´ Steel Curtain Rising: July 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

4 Less Frequently Ask Questions @ Steelers Training Camp

As the Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2014 training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, PA, Steel Curtain Rising took the chance to review 5 Key Challenges facing the team.

While the roster battles and player development at inside linebacker, defensive end, offensive line, safety, and wide receiver are among the most critical issues the team must address, they are not the only ones.

There are other, “Less Frequently Asked” questions the Steelers must also answer.

What About Depth at Running Back?

The Steelers seem to have set themselves up for an effective 1-2 punch at running back with Le'Veon Bell coming into his own late last year, and the acquisition of LeGarrette Blount as a free agent in the off season.
  • After that, however, the depth chart remains sparse.
Johnathan Dwyer is in Pittsburgh West, and Felix Jones remains unsigned (and should stay that way.) Early in the off season some speculated that LaRod Stephens-Howling, injured (who wasn’t?) in last year’s opener, might be back, but that move has not materialized.

Pittsburgh also selected Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he is listed as an WR/RB and his number assignment of 13 suggests where he’ll play most.

Outside of Archer, the Steelers have rookie Jordan Hall and journeymen Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole. They also have Alvester Alexander on the PUP list, who spent 2013 on the practice squad.
  • None of these names is likely to inspire fear in the hearts of opposing AFC North defensive coordinators.
During the off season, yours truly made a plea for bringing back Isaac Redman on a no bonus (as in no risk) veteran minimum contract. Steelers Nation resisted the idea of Isaac Redman's return and likely was never considered on the South Side.

Even if Bell and Blount stay healthy all year, the Steelers need someone to establish himself as the up and comer.

Can Jarvis Jones Make the Second Year Leap?

NFL coaches are fond of saying that players typically make their biggest leap from years 1 and 2 in the NFL. Experience has shown that to be true. Aaron Smith appeared in just 6 games as a rookie and came out of nowhere to put a decade-long strange hold on the starting job.

Jarvis Jones impressed coaches enough during the 2013 preseason to win the week 1 starting job,  but outside of an impressive tackle in the backfield, he struggled and ultimately gave up his starting job.

The Steelers let LaMarr Woodley go in off season in part because of injury and salary cap concerns, but also because they expected Jones to step up.
  • Jarvis Jones must make that leap.
This is not a question of something fans want, it something the coaches need to have happen.

Speaking of the Jones Keeping Up….

Jarvis wasn’t the only Jones whom the Steelers drafted in 2013. They also expended a 4th round pick on quarterback Landry Jones, thus ending the Charlie Batch’s days as a backup. Jones then struggled in training camp and in preseason.
  • The Steelers of course did not draft Jones to play, in either 2013 and God willing not in 2014.
But they clearly thought enough of him to bring him along as a backup. Bruce Gradkowski is only signed through the end of this season, and it is likely the Steelers had Jones in mind as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in 2015 when they made the decision.

The Steelers took a lot of flak for investing a fourth round pick in Jones, and Jones must begin vindicating their decision and that must begin now.

How Will the Pecking Order at Cornerback Evolve?

This is one of the most interesting non-conversations in Steelers Nation, by far. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to pick a cornerback in the first round. The only question it seemed, was who.
The justification for the apparent certainty was the fact that 2013 made it clear that Ike Taylor could not outrace Father Time indefinitely. And that’s led to another question that has been all but ignored.
  • Will Ike Taylor start at corner?
Kevin Colbert was asked about this during an off season interview, and refused to commit to Taylor as the starter, but in and of itself isn’t terribly important, as those decisions are made by Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, and Carnell Lake.

But that doesn’t mean that the Ike Taylor’s status as a starter should be a given.

