All posts by Chris Halicke

Christ believer, blessed husband and father, sports enthusiast and worship leader.

2016-2017 Steelers Season Review

It was a statement season for the greatest “cheerleader” in football. As someone who’s become very critical of head coach Mike Tomlin, I’m giving him his due. He turned this team around at a time when they seemed like they were going to fall apart. 

They lost arguably their best defensive player for the season and got trampled by a struggling Miami team (who eventually turned it around and made the playoffs). They lost their franchise quarterback and lost to top-seed New England. They lost to arch-rival Baltimore in a sloppy game where Big Ben probably came back to quickly and Chris Boswell did his best riverdance impression. They lost a nail-biter at home to Dallas, a game they had in hand with 42 seconds remaining, only to commit a bad facemask penalty and then allow Ezekiel Elliott to walk into the endzone, giving the game away. 

4-1 turned to 4-5 quickly. They were in a tailspin, heading straight down to crash and burn, turning what some were calling a Super Bowl contender into another underachieving team. Many in Steeler Nation started to call for Mike Tomlin’s head, or at least became very critical of him. I know I did. This is a guy who’s had a generational quarterback for his entire tenure as head coach, and has one playoff win in the past five years; a game that was handed to him by Cincinnati in a way only they could pull off. Mike Tomlin’s regular season success goes without saying, but his 6-5 mediocre playoff record leaves something to be desired. 

And here we are – playoff bound. AFC NORTH Champions. How did Tomlin turn 4-5 into 11-5?

I believe it was a team effort from the top down, starting with Tomlin, and all the way down to the water boy. The sense of urgency picked up, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defense drastically improved over the course of the seven-game winning streak to end the season. They were a bend-but-don’t-break defense, but that’s all they really need to be. They finished as the 12th-ranked defense at season’s end, and I don’t think anyone predicted the defense finishing in the top half of the league. Tomlin demanded performance from his players and they responded. They took care of the teams they should have, and they fought hard to the very end in the games they needed to win the most.

Go ahead and ask any of Tomlin’s players if they think he’s a cheerleader. Go ahead. None of them do.

I’m critical of Tomlin and don’t think he’s a great coach. He won’t even admit that he is. He said it’s not on his resumé yet. He’s not a bad coach though, and he’s certainly not just a great cheerleader. He turned the team around from potentially missing the playoffs to division champions and the third seed in the AFC Playoffs. 

A lot of credit is due all around for the Steelers. Tomlin is one. The star power of the black and gold is another. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown are the way for the Steelers to win a Super Bowl. They don’t win one unless all three play at a high level. They’re the biggest reason the Steelers are where they are. Ben may not have had the big statistical year like he did in 2014, but everyone will remember his game-winning drive against Baltimore. You know, the one where he completed all but two passes (those two incompletions were spikes)? 

Antonio Brown is a beast. He put up another stellar season with no consistent second target for Ben to rely on. That means AB was double and triple covered all year. And man, that “immaculate extension” was just…immaculate.

Le’Veon Bell. You can agree with me or you can disagree, but he’s the best back in the league. He’s a threat every time he touches the ball, wherever he touches it, however he touches it. Oh, and he touches the ball more than any other back in the league. He’s the ultimate workhorse. Those touches aren’t wasted either. He led all players in yards from scrimmage per game. He can run you over. He can juke you. He can hurdle you. There’s nothing he can’t do from the running back position. There’s a reason why his teammates voted him team MVP.

Don’t forget about the rookies either. They played a huge role in the defense stepping it up down the stretch. Artie Burns became the Steelers best cover corner. He’s still young, and yes, he got burned a few times, but that happens with young corners. Give him a couple years. He has potential to be an elite shutdown corner. 

Sean Davis is my Steelers Rookie of the Year. He made the safety tandem along with Mike Mitchell a pretty good one. Davis is one of the better tacklers on this defense and has really good football instincts. He’s not Troy Polamalu, but he’s another solid piece of that defense.

Javon Hargrave had a big year stepping in a larger role once Cam Heyward went down for the year. Along with Stephon Tuitt, he helped solidly the defensive line, allowing them to win battles in the trench to help stop the run and, more importantly, create pressure on the quarterback, which is something the Steelers struggled mightily to do early in the season.

