out, but the breakout never came. While it’s unfair to say that Hood played “poorly” in 2011 and 2012, he did nothing to stand out. He began 2013 as a starter, but was displaced at mid-season by Cameron Heyward, and the Steelers have not looked back since.

The Case for Keeping Hood

The Steelers know what they have in Hood. A durable, predictable, solid but not spectacular 3-4 end. The rest of the NFL knows this and is not likely to throw a lot of money at Hood.

Clearly, you expect more from a first round pick, even a late one. But the Steelers have salary cap issues, and they can likely get Hood back at a very cap friendly contract. No real frills, but no real risks either.

The Case for Letting Hood Walk

The Steelers need to improve their front seven, and they cannot rely on or expect any real improvement from Hood. Hood is an average NFL starter. In that light it would be best for the Steelers to invest their time, roster spot and salary cap dollars elsewhere.

Curtain’s Call on Ziggy Hood

When judged alongside the other post Super Bowl picks Ziggy Hood is clearly above the Mark Malone and Greg Hawthorne’s of the world, but just as clearly below the Bennie Cunningham, Dave Brown, and Santoino Holmes of the world.

This middling tendency continues when judging Hood alongside other first round defensive lineman the Steelers have taken in the modern era, Hood pales in comparison to Joe Greene and Casey Hampton but is certainly a step above Keith Gary, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones.

The tricky issue with Hood is that the Steelers cannot likely bring back both him and Brett Keisel, and they have no proven depth at defensive end. There’s been talk that Steve McLendon will move to defensive end – but that requires someone to take his place at nose tackle.

Hood can likely be had back at a cap-friendly contract, but that won’t do anything to improve the Steelers at this position of need. The smart money would be to let Hood test the market, see what defensive line talent can be acquired in the draft, and then bring him back or not if he’s still available.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Need to Keep Brett Keisel if They Can

Kevin Colbert’s best draft came in 2002, not because of the superstars he brought the Steelers, but because round-for-round, he brought in better value for pick than any other Steelers draft during his tenure.

Although he was largely overlooked at the time, perhaps his most impactful pick came last, in the form of Brett Keisel.

Capsule Profile of Brett Kesiel with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Sometimes it simply takes players time to develop. That was the case with Brett Keisel, who only appeared in 5 games as a rookie, and did not start a game until after earning a ring Super Bowl XL. But Keisel was ready, having notched 3 sacks in Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line rotation.

During the early tenure of his starting career, Keisel was overshadowed by Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. But that certainly did not stop Keisel from being a quality runstopper and a defensive end capable of making some noise as in a 3-4 system.

Kesiel notched 5.5 sacks in his first year as a starter, and has registered 20 since then. Perhaps the greatest testament to Kesiel’s ability is that he blossomed just as age and injury started to limit Aaron Smith.

Keisel’s play can’t be measured solely by the numbers. He’s shown an ability to make plays in a timely fashion.
Brett Keisel may have begun his time as an overlooked member of a stout defensive line, but his contributions were never undervalued by those who knew.

The Case for Keeping Keisel

At age 35, “Life’s work” to use Chuck Noll’s phrase, is clearly beckoning Brett Keisel. But 2013 showed that Kesiel still has something left in the tank. While Cameron Heyward surpassed him as the unit’s top defensive lineman, it should be noted that Heyward pushed Ziggy Hood and not Keisel to the bench.

Not only did Keisel have the numbers, he still showed an ability to make a play when it counted.

The Case for Letting Keisel Walk

If Keisel still has talent and still has the ability to perform at a high level, he also has durability issues. He’s only started 1 16 game season since 2007. Last year he missed four games. And while his enduring ability to deliver is impressive, Kesiel will 36 during the 2014 regular season, and at that age players can lose it quick.

The Steelers defense needs to get younger. And getting younger usually does not involve retaining players who are closer to 40 than 30. And for all of the talk about Keisel’s ability play at a high level at an advanced age, Ziggy Hood’s sack and tackle total were close to Keisel’s, but Hood had the benefit of 5 fewer starts.