Taylor agreed to take a pay cut and would likely take umbrage at having to compete for a starting job. The job should remain Taylor's to keep, but if Cortez Allen and William Gay prove themselves to be better, there is no reason to keep them on the bench.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Steelers Open Training Camp, Put Roethlisberger Extension on Hold

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 49th training camp on the campus of St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe and, aside for the usual fanfare, there was little real news. Nonetheless, a few morsels of interest did break.

steelers training camp st. vincents 2014 latrobe
Steelers Open 2014 Training Camp
Roethlisberger Extension on Hold

Steelers President Art Rooney II firmly stepped out an end all speculation on the status of Ben Roethlisberger’s contract extension negotiations, declaring that the team intends to resign Roethlisberger, but will wait until 2015 to complete a deal.
  • Rooney cited salary cap concerns as the team’s main motive.
With an expected spike in the salary cap coming in 2015, the move might make sense. And analysis by Behind the Steel Curtain shows that the Steelers really could not expect to get any real salary cap benefit by inking the extension now.
  • However, the move is not risk free.
Quarterbacks such as Tony Romo and Jay Cutler, to name two, who’ve accomplished far less than Roethlisberger has, have seen themselves get mega-deals. There are likely several more quarterback deals to be made between now and February or March of 2015, further inflating the price the Steelers will need to pay.

Still, while the Steelers have managed salary cap purgatory well, they’re by no means in a “good” situation yet as they’re still forced to carry dead money from LaMarr Woodley and Willie Colon’s contracts on this season’s leger.

In that light, it does make sense to seek smaller deals with players like Cortez Allen.

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Mike Mitchell on PUP; Kion Wilson Cut, Tolor Signed

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2014 off season by making a splash – a rare day one free agency signing in the form of Mike Mitchell, who started last year for Carolina. The move was ballyhooed as an immediate boost to the secondary and signaling the departure of Ryan Clark.
While this news is unfortunate, as it robs Mitchell time to learn Dick LeBeau’s system as well as bonding with Troy Polamalu, it could serve as a boon for Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas, who stand poised to benefit from the extra reps.

Wilson Cut, Toler Signed

Regardless of whether first round pick Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence or Vince Williams wins the starting slot at inside linebacker this year, one thing is certain – should the starter get injured on opening day or God forbid Lawrence Timmons should fall injured – Kion Wilson will not replace him as the Steelers waived Wilson as their first training camp transaction.

steelers ryan shazier training camp st. vincents
Ryan Shazier Signs Autographs
Last year that is exactly what happened when Larry Foote got injured.

Wilson’s tenure as a starter quickly gave way to Williams, who himself struggled, but at least Williams primary role was to play linebacker, whereas Wilson was on the active roster to play special teams. 

To take his place, the Steelers signed former Rutgers cornerback Lew Toler, who joined them for mini-camp in May.

Such bottom roster moves are normal for this time of year, and relflect the Steelers depth at inside linebacker, which figures to be a strength in 2014 in contrast to the glaring weakness it was in 2013.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

5 Key Challenges the Steelers Face as Training Camp Commences!

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 49th training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, the franchise’s best hope for reclaiming championship form after  back-to-back 8-8 seasons lies in its ability to transform weakness into strength.
  • Such clichés get thrown around too often, simply because they're true: achieving a strength-from-weakness transformations is the mark of a true competitor.
Poor drafting plagued the Steelers for 40 years, yet Chuck Noll turned that trend on its head and made the draft  the life-blood of 4 Super Bowl Championships. That took several seasons; the 2014 have only weeks to find out if they can pull off similar switches in 5 key areas:

Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?
Might Mitchell Modify His Methodical Ways?
Have the Steelers Increased their Safety Margin?
Can Muchak’s Tennessee Blue Turn into Titan Sized ROI on Offensive Line?
Will the Steelers Avoid a Brown Out @ Wide Out?

Inside Linebacker, from Famine to Feast?

Just how bare was the Steelers cupboard at inside linebacker in 2014?

Well, on opening day 2013 when Larry Foote left the field injured, he took with him his 119 starts and 479 tackles, and on walked Kion Wilson, he of 8 game appearances and 1 assisted tackle.
  • Worse yet, Wilson wasn’t even the preferred replacement.
That fell to Vince Williams, who struggled mightily during the early course of the season. Linebacking excellence has long been the backbone of Steelers defensive dominance; suddenly in 2013 linebacking was a liability.
  • The Steelers have a chance to affect a 180 degree shift.
By the end of 2013, Williams had improved (at least vs. the run) and Terence Garvin was working in on third downs. Add to that, Sean Spence’s recovery, and the Steelers depth chart is already much stronger.

Yet, the Steelers wasted no time in drafting Ryan Shazier in the 1st round and inserting him as the starter during OTA’s. Even those quick to caution against evaluating based on “football in shorts,” appeared to be awed by the athletic prowess displayed by Shazier’s during OTA’s.

