´ Steel Curtain Rising: May 2014

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Do Steelers OTA's Reveal Mike Tomlin Developing a Soft Spot for Rookies?

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin detests anointing rookies. It’s just not his thing. Tomlin is of the firm belief that rookies must earn their stripes in the NFL.
  • Just how far will Tomlin go to make that point? 
Back during the 2010 training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a rookie sensation. Word was that he was clearly out playing the incumbent starter, a Super Bowl XLIII starting veteran to whom the Steelers had signed to a 4 year contract just 10 months before.
  • That meant little to Tomlin.
To avoid anointing the ascending rookie, Tomlin developed a pre-season starting rotation that included Johanthan Scott “competing” with Flozell Adams for the starting right tackle position. You might remember the rookie in question, his name was Maurkice Pouncey, who went on to not only oust the starter Justin Hartwig, but he pushed him off the roster entirely.

As Steelers Digest Bob Labriola pointed out at the time, Flozell Adams was never in danger of not getting the starting job, but Tomlin didn’t want to leave any appearance that Pouncey was being handed the job.

The Times Are They a Chang’in? 

Fast forward to 2014. The Steelers shock all of the pundits in the 2014 NFL Draft by selecting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with their first round pick. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger will have to wait 4 rounds to get his tall receiver, and fans will have to wait longer to get their corner.
  • Yet, some things go according to plan, as Tomlin declared regarding Shaizer and 2nd round pick Stephon Tuitt:  “It's [starting] not something that's going to be given to them, They'll be given an opportunity to earn it.”
Of course a coach is supposed to say that on draft day. But watch what coaches do, not what they say. Almost as soon as the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in 2012, then offensive line coach Sean Kugler was on the phone to Willie Colon, informing him that the oft rumored move from tackle to guard was happening.
  • Steelers OTA’s are in full swing, and Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin didn’t wait a single snap to replace Vince Williams with Ryan Shazier in the first team defense.
The move itself has little more than symbolic value at this point. OTA’s are, as Tomlin loves to preach, “football in shorts.” Perhaps this is linebacker’s coach Keith Butler’s way of introducing the playbook to Shazier via baptism by fire. Perhaps come training camp at St. Vincient’s in Latrobe, Shazier will indeed be forced to win the starting role in the trenches.

But for now it’s a change of tune if not in fact a change in song on the part of Mike Tomlin....

...And for those of you who're into reading things into "Football in shorts," Shaizer closed the loop on this story by knocking down Pouncey during OTA's.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Watch Tower: Steelers Draft "Bragging Rights" Wexell, Bouchette, & BTSC; Kudos to Cole....

Its been a while since the Watch Tower’s lights have shined, but not for lack of subjects to focus on as the Steelers 2014 off season has been one of the busiest on record.

Undaunted by the delay the Watch Tower begins by focusing its lights on the Steelers 2014 Draft

The Steelers Shazier Surprise, For Some….

Heading into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone in Steelers Nation knew that the Steelers 1st and 2nd round picks would be cornerback and wide receiver, in some order. Most people thought they had the players down pat.
That’s everyone except Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who tweeted this shortly before the draft:

As Wexell himself pointed out via Twitter, in his pre-draft story, Wexell stuck with the conventional wisdom and predicted the Steelers would draft Michgan cornerback Darqueze Dennard. However, in that brief Twitter exchange Wexell confided that a 4 minute (his tweet said “month” but we’ll assume that was a typo) led to the Ryan Shazier tweet.
  • In other words, Wexell did what a good journalist does, and modified his forecast based on new reporting, reporting which clearly came from a knowledgeable source.
Did another credentialed or even non-credentialed member of the Steelers press corps publicly predict the Steelers picking Shazier?
  • The Watch Tower suspects not, but stakes no claim to certainty. 
But Jim Wexell did and for that the Watch Tower gives him “Bragging Rights.”

BTSC Bags Bragging Rights for 2014 Mock Done in 2013

And speaking of bragging rights, what about those mock drafts? No, we’re not taking about the 144 cubed mock drafts published in the months before the 2014, we’re talking  about one published in the shadow of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Normally the Watch Tower would mock (pun intended) the idea of mocking the coming year’s draft mere days after the current draft has ended. But in this case Big Jay’s from Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure I also write for BTSC) deserves special merit.

Last year, on the day after the 2013 NFL Draft Big Jay Mocked the 2014 draft, and he did a pretty good job.

As BTSC editor Neal Coolong observed:
He called 11 first round picks, including top pick, Jadeveon Clowney going to Oakland. He also picked Johnny Manziel to Cleveland (at No. 8 overall) and had the Steelers picking an inside linebacker - C.J. Mosley, who went two picks after the Steelers took Ryan Shazier.
Jay also entertained the idea Stephon Tuitt going to the Steelers, although Tuitt was still considered an automatic first round pick. Calling 11 of 32 first round picks more than a year in advance is nothing to sneeze at and Big Jay also bags “Bragging Rights.”