The Steelers were nearly dead and gone. Just over half the season was gone and they were under .500. They took a long look in the mirror, lowered their heads, and fought back every second of every game. Now they’re 11-5; AFC North Champions. 

The stairway to seven starts at home against Miami; the team that dealt the Steelers the first loss of their four-game skid. It’s the perfect way to start the climb towards greatness. Here we go.

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The Rotation is Priority #1 For the Bucco Offseason

The Pirates’ offseason, like most other teams, is significantly quiet. It’s mainly due to the looming December 1st expiration of the current CBA between the owners and players, but nonetheless, the Pirates need to fix their eyes on building a contending team again.We saw the Pirates go from three straight winning seasons and postseason berths to a -20 win variance from 2015 to 2016. And the main reason was the lack of quality pitching. In the Pirates three winning seasons, pitching was the key to their success. A huge drop-off in quality pitching produced a huge drop-off in win totals. Addressing the rotation HAS to be the Pirates number one priority this offseason. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon should be the two atop the rotation, but the remaining three spots are up for grabs. The Pirates will go internally for some help, but they have to use free agency or trades to address it as well. Here are some options:

Internal

Chad Kuhl
Kuhl will probably fit into the rotation at the start of 2017. Ideally, he’d be a number 5 starter, but if the Pirates don’t get enough depth or if injuries occur, he’s a fourth starter. Kuhl showed some promise in his rookie campaign. His numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but he’s the prototypical groundball pitcher the Pirates love to have. He just has to bring the walks down.

Tyler Glasnow
He’s been one of the top pitching prospects in baseball for quite some time now. He struggled a bit in his first exposure to major-league batters, but he also wasn’t healthy for most of 2016 once he was called up. He’s got great stuff and is a potential top-of-the-rotation starter that the Pirates have control of through 2022. If he’s healthy, his ceiling is high and could be a dark horse for rookie of the year in 2017. How he fast he progresses to pitch against big-league hitters will be telling for where he slides into the rotation. He’s done about all he can do in the minors. If he has a strong spring, he should fit in the rotation.

Trevor Williams
The 24 year-old right-handed pitched well in AAA Indianapolis in 2016, posting a 3.51 ERA in 110.1 innings, but his major-league experience last year, a small sample-size, was not so great. He has potential, being another young arm the Pirates love to hoard, but ideally, I only see him fitting in due to injury.

Drew Hutchison
The expectations for Hutchison for me are through the roof, especially if you take into consideration what the Pirates traded away to get him. They traded Liriano (a salary dump I’m ok with), but also traded away catching prospect Reese McGuire and outfield prospect Harold Ramirez. These were two players people had penciled in the Pirates major-league plans later on this decade. And Hutchison’s track record doesn’t bode well for the argument of those who favored the trade (and I have yet to hear one person outside the organization that did). He’s got big-league experience, but he has a career 4.93 ERA in 417.2 innings. Maybe Ray Searage can pull off another miracle, and that’s what it’ll take to make that trade look somewhat decent.

Free Agency

Ivan Nova
Nova had a short stint with the Pirates for the last 2 months of the season, where he pitched very well. He posted a 3.06 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in 64.2 innings of work. He had very good command of his pitches, walking only 3 batters in 2 months. Searage might have continued success with him if the Pirates can lure him back. The price doesn’t seem too steep either. The rumblings right now are around 3 years for $36 million, very similar to the contract the Pirates gave Francisco Liriano. He turns 30 in January. There’s no guarantee he performs an entire season the way he did for two months in a Bucco uniform, but in an extremely thin free agency market for starting pitching, and at the price you could get him at, Nova as a number 3 pitcher would be a good “check mark” on the Pirates offseason shopping list.

Derek Holland
This guy could be the steal of the offseason. And he’s the only lefty on this list. He should come at a club-friendly price and Ray Searage could get the max potential out of this very talented pitcher. His biggest problem in Texas has been his health. He’s had a hard time staying healthy for the last three or four seasons. It’s hurt his value and the Rangers, who are very fond of Holland, have pretty much decided to not bring him back. Despite the health problems, he’s got great stuff to go along with playoff and World Series experience, including an almost-complete game shutout against St. Louis in 2011. If he stays healthy and comes at a bargain, the Pirates could land another winning reclamation project here. He’s already put the Pirates on his short-list. Let’s see if they can get a deal done.