Curtain’s Call on Keisel

Deciding to keep a defensive lineman of at Brett Keisel’s age is a risk, plain and simple. The threat of injury or a drop off is real. There’s also the issue of Hood. While Hood is a disappointment as a first round pick decision to sign him can ensure experienced depth on the line for another 2-3 years, no matter who the Steeler draft. Keeping Keisel likely means closing the door to Hood.
  • But with any decision on Keisel must go beyond the numbers.
As Jerome Bettis conversation with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reveals why:
Teams always are looking to cut 8-to-10-year veterans and keep younger, cheaper guys. You see the repercussions when you do. You have to have the right older players to set the tone for the young guys and show them how to be pros. If you don't, you have chaos.
Brett Keisel is a real leader on this Pittsburgh Steelers defense. After Charlie Batch quarterbacked the 2012 Steelers to an inspiring road win vs. Baltimore, it was Keisel who worried aloud that the younger players didn’t quite realize the need to keep the pedal to the metal. Unfortunately, results vindicated Keisel’s worries.

In the final analysis, the Steelers would do well to bring back Brett Keisel, as the potential benefits outweigh the risks. But this comes with a caveat – Keisel needs to play at or near veteran minimum.  If Keisel wants to go out and seek the best he can find on the open market, he has that right.

But hopefully the Steelers and Colbert will find a way for him to retire as a Steeler.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: What to Do about Jonathan Dwyer

NFL free agency involves three distinct working parts, the incumbent team, the player and potential suitors. Often times these three actors come to the table with three distinct motives and interests and that’s what makes the case of Jonathan Dwyer so interesting.

Capsule Profile of Jonathan Dwyer with the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers picked Jonathan Dwyer in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. At the time many wondered how a player who’d had such a productive career could slip so far. Word was that Dwyer dazzled during OTA’s and mini camp.

Then camp training amp where Dywer showed up overweight and out of shape. Only and a late preseason surge saved his roster spot. Ditto 2011. Dwyer again showed up overweight and out of shape and only injuries to Baron Batch a late season surge saved his spot.

Dwyer nonetheless showed himself to be a player of some potential, making a hundred yard performance in his first start in 2011 vs. Tennessee. He didn’t see many other carries, and finished the year on IR.

In 2012 injuries to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman would give Dwyer his greatest opportunity. Dwyer fumbled vs. Oakland but rebounded to have 100 yard games vs. the Redskins and Bengals. It seems odd now, but people were even making comparisons between Dwyer and Jerome Bettis. Yet Dwyer could not establish himself as a starter he descended into mediocrity with the rest of the Steelers offense during the second half of 2012.
Dwyer’s agent talked a good game about landing a home for his client, but Dwyer watched the season opener from his couch.

When injuries robbed the Steelers of LaRod Stephens-Howling, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert turned to Dwyer. Knowing this was his final shot at an NFL dream, Dwyer ran ever carry as if it were is last, and excelled in short yardage.

The Case for Keeping Dwyer

If his words and deeds in 2013 are any indication, Dwyer’s stint on the unemployment line caused a change of heart. Dwyer’s not going to be a number 1 NFL back, no matter what city he’s playing in. But he’s shown in Pittsburgh that he can be a good number 2 back and a good short yardage specialist.

In that light the Steelers seemingly have a chance to bring in a solid player who knows the offense for a reasonably cap friendly contract.

The Case for Letting Dwyer Walk

Once they’re on a roster for a season opener, the contracts of NFL vested veterans are guaranteed. Signing bonuses, and Dwyer would get one in some form or fashion, are of course guaranteed. Dwyer knows that. And he is a player with a history of mailing it in, or as a player whose sense of urgency is less than constant.

The Steelers are set for their starting running back with Le'Veon Bell. Do they really want to trust the back up role to a player with such a checkered track record?

Curtain’s Call on Dwyer

At the end of the day the Steelers decision comes down to whether they think Dwyer turned over a new leaf in 2013, or whether his motivation was really just a fleeting fancy.
  • Steel Curtain Rising’s call is for the Steelers to bring back Jonathan Dwyer, but with the caveat that the signing bonus of any second contract must be rock bottom. 
If Dwyer balks at that or if some other team is foolish enough to open the check book for him, the Steelers need to let him walk.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Steelers Nation Looks Back to '13 as Steelers Focus on 2014....

Defining the NFL “end” and “beginning” today is difficult, but as Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong observes, the league’s annual scouting combine signals the beginning of the 2014 cycle.

So as the Pittsburgh Steelers pivot into full 2014 off season mode, its only appropriate to pivot back and take one last look at the year that was 2013 for the Steelers.