Bouchette Offers Insight into Steelers Draft Room Decision Making

Just how do the Steelers decide on their draft picks? It’s a question that Steelers fans want to know apparently, and one that fans regularly pose to those closest to the story, the credentialed journalists.
  • During the era of the Super Steelers (and the decade or so of mediocrity that followed it) the Steelers had a collaborative process, but there was no question as to who had the final word, and that was Chuck Noll.
Covering the first draft of the post-Noll era, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola mentioned that the process would  be different ,as there would no longer be anyone with the final word on draft day, indicating that the Steelers would reach decisions more by consensus.

But what does that really mean? Well, Ed Bouchette lifted the lid:

To get his story, Bouchette went right to the source, questioning former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. The Watch Tower does not like the steal the thunder from fellow writers, and encourages you to click on the link (and then scroll around) to read Bouchette’s story yourself.

But one of the more interesting things about Bouchette’s reporting is solid communication is critical to the success of the process he outlines. And with that in mind, it is easy to see how the Steelers draft misfires began in earnest as the relationship between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe deteriorated.

Cole Coins a Term…

Who wouldn’t like to invent a phrase and have it enter the vernacular? Yours truly attempted to do just that upon my arrival in Argentina with “Chau for now” (Spanglish for “bye for now.”) It didn’t work.

My friend and colleague Ivan Cole at Behind the Steel Curtain appears to have had a little more luck. Way back on October 8th 2011, Cole had this to say:
The Lake Effect.
Of all the criticisms and anxieties surrounding the Steelers at this point, has anyone noticed that the defensive secondary really hasn't been part of that discussion?...

....Spin it any way you want, the fact remains that these guys are leading the league in pass defense. William Gay is starting and no one is calling for his head. Keenan Lewis is doing well. The two of them are doing so well that at least for the time being it appears as Brian McFadden has lost his job. A tip of the hat to Carnell Lake anyone?
Describing Carnell Lake’s impact on the players he tutors as the “Lake Effect” began on that day. And while it might not have spread like wildfire, the term is catching on. Back in August of 2013, Mark Kaboly of the Tribune Review wrote about Steelers DB’s benefiting from the “Lake Effect.”

Shortly after the draft ESPN’s Scott Brown did the same referencing Lake’s influence on both Antwon Blake, Brice McCain and newly drafted Shaquille Richardson.

Now that’s not quite the same as “Lake Effect” becoming the catch phrase on everyone’s lips in Steelers Nation, but it is catching on, but it says here it started with Ivan Cole. Kudos to you Cole.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Steelers Make Right Call on Heinz Field Expansion

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 off season has been among the busiest on record. The team was uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency. Management also kept the faithful on their toes with a 2014 draft defined by size,speed and surprise.

The impact of the Steelers free agent wheeling and dealing won’t be known until September and the full measure of the Steelers 2014 draft can only be taken in 2016 or so. But there is one move Steelers management made this spring that is unequivocally the right one:
  • Agreeing to expand Heinz Field without leaving the Allegheny County taxpayers on the hook.
As Steel Curtain Rising has editorialized before, expanding Heinz Field is a good idea and one the Steelers should pay for. Expanding Heinz Field is a smart move simply because while the NFL’s revenue pie might be growing, there’s no guarantee that the Steelers piece of pie will grow in proportion.
  • Steelers Nation tends to think of Heinz Field as “new” but it is this will be its 14th year in operation, or as old as Three Rivers Stadium was in 1984.
And while Heinz Field is the newest facility in the AFC North, with the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals abodes having opened in 1998, 1999, and 2000, the Ravensrevenue bests the Steelers to the tune of 26 million dollars a year, and both Baltimore and Cincinnati are more profitable.

Why the Steelers Should Pay (Again)

But if the business case is plain to see for expanding Heinz Field, it is equally obvious that the people of Allegheny County shouldn’t pick up the bill.
  • The Rooneys are not like the Daniel Snyders or Jerry Joneses of the NFL. 
Their wealth is tied up in the Steelers, and they do not have the non-football income streams to finance a new stadium. That was the argument they made in getting Pennsylvania to build Heinz Field. It made sense then, but in Heinz Field gives the Steelers a platform for raising the revenues they need for stadium improvements.
  • For a while there, it seemed like the Steelers didn’t see it that way.
The Steelers of course went to court trying to force the public to finance the expansion, which was a sad spectacle. While Steel Curtain Rising has no proof of this, it’s interesting to note that the decision to take the case to court began while Dan Rooney was still serving as ambassador of Ireland, and the choice to settle outside the courts was made after his return.
  • Is this Dan Rooney’s influence at work? 
Steel Curtain Rising has no information to answer that question. If the answer is yes, then that speaks well of the Patriarch of Steelers Nation and offers cause for concern about the direction the team’s stewardship may take when Rooney moves on to his heavenly reward.