The Steelers inside linebacking crops is laden with potential. But Lawrence Timmons, who at age 28, is already 7 year veteran, is the only proven performer. At St. Vincent’s it’s Keith Bulter’s task to tap production out of that potential.

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Might Mitchell Modify His Methodical Ways?

Immediately after the 2014 NFL Draft, Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell heaped uncharacteristic praise on a draft pick, labeling second round pick Stephon Tuitt a “Young Aaron Smith.” Such words are encouraging, but fans would do well to remember that Aaron Smith only appeared in 6 games as a rookie.

Few tears were spent on Ziggy Hood’s departure to Jacksonville, but he nonetheless leaves a void for the Steelers at defensive end. The Steelers have swapped Cameron Heyward over to Brett Keisel’s traditional slot, signaling that the Steelers clearly want Tuitt to win the starting job.

Nonetheless, history is against Tuitt.
  • In 20 years, Casey Hampton is the only rookie to start for Johnny Mitchell; in fact few others have even played.
Mitchell’s record in training talented defensive lineman speaks for itself; yet for the Steelers defensive line to take a step up, the old dog Mitchell might need to learn new tricks.

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Have the Steelers Increased their Safety Margin?

The decline of the Steelers’ defense wasn’t simply notable on the defensive line and among the linebackers. The secondary also slipped, too. After spending several seasons where he was arguably the league’s most underrated safety, Ryan Clark finally began slowing a step in 2013.

Age is also catching up with Troy Polamalu, although how much is an open question as he essentially played linebacker in 2013.
  • The Steelers have made two moves to address this issue.
First they traded up in 2013 to select Shamarko Thomas, with an eye towards grooming him to act as Polamalu’s replacement. Next they made a dramatic break from tradition by signing Michael Mitchell on the first day of free agency.

While that’s smart move, they key for the unit here is Thomas’ development. Polamalu played all 16 games last year, and so if his luck holds he’ll struggle with injuries this year. Sharmarko had better be ready to shine.

In 2013 the Steelers depth chart at safety was top heavy with age, and that as much as anything else resulted in long gain after long gain. On paper they’ve positioned themselves for success at safety. But the operative word is “on paper.”

The Steelers could just as easily field a safety squad that clumsily cobbles age together with inexperience, or they could finely calabrate veteran wisdom with youthful athleticism.  It’s up to Carnell Lake to ensure that they do the latter.

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Can Muchak’s Tennessee Blue Turn into a Titan Sized ROI on Offensive Line?

As a rookie, Mike Munchak had  the honor of blocking of Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Later he’d square off against David Little and Bryan Hinkle, and then against Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, while continuing to coach against Chad Brown, Joey Porter, and James Harrison.
And that’s fitting, because Munchack was on the opposing sideline on opening day 2013 when the Steelers number 3 tight end, (who was also the number two tackle and number two guard) had to step in and replace the number 1 center, thus manning the position for the first time in his NFL life.

Yes, the Steelers  offensive line has been the subject of turmoil during the Mike Tomlin era, as the Steelers have played plug and patch, while signing lineman to contracts only to cut them a few years later.

To its credit, management has made a commitment to ending this process via the draft, but Steelers Nation has yet to see a solid return on investment.
  • Yes, the team’s bad luck with offensive line injuries has been Kafkaesque.
  • Yes, the line has “actually done well when you factor in….”
  • Yes, Ben Roethlisberger holds on to the ball too long.
Yet excuses be damned: consistency  has eluded the Steelers offensive line. Munchak’s job is to change that, and it starts right after the run test.

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Will the Steelers Avoid a Brown Out @ Wide Out?

Unlike the first four position areas mentioned, wide receiver was not a weakness for the Steelers in 2013 as Antonio Brown established himself as an elite receiver, Jerricho Cotchery became a touchdown scoring machine, and Emmanuel Sanders had his healthiest and most consistent year.
The Steelers responded by bringing Lance Moore in from New Orleans, but outside of Moore, the Steelers’ depth chart at wide out is almost as thin on paper in 2014 as the inside linebackers were in 2013.