Queuing Up for Change - And a Lot of It....

The 2013 off season offered Steelers Nation change and turnover like few before it. Kevin Colbert vowed a roster shakeup after an 8-8 season and delivered as veterans and rookies from the top to bottom of the roster departed.
  • The process, however, followed anything but a straight line.
The defections of Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Mundy slammed shut the coffin of the 2008 disaster draft. But Pittsburgh simultaneously launched a 2007 draft reclamation project by resigning Matt Spaeth and William Gay, while getting a compensatory pick for having lost Gay, (who himself was a compensatory pick,) a year earlier.

New England made a run at Manny Sanders. Except they didn’t. Then they actually did. Word was management would let Sanders walk, but then they didn’t. Steelers parted ways with Super Bowl veterans Willie Colon and Max Starks; Colon because he was too oft injured and not suited to cut blocking, and Starks because he wouldn’t accept back up money.

Colon ended up starting 16 games for the Jets, whereas Starks got cut before opening day, got picked by the Rams and cut after 2 games.
  • As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
In training camp the pundits in the press were ready to pronounce Le'Veon Bell the next Franco Harris (yes, Ed Bouchette compared his debut’s to Franco’s) before he even had a carry in preseason. In fact, he missed most of preseason with a Lisfranc injury, which were in vogue in Latrobe, with Matt Spaeth getting the Lisfranc fad started act too.

That’s how the Steelers luck ran. Before their fourth game, the Steelers had placed four players on injured reserve – the fourth preseason game that is. (Yes, that’s Nik Embernate, Plaxico Burrres, Nick Williams, DeMarcus Van Dyke. The number goes up if you count undrafted rookie free agents.)

Mike Tomlin shrugged off the 0-4 preseason explaining that that those most responsible would be cut. That culpable crew included Jonathan Dwyer,2012’s rushing leader. For a franchise steeped in stability, changed appeared to be the new watch word.

The off season, however, was only the warm up act.

Getting Sucked into a 2-6 Hole

Steelers Nation remembers the week 1 disaster all too well.

Starting center lost. Back up tackle doing double duty as tight end shifts over to play center. For the first time in his life. All within 8 plays of the season. 3 players lost for the year on opening day. Some guy named Kion Wilson manning the inside linebacker position and, get this, calling the defensive plays.

Shuan Suisham’s status was even in doubt for week 2. He played but the big news was, aside from Dywer’s return,  an argument between Antonio Brown and Todd Haley that 40 some cameras failed to catch. The deep catch that everyone did see David Paulson’s, who promptly fumbled, showing what happens when number 4 tight end wears number 2’s clothes.

Dale Lolley’s tweet summarizes week 3 vs. Chicago:

Pass protection became an issue. By the time the Steelers left London at 0-4, it was obvious that Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side was horrendously exposed. So the solution was to take Mike Adams, the Steelers ’12 second round pick who might have been their 1st round pick save for his drug test, and replaced him with Kelvin Beachum, their 2012 7th round pick.

Would you believe that made things better? It did.
The Steelers came soaring back with a win over the Jets, which was equally satisfying to watch as it was to listen to Bill Cowher sitting in the booth and keeping Phil Simms anti-Steelers sentiments in check.

Victory was not without its costs. David Johnson, the number 3 tight end who began the season as the number 1 tight end one year after he was supposed to have shifted to fullback, was blossoming into a quality number two tight end. Until he torn his ACL, leaving the Steelers with Heath Miller at 75% strength and forcing number 4 tight end David Paulson back into the number two tight end slot.
  • Your head spinning yet? It should, but a win vs. the Ravens followed nonetheless and the Steelers showed signs of liftoff.
Except they reached orbit only to get sucked in by Oakland’s Black Hole, as Terrell Prior channeled his inner Kordell Stewart, and Shaun Suisham chose the absolute worst time of the year to hiccup. Twice.

The next week brought New England. And during the third quarter it Pittsburgh feigned going toe-to-toe. Alas, it was a mirage. When it was all over, the Steelers had surrendered the most points in franchise history, (and that includes the 51-0 1989 Cleveland home opener.) Mike Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone mailing it in.

Yet, Tomlin’s tape review revealed no lack of effort. And, in an act of supreme self-confidence, he simply vowed to roll up his sleeves and coach his players to play better.