Technically speaking, the Steelers aren’t financing the expansion themselves, they’re passing the cost on to ticket buyers in the form of a 1 dollar surcharge. While that might not be the most fan friendly thing to do, the Steelers are hardly the first business to pass capital expansion costs off to the customer.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Art Rooney Sr. Displayed Incredible Foresight on Merril Hoge

Art Rooney Sr. was not a micromanaging owner, often times to a fault. After Walter Kiesling refused to even let Johnny Unitas practice and was set to cut him, Tim Rooney wrote The Chief a 22 page letter imploring his father to overrule his head coach.
  • Rooney dutifully read the letter, then balled it up and threw it in the trash.
Art Sr. liked Unitas, but stuck by his philosophy of “Let the coach, coach.” All of which is to say that Rooney Sr. might have been a fair judge of talent, although he did once admit to stopping short of prohibiting Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll from cutting Terry Bradshaw when the blonde bomber struggled, but The Chief wasn’t known for his personnel moves.
  • All of which makes a bit of news reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on-line editor Dan Gigler in the Blog-N-Gold more interesting.
On the heels of the Steelers 2014 Draft, Gigler caught up with ESPN Commentator and legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge. As expected, a good bit of Gigler’s interview with Hoge centered around the Steelers decision to pick Ryan Shazier.
  • But Gigler also asked Hoge about his time with the Steelers, specifically about his interactions with Chuck Noll and The Chief. 
Hoge shares the story of the final day at Three Rivers Stadium during his rookie year, when he didn’t get the season ending meeting he was expecting with Noll, but was treated to this unexpected encounter:
And as I started to walk out, here comes 'The Chief' walking with [the team's chief contract negotiator] Dan Ferens. And The Chief stops me and he says, "Hey -- you are one heck of a football player. We're lucky we got you on our team." He said, "Where you heading?" I said I'm heading home to finish school and he said, "Well, get that done and get back here." And he stopped at the drinking fountain and I started to walk out and turned the corner near the coaches' offices and Dan Ferens came after me and said, "You know something? That's the greatest compliment you could probably ever get right there. The Chief doesn't say that about everybody."
In hindsight, this of course makes perfect sense. Hoge was never a superstar in the vein of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis. He lacked the heart rendering comeback story of Rocky Bleier. He didn’t have the speed of a Willie Parker. His contemporaries Tim Worley and Barry Foster had more athleticism.
  • But Merril Hoge made up for that in hard work, grit, determination, leadership, and toughness.
Hoge was a gamer like Hines Ward, a player who teammates turned to when times got tough.

His back-to-back 100 yard playoff games vs. Houston and Denver in 1989 sufficed to earn him legend status, but it was the everyday dedication that made Hoge the hero he was.
  • The curious thing about Rooney’s statement was when he made it.
As mentioned, it came after Steelers 1987 season where Hoge entered as a rookie 10th round draft pick. He rushed 3 times for eight yards that year, and caught 7 passes for 97 yards. Yes, he did bag a touchdown catch, but that came in the final striker-replacement game. He also came in 5th on special teams tackles.
  • Unglamorous stats to be certain, but the Chief knew enough to see through glamor and glitter, and he'd seen enough to know Hoge was someone.
Perhaps the Chief should be know for having an eye for talent afterall….

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Steelers Sign 9 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents

The action doesn’t really stop after the last selection in the NFL Draft has been made. As soon as “Mr. Irrelevant” is named, scouts and assistant coaches race to the phones, eager to come to terms with men how missed the draft, men who are now unrestricted rookie free agents.

In many cities the unrestricted rookie free agent class is little more than a side note, perhaps relegated to the back corner of a traditional newspaper under a heading of “Transactions.”
  • Steelers Nation has come to know better when it comes to unrestricted rookie free agents.
In 2001 it there was an unsung nose tackle from BYU named Chris Hoke. A year later there was another one from Kent State who declined a call from Oakland because he didn’t like to fly on planes. His name was James Harrison. Two years later the Steelers picked up an running back who rode the bench at North Carolina State on the advice of Dan Rooney Jr. They called him fast Willie Parker. In 2010 it was Steve McLendon.

The Steelers Nation's best hopes for another Lombardi during Ben Roethlisberger's time do lie with Ryan Shaizer, Stephon Tuitt and the rest of the Steelers 2014 draft class, but success unrestricted rookie Free Agents have been Kevin Colbert’s secret weapon during his time with the Steelers.