Edinson Volquez
Try to get the 2014 Wildcard Game out of your mind. Volquez pitched very well in a Pirate uniform and could fill the number 3 spot in the rotation. He’s older than Nova, but could cost the same price. Volquez might be a good pitcher to look to if still available if they can’t land Nova.

No other big names have popped up in trade rumors other than pitchers like Chris Sale, who the Pirates are very unlikely to trade for, giving the fact that they’d have to sell the farm to get him and Neil Huntington doesn’t strike me as the GM to mortgage the future (except when trading for Drew Hutchison).

The Pirates NEED to land one of the three free agent pitchers listed here. Even if Holland is the one, it’s something. The Pirates desperately need pitching help. They have to utilize both the farm and the market to address the situation. Ideally, land Nova as your number 3 AND sign Holland to a club-friendly deal and have your rotation look like this:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. JamesonTaillon
  3. Ivan Nova
  4. Derek Holland
  5. Chad Kuhl

I do think it’s unlikely the Pirates land two free agent starting pitchers, but if they spend in the right places, landing Nova for around $12 million per year and Holland for $6-$8 million per year isn’t a ridiculous thought. Pitching was the key to success for the Pirates in 2013-2015. It needs to be again in 2017. Let’s see what Huntington pulls off. And, how much progress is hindered by the looming CBA deadline.

LTB will keep tabs on all Pirates rumors and any other pitchers that get tied to the Pirates.

CH Column: Is Crosby the Next 50-in-50 Guy?

Don’t call it a comeback, but I’m very excited to be joining the LTP team again. I believe in this group of guys and gals and the Penguins coverage we can provide. We just try to bring our very best to the rest of Penguins fans everywhere.
Someone else who’s bringing their best right now is Sidney Crosby. We may be seeing a version of Crosby that supersedes his level of play before that infamous concussion at the Winter Classic. His shots are going in at a ridiculous rate, but he’s also still finding teammates for scoring chances like he has before. His assist on Letang’s OT-winner in Brooklyn was delicious. There’s been a lot of talk of him possibly accomplishing a feat that would seem impossible in today’s NHL: 50 goals in 50 games. 

Can he do it? I think if anyone in this league could do it, it would be him or Ovechkin. I’d bet on Sid over Ovi because the latter tends to be streaky, and in today’s NHL, streaky players would have a REALLY hard time scoring 50 in 50. 

Now, one thing we have to remember is the “50-in-50” rule is 50 goals in the TEAM’s first 50 games, not the player’s first 50 games played. People recognize players that have accomplished that as “unofficial” 50-in-50 guys, but officially, only five guys have done it (Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (3 times), Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull (2 times)). Could Sid join such an elite club this season?

My answer is no. I’d love to say yes, and I’m not counting him out, but his shooting percentage is off the charts right now and seems to be unsustainable. It’s just so hard to do in today’s NHL. The last guy to do it was Brett Hull in the 1991-1992 season. The last guy who “unofficially” did it was Mario Lemieux in 1995-1996, who scored his 50th goal in HIS 50th game, but it was the team’s 59th game. 

Crosby has 12 goals in 19 team games (he’s played 13). An official 50-in-50 just doesn’t seem realistic to me. However, if he were to pull of an “unofficial” 50-in-50, in today’s NHL, that’s a legit accomplishment. I also think Sid has a real shot at scoring 50 goals this season, winning his second Rocket Richard, and probably winning the Art Ross. This is in no way downgrading how Sid’s playing right now. He’s the best player in the world right now and there’s no argument against it. And the team really hasn’t clicked on all cylinders yet, and I think once they do, you’ll see even more points from Sid. 

In today’s NHL, 50-in-50 would take some divine intervention. It’s like the NHL tries to prevent goals sometimes. But that’s a topic for a different time. While I don’t believe it will happen, I’m cheering to prove myself wrong.

CH Column: I’m Pulling My Support of Mike Tomlin

The election is over. Half of America is happy while the other half is in disbelief and dismay. After months and months of campaigning, it’s finally all over. We have our President-elect.