6-2 Digging Out of The Hole

You know what? It worked.

Beating the Bills might have been ho-hum, but Pittsburgh overcame a 27 point second quarter blitz by Megatron and the Detroit Lions to win the game 37-10, with Will Allen making a game sealing interception after forcing a fumble and leading the team in tackles.

A week later they stomped Cleveland 27-11, with William Gay, signing whose signing so many mocked, leading the way with a strip sack and a pick six.

Thanksgiving Day brought the Steelers to Baltimore, where they lost a heartbreaker on their own merits, yet the big news was the officiating.

You see, helmet-to-helmet hits are the NFL’s big no-no, and for good reason, unless they involve a player leading with the head at a ball carrier player crossing the goal line. Then apparently if the helmet it comes off before the ball cross the goal line, you save a touchdown. Just saying.
  • Then there was the Tomlin sidestep, for which he was rightly fined and not so rightly with a possible draft pick to follow. 
Yet stepping on the field and almost making contact is far worse that stepping on to the field and making contact, as a Miami coach did the following week vs. Pittsburgh, with the Steelers not even getting the benefit of the free kick they should have had from the penalty that wasn’t called.

For the record, in the NFC Champion game, Jim Harbaugh made contact with an official in the middle of the field, and one of his assistants knocked over on the Seahawks coverage team. Both were sternly warned “not to do it again.” Just saying.

Truth be told, the defense vs. Miami was terrible, and the Steelers earned that loss. Yet if the defense lacked luster vs. the Dolphins, they roared as tigers vs. the Bengals (pun fully intended), completely spanking Cincinnati making them look nothing like a team vying for a first round bye.

Next, the Steelers traveled to Lambeau Field, fighting a battle worthy of Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll, in a game that saw 5 lead changes, a blocked field goal, a successful fake punt, a pick six, a 66 yard kick return with 1:25 left to play, resulting in a Steelers goal line stand at the 5.
  • The Steelers wrapped it up with a win over a Cleveland Browns team that apparently decided to tell the world it had fired its coach 2 hours into the game.
After starting out 0-4 and the 2-6, the Steelers reached the equilibrium 8-8 in the season’s final week. But it wasn’t over. No, there would be no, and could be no neat symmetrical bow-tie knot to end a season like this.

Denouement – Steelers Nation Becomes “Chiefs Nation” for an Afternoon

On every NFL Sunday, 16 teams must lose. And the Steelers seemingly needed 14 or 15 teams to lose to make the playoffs. By the time Pittsburgh dispatched Cleveland, all but one of those teams had lost.

Kansas City had locked its playoff spot and position, San Diego was on the outside looking in. KC gave a rookie quarterback. San Diego started Philip Rivers. KC played its jobbers. San Diego put out its A-Team.
  • True to course, all parts involved, stubbornly refused to follow “the script”
Instead of folding, KC fought tooth and nail. They had a chance to win it but missed a field goal. But wait! San Diego had an illegal formation. No matter, the officials missed it. Game went into over time. San Diego calls a fake punt. Ball pops out, KC recovers and returns it to the end zone. But wait – play whistled dead, even though the ball came out and possession changed before the helmet came off.
  • The third chance was all San Diego needed to close the deal. They were in the playoffs, the Steelers out.
As Mike Tomlin said, the 2013 Steelers made their own bed. But they never stopped fighting, always kept it interesting and finished the year with the arrow pointing up. Hopefully that provides a foundation for 2014.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Steelers Nation Prepares to Say 'Bye to Burress' Again

Unlike his predecessor Tom Donahoe, Kevin Colbert has been more than willing to lay out the welcome mat to departed free agents if the economics and football need present itself. Thus it was with Plaxico Burress.

Capsule Profile of Plaxico Burress with the Steelers

If the Steelers let the press and the fans dictate their drafting decisions, the first draft pick of the Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher era would have been Chad Pennington. Cowher and Colbert had a mind of their own, and Plaxico Burress became the first pick for the Steelers in the new millennium.

Burress struggled as a rookie, wining the starting job on potential along with Troy Edwards while Hines Ward sat on the bench. Edwards got benched, but Burress stayed in the game. His most famous play was an ill advised spike which was actually a fumble, him having mistakenly thought himself down.

