Big Ben Graduates While Steelers Hold Freshman Orientation

 Posted by at 5:11 am  Big Ben, NFL Draft, Roster Moves  Comments Off on Big Ben Graduates While Steelers Hold Freshman Orientation
May 072012
 

Ah, college graduation. That rite of passage when one chapter of your life closes and another begins. Of course, I graduated in my early twenties with about six figures worth of debt to my name. Something tells me Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have to worry about repaying his student loans. And while he graduated this weekend some nine years after leaving Miami University (Ohio) for the NFL, it’s nice to see the big lug finally earn his degree. He even trotted out the sham wife (who, to be fair, has ditched the butch haircut and is looking much better these days. She still dresses like my grandma, though.) to keep him away from post-graduation keggers share in his special day.

While Big Ben was off accepting his bachelor’s degree in education (EDUCATION? No wonder US academic standards continue to plummet), the Steeler were busy getting acquainted with their 2012 draft class. The new CBA makes contract negotiations fairly standard in terms of length and base salary, the only quibbling point left is over bonus money. NT Alameda Ta’amu was the first draft pick to sign, with good reason as the Steelers lavished their nose tackle-of-the-future with a generous deal worth about $2.5 million. To put that in perspective, fourth round pick Ta’amu received roughly the same deal second rounder LaMarr Woodley got back in 2007. RB Chris Rainey was the second player to sign although his contract details haven’t been announced.

Regardless of contract, all our draft picks, undrafted rookies, and non-roster invitees were in town this weekend for their first off-season mini-camp. Sadly not among them was Trick Shot Quarterback Alex Tanney, who I mentioned in my recap of undrafted free agents last week. Tanney decided to sign with the Bills when he found out we also invited former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson to camp. Johnson, who holds the honor of being the first overall pick of the 2011 United Football League draft, bounced around between the UFL, NFL, and ArenaBall last year. Johnson is a big guy (6’5 240 pounds) with a big arm who also has pretty good mobility for a guy his size. And he’s African-American, like every other quarterback on our roster not named Ben Roethlisberger. I only felt compelled to point that out because like 10% of the QBs in the league are African-American yet the Steelers are going into camp with four on the roster (not to mention Dennis Dixon is still trying to find work). Mike Tomlin must think he’s Jesse Jackson or something.

Anyway, rookie orientation begins with the assigning of jerseys which is always an interesting proposition. The Steelers don’t retire numbers, another of their strange little quirks like refusing to alter their uniform design or field a squad of big-haired Polish girls waving pom-poms. Technically, they have retired one number, #70, worn by Hall of Fame defensive end Ernie Stautner from 1950-63. It was retired in 1969 which to you Steeler historians out there will pretty well explain why his was the last number to be “officially” taken out of circulation.

Vaunted rookie guard David DeCastro has drawn countless comparisons to former Steelers All-Pro Alan Faneca since the moment his name was called by the Ginger Dictator. DeCastro initially took #61 but after second thought (or perhaps some prodding from the Steelers’ PR staff) switched to Faneca’s #66. Maybe they’re both really big Penguins fans. Fellow rookie lineman Mike Adams took freshly retired Chris Hoke‘s #76. Ta’amu picked one of the more iconic numbers, choosing to wear the #95 most frequently associated with Greg Lloyd. Lloyd’s number was actually worn by Joey Porter early in his career but he got sick of being called “the next Greg Lloyd” so he changed it to #55. It’s pretty safe to say Ta’amu won’t have to worry about those comparisons as even if he blossoms into the anchor at the middle of the Steelers D, there’s not much confusing a mouthy linebacker built like a brick house with a fatass lineman charged with the dirty work up front.

Then we have perhaps one of the more ignorant things the Steelers have done in recent years. Rookie linebacker Sean Spence asked for and received #51. Granted James Farrior may not be a Hall of Famer or even one of the top ten linebackers in Steelers history (although that’s arguable) but he was key contributor to three Super Bowl bound teams not to mention a long-time defensive captain. They couldn’t wait ONE FREAKIN’ YEAR before peddling his number out to some midget who’ll probably be cut in a year or two?? Not to mention for those hoping Farrior might be brought back at a later date, I guess now it’s clear the Steelers have turned that page.