Here's a look at the 9 undrafted rookie free agents the Steelers have signed thus far:

Chris Elkins, offensive line from Youngstown State, 6’4” 300 lbs
Ethan Hemer, defensive end  from Wisconsin University, 6’6” 285 lbs
Kaycee Ike, offensive tackle from  the University of Alabama, 6’5” 293 lbs
Howard Jones, linebacker from Shepherd College, 6’4” 238 lbs
Brendon Kay, quarterback from the University of Cincinnati, quarterback, 6’4” 228 lbs
Josh Mauro, defensive end from Stanford University, 6’6” 282
Roy Philon, defensive tackle from University of Lousiville, 6’3” 291
Will Simmons, guard from East Carolina, 6’5” 342 lbs
Eric Waters, tight end from Missouri, 6’5” 245 lbs

The Steelers will also reportedly give unrestricted rookie free agent  Devon Carrington who is a safety from Stanford a try out during rookie mini-camp.
  • Of this unrestricted rookie free agent group, Jones, Mauro, Hemer and Waters are seen has having the greatest potential, in the eyes of ESPN’s Scott Brown
Time will tell. Since the days of Chuck Noll the Steelers have been dedicated to giving unrestricted rookie free agents a fair shot, and for proof, look no further than to the multiple Super Bowl rings Donnie Shell, Willie Parker and James Harrison wear -- to name just a few.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

3 Words Define Steelers 2014 Draft: Speed, Size, and Surprise

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Draft is now into the history books. What can we say about how well the Steelers did or didn’t draft?
  • In a word, not much.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. gave them an A-. Mark Kabloy says B. CBS Sports marks the Steelers draft with B+. All of which means nothing. Football’s Future and Sports Illustrated instant the Steelers 2008 draft similar high marks, and 2008 was the Steelers worst draft since the 1980’s.
  • Real evaluations of the Steelers 2014 Draft begin this summer at St. Vincents, and will continue for several years.
But that doesn’t mean we know nothing about the Steelers 2014 Draft. Far from it, in fact Steelers Nation need not wait years to know what will define the Steelers 2014 draft – Speed, Size, and Surprise.

Colbert and Tomlin Stick to Their Playbook

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin devised their own draft plan and then told no one about. Everyone expected the Steelers to go for corners and wide outs early in the draft, if not early and often.
  • Colbert and Tomlin had other plans, which surprised almost everyone, although it shouldn’t.
In one way, we can already say the Steelers 2014 Draft is similar to their 2008 draft. The Steelers opened the ’08 off season with a stated need for offensive and defensive lineman. Mike Tomlin himself said so much himself. Yet lineman came off the board in droves, and Colbert and Tomlin refused to reach.
  • Something similar may have happened here.
Perhaps the Steelers had wanted to take a corner. Just because everyone said that corner was Darqueze Dennard doesn’t mean Tomlin and Colbert agreed. Regardless, it’s clear that the Steelers Brain Trust saw something in Ryan Shaizer that was special, and took him without hesitation. In fact, the Steelers made all of their picks quickly.
  • This follows in keeping with past observations that Colbert and Tomlin do not make personnel decisions out of fear.
Far from it. When asked about the corners they have, both Kevin Colbert and Carnell Lake talked about the players they had as much as Shaquille Richardson.

Of Size and Speed and the Steelers

One of the things that stuck out during the Seahawks Super Bowl win was how incredibly fast they were.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took note, taking the fastest linebacker in the draft in Shazier, and the fastest man in the draft in Dri Archer. Likewise, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is fast for his position, if tapes are any guide.
  • But the Steelers didn’t totally sell out on speed. 
In Dan McCullers they got the biggest man in the draft and Martavis Bryant gives Ben Roethlisberger a wide receiver that’s almost 6’4” – if he can make the team.

Steelers 2014 Draft Class at a Glance

Here's a snap shot of the Steelers 2014 Draft Class:

steelers 2014 draft class shazier tuitt archer bryant richardson

For those longing to delve into more detail, click on the player’s highlighted name for a brief profile and bio:
On paper this is an impressive group. But, as mentioned at the beginning, so-called experts outside of Pittsburgh said the same thing about the Steelers 2008 draft class.

Some of these men will fail. That’s the simple reality of it.
  • But now is not the time to harp on that, nor should it be.
For 99.5% of the people that play football in some form or fashion, playing in the NFL is and always will be a dream. But with a simple phone call, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gave each of these men a shot at transforming this dream into a reality.

As we welcome the Steeles 2014 draft class to Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation, it is our sincere wish that as many of them succeed as possible.

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Steelers Surprise (Again) in 3rd Round, Picking Dri Archer, Running Back Kent State

Day two of the 2014 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers stick true to the script, first in selecting defensive end Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame in the second round, followed another big deviation in the selection of running back Dri Archer of Kent State.
  • Of the two picks, Archer was by far the most surprising. 
Going into the draft, Steel Curtain Rising rated running back as a position of moderate need for the Steelers, due to the presence of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, and the expectation was that they would take one, but most likely on day three.

However, as they've done through the draft, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin kept their own counsel. Archer is a speed demon, clocking in at 4.26 in the 40 yard dash, and in that respect he is quite similar to Chris Rainey, the Miami running back the Steelers took in the 5th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, only to cut Rainey after his rookie year due to off the field issues.