Burress struggled in early 2001, until Hines Ward took him under his wing and instilled the importance of work ethic into him. Burress took off, first giving Kordell Stewart, then Tommy Maddox, and then Ben Roethlisberger a coveted tall receiver who was a legit downfield threat. Burress had 1000 yard seasons in 2001 and 2002 and while his number dipped in 2003 and 2004, his value to the offense was never at issue.

Burress did ruffle some feathers with his comments after the 2004 AFC Championship game, but ultimately his asking price was too high, and he departed for New York, where his game willing catch helped ensure that Chuck Noll’s run as the only coach to win four Super Bowls for what is now least 10 years and counting.

When injuries struck the Steelers wide receiving corps in 2012, Colbert dipped into the free agent market, and brought Burress back. He blew a route causing an interception in his first game back, but did score a touchdown in the season finale.

Burress entered 2013 Training Camp fighting for a roster spot, but unfortunately Burress injured his rotator cuff during camp and spent the season on IR

The Case for Keeping Burress

Ben Roethlisberger covets a tall wide receiver, and Burress fits the mold. He’s also a veteran presence who commands respect of the rest of the receiver room. No other team is going to throw money at him, and the Steelers could use a veteran insurance policy, particularly if some team decides to make a run at Jerhico Cotchery.

The Case for Letting Burress Walk

Burress is 37 and coming back from an injury. He stayed on the NFL’s unemployment line for much of the 2012 season and only made 3 catches when activated. How much, if anything, does he have left in the tank? He wasn’t even a sure shot to earn a roster spot in 2013. Is he worth tying up an off season roster spot in favor of some other more promising (and cheaper) undrafted rookie free agent?

Curtain’s Call on Burress

There’s been little word on Burress since he went on IR. While it’s possible the team would sign him and bring him to camp for insurance purposes, the most likely outcome is that the team knows that Plaxico Burress is not part of the team’s future at wide receiver and will act accordingly.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rumored NFL Salary Cap Increase a Boon for the Steelers, If It Happens

When Steelers Nation hears the words “Salary Cap” and “Steelers” together that is usually bad news. That’s not so today:

The Steelers, for any number of reasons have found themselves over the cap, by a wide margin, since the 2011 NFL Lockout ended.
  • The Steelers have responded by restructuring contracts. 
While the move has been unavoidable, it is a form of mortgaging the franchise’s future, it has restricted their options tremendously.

It says here that if the Steelers cap situation had been healthy, Keenan Lewis would still call Pittsburgh his home. If press reports are any indication, the Steelers are seriously considering cutting LaMarr Woodley, a move that would result in a tremendous dead money salary cap hit
  • Yet the Steelers got some good news today.
The NFL’s 2014 Salary Cap figures were leaked and the cap is projected to rise approximately 5%. While that may not appear to be a huge increase, it already makes the Steelers situation much more manageable.

Prior today’s announcement, the Steelers were reportedly 13 million over the 2014 cap. The uptick in the cap, if Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain’s figures are correct, means the Steelers are no only 8 million over the cap.

Can you say Levi Brown? Levi Brown, the player the Steelers traded for who never played a down, is set to cost 6.2 million against the 2014 cap. Going into the off season Brown's status as a cap casualty was a foregone conclusion. Now the move will deliver much more value, essentially wiping out ¾’s of the Steelers cap overrun in one move.
  • Serious salary cap work remains for the Steelers.
The Steelers don’t simply need to get to the cap, they need to leave space to sign their draft class and sign some of their free agents.

But the move gives them more flexibility. They’ll still need to do some restructures, but hopefully they’ll need fewer of those and the ones the do will not cut as deep.

Things Don’t Happen Until They Do

Dale Lolley spoke with Kevin Colbert about the increase. While Colbert welcomed it, he was quick to caution that "Those numbers start floating around, but they haven't been substantiated."

That’s a good word to the wise.

Salary cap information is hard to come by. Its not has hard to fathom as the NFL’s compensatory draft pick system, but immediately after the 2011 CBA, the word was that 2011, 2012, and 2013 were projected as “Flat cap” years with the cap expected to rise after that. But since the “Flat Cap Era” has been pronounced.

Things don’t happen until they happen.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Can Pittsburgh Keep Jerricho Cotchery?

As it was in during the 2013 off season, wide receiver will be a focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers activity in free agency, and Jerricho Cotchery figures into the mix.