Apr 032012
 

The Final Four is down to two. Hennessy and I have picked the two people we feel will be most key to how the 2012 season goes for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since any March Madness style tournament needs a little friendly competition, we decided to do our first ever co-post. I’ll present my reasoning why my pick is the man who’ll be most responsible for the Steelers success (or failure) in the upcoming campaign. And Hennessy will make his case. How will we decide who is right? Only time will tell.

Chris:

I picked Todd Haley as the man most crucial to the Steelers prospects in 2012. With Rashard Mendenhall hurt, the running game will fall mostly on the shoulders of Isaac Redman. Redman isn’t an explosive back and he’s not going to break a lot of big runs but he’s serviceable enough. I like Baron Batch, I was bummed when he was lost for the season because I thought he’d be a younger more dynamic Mewelde Moore. He definitely has a lot more upside than Jon Dwyer or Jon Clay and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled a Willie Parker (unheralded RB who comes out of nowhere to take starting job) on Redzone.

However, all this running game talk is moot because the NFL is a PASSING LEAGUE. Despite what Art Rooney II may think, grandaddy’s power running football is a thing of the past. If the Steelers really think they can run the ball 30+ times a game and be successful, well, they’re in for a rude awakening. You win by putting the game in the hands of your playmakers and the Steelers best players on offense are Ben Roethlisberger and his Young Money wideouts (Antonio Brown, Manny Sanders, and Mike Wallace). Last year, the Steelers enjoyed a 4,000 yard passer and two 1,000 yard receivers for the first time in team history.  While Bruce Arians certainly had shortcomings, one thing he did well was recognize the need for having a high-powered offense in today’s NFL. The team did struggle in the red zone which affected their overall ranking but that was as much a function of the poor offensive line and ineffective running game as his playcalling. Perhaps Batch can help in the red zone but not as much as Ben and his receivers.

Haley is a combustible personality. When he was hired, the stories you heard were of players who either loved him or hated him. Guys like Dwayne Bowe loved him and he helped mold them into elite performers. However, we’ve seen on teams like the Jets how things can fall apart when key offensive personnel, like the quarterback, don’t get along with their offensive coordinator. If Haley can temper his outbursts and focus his intensity in productive directions, the Steelers’ offense has the potential to be among the league’s best. If he doesn’t, well, we’ll all be looking back fondly on the days of the Flying Circus.

Hennessy:

Much like the established players in the Superstar showdown, the impact of Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming players will be critical to the 2012 season. In Baron Batch’s case, he will be looking to fill a void that Mendenhall, Medium-Speed Willie Parker, and Issac Redman have not yet been able to – an explosive running game that scores at will. Punching the ball through the end zone was a routine play when Jerome Bettis put a helmet on during the season. Since his departure, Pittsburgh has seen promise of a second coming several times, but nobody has yet to fit the bill. Providing support to Big Ben and Young Money is a long overdue task, and Baron Batch looks to be the next man willing to take on the challenge. Ziggy Hood will need to mature and become the youth needed on an aging defensive staff. He is making that progress with a  few productive seasons under his belt, but there is still work to be done. Much like Antonio’s role being more significant than Harrison in 2012, the need to stack up a powerful run game is more critical short-term than more strength at Defensive End. With Baron appearing to be the RB on deck, I am looking for a solid performance and quick movement to a starting position. If Batch’s ACL is healed and his game is as sharp as last preseason, Mendenhall could very possibly have injured himself out of a starting position if he is not ready for the 2012 campaign.

 

Steeler Madness: Final Four (Part 1)

 Posted by at 8:13 am  Art Rooney II, Hines Ward, Todd Haley  Comments Off on Steeler Madness: Final Four (Part 1)
Mar 292012
 

With March Madness in full swing, our pal Hennessy came up with a great idea for our very own Final Four. However, coming up with 64 individual participants and 32 separate brackets proved way too unwieldy. So we narrowed the list to 16 names who we both agreed would prominently figure into how the 2012 season played out for the Pittsburgh Steelers. To give it more of a competitive flavor, I agreed to take half the brackets with Hennessy taking the other half. I’ll be leading off today with an analysis of my eight brackets, picking a winner as to who I think will play a more significant role to the Steelers going forward. Tomorrow it’s Hennessy’s turn. With our Final Fours set, he and I will have a final face off on Monday just in time for the actual NCAA Championship game.

Enjoy!