There is another campaign going on recently that is picking up a lot of steam on social media and other outlets: those defending Mike Tomlin to the grave and those calling for his head. 

For his entire tenure, I’ve been a Tomlin supporter. I’ve been fairly critical of his time management and other blunders, but still supported him and defended him as the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m done. I can’t anymore. When you look at certain statistics that are extremely mind-bottling (I recently re-watched Blades of Glory), it’s hard to campaign for a coach that’s severely underachieved. 

I’m a member of a Steelers fan page on Facebook, and a discussion broke out of people comparing Tomlin to Bill Cowher. People, it’s not even close. People look at the surface and say, “Tomlin had the same amount of Conference championships and Super Bowl championships as Cowher, but in 5 less years!” They’ll also say, “Tomlin’s never had a losing season, while Cowher had three!” And when you look at that and only those points, you might think it’d be hard to vote against Tomlin. Oh boy, you are so wrong.

First off, Bill Cowher had nothing at quarterback for his entire tenure until Big Ben was drafted. We’re talking about Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzack, Kent Graham, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. He had NOTHING. He couldn’t get a franchise quarterback. Yet, he went to four conference championships and one Super Bowl without one, and nearly beat the team of the 90’s in Super Bowl XXX, if it weren’t for, guess who: his quarterback. As soon as Cowher got a franchise quarterback, he went 15-1 and went to the AFC Championship in 2004, and won the Super Bowl in 2005. It took him only two years to get to the top of the mountain once he got an elite quarterback. Also remember, that Cowher and GM Kevin Colbert built the 2005 team. 

Let’s look at Tomlin. Tomlin inherited a team one year removed from a Super Bowl victory, with the majority of the team still in place. Some key guys were gone (Bettis, Faneca, Porter), but the majority of that team was in place. He also inherited a franchise quarterback. Now, I give Tomlin credit. The team can be extremely talented and have all the right players, but you still need someone to captain the ship to lead you to the top of the mountain. Tomlin did that in 2008. He may not have built that team, but he led them there. Bad coaches don’t win Super Bowls, but average ones can. But as time has gone on, and more and more of Cowher’s players have left, it’s become more and more Tomlin’s team. As a matter of fact, the only player left drafted under Cowher’s regime is Ben Roethlisberger. And as it’s become more and more of Tomlin’s team, they’ve gotten worse and worse. 

Since 2012, Tomlin’s team is 19-23 vs teams that are .500 or worse. Well-coached teams don’t lose to teams they should be beating. If it weren’t for Cincinnati giving away a win in the playoffs last year (in a game where Tomlin couldn’t even control his own coaches’ behavior), ZERO playoff wins in five years. This is all with one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, arguably the best all-around running back in the league, and arguably the best receiver in football. Now, the Steelers can’t win the Super Bowl every year, but you’d expect some better performances than sub-.500 against bad teams. You’d expect more playoff wins. You’d also expect a defensive-minded coach to have a better defense than one of the worst in the last three years. And as we look toward Sunday against the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys, I have friends that are Cowboy fans (I live in Dallas) asking me what I think is going to happen on Sunday. I’ve been saying, “I have no idea.” I don’t. I never know what team is going to show up on Sunday. You either get the team that killed Washington and Kansas City, or the team that looked like a high school team against Miami and Baltimore. Well-coached teams are CONSISTENT. The Steelers are far from that. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Steelers won on Sunday 42-10 or lost 38-3. Consistent doesn’t mean you win every week, but you get the same team with the same effort week in and week out. This past week is just another example of poor coaching. The Steelers had one first down in the first three quarters of the game. They played horribly in a week coming off of a bye, where you have an extra week to prepare. Players like Ben and Le’Veon Bell are questioning effort and tightness of practices. Fox Sports’ radio host Colin Cowherd uses a perfect term to describe the Steelers: they’re not “buttoned up.” 105.9’s Mark Madden claims Tomlin is a player’s coach and that they have an “expiration date.” I’m not the only one who’s seeing it, folks. Tomlin is losing the handle on his team year after year, game after game. 

Mike Tomlin isn’t a bad coach. He’s just not the right coach. I fully believe the Steelers don’t win another Super Bowl under Tomlin. I hope he makes me eat my words, but the last 5 years of inconsistency is enough fuel for me to get the engine running on my campaign against Tomlin. I still support and love the team, but Tomlin is not the coach everyone thinks he is. And he sure as heck is not Bill Cowher.