Capsule Profile of Jerricho Cotchery with the Steelers

Plaxico Burress was the headline wide receiver associated with the Steelers when the 2011 NFL Lockout ended. Burress did indeed dine with Mike Tomlin in Latrobe, but ultimately signed with the New York Jets.
Cotchery’s tenure in Pittsburgh started slowly, but by the middle of the season he was working his way into the line up an by the time the playoffs arrived it was Cotchery, and not Young Money, that came down with the game tying touchdown in the wild Wild Card game vs. Denver. Cotchery took on the role as the team’s 4th wide receiver in 2012 and did a good job of coming down with clutch catches.
  • But it was 2013 that Cotchery really found his niche. 
Cotchery simply scored touchdowns, becoming Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target in the Red Zone. He finished the year with 10 touchdowns, and receiving totals that dwarfed his 2011 and 2012 efforts combined.

The Case for Keeping Cotchery

The case for keeping Cotchery is apparent. He adds a veteran presence to a young secondary and has a knack for getting open at the right place in the right time. And while he will be 32 by season’s start, he’s shown no sign of slowing down.

The Case for Letting Cotchery Walk

There are grumblings that the Steelers will draft a tall wide receiver in the first or second round of the NFL draft. That combined with the projected emergence of Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye and Cotchery could get caught up into a numbers game as even at a bargain basement contract, Cotcherey could end up costing the Steelers more than those three younger players together.

Curtain’s Call on Cotchery

Cotchery’s case will be an interesting one. Jerricho Cotchery has been on record saying he wants to stay a Steeler. There’s every reason for the Steelers to want to bring him back.

Emmanuel Sanders is almost certainly gone. Markus Wheaton is unproven, as is Derek Moye. While Antonio Brown will remain the team’s number one receiver, he needs a viable number two playing opposite him. The Steelers want that person to be Wheaton. But if Wheaton is not ready, then they’ll need a veteran.
  • The Steelers want Cotchery back and Cotchery wants to be a Steeler. When that happens a deal is usually only a formality. 
Yet the Steelers would do wise to move quickly. Other NFL teams will no doubt note Cotchery’s 2013 production, and could be inclined to open the check book. Should that happen, all bets are off as the Steelers don’t do bidding wars.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Ryan Clark, Steelers Nation Prepare to Say "So Long"

Free Agency in Pittsburgh generally boils down to setting down roots or saying goodbye much more than it is about laying out the welcome mat.

Ryan Clark, however, is one player who appears will work though the full cycle. And if his Tweets are any guide, he’s completely at peace with it:
Capsule Profile of Ryan Clark with the Steelers

Shortly after Super Bowl XL, the Steelers made it clear that Chris Hope would be allowed to walk in free agency. With no heir apparent behind him, Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert dipped into the free agent market, and made one of the best decisions the team has ever made, by signing Ryan Clark for the Washington Redskins.

The smart money during that 2006 off season held that Clark was more or less coming to Pittsburgh as a placeholder, a veteran brought in to made the free safety spot while a younger player matured. The Steelers drafted Anthony Smith that spring, and his athletic talent showed that he was that younger player. Alas, he never matured.
  • And had he matured the Steelers would have had a tough situation on their hands, as Ryan Clark turned out to be far more than a place holder.
He quickly grew into a vocal team leader and a hell raiser on the field. It was Clark who made the game-changing plays in the AFC Divisional Playoff vs. Baltimore, and during 2011 and 2012 Clark was arguably the Steelers defensive MVP and most certainly one of the NFL’s most defensive underrated players.

The Case for Keeping Clark

Until proven otherwise, the possibility exists, at least theoretically, that the Steelers could bring back Clark. Why would they do so?

First, there’s Clark’s leadership. He clearly has the respect in the locker room and know’s what’s going on. When Antoino Brown and Ike Taylor were coming to blows just a little too often during 2012 training camp, it was Clark (and Ben Roethlisberger) who brought the two together.

And despite being 34, Clark’s tackle total clocked in at 104, second only to Lawrence Timmons. He also recovered 1 fumble and notched two interceptions. Clearly Clark has something left in the tank…

The Case for Letting Clark Walk

 …Having something left in the tank does not mean that Clark hasn’t slowed a step. And in fact, in 2013 it looked like he had. Whereas in 2011 and 2012 Clark’s number 25 seemed to be visible on almost every defensive play, including more than a few tackles behind the line of scrimmage, that was less so in 2013.
  • The Steelers secondary needs to begin renewing itself, and the expiration of Clark’s contract would seem to be a very logical place to start.
There’s also the issue of Clark’s outspokenness.