OLD DOGS BRACKET

Hines Ward vs James Farrior – Two distinguished veterans, both cut by the Steelers early in the off-season. Hines has been the face of the franchise for many years but his actual on-field importance had diminished in recent seasons. Farrior, meanwhile, was the defensive captain and Dick LeBeau’s eyes and ears on the field right up until the day he was released. And while Hines’ leadership was invaluable, Potsie’s leadership was every bit as important to the D. I’ll miss Hines but the bottom line was he was a 4th string receiver last season while Farrior was not only starting but calling the signals.

WINNER: Farrior

Willie Colon vs Willie Gay – You say good-bye, I say hello. Gay, of course, recently departed for Arizona Pittsburgh West, where ex-Steelers go to never be heard from again. Colon was allegedly on the team the past couple seasons but you’d never know it because he kept being lost to season-ending injuries. With Max Starks coming off an ACL injury, the Steelers entire O-Line plan depends on a healthy Colon returning to man the RT spot, allowing Marcus Gilbert to slide over to LT and Jonathan Scott to mercifully remain on the bench. I thought Colon was overrated when he was completely healthy so coming off two serious injuries, I’m skeptical of this plan. However, you can’t deny his level of play will be a crucial factor to this upcoming season. I liked Gay, I thought he did a good job as a starter this past season but I don’t think he showed anything youngsters Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown couldn’t potentially replicate. If Colon falls apart, well, Ben is a dead man.

 WINNER: Colon

THE STAFF BRACKET

Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley – LeBeau is a genius. I’m not disputing that. But he coached one of the worst games of his life against Denver. Dick is usually a master of adjustments but his refusal to acknowledge Tim Tebow’s success throwing the ball ultimately doomed the team to an ignominious playoff exit. Still, the Steelers ended the season with the league’s number one overall defense, continuing LeBeau’s streak of top ranked units. He’ll have work to do this year, finding a new starting cornerback and replacing his team captain at inside linebacker. However, roster change-over is nothing new to the Steelers and I’m sure the old master will be up to the challenge. The real question is whether Haley will rise to his challenge like he did at prior stops in Dallas and Arizona or flame out miserably like he did in KC. He already got off to a somewhat rocky start with Ben Roethlisberger and despite Mike Tomlin’s outright lie that he made the call to hire Haley, the decision to fire Bruce Arians was far from unanimous. Arians had his faults, no doubt, but he also coached the Steelers to a 21st century high flying high octane offense. Will Haley take them to the next level? Or will he follow a mandate from above and return us to the grandaddy’s five yards and a cloud of dust? And how will Ben or Mike Wallace react the first time they walk to the sideline only to be greeted by a crazed Haley’s hostile word vomit?

WINNER: Haley

Art Rooney II vs. Omar Khan – And here’s our 15-3 upset of the tournament. Most people would think, “Nobody is more important than the owner. He’s the owner!” While Deuce has certainly injected himself into the day-to-day activities more than his father ever did, I still think he limits himself to a large extent. Sure he fired Arians and maybe his mandate to run the ball more will influence Haley’s playcalling but at the end of the day I don’t think he’ll be calling down to the sidelines at halftime. Omar Khan is the Steelers’ cap specialist and I think the work he does will figure much bigger into the team’s future. Mike Wallace becomes an unrestricted free agent next season while both Antonio Brown and Manny Sanders become restricted free agents. Omar will be the man charged with figuring out some way to finagle the cap so we can keep our young receivers while also addressing potential holes at RB and CB.

WINNER: Khaaaaaannnnn!

 

Where Do Steelers Go From Here?

 Posted by at 8:26 am  NFL Draft, Roster Moves  Comments Off on Where Do Steelers Go From Here?
Mar 052012
 

The Post-Gazette is calling it the March Massacre. Being a rabid fan of the television series “Lost,” I prefer to refer to it as the Purge. In a span of three days, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut four veterans who combined had logged over forty seasons in the Black & Gold. Going back a little less than a month, the Steelers cut a total of six players, five of whom at one time or another had been mainstays in the starting line-up.