The Steelers do have players waiting in the wings in the form of Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown, and Derek Moye. They also have Darrius Heyward-Bey and they drafted Martavis Bryant.
  • The issue is that one of them needs to step up, and the Steelers need him to do it decisively. 
The Steelers plan is to for Wheaton to take that step, but Justin Brown impressed during Football in Shorts (aks OTA’s). Moye also flashed, some, in 2013. Now is their time to shine.
Steeler’s wide receivers coach Richard Manning is a consummate pro who has been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, old Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens. Now he must ensure that someone rises from the pack.

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A lot more will go on at training camp – unexpected position battles will emerge, unwanted injuries will strike, and rookies will both shine and disappoint. But the answers the Steelers find to these five questions will go a long way to defining 2014.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fernando Velasco Signs with Carolina Panthers

Behind the Steel Curtain editor Neal Coolong couldn't have put it better:  "The safety blanket has been removed."

That coupled with the headline "Steelers free agent signs with another team" coming less than 24 hours before the Steelers arrive at St. Vincent's in Latrobe for training camp could cover a number of players, from Brett Keisel to James Harrison to wild cards such as Plaxico Burress and and even LaRod Stephens-Howling.
  • No, this one involves someone with far less history with the team (well, he has more that LaRod Stephens-Howling, but how doesn't?)
No, this latest defection involves Fernando Velasco signing with the Carolina Panthers, a player who in less than a full season of starts, managed to develop something of a cult following in Steelers Nation.

Last year when David DeCastro was taking out Maurkice Pouncey's ACL 8 plays into the season opener vs. Tennessee, Fernando Velasco was sitting in a church in Nashville. A week later he was starting for the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Although the Steelers lost that night, and the next two nights, the play of the offensive line steadily improved, and the Steelers eventually started winning.
  • Unfortunately for Velasco, his ride on that train ended vs. the Ravens on Thanksgiving, when he tore his Acillies late in the season.
Cody Wallace did a respectable job in snapping the ball to Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers opted to resign Wallace instead of the recovering Velasco. Any thoughts that the Steelers might still opt for the Velasco-Wallace combo at center ended when the Steelers renewed Pouncey's contract in early June.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Foote Surprised He Got Boot from Steelers

On of the first moves the Pittsburgh Steelers made to open their 2014 off season was to wave veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote. And by Foote’s own account, the caught him by surprise.

Speaking on Pittsburgh sports radio station 93.7 “The Fan” Foote recounted:
My agent met with (the Steelers) down at the Combine in Indianapolis. The talk was that we couldn’t get lined up, we lost a few games early on because we couldn’t even get lined up.
Based on that conversation, Foote assumed he would be spending 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania instead of Pittsburgh West aka at the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers gave Foote the boot, clearly having made other plans.

The move itself is not surprising. While the Steelers did struggle with Vince Williams starting, Williams improved, and could certainly be expected to deliver more value for the salary cap dollar than 34 year old Foote.

Insight into How the Steelers Function?

The main function of stories like these is to tide Steelers Nation’s voracious appetite for news until training camp starts. This one might, however, offer some insight into how the Steelers do business.
  • Before proceeding, it’s important to acknowledge that Steel Curtain Rising has no inside information here.
It’s impossible to understand the meaning of Foote’s story without knowing the context of the conversation. What’s most likely is that Foote struck up a causal conversation with a Steelers coach or scout, who said something like “How’s Larry doing? You know, we missed him dearly last year. We couldn’t even get lined up right for the first half of the year….”

It’s also possible the Steelers arrived at Indianapolis intending to bring Foote back but saw enough of the available inside linebackers to make the veteran expendable.

But there’s also a chance that the conversation reveals a split between Steelers scouts and coaches over whether to bring him back or not. Such disagreements are common.
At the end of the day, Steelers Nation will never know and even if there was disagreement, it is healthy for coaches and front offices to have differing opinions.

Regardless, despite subtracting Foote and his 12 years of experience, the Steelers nonetheless have to potential to see inside linebacker swing from one of the thinnest to one of the deepest units on the team in years.

Lawrence Timmons will return to start, and 1st round pick Ryan Shazier is already projected as a fellow starter. Sean Spence recovery has progressed far enough to give him a serious shot at a roster spot, and the there’s incumbent starter Vince Williams. Free agent Arthur Moats can also play on the inside, and of course there’s Kion Wilson, the man who took the field when Foote got hurt vs. Tennessee.