Here´s a quick video recap of Archer´s time at Kent State:

As you can see, Archer does not lack for speed, but he is small, weighing in at 175 pounds. 40 years ago the Steelers once drafted an undersized player from Kent State who grew into a legend. His name is Jack Lambert. Kent State also supplied another unhearlded rookie free agent in the form of James Harrison.

Archer has got big foot steps to fill. Welcome to Steelers Nation Dri Archer.

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Steelers Open Day 3 of Draft Grabbing Matavis Bryant, Wide Receiver of Clemson

It took 2 days and three rounds, but Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided to begin day 3 of the 2014 NFL Draft by picking the positions that the pundits expected would dominate Pittsburgh’s picks.

In the fourth round of the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Clemson wide out Matavis Bryant, who is a junior. At 6’3” Bryant might not exactly fit the bill as a tall wide receiver that Ben Roethlisberger is said to long for, but he certainly gives him a bigger target than Antonio Brown or Lance Moore.

In 2013 Bryant had 43 receptions for 828 yards and caught 7 touchdowns. While the Steelers have little proven depth at wide receiver beyond Brown and Moore, he will compete with Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Brown for a roster spot, and if he’s lucky, playing time.

Here’s a brief snap shot of Byrant’s career at Clemson via the magic of You Tube:

As you an see, Matavis Bryant showed good ball skills and an ability to gain separation vs. defensive backs while in the ACC. Now he faces a bigger challenge of doing it in the NFL.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Matavis Bryant.

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Steelers Finally Draft a Cornerback, Shaquille Richardson, in the 5th Round

Well, it came 142 picks after it was expected, but the Pittsburgh Steelers finally did grab a cornerback in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson.

Both national NFL Draft experts and the local Pittsburgh media had widely expected the Steelers to take a cornerback no later than the second round, with many projecting them to take one first. Kevin Colbert threw a little cold water on such speculation after the Steelers took Ryan Shazier in the 1st round, saying the Steelers liked the people they had at corner.

In 2014 Richardson recorded 53 tackles and made three interceptions for Arizona and as his You Tube video highlight reel shows, he’s got excellent ball skills. His time in the 40 clocked in at 4.52 seconds, which while not slow is slower that Ryan Shaziers’.

Richardson joins a Steelers secondary which is in the process of renewing itself, with Ryan Clark departed in favor of Michael Mitchell, and Ike Taylor facing the possibity of having to fight William Gay or Cortez Allen for a starting job.

Still, neither playing time nor a roster spot is assured for Richardson, especially when one considers that Shamarko Thomas is reportedly capable of covering receivers in the slot.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Shaquille Richardson.

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Steelers Use 5th Round Compensatory Pick on Wesley Johnson

It is said that Day 3 of the NFL Draft is the time when teams look to build depth, and that appears to be exactly the goal the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they used their second 5th round pick to take Vanderbuilt Center Wesley Johnson.

It had been speculated going into the draft that the Steelers might be interested in either dealing Maurkice Pouncey and/or seeking to find his replacement, as Pouncey is headed for unrestricted free agency and could carry a contract value that the Steelers won’t be able to meet.
  • If the Steelers are worried about resigning Pouncey, that has not been reflected in this draft, as teams do not look to 5th round compensatory picks to replace 3 time Pro Bowl Centers.
Here are some “highlights” from Johnson’s time at Vanderbuilt:

As you can see, late round offensive lineman’s promotional YouTube videos don’t get made with quite the same care as others…

Earlier this off season the Steelers resigned Cody Wallace, who was their third starting center after Pouncey and Fernando Velasco were both lost to season-ending injuries.
  • The decision to resign Wallace, coupled with drafting Wesley Johnson likely signals that the Steelers will not resign Velasco.
However, Wallace was given a veteran minimum deal, and will have to fight for a roster spot. So too will Johnson.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Wesley Johnson.

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Steelers Take Jordan Zumwalt in 6th Round, Outside Linebacker from UCLA

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, Steel Curtain Rising rated outside linebacker as the Steelers 4th most important position of need. The decision to pick Ryan Shazier could have signaled a desire to address that need, but Kevin Colbert immediately announced that Shaizier would play on the inside.
  • In the 6th round, however, the Steelers did take UCLA’s outside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt. 
Here’s a brief look at Zumwalt’s careeer highlights via YouTube:

(One has to wonder who prepares these things some times. The first 30 seconds show Zumwalt hot dogging and celebrating, and then tagging a fallen quarterback to record a sack, its not until the video approaches a full minute that he starts making plays.)

Zumwalt comes to one of the thinner areas on the Steelers depth chart, where Arthur Moats and Chris Carter are the only experienced backups – provided the Steelers do not bring back James Harrison for a final year, as was rumored earlier in the off season.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jordan Zumwalt.