The latest veteran to get the axe is in some ways the most significant. Linebacker James Farrior was rumored to be on the chopping block since his age (37) and salary ($3.25 million) didn’t appear to fit with the team’s current youth movement. Still, Potsie’s exit comes as a mild surprise because even though his play had obviously declined, he remained a key member of the defense. Farrior’s helmet bore the Mr. Yuck sticker signifying that he alone was Dick LeBeau‘s on-field game general. Of the six players released during the Purge, Farrior is the only one who was still a regular starter at the end of 2011.
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Mar 022012
 

Only one week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they had renegotiated Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract in order to lower their cap hit by $8 million. That money, in addition to what was saved in several other reworked deals, put the Steelers in line with 2012’s projected salary cap. Many members of Steeler Nation thought the team would sit back, take a breather and spend some time figuring how they wanted to configure their roster for the upcoming campaign. Well, as the old fish story goes, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Instead of relaxing, the Steelers have embarked on an unprecedented roster overhaul which has seen them ruthlessly cut ties with several veteran mainstays over the past 48 hours. All day yesterday, Pittsburgh talk radio was dominated by news of Hines Ward’s release. Some people were angry and a few were even happy but most were genuinely sad to see a legendary career end. Before the day was out, word had spread that two more players were set to join Hines as ex-Steelers. Although neither name was much of a surprise.

Aaron Smith has finally run out of time. The Steelers held a roster spot open for him in 2010, hoping he’d pull a Woodson and return from major injury in time to play in the Super Bowl but it wasn’t to be. They did bring him back last season despite injury concerns and having two first round draft picks eager to take the field. About a month ago, Smith attended the retirement press conference for fellow defensive lineman Chris Hoke and was asked about his plans for this season. He clearly indicated a desire to suit up for one last go-round despite playing only a handful of games in each of the previous three seasons. It’s hard to find fault with the Steelers’ handling of the situation as they obviously hoped he’d retire gracefully rather than force their hand. When Smith suffered his latest season-ending injury shortly into the 2011 campaign, it seemed his career was over. Since we now know that Smith will only leave the game kicking and screaming, the Steelers really had no choice but to cut him.
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Jan 182012
 

While four teams still remain in the NFL playoffs, the rest of the league is turning their attention toward next season. In yesterday’s Post-Gazette, team president Art Rooney mentioned that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be facing “tough decisions” this off-season. Translation:  We brought back the old slow veterans for one more go ’round the track but since they failed, it’s off to the glue factory for some of them.

Peter King, of all people, pointed out the Steelers future salary cap woes before the season began and it bears examining now that we’re faced with the consequences. Next year’s cap is projected to be in the neighborhood of $125 million, which the current roster currently exceeds by somewhere between $20-25 million. That’s money already committed, to say nothing about money needed to sign draft picks, re-sign Mike Wallace, Issac Redman and other pending free agents, and perhaps *gasp* even spending a buck or two on the FA market to bring a decent lineman in here so our franchise QB doesn’t get broken in two halfway through the season.

Steeler Nation has been somewhat spoiled by management that’s stayed one step ahead of the game when dealing with the salary cap. The team has been clever about restructuring deals and/or adding bonus money or years in order to lower the cap hit. Problem is, adding years to guys already pushing their mid-30s is completely idiotic. And if Indianapolis is seriously considering cutting Peyton Manning, the man who made their sad little franchise relevant, in order to avoid paying him a roster bonus (and the accompanying cap hit), there’s nobody on the Steelers who should be untouchable.
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Steelers Defense Not Immune To Youth Movement

 Posted by at 8:56 am  Casey Hampton, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu  Comments Off on Steelers Defense Not Immune To Youth Movement
Nov 302011
 

I’ve written a lot this season about the decline of Pittsburgh Steelers all-time great Hines Ward. It was never my intent to turn this into a Hines Hater blog but the combination of his being one of the faces of the current era of Black and Gold greatness and the fact the national media was totally out of the loop in regards to his rapidly diminishing importance, I felt like I had to keep harping on it. Also, despite Hines’ insistence that the feels he’s “owed nothing” by the team, I have a feeling the eventual break-up is going to be a painful one. And Steeler Nation should be prepared for an ugly fall-out.

While I’ve been focusing on Hines, however, I’ve neglected the other side of the ball.

A couple things happened during Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs which really hit home to me that Hines may not be the only Steeler mainstay facing his last stand. First, the Chiefs offense had a fleeting moment of competence in the second quarter when Tyler Palko stared down a blitzing linebacker and converted a big third down. “Stared down” is a bit of an overstatement as James Farrior was sent up the middle on a fire blitz and while nothing but the faint scent of failure stood between him and Palko, the ball was delivered before James had crossed the line of scrimmage. Then, late in the game, with the Chiefs moving the ball on an exhausted Steeler defense, the cameras repeatedly cut to a shot of Casey Hampton sucking wind on the sideline.
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