That’s all on paper of course. Things will start sorting themselves out for real on the fields at St. Vincent’s very, very soon.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Watch Tower: Pouncey's Victims of Gold Digging Attempt; Brett Keisel Story Takes a Twist

Social media is a double edged sword for sports fans and sports journalists. On the plus side fans are no longer dependent on the whims and agenda’s of network, PR offices, and newspaper editors. On the negative side, every Tom, Dick and Harry has his (or her) chance of taking a stab at 15 minutes of fame.
Early Saturday afternoon word got out that the Pouncey’s were in the news for the wrong reasons again (OK, that was this site’s head line.) A man and a woman, whose instagram video and photos made it clear had been assaulted, claimed it had been the Pouncey’s. Behind the Steel Curtain published a story about it, but wisely stuck close to the facts, which were thin.
  • No other major outlet ran the story on Saturday, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review did a short summary the following day. The Post-Gazette remained silent, as did ESPN.
On Monday, Mark Kabloy of the Tribune Review informed readers that the Pouncey’s were not named in the initial police report and did not seem to be suspects. Today a staff report on the Trib reveals that the police have not even talked to the accusers.

By Tuesday the news surfaced that the individuals in question were suing the Pouncey’s. This prompted Dale Lolley to call them out as gold diggers (although he did not use expression itself) and there it appears the story will and should die.

Quick Kesiel Update

As Steelers training camp approaches, the BIG question is will the Steelers resign Brett Keisel. Steel Curtain Rising has invested a lot in the debate on Keisel's return and the Watch Tower has delved into the coverage.
  • And the only thing that is clear is that no one can agree on what the Steelers plans are.
Jim Wexell took to Twitter to answer a question from fans, sharing this:
Further on in the exchange, he doubled down:
Dale Lolley casts the story very, very differently. Talking about the Steelers additional personnel priorities, Lolley offers this:
No. 1 on that list would be defensive end Brett Keisel. Make no mistake about this. IF the Steelers bring Keisel back, it would not be to start. In fact, he would be, at best, a 10-snap-per-game player as a situational pass rusher.
This is truly an amazing story. Other writers, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, a reporter whose sources guide him to the story, have insisted that the Steelers will not bring Keisel back.

Lolley does add one interesting twist to the story, however. Keisel’s locker on the South Side has not been cleaned out. That would seem to imply that at least Keisel is planning on returning.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Immaculate Reception Untouchable as Steelers Greatest Play; Harrison's Pick Six Strong Second

This year ESPN is filling the void before training camp by polling fan bases on the greatest play in their respective franchise history. As Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, for Steelers Nation there is no debate.
  • The Immaculate Reception simultaneously ended 40 years of losing and was the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
Everything else takes second place – including games that end in presentation of the Lombardi.

But that leaves a lot of doubt about choices 2-4. The truth is, ESPN’s poll is a little too slanted towards the contemporary period. Unlike the Patriots, Ravens, and Seahawks, the Steelers have won Super Bowls in years that begin with “19.” For the record, the three choices on ESPN and BTSC’s poll are ‘Tone’s Toe Tap in Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison’s 100 yard pick six in the same game, and Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle in the ’05 AFC Division playoff game.
  • All worthy plays certainly.
But there are other plays that merit consideration, even if one limits selection to Super Bowls. Here are only a few:
If you expand the list to the playoff games, Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the 2008 AFC Championship Game must be included, not only for how it incredible it was, not because it came at a crucial moment in the game, but because it slammed the door shut on another AFC Championship home loss.

A similar, sentimental nod, can be given to Randy Fulller’s pass defense at the end of the 1995 AFC Championship game.

All of these are worthy candidates. Each involved players putting them into position to harness their talents in exactly the moments their team needed them to.
  • But in the final analysis, the Steelers second greatest play must go to James Harrison.
Harrison gets his pick six brought the total package –
  • It was an unscripted play born out of tireless preparation
  • It involved tremendous athleticism
  • It came at a critical time
Thanks to end game drama on the part of Larry Fitzgerald, Big Ben and ‘Tone, the impact of Harrion’s interception is largely forgotten. It shouldn’t. Arizona was about to score. Sliverback’s pick prevented 3 if not 7 points from going on the board, and added 7 more amounting to a 10 or 14 point swing in a game decided by 4.