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Steelers Draft Defensive Tackle Dan McCullers with 6th Round Pick

The Pittsburgh Steelers used their second sixth round pick to build (potential) depth at one of the thinnest spots on their roster when they selected defensive tackle Dan McCullers of Tennessee. It is not known immediately where the Steelers will use McCullers, but his 6’6” and 352 pound frame would seem to suggest that he’d be a nose tackle.
  • Per ESPN, McCullers recorded 33 tackles and a half sack for the Volunteers in 2013. 
It would see that if Emmanuel Kant had lived in 2014, his phislsophical peral of wisdom would be “I have a YouTube video highlight package therefore I am,” and in that light McCullers certainly qualifies:

McCullers joins a position area which in the space of a few years has gone to being one of the Steelers oldest to one of the youngest. The average age of the Steelers defensive line in the Debacle vs. Baltimore on opening day 2011 was 34, with Brett Keisel as the youngster at age 33.

Now Steve McLendon is the oldest starter, who will turn 28 this year. McCullers is not assured a roster spot, and will have to compete with Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Dan McCullers.

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Steelers Close 2014 NFL Draft Taking UMASS' Tight End Rob Branchflower

There were more than a few rumors that had the Steelersbeginning their draft by selecting tight end Eric Ebron. Whether those were true or simply off the mark punditry like so much else, the Steelers never got their chance, as Ebron was taken well before the Steelers got a shot at Ebron when the Detroit Lions took him.

But if the Steelers didn’t begin the 2014 NFL Draft taking a tight end, they ended it by taking one, when they took Umass’ Rob Blanchflower in the 7th round.

While Branchflower only had 27 catches for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2013, that was enough to get him a YouTube highlight video:

If nothing else, Branchflower does seem to know what to do when the unexpected occurs.

The top of the Steelers depth chart at tight end does appear to be is settled with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, but Branchflower will most certainly be given a shot at unseating third tight end David Paulson, who is over performed expectations during his rookie year in 2012 and under performed in 2013.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Mr. Branchflower.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt Falls to Steelers in Second Round

Never let it be said that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let the press or public opinion influence their personnel decisions. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft the unquestioned conventional wisdom was that the Steelers first two picks would be cornerback-wide receiver or wide receiver-cornerback, depending on availability.
  • I guess we know what that says about the quality of sources that the Pro Football writers of Pittsburgh have inside the Steelers draft room.
Less than 24 hours after bucking everything the punditry had been saying for months when they picked OSU’s Ryan Shazier, the Steelers did it again by selection Notre Dame’s defensive end Stephon Tuitt.

In his predraft breakdown of Tuitt, Behind the Steel Curtain’s Neal Coolong observed this:
If Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt played at the same position for an entire game, it'd seem like the first time. He possesses the quickness to play on the edge yet the size and power to attack from the interior, making him one of the most versatile down linemen available in this draft.
He's a first round pick, and could be a target of the Steelers, selecting 15th overall.
Tuitt stands out as a prospect because of his size, power and agility, but he's a refined rusher for his age and experience.
Tuitt was indeed viewed early on as a first round prospect, and several early mock drafts did in fact have him going to the Steelers. However a foot injury discovered at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis dropped his value, and he fell to the Steelers in the second.

Based on video highlights of Tuitt available on You Tube, it is easy to see why commentators such as Coolong rated him so highly.

Tuitt will join a defensive line that, like much of the rest of the unit, has seen an extreme make over since 2011.

The “old men” are now nose tackle Steve McLendon is the only player who was with the 2010 Steelers AFC Championship team, and Cameron Heyward who was a rookie in 2011. The Steelers also signed Cam Thomas during free agency to replace the departed Al Woods.

In drafting Tuitt in the second round, the Steelers brain trust may have bucked the critics, but in picking a defensive lineman, they did address what Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers Draft Need Matrix pegged as their greatest area of need.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Stephon Tuitt.

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Stephon Tuitt Fights Steelers 2nd Round DL History, Fighting Irish Pedigree in Pittsburgh...

While picking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, helps the Pittsburgh Steelers plug what was a glaring hole at defensive line, Tuitt’s arrival doesn’t so much signal the filling of a void, but rather a fight against precedent on both a symbolic an real level.

Mitchell to Make Changes?

One of the reasons why no one expected the Steelers to draft a defensive lineman early comes down to simple math.
  • Rookies do not start for Johnny Mitchell.
Yours truly plans to write about this in depth for Behind the Steel Curtain soon, but the only rookie to get any significant starting time since Johnny Mitchell’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 1994 was Casey Hampton. Mithcell’s M.O. is to take players strip them of all of the habits and technique that they’ve learned in college, and start from zero.
  • The problem is, the Steelers situation at defensive line might not allow them the luxry of a 2-3 year apprenticeship that Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward enjoyed.
One option that would give the Steelers some leeway would be to bring Brett Kesiel back for a final year, although that would do little to help Tuitt overcome some of the history he’s facing....

Tuitt vs. Steelers Second Round History on Defensive line Picks

The last time the Steelers took a defensive lineman in the second round of the draft it was when Tom Donahoe traded up to pick Jeremy Staat in 1998. Staat became known for his battle against dsyleixa and exotic hairstyles, but started two games in 3 years for the Steelers.