While that has generally been a plus during his time in Pittsburgh, Clark is never afraid of making controversial statements about the league or the team (see his comments about marijuana usage). While they’ve kept mum in public, those with access to sources say that the Steelers management has tired of it.

Then there’s the question of cost. While not ruling out home town discount, Clark flat out said he would not play for the league minimum, which would seem to be the only way he’d find a spot on the roster.

Curtain’s Call on Clark

When all is said and done Ryan Clark’s free agent signing ranks up there with that of James Farrior and Kevin Greene among the team’s best. And Steelers were to resign Clark in 2010.

But now it’s time for Clark to complete that cycle and either depart as a free agent or begin his life’s work, which seem to involve the initials ESPN.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Will Will Allen Return?

When the season ended one of the more interesting decisions the Pittsburgh Steelers have to make in free agency involves reserve safety Will Allen. That story line got more interesting yesterday when news broke that the Steelers were working out former Lions safety Louis Delemas.

Capsule Profile of Will Allen with the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2009 secondary, sans Troy Polamalu for all but four games, finished the season  as a shell shocked unit that couldn’t get an interception even if opposing quarterback threw right to them. Literally. One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves that off season was to call down to his former player in Tampa Bay, Will Allen.

The Steelers signed Allen, and then watched him sit on the bench and play special teams during 2010 and 2011. That changed when it became clear that Ryan Mundy was in fact developing into a Myron Bell type safety – the exact type of hard hitting player that the Steelers once loved but that the NFL is legislating out of the game, unless they happen to play for Seattle.

With Allen entering the line up, the Steelers defense improved tremendously. Nonetheless, the smart money behind Will Allen’s 2013 free agent profile pegged him as one of the players the Steelers could get back if they wanted him back. Dallas however, thought differently, and signed Allen, only to cut him 4 games into the season.

The Steelers wasted little time in bringing Allen back, and Allen vindicated their confidence coming up with a key interception in the game vs. Detroit, and otherwise helping bring stability to the secondary.

The Case for Keeping Will Allen

Will Allen’s value to the team was clearly underestimated. Its possible that the team planned to bring him back in 2013 but could not for salary cap reasons, management clearly did a double take.

The Steelers do need to get younger at safety, but behind Shamarko Thomas and Troy Polamalu, the Steelers have little proven depth. As last year’s experience showed, the Steelers cannot take Allen’s availability for granted, but by the same token no team is going to throw gobs of money at Allen.

The Case for Letting Will Allen Walk

Assuming no other team over prices the services of Will Allen, the case for letting him go still comes down to simple mathematics. But those mathematics are more about age and 40 times than dollars. The Steelers defense started 3 rookies last year but still was among the league’s oldest. And the secondary was what was dragging that average up.

Clearly the Steelers will not and should not make decisions solely based on age, but with Troy Polamalu also approaching his “Life’s work” safety has to be a priority for the Steelers. Robert Golden’s value is still more measured in potential rather than production, but he is no rookie either.

The renewal process must begin in the secondary, and many potential paths can easily exclude keeping Allen.

Curtain’s Call

As with every player there are legit pro’s and cons to keeping Will Allen or letting him walk. But in the final analysis Will Allen still offers a lot of good value and experience at what must certainly be a cap friendly price. Ryan Clark is all but certain to be gone.

Should something happen to Troy Polamalu, do Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau what the Steelers safety slots manned by Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden?

Probably not. And the insurance against such a possibility comes in the form of Will Allen.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Safety Louis Delmas Visits Pittsburgh

NFL Free Agency might start on March 11th, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are not taking a passive wait-and-see approach between now and them. Faced with an aging secondary struggling to create turnovers and the impending departure of 7 year starter Ryan Clark, the Steelers brought Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas to the South Side for a get to know you session.

Ryan Clark knows what's afoot and is at peace with the situation, if his Tweets are any measure:

Delamas was drafted by Detroit in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. As Detroit was coming off of an 0-16 season, they had the first pick that year making Delmas the first pick in the second round – or the first player picked after the Steelers picked Ziggy Hood at the end of the first round.