Franco Harris’ place in Steelers lore will forever be safe – men who hustle on every play enjoy such privileges – but James Harrison will be equally difficult to dislodge from his perch at number two.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Maurkice Pouncey in the News.... For the Wrong Reasons....

Beware the Ides of July 24th…. That maybe a stab over poetic, but it seems relevant in the case of Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins centers Maurkice Pouncey and identical twin brother Mike Pouncey.

Just a year ago the two men got their name in the papers for the wrong reasons for sporting “Free Hernandez” clothing while celebrating their birthday, Hernandez being former New England Patriots start Aaron Hernandez, who played with the Pouncey’s in college and is now facing multiple murder charges.
  • A year and another birthday party later, and both men are in the papers for the wrong reason again.
And this time it is for something more serious than appearing to support someone who is on trial for a capital offense. Behind the Steel Curtain is reporting, citing sources from social media, that the Pouncey’s are being accused of assaulting a man and a woman accompanying them at a Florida nightclub while celebrating their birthdays.
  • Per BTSC’s report, the accusers have filed reports with the police. 
Beyond that, there is little solid information circulating, because as of 3:10 Eastern on July 12th neither the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, nor the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, nor ESPN.com has any news on the subject.

At the very least, this an unwelcome distraction for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their newly minted 42 million dollar center Pouncey as the team is set to commence training camp in two week’s time on the campus of St. Vincient’s, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

September 7, 2014 Declared "Chuck Noll Day."


Back when the ’88 Steelers were sitting on a 1-6 record , Terry Bradshaw went on national TV to declare that the Steelers lacked talent, and that it was “Time to give Chuck Noll his day” and let him step aside in favor of a new coach….

The Blond Bomber’s suggestion came at the height of the Noll-Bradshaw feud; 26 years have passed since then, but legendary Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll is finally getting his day.
chuck noll terry bradshaw day feud
Noll, Bradshaw don't see eye to eye


Thanks to a joint resolution sponsored by Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey, Sunday September 7th 2014 will officially be declared “Chuck Noll Day.”

Chuck Noll, who passed away last month at age 82, would doubtlessly not approve. However, it is a fitting day to offer tribute to the Emperor, as it marks the Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 opener, when they will play the Cleveland Browns, who Noll played for as one of Paul Brown’s messenger guards.


…Bradshaw had plenty of company in calling for Noll’s head that week. When prompted to respond to his critics, Noll only replied, “Winning is the only response.”
Rodney Carter exploded for 105 yards on 11 runs, caught two passes including one touchdown, and even completed a pass. Louis Lipps got into the trickery with a 23 yard reverse. Merril Hoge didn’t start, but chalked up 94 yards just the same, and Rod Woodson had a 29 yard interception as the Steelers beat the Broncos 39-21.

Afterwards, Noll joked that he’d gotten the idea for the trick plays in a letter from a fan.
  • Noll was never one for introspection. 
Later that night it fell to ESPN’s Chris Berman for the serious analysis as he observed, “You back Chuck Noll into a corner? I want him on my side.”

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Cortez Allen at the Crossroad - Kevin Colbert's Choice

Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a cornerback in the third round.

His rookie year he mainly played special teams, but even then flashed greatness. Coaches and fans alike expected great things going into year two, yet the up and coming 3rd rounder failed to crack the starting lineup. Nonetheless, in his third year he did earn a starting slot, and even began shadowing opponents’ top receiver.
  • Inconsistency aside, the third rounder left the Steelers with a difficult choice.
Six years later, the Steelers took another corner in the third round. He little as a rookie year, sitting behind sixth rounder. He played more in his second year, but disappointed nonetheless. Many coaches wrote him off as a lost cause. Yet, in his third year, his play improve dramatically, leaving the Steelers with another difficult choice….

If you haven’t guessed it already, the two third round corners in question are none other than Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, and the choice they both left the Steelers was whether or not to commit long-term money based on a three year body of work.
  • The Steelers ponied up big money to lock Ike Taylor down long-term, prior to the 2006 season
And although he faltered in that campaign, earning himself a slot of Bill Cowher’s dog house, he bounced back with Mike Tomlin’s arrival and the organization hasn’t looked back since.
  • The Steelers declined to offer Keenan Lewis a long-term deal and allowed him to play out the final year of his rookie contract. Lewis blossomed into an good if not great NFL corner in his fourth year.
The Steelers, hamstrung in salary cap purgatory, were unable to make Lewis and offer, Lewis left, and Steelers Nation has suffered buyers remorse since.