They had slightly better luck with 1994’s second round pick Brentson Buckner, who started five games as an injury replacement for Gerald Williams. While Buckner played well as a rookie, he lacked the commitment a focus necessary to be a starter, something which he admitted later in his career.
  • The Steelers also took Kenny Davidson in the second round of the 1990 draft, who was decidedly average in his two seasons as a starter.
To find an unqualified second round defensive line success you have to go back to Gerald Williams, taken in 1986. Williams was no stud, but he was a solid nose tackle for six years, before Joel Steed’s arrival allowed him to move to defensive end in 1993.

Tuitt vs. History of Fighting Irish in Pittsburgh

Notre Dame might be one of the most storied college football programs in history, but the Steelers have not had much luck drafting players from the Fighting Irish of late (“late” = since the late 1980’s or so.)

The last player the Steelers drafted from Notre Dame was wide receiver Malcolm Johnson whom they picked in the 6th round of the 1999 draft. Johnson played in two games as a rookie, catching two passes for 26 yards. He opened the Steelers 2000 1st preseason game, but got cut during the season, only playing in 4 games.
  • In 1991 the Steelers drafted Andre Johnson in the 6th round and Johnson who fittingly played 6 games and then was done.
With Mike Webster aging, the Steelers thought so much Notre Dame center Chuck Lanza that they drafted him in the third round of the 1988 draft. Of course they drafted Dermontti Dawson as a guard a round ahead of him, and Dawson became Webster’s heir.

However, Lanza stuck with the team and has the ignominious distinction of authoring the errant snap to Bubby Brister, which ended the 1989 Steelers shot at upsetting the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisonal Playoffs at Mile High.
  • Going even further back and into even more ominous history Willie Fry was a defensive end drafted out of Notre Dame 1978 who failed to make the team…
…However, the most recent Notre Dame defensive lineman drafted by the Steelers came in 1995 when they took the Fighting Irish’s Oliver Gibson in the 4th round of the 1995 draft. Gibson was a nose tackle who saw plenty of time at end, including as a rookie, where he played in 12 games.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Breaking Down Steelers 1st Round Pick Ryan Shazier

“We’re going to draft the best available athlete, regardless of need.” – Any NFL General Manager, prior to the draft.

Every NFL general manager always makes some variation of the above statement going into each draft. This time Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin said it and they meant it. The Pittsburgh Steelers  entered the 2014 NFL Draft facing critical needs at defensive line, cornerback, and wide receiver.
  • The consensus opinion was that the Steelers would take Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard were he available.
It was almost seen as a slam dunk that it would be Dennard or Kyle Fuller, another corner out of Virginia Tech and if not one of those two, then a wide receiver. Both were available as were wide outs. Instead the Steelers brain trust took Ohio State’s outside linebacker Ryan Shazier.

Which at first blush, appeared that the Steelers were covering themselves at outside linebacker in anticipation of being unable to reach a long-term deal with Jason Worilds and/or taking out an insurance policy against Jarvis Jones development.
  • Then the news came that the Steelers plan to move Shazier to the inside.
Colbert and Tomlin really meant it when they said they would not draft for need.

While the Steelers certainly had issues, particularly glaring ones early on, at inside linebacker, the same can be said at corner, defensive line, and to a lesser extent at wide out. But at least at inside linebacker, the Steelers have bodies, in the form of Sean Spence, Terence Garvin and Vince Williams, who struggled mightily but then improved.
  • But quantity is one thing, quality is another.
All the bodies in the world do not make up for one playmaker. And Shazier’s tape at Ohio State shows a player with over 150 tackles, a phenomenal vertical leap, and sub 4.4 speed in the 40. Here’s what his YouTube video package looks like:

Statistical rankings aside, the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers defense fielded a dominant unit was in 2010. One of the most undrrated players on that team was Lawrence Timmons, who didn’t have the sack totals of James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley, nor the interceptions of Troy Polamalu.
  • But Timmons gave that unit something that it badly needed, a force who could play in the middle of the field in coverage and in run support.
Timmons was all over the field, particularly in the early part of the season, quietly making play after play. And while the Steelers do need to improve their pass rush up front and coverage down field, for much of the last two seasons Troy Polamalu and/or Ryan Clark has had to play up front in the box, to compensate for other weaknesses.
  • On paper, Ryan Shazier’s speed and explosiveness should give them that edge in the middle that the Steelers have lacked since James Farrior retired. 
As has been said before, Steel Curtain Rising takes full ownership to being the antithesis of a draft nick. But if Ryan Shazier truly has what it takes to be special, then the Steelers were wise to take him at the expense of filling immediate needs.

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Special Thanks to The "Defeo Man"

The NFL Draft is the ground zero of the league's ever-expanding "off season." While that fact is obvious, it is a boon for those who are in the blogging business (or just blogging for the fun of it.) Traffic spikes during draft time to levels not seen outside of the playoffs....

  • Fate would have it the the 2014 NFL Draft saw me with a family issue which needed my attention, and would keep me from writing.

...And there's nothing that says "irrelevant" about a blog then a major event which goes uncovered.

This might not always have been the case, but in the age of the 24/7 non-stop coverage, the faithful of Steelers Nation what news, commentary and analysis on the Black and Gold, they want it now, and if you don't have it they'll quickly forget you. Travel and family reasons kept me from writing before and and during Super Bowl XLV and, honestly, traffic took a deep hit as a result, and never fully recovered.

Tony is an accomplished writer in his own right, and someone who is my age and has shared memories, and in may ways seems to have lived the type of life I would have lived had my folks never left Pittsburgh.

Tony does occasional writing here. You can read his work on The Steelers Super Bowl XL run here.

So thanks again to the "Defeo Man" as his Twitter ID reads. Once again Steel Curtain Rising is in your debt.

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Steelers select OLB Ryan Shazier from Ohio State with 15th pick of 2014 NFL Draft

In a bit of a surprise to a lot of people who expected them to go either corner or wide receiver, the Steelers selected outside linebacker Ryan Shazier out of Ohio State with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft on Thursday.

Officially listed at 6'1" and 237 lbs on his NFL.com draft profile page, Shazier wowed folks at the NFL Combine in February when he led all draft prospects with a 42 inch vertical jump and ran a 4.36 in his forty yard dash at his Pro Day in March.

Even though Shazier is listed as an outside linebacker, according to more than one draft profile, he has the versatility to play both inside and outside, and will probably move inside with Pittsburgh.

Said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin of Shazier: "Quite frankly, the young man's got no holes."

With the departure of long-time veteran Larry Foote in March, and with the uncertainty still surrounding inside linebacker Sean Spence, the Steelers third round pick in 2012 who suffered a career threatening knee injury in the final preseason game of his rookie year, Pittsburgh will likely turn to Shazier to fill the void originally left when James Farrior departed following the 2011 season.

As per his wikipedia page, Shazier was a first team All-American in 2013, while racking up 102 solo tackles (including 23.5 for loss) and seven quarterback sacks for the Buckeyes of the Big Ten Conference.

This makes the second season in a row that the Steelers went defense and linebacker in the first round; in 2013, Pittsburgh selected outside linebacker Jarvis Jones with the 17th pick of Round 1.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Need Matrix

After a long way, the 2014 NFL Draft has finally arrived. After the NFL Scouting combine, on-site visits, personal interviews, pro days, 40 yard dashes, agent rumors and thousands upon thousands of hours of tape, the time has finally come to pick players.

The next big question is who will the Pittsburgh Steelers pick? The answer here is “I don’t know,” which as about as truthful as anyone inside or outside the South Side can say. You never know what will happen.

The big question after this, is who should the Pittsburgh Steelers pick? On that front any number of names are in play including (but certainly not limited to):
  • cornerback Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, 
  • cornerback Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech, 
  • wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, 
  • cornerback Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State,
  • offensive tackle Taylor Lewan or Michigan
Who will it be and who should it be? Now here’s an answer you’re not likely to find elsewhere:
  • I have no idea. None. Zero. Zip.
The last player I actively wanted the Steelers to draft was Heyward. That’s Iron Head Craig Heyward, and that was only because I saw some ESPN highlights of him smashing through defensive lines for Pitt. Even when I lived in the US I didn’t follow college football, and won’t try to offer an opnion.

What I can offer, however, is an opinion on what the Pittsburgh Steelers NEED to get out of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Summary of Steelers Needs

Over the past several weeks, Steel Curtain Rising has done its best to isolate the Steelers needs following the breakdown seen here.

In what is purely a numbers question, defensive line is the Steelers greatest need, narrowly trumping that of cornerback, which edges out wide receiver on quantity but perhaps not quality. These are indisputably the Steelers top three needs.

Next comes outside linebacker – this would be lower if Jason Worilds status was secure, but its not and even if it was there’s no depth there. Following outside linebacker you have offensive tackle, simply because of contracts and questions about Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams.

Needs at center, again with an eye towards Maurkice Pouncey’s impending free agency, comes out ahead of running back. Taken by itself, guard can be considered  moderate low need, below inside linebacker.

After that, you have tight end and safety, both of which are moderate low, and quarterback, which is low.

Pittsburgh Steelers Annual Draft Need Matrix

None of this should suggest the Steelers should draft based on need. When you draft on need, Troy Edwards happens. No, the Steelers draft-need matrix is only intended to guide situations where several players grade out equally.

Stated simply, the Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Need Matrix breaks down on 4 tiers:
Who knows how all of this plays out? They key, as always, is for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to bring in good football players, as they did during 2007 and 2010 NFL Drafts (and 2009).

While the players taken in this week might only have a marginal impact on the field in 2014, they Steelers 2014 Draft Class could well determine whether the Steelers get a serious shot at another Lombardi with Ben Roethlisberger.

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