Delmas became an immediate starter for the Lions, although he did miss about half of 2012 due to injury. During his time there he’s made 6 interceptions and registered 5 sacks. In the Steelers victory over Detroit in 2013, Delmas did not record any splash plays, but was fourth on the team for tackles, and defensed a Ben Roethlisberger pass.
  • As Delmas has been released by the Lions due to salary cap reasons, he is free to sign at any time.
In addition to Clark, Will Allen is also slated to be a free agent, while Robert Golden and projected starter Shamarko Thomas remain under contract, as does Troy Polamalu. While Polamalu is expected to return to the Steelers in 2014, reports indicate the Steelers will seek a more cap-friendly deal.

Moving Ike Taylor to safety is also a possibility, although like Polamalu, the Steelers also are said to be seeking a more cap friendly deal with Taylor.

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Steelers Salary Cap Bubble: Time to Give Larry Foote the Boot?

Larry Foote is not a Steelers free agent, but at age 34 and coming off an injury he could become. Hence we take a look.

Capsule Profile of Larry Foote with the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Larry Foote in the 4th round of Kevin Colbert’s best all around draft, 2002. Foote was expected to do little more than play special teams as a rookie, but injuries to Kendrell Bell forced him into the line up early in the infamous “Dread the Spread” 2002 season opener vs. New England. Foote went on to start 3 games that year.

Foote didn’t start any in 2003 but played well on special teams. Further injuries to Bell paved the way for Foote to become a full time starter in 2004, where he became a fixture, starting in both Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

With Lawrence Timmons pushing him out of the line up, Foote left Pittsburgh for Detroit, but was back a year later and served as a valuable back up in 2010 and 2012. James Farrior’s retirement paved the way for Foote’s return to the line up in 2012, where he played well. Unfortunately Foote was injured in the Steelers 2013 opener vs. Tennessee, and was lost for the season.

The Case for Keeping Foote

Many eyes have focused on Steve McLendon’s presence over center in their search for the cause of the rapid decline of the once indomitable Steelers run defense. McLendon isn’t Casey Hampton in his prime (who is) but there’s evidence to suggest that McLendon shouldn’t be held as a scapegoat.

When Larry Foote went down, Kion Wilson took his place. This wasn’t simply a case of switching out a 12 year veteran for a guy holding down roster spot number 45, 46 or 47, it cost the team their defensive signal caller in Dick LeBeau's defense. Vince Williams stepped in and played like a rookie.

Foote knows the defense, is a solid player, and a quiet leader both on and off the field. The Steelers know this or else would not have resigned Foote last year to a 3 year contract.

The Case for Cutting Larry Foote

Larry Foote will be 34 when opening day arrives. He neither carries a huge contract nor a large dead-money hit if released. The Steelers defense needs to get younger, and if Seattle’s defense is the template, faster. Speed has never been Foote’s forte.

The Steelers will only gain about 1.5 million in cap space of they let Foote go. While their cap situation is not as dire as has been for the last two years, difficult choices need to be made, and Foote could be one of them.

Curtain’s Call

Under the current regime, when the Steelers have to part ways with a veteran, they normally do it immediately to give the player the best chance possible of hooking on with another team.

And that’s what makes Foote’s situation so complicated.
  • Inside linebacker is one of the areas where the Steelers have depth – at least on paper.
Vince Williams matured nicely over the course of 2013, and was making plays by the end of the season. Terence Garvin also was working his way into the line up, and as everyone in the NFL knows, the man can hit. And then there’s Sean Spence. Spence was drafted with an eye towards replacing Foote. Spence of course suffered a horrendous injury in preseason of 2012. Linebacker’s coach Keith Butler went so far as to say it will be a miracle if Spence plays again.

Yet Spence worked doggedly, and Kevin Colbert has said the team is impressed with his efforts.
  • But Spence remains an unknown and Garvin and Williams’ value is still measured more in terms of potential rather than production. 
Larry Foote does not present Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with an easy choice.

The cold hard calculating thing to do would be to let him come to camp, see how the chips fall, and then if he proves expendable, cut him lose. While its not beyond the Steelers do that, as LC Greenwood and David Little’s experience shows, in Kevin Colbert’s time that is far from standard operating procedure.

The smart money says to see if cap savings can be found elsewhere, and plan to keep Foote for the duration of 2014, even if that means keeping him as a backup.

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