All This Has Happened Before, and Will Again...

This experience is important, because Kevin Colbert is now faced with a very  similar situation with yet another inconsistent, yet up and coming corner in the form of Cortez Allen.

The Steelers drafted Cortez Allen out of the Citadel in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Unlike Taylor and Lewis, Cortez Allen saw playing time as a rookie, play a key role in the defensive effort that led to the Steelers Halloween upset of the New England Patriots.

Allen made a bull rush at Keenan Lewis for the starting job, but Lewis held him off. Allen’s name didn’t get mentioned much during the disappointing 2012 season, yet as the rest of the team was floundering, Allen flourished. Vs. the Bengals, Allen picked off two passes and forced a fumble, and vs. the Browns Allen forced two more fumbles.
  • In two games, Allen single handedly accounted for the lion’s share of the Steelers takeaways.
Even if that stat says a lot about the Steelers defense chronic inability to generate turnovers, it also shows Allen’s game-changing potential, and that was one reason why the Steelers let Lewis go.
  • Yet, like Taylor and Lewis before him, Cortez Allen has weaved threads of inconsistency into his own story.
Allen won the starting job was expected during Steelers 2013 training camp, yet got injured vs. Tennessee. His return in London vs. the Vikings is something that Steelers Nation would rather forget as he managed to both get burned and miss tackles on long touchdown plays.

Indeed, as the Steelers began their rebound, it was William Gay, (dubbed “Big Play Willie Gay” by my friend Tony Defeo), who won the accolades as Allen reverted to the bench. But Allen didn’t take his demotion sitting down, and recorded two interceptions and a crucial pick-six in the win over Green Bay.

What to Do About Allen?

Since the advent of free agency in 1993, the Steelers have made it their practice to resign the players the want to keep in the final year of their contracts. On a few occasions, think Levon Kirkland and of course Kordell Stewart, this has gotten them into commitments to players who ultimately proved unworthy.
  • But by an large, the philosophy has paid the Steelers dividends both on the field and on the salary cap ledger.
Now they need to decide if they want to do the same with Allen.

Some number are helpful

cortez allen keenan lewis ike taylor steelers stats
Cortez Allen compared to Taylor, Lewis

Of the three players, Ike Taylor had both the most solid body of work and the most consistent line of development. Lewis’ first two years were for naught, and his third year while solid, hardly projected “spectacular.”

However, compared to Lewis, Allen’s third year was gang busters, and while he’s lacked Taylor’s consistency, he arguably authored more splash plays in his limited time than Taylor’s entire career – save of course for Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers also have greater salary cap flexibility here in the summer of 2014 than they did in the summer of 2010.

Curtain’s Call

There are no guarantees in pro football. But Ike Taylor is probably playing is final year, and William Gay is the only other Steelers cornerback with experience. The Steelers aren’t going to offer nor will Cortez Allen’s agent allow him to sign, a low-ball, long term offer. Yet, the Steelers almost certainly keep him off the market in July or August 2014 for far less than he will command in come March 2015.

Ultimately, Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin know Allen and his work habits.

If he is in fact as diligent as he’s said to be, then the Steelers would be wise to resign him this off season.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Steelers "June Curse" Exacts Costly, Off Field Toll

Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers passed through the month of June without suffering any sort of calamity whose impact will be felt on the field come September.
  • But of course they failed to dodge the dreaded “Steelers June Curse.”
There’s no way anyone can say that about the month in which the Steelers Nation lost “The Emperor” Chuck Noll. Chuck Noll’s impact on Pittsburgh, the Steelers and the men he coached has been lauded here and parts elsewhere and need not be recounted now. Even if his formal role with the Steelers ended long ago, his loss will be keenly felt.
Steelers Lost Noll in June '14

Yet, in terms of X’s and O’s, the impact is nill.

Still, there’s something eerie about the Steelers and the month of June since in this new millennium. Consider:
Of course, until proven otherwise, all of this is just coincidence. In the last year important figures such as Bill Nunn and L.C. Greenwood were lost outside of the month of June.

But no matter how you measure it, the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization of late. Thankfully, its over. Into July an on to St. Vincents!

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