The Penguins and the Expansion Draft

The Las Vegas Nighthawks. Black Knights. Dark Knights? Knighty Knights (trademarked by Anna @NHLPittPens)? Whatever they’ll be called, there will be 31 teams in the NHL come Fall 2017, and the with the NHL expanding, the incumbent 30 teams will have to give up a talented player on their roster. The Penguins find themselves in a great situation in terms of a possible repeat of winning the Stanley Cup. They have as deep a roster as any in the league, including a duo at goaltender that any of the other 29 teams would love to have. But the expansion draft is looming and the Penguins can only protect so many players. 

First, teams have one of two options when it comes to protecting players. Either a team can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or they can protect eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goalie. Players that have a No-Movement Clause (NMC) in their contract HAVE to be protected by the team. The Penguins have tough decisions to make, and they will sorely miss one player that will be in a Las Vegas [or another team’s] sweater. Let’s take a closer look at the Penguins’ situation:

Guaranteed Protection (NMC’s):

F Sidney Crosby 

F Evgeni Malkin

F Phil Kessel

D Kris Letang

G Marc-Andre Fleury

The first four listed are a given that the Penguins would lock up anyway. All of them are star/superstar level and under contract for multiple years. They aren’t going anywhere. Fleury’s situation is the biggest topic of discussion in Pittsburgh. Fleury is loved by just about everyone inside and outside of the organization, but the Penguins just won a Stanley Cup with 22 year-old Matt Murray carrying the load the last 3 months of the season. Murray showed he’s ready for the NHL level, and then some. He’s a legit goalie who’s only going to get better. Yet, the Penguins can only protect one goalie. The only way the Penguins could retain both Fleury and Murray is if the NHL does not consider AHL time as “professional” time, because players that have less than two years of “pro” experience are exempt from the expansion draft. Now, the good thing is that the Penguins don’t have to submit their list of protected players until June 17th (Las Vegas makes their picks on June 20th), so they could hang on to Fleury for the entire year and have arguably the best goalie duo in the league, regardless of whether Murray is exempt or not. One thing to be cognizant of though is if Murray is not exempt, and the Penguins make another run to the Cup Final, they’d only have days to trade Fleury. Now Fleury’s NMC only refers to not being sent to the minors or being waived, but he also has a no-limited no-trade clause, meaning the Penguins have a short list of teams to deal Fleury to, unless he approves a trade to whomever. I can’t see the Penguins choosing Fleury over Murray if this scenario plays out. Murray is 22 and on the rise. Fleury is 32 and has only 2 or 3 more seasons of really good hockey left before you see some serious regression. If Murray is not exempt and not protected, it’s pretty much a guarantee that Las Vegas picks him. He’s young, talented, and cheap against the cap. I’m afraid the Penguins are going to have to pretty much give Fleury away for almost nothing. It’ll be a seller’s market, and teams will know the Penguins will be desperate to trade him. The only thing that would make this situation better is if the Penguins lift the Cup again next year. That will help ease the pain of whoever gets plucked from the organization. Now, best case scenario, things may work out and the league may not include AHL time as “pro” time and Murray would be exempt from the draft. No moving Fleury or Murray. Everybody wins.

Probable Protected Players:

F Patric Hornqvist 

F Carl Hagelin 

F Nick Bonino

D Olli Maatta

D Brian Dumoulin 

These would be the players I’d protect, going with the first option given earlier in this article. That still leaves one forward to protect, and the league’s decision on AHL time could help decide that. Kunitz, Daley, Schultz, Cullen, and Fehr are all unrestricted free agents after the 2016-2017 season, so you can’t protect them. 

I think the way it plays out is this: this will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s last season in Pittsburgh. It saddens me, but I understand it. Murray is exciting because he’s so young, yet so mature for his age, on and off the ice. Fleury, however, has been a rock in goal for several years. He’s a great teammate, a great goalie, and a great person. That smile of his, well, makes you smile. He made the save of his life in game 7 of the 2009 Final, preserving the Penguins third Stanley Cup. If this is his last season in a black and gold sweater, I hope it’s a great one. He’s the best goalie in team history. Flower has created a special place in all our hearts, and it will be hard to see him go. 

2016-2017 Steelers Preview: Running Backs

The Steelers head into the 2016 season with their eyes set on a seventh Lombardi trophy. In order to achieve their goal, the team’s offensive unit is going to have to be the juggernaut it’s been for the past couple of seasons. The Steelers have an abundance of talent and skill on offense, but lack a bit of depth. We’ve already looked at the offensive line in the very first season preview, so we’ll move on and look at the backfield of the Steelers’ offense. 

Projected Depth Chart:

RB1: Le’Veon Bell (suspended 3 games)

RB2: DeAngelo Williams

RB3: Fitzgerald Toussaint 

FB1: Roosevelt Nix

Atop the running back depth chart is arguably the best all-around back in the league in Le’Veon Bell. He can run you over, juke, or even hurdle you. His patience and vision are second-to-none, and he’s a superb check down target for the quarterback. He’s pretty good in pass protection as well. He really is the elite package…on the field. Bell has had his issues off the field, which has put the Steelers in a need for depth behind him to start last season and this upcoming season as well. Bell served a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy two years ago, and got into trouble again this year for missing multiple drug tests, for which Bell will sit the first three games of this season. Bell also has been bit by the injury bug in his career. He missed the first few games of his rookie year in 2013 nursing an injury suffered in training camp. In 2014, he broke out and had a healthy season until the season finale against Cincinnati where he was hit in the knee and missed the playoff game the following week, which the Steelers lost. Last year, he missed the first two games serving his suspension, then played six games, then was out for the rest of the year after a tackle from Vontaze Burfict sidelined Bell with a torn MCL. Bell looks as healthy as can be in training camp and preseason, so hopefully the injury bug has packed up and moved on out of Pittsburgh. 

DeAngelo Williams was signed last offseason to give some depth behind Le’Veon Bell, especially knowing about Bell’s imminent suspension. Williams played very well in the first two games filling in for Bell, and played well in the games after Bell went out for the year. Williams went on to score 11 rushing touchdowns, tying for the most in the NFL in 2015. Williams is a veteran back who also has great vision and a great ability to jump cut through defenders. At the age of 33, even considering most of his career was a time share in Carolina, you have to begin to wonder if his age will begin to show. It didn’t last year, and hopefully, Bell stays healthy and the Steelers won’t have to rely on Williams as heavily. 

Fitzgerald Toussaint will make the team as the third running back and hopefully won’t have to get too many snaps this season. He served nicely in the playoffs last year after Bell and Williams went down with injuries. Toussaint’s biggest blunder in his limited playing time was the fumble he surrendered in the Divisional Playoff against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Toussaint lacks the ability to break long runs, but is a serviceable third running back. 

Roosevelt Nix has been primarily a special teams player during his tenure in Pittsburgh. He’s the only fullback on the Steelers’ roster, but probably won’t get too many snaps out of the backfield. The Steelers hardly use a fullback in Todd Haley’s playbook. Nix pretty much just needs to be a solid blocker and catch the occasional pass out of the backfield. 

When healthy, the Steelers have an elite group of running backs. Bell is elite on his own, Williams is good enough to be a starter on some of the other teams in the league, and Toussaint is a serviceable third back. It’s a contract year for Le’Veon Bell, so I expect a big year from him. According to one of his rap songs, he wants a contract getting paid $15 million per year, and with his off the field issues, he’s going to have to have the 13 games of his life, win MVP, and put a Super Bowl trophy on top of that before teams fathom paying him that kind of money. If he has that kind of year, a seventh Lombardi trophy isn’t far from reality. 

Preseason Grade: A

2016-2017 Steelers Preview: Secondary

In this preview, we’re wrapping up looking at the Steelers defense. We’ve looked at the front-seven, which in my opinion, is at least top-5 in the NFL. However, the final four positions on the Steelers’ defense is not quite as strong. It’s been flat out atrocious at times. They’ve had short little moments where they looked great. It’s definitely the Achilles’ heel of the team. Some say it’s because of the lack of a shutdown corner. Or because they’ve paid more attention to other positions in the draft when they should’ve drafted cornerbacks or safeties. Whatever the case may be, the secondary is still a question mark. Let’s take a look at the projected starters and break this down:

Projected Starters:

CB William Gay

FS Mike Mitchell

SS Robert Golden

CB Ross Cockrell

It’s interesting. The pessimist can look at the secondary and think, “Well, our offense is going to have to score 50 points a game because we can’t stop the other team from going up and down the field on us.” On the contrary, the optimist may say, “Just be patient. This group will be great in a few years.” Personally, I’m kind of in the middle. I’m generally an optimist. I could see how this group could end up being middle of the pack, but I could also see how they could finish dead last against the pass. William Gay is their best cornerback. That’s not good. No knock on Gay, who’s play has gone unnoticed by too many. He’s one short on career pick-6’s as Rod Woodson in Steelers’ history (you may have heard of him). William Gay isn’t a number one corner though. If he were on a team that had even a semi-deep secondary, he’d more than likely be the number two. The Steelers depth at corner, at least in terms of those with any legit NFL experience, is slim-to-none. Ross Cockrell is the number two corner, who was surprisingly decent last year. His inexperience showed though by getting torched a few times, but for his first year getting that kind of playing time, it gives reason for optimism. Mike Mitchell. He was signed out of free agency two years ago as the replacement for Ryan Clark. Clark was a steady free safety who could lay the boom down on receivers going over the middle. Mitchell was expected to bring something similar. His first year with Pittsburgh was very forgettable. He didn’t get credit for a “pass defended” until the season was nearly over. He was slow. He was wasted money on the roster in my opinion. He was also battling a groin injury all season and played through it. Mitchell was healthy last year and his play drastically improved. He led the team in interceptions and was third on the team in tackles. If he stays healthy, he’s the best player in the secondary. Robert Golden is getting his first crack at a starting job on the secondary. He’s been the special teams captain and played in nickel or dime packages. I expect inconsistency from him. He knows the system and his teammates, but will he be able to execute? That remains to be seen. He’s the biggest question mark in the bunch. 

The depth behind these four is very interesting. The Steelers have started to pay much more attention to the secondary in the draft. They drafted cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant in the second and fourth rounds in 2015, respectively. This year, they drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, and safety (or cornerback) Sean Davis in the second round. Golson sat out last year with an injury, and has already suffered another injury this year that will keep him out for an extended period of time. Grant has shown some things in preseason, but is not ready for a starting job. Burns and Davis both have high ceilings. I think Davis is more polished than Burns and could get a starting job before Burns, but I think Burns’ ceiling is higher. Burns has insane raw talent, but it has to be honed and trained for the NFL game. It will be an adjustment and it will take time. Patience is key with these young players. It was the same for Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier, but look how they’ve progressed. These young guys can be very good, but more than likely, not this year. This year will be crucial for their development though. Expect to see Grant, Burns, and Davis on special teams and in nickel and dime packages. One guy I’m not high on is Shamarko Thomas. He’s been given opportunities, and hasn’t delivered. He was drafted in the fourth round in 2013, and could’ve possibly been Troy Polamalu’s successor at strong safety. He just hasn’t performed. He’s battled injuries, but even when healthy, he hasn’t given reason to give him that starting job. This year is the year for him to prove something, if he has it. I personally think Sean Davis could win a starting role, either at strong safety or corner, before the year is over. Injuries happen, and he has the talent and football IQ to gain Tomlin and Butler’s trust. 

This group could be really good in a couple years, where Burns and Davis are starters. But this year, it will be another year where the continually struggle. They’ll have good games, and I think it’ll be more frequent. The secondary automatically improves if the front seven can wreak havoc for the quarterback, which I believe they’ll do. But for teams like New England that get rid of the ball very quickly, the Steelers will struggle mightily. There’s not enough depth with NFL experience. Youth is great to have, but it’ll be another year of learning for the young guys in the secondary. Prepare yourselves for some games that the opposing team throws all over the field. It’s gonna happen. However, I like the direction they’re going. It gives reason for optimism. Realistically, all the secondary has to do is be average as long as the offense stays healthy. 2014 was proof of that. 2015 is proof of what happens when the offense gets banged up. Only time will tell what 2016 will hold.

Preseason Grade: C-