Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers NFL Team Column
By Alex Kozora
2009 Draft Review
2010 Draft Review
2012 Draft Review

7 June 2012

Cornerback Battles

Bring up the topic of Steelers’ cornerbacks of the past five seasons to a fan and chances are, you’ll get nothing but a groan. The perception of the position is being the thorn in the side of the defense. But the number one pass defense in 2011 will continue to be a strength in 2012. One half of the field will be manned by Ike Taylor while the other will be subject to one of the more interesting camp battles between three prospects: Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown.

2011 was a make or break season for Lewis. Already written off as a bust by some for inability to see the field and repeated mental mistakes, he became a key contributor on 3rd down, playing on the outside and kicking William Gay to the slot. His mental mistakes and personal fouls were cut down leading to his best season of his three year career, recording 37 tackles with his lone interception clinching a win against Kansas City. Like any backup cornerback, Lewis made his presence known on special teams getting work at gunner, jammer, and wedgebuster throughout the year.

The first of two rookies competing is one who seemed to exceed all expectations last season. Cortez Allen was a 4th rounder out of the military school The Citadel who was not expected to see work on defense his rookie year. That was clear in defensive back’s coach Carnell Lake’s press conference after the selection of Allen, calling him raw because of military obligations to the school. But Allen saw time on defense, most notably in Week 8 against the New England Patriots as a counter against Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. At over 6’1”, he can compete against tight ends that typically dwarf corners. He also showed signs of being a reliable tackler, no doubt the most important trait to have in a Dick LeBeau defense. He grew by leaps and bounds his rookie year, and it would not be surprising to see that continue into 2012.

Curtis Brown did not make much noise on defense but carved out a niche on special teams, the first step for most players. The 3rd rounder was described as “playing with his hair on fire” by Mike Tomlin which make no mistake, is a good thing. He was a starting gunner for most of the season, finishing with 14 tackles.

It may sound cliché, but this battle will go to the victor in training camp. Competition brings out the best in players and this is no exception. With teams attempting to use every inch of the field, having the ability to go four deep at cornerback a luxury that can’t be taken for granted.

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15 May 2012

Steelers' 2012 Draft Recap

With the month of May in full swing and rookie mini-camps underway, it is almost time to close the books on the 2012 NFL Draft season. But let’s take one last look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft class.

Round One: David DeCastro/G Stanford:
Christmas came early for the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin. It was nearly unthinkable that the Cardinal product would fall to 24 but that is exactly the scenario that played out. DeCastro has very few holes in his game. He is a great asset on trap blocks who plays with near perfect leverage and shows the ability to mirror in pass protection. Odds are he’ll start his career at right guard, he was a three year starter at that spot with Stanford, but there likely wouldn’t be any issue if he moved to the left side. To simply put it, he’s a Day One starter for the next ten years.

Round Two: Mike Adams/OT Ohio St:
Another instance of excellent value as the Steelers’ had a first round grade on him. Of course, he barely made it onto the team’s draft board after testing positive, and lying about, marijuana use at the NFL Combine. Adams met with Colbert, Tomlin, and President Art Rooney Jr to explain himself and get back into the Steelers’ good graces. Adams is a mammoth of a man at 6’7” 323 with 34 inch arms and has considerable upside. But the issues that lie with him don’t even have much to deal with the character. The Steelers both internally and externally have shown that Adams will not get a second chance. The biggest downside to Adams is refinement in technique. He doesn’t always anchor well in pass protection, doesn’t play as strong as a man his size should be, and falls off contact in the run game. He was the team’s left tackle in rookie mini-camps but will likely switch over to the right side in the near future.

Round Three: Sean Spence/ILB Miami (FL):
While he isn’t your prototypical Steelers’ inside linebacker at just 5’11” 231 with 31 ½ inch arms, don’t lose too much hope on Spence yet. Watching tape on him, his first step is an “identifiable” trait and overall, his athleticism is top notch. Strong safety and inside linebacker have become key positions to have speed at to counter offenses that are using every inch of the field and ones that have tight ends that pose matchup nightmares for defenses. If Spence is able to win “congestion” run plays, that is, disengage from the guard and attack the ballcarrier, he’ll be a great addition. But if he gets washed out on a routine basis, he won’t last long. To play on this Steelers’ defense, everyone must first play the run well. Spence is no exception.

Round Four: Alameda Ta’amu/NT Washington:
A player the Steelers’ traded up for, they don’t come much bigger than the former Huskie. Weighing in at 346, he has a chance to become the heir to Casey Hampton’s throne. He has a little more pop to his game than most would expect from a zero tech, recording a total of six sacks in his last two years in college. He is capable of getting penetration to force plays east/west and of course, is tough to move at his size.

Round Five: Chris Rainey/RB Florida:
Many have compared him to Dexter McCluster given the Todd Haley connection. Rainey will not have a true role with the team. Rather, he’ll be moved around seeing action at running back, wide receiver, and on special teams in the return game and punt coverage. Speed kills and Rainey has plenty of it at a position that has typically drifted towards having bigger, more bruising backs on its roster. Rainey is a nice compliment to that and to quote Mike Tomlin, will make plenty of “splash” plays.

Round Seven: Toney Clemons/WR Colorado:
A local product from Valley High School, Clemons has good size at 6’2’. It was tough to find tape on him but he doesn’t seem to play as fast as his 40 time indicates. He seems to be more of a build up speed type of player who will have to learn how to get off press coverage. However, it is worth pointing out he exploded the last five games of his senior year with 95+ yards in four of those. The #5 WR spot is open and while he’s no lock, he has as good of a shot as anyone else right now.

Round Seven: David Paulson/TE Oregon:
Paulson is your cliché, “Jack of all Trades, Master of None” player. He doesn’t have a specific trait that separates him from the rest with just average size and speed, but the Ducks did line him up all over the place. He played on the line, off it, in the slot, out wide, and in the backfield. His chances of making the roster increased after Wes Saunders’s suspension but at the same time, were hurt by Leonard Pope’s signing. Odds are, he’ll begin his career on the practice squad.

Round Seven: Terrence Frederick/CB Texas A&M:
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know a thing about Frederick as the Steelers’ made their second to last selection of the draft. But after going back and watching some tape on him, I must admit to have developed a bit of a mancrush on him. He isn’t an athletic kid, his 4.54 40 time at the Combine seems accurate, but he is a long kid who can high point the football and is willing to mix it up against the run. Being a Steelers’ corner not named Ike Taylor is all about being a reliable tackler who is willing to play the run. There’s only a slim chance he opens the year any higher than the #5 corner but having that kind of depth in today’s NFL is a huge advantage. Keep an eye out for him come training camp.

Round Seven: Kelvin Beachum/OT Southern Methodist:
Beachum was the last Steeler taken at pick 248. He doesn’t have prototypical size at just 6’3” 303 but does sport 33 ½ arms which isn’t too shabby for a tackle. The former Mustang plays with good bend and shows the ability to mirror. The team has reportedly decided to start him off inside at guard, but I wouldn’t count out the possibility of him playing tackle in a pinch.
Overall, this draft had two components. Value in the early rounds and versatility in the later ones. That is the epitome of a great draft and that is exactly what the Steelers had. The real draft grades can’t be given out for some time, but the future of the 2012 rookie class looks bright.

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6 October 2010

Pittsburgh enters the bye week tied for first place in the division

If you would have said before the season that the Steelers would be 3-1 sharing first place in the division with the Baltimore Ravens, you would have made many Steeler fans happy. With their star quarterback suspended for the first four games, the first quarter of the season should be considered a success for Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the week off and will welcome back their star QB Ben Roethlisberger for practice this week. Don’t believe for a second that the team didn’t miss their star quarterback. "Every single one of the guys I've seen gave me a big hug. I was just so happy to see that, and they were so happy to see me as well." –QB Ben Roethlisberger at a news conference Monday morning.

Game Summary | Ravens 17 Steelers 14

Sunday’s game was a true heavyweight fight with Baltimore throwing the final blow. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco threw the game-winning touchdown pass to WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining. This was the fifth consecutive regular-season game that was decided by four points or fewer. The Steelers had their chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter but could not get anything going on offense. Two false start penalties killed their drive and they were forced to punt. On the punt there was a holding penalty on Pittsburgh which gave the Ravens a big advantage with 1:08 remaining on the clock. Games in the NFL are usually decided by the quarterback’s play and this one was no different. QB Joe Flacco threw an absolute beautiful pass to win the football game and what they say is true, there is no defense for a perfect pass.

Pittsburgh will come out of their bye week I believe a rejuvenated team. The timing of their bye week couldn’t be any better either, due to the fact it will give Big Ben an extra week of preparation. They will gear up to play their hated rival, the Cleveland Browns at home followed by an away game in Miami. QB Ben Roethlisberger is a top five player at his respective position. If you pair Roethlisberger’s return with the NFL’s second leading rusher RB Rashard Mendenhall, you have a recipe for success. Pittsburgh’s defense is giving up a NFL best 12.5 points per game so far this season as well. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is leading the NFL in tackles with 48. This team is in great shape so far in the 2010 NFL season and circle this date on your calendars – December 5th, Sunday night The Pittsburgh Steelers will head into Baltimore for the much anticipated rematch.

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28 September 2010

The Steelers are a force to be reckoned with in 2010

             A lot of sportswriters, analysts, and so-called "experts" thought that Pittsburgh would have a difficult time getting off to a fast start with the absence of their two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. With 'Big Ben' being out for the first four games due to a suspension for off the field incidents, it was widely speculated that the Steelers would be 2-2 at best before the return of Roethlisberger in week six against Cleveland, after the team's bye week in week five.

     You can go ahead and throw that thinking out the window, Pittsburgh is 3-0 and firing on all cylinders. Through the first three games the defense has allowed two touchdowns and has forced ten turnovers. The defense has been playing like its usual self after several key injuries hurt the unit in 2009 (which the defense still finished 5th overall). S Troy Polomalu is back with a vengeance and has proven his worth time and time again as the heart and soul of the defense. His presence alone makes offensive coordinators cringe and hinders what teams can do against Pittsburgh's defense. A key cog that also has returned is DE Aaron Smith who Peter King from Sports Illustrated selected to his all-decade team for the 2000's. Smith is a guy often overlooked due to his position as defensive end in the 3-4 defensive scheme. The defensive lineman in this scheme rarely gets any recognition in most media outlets even though they are every bit as important as the linebackers and secondary.

     Aside from these two returning stars, Pittsburgh's defense is full of playmakers. All four starting linebackers could easily start for almost any team in the NFL. Lead by former AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 LB James Harrison, who already this season has twenty three tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles; this core of linebackers is second to none. Former All-Pro James Farrior continues to be stout in the middle along with the up and coming former Florida State Seminole Lawrence Timmons, who has Steelers fans extremely excited with his explosiveness and athleticism. Timmons is currently second in the NFL in combined tackles with 33. The last piece of this line backing core could have been mentioned first, LB LaMar Woodley, who has been nothing short of consistent since coming out of the University of Michigan in 2007 and joining the long legion of great Steeler linebackers. Woodley has had 13.5 and 11.5 sacks the last two seasons and looks well on his way to another pro bowl caliber year, he has two sacks, one interception, and one forced fumble through three games.

     On the offensive side of the ball players have stepped up in a big way so far this season. WR Mike Wallace in just his second year has looked to have improved his route running to become one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL. He is making fans forget about WR Limas Sweed has been a bust as well as WR Santonio Holmes who the team traded due to off the field issues. Along with Wallace, RB Rashard Mendenhall has replaced the departed RB Willie Parker.      The keys to the team's running game have been handed to the Illinois product and so far this year he has Pittsburgh third overall in rushing offense. With the offense back to the ground and pound style we are accustomed to from Steelers teams all the quarterbacks have had to do is not make mistakes. With QB Dennis Dixon going down last week, journeyman QB Charlie Batch started against Tampa Bay and went 12 of 17 for 186 yards 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. If Pittsburgh can continue to operate on all cylinders this week, when QB Ben Roethlisberger returns after the team’s bye week there are only two words left to say for the remaining teams on their schedule, watch out.

     This week the team faces off against their nemesis the Baltimore Ravens, who this season look as powerful as ever before on both sides of the ball. Heading into the week 4 showdown, starting RB Ray Rice for Baltimore has a "serious" knee contusion and his status for the game is up in the air at this point. Although Baltimore has adequate replacements in RB Willis Mcgahee and RB Le'Ron McClain, neither offers the versatility of Rice. His possible absence will make life extremely difficult for Baltimore's running game. Baltimore last week gave up 144 yards rushing to RB Peyton Hillis of the Browns, so RB Rashard Mendenhall will be counted on to get the run game off and running this week in a big way. Don't expect much offense from either team though, these two defenses are two of the very best and the Ravens gave up the first offensive touchdown of the year last week.

Key Matchups

*RB's Willis Mcgahee & La'Ron McClain vs. Pittsburgh's run defense. As mentioned before, these two guys are going to have to come this week ready to play the game of their life for the Ravens to have a chance at winning.

*QB Joe Flacco vs. Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Flacco looked great last week against Cleveland, but the week before against a formidable defense in Cincinnati, Flacco threw four interceptions. LeBeau is a hall of fame player and coach who has been doing this for a long time, look for him to disguise blitzes and come at Flacco from every possible angle.

*RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. LB Ray Lewis and Baltimore's run defense. You may remember two years ago LB Ray Lewis welcoming Mendenhall to the NFL with a fractured shoulder on a huge hit. Rashard has to come ready to play in a big way to take pressure off of QB Charlie Batch.

Prediction

Pittsburgh 20 Baltimore 19

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23 April 2010

Steelers Grab a Center In the 2010 NFL Draft

PITTSBURGH - You gotta love the Steelers. First, Instead of taking a glory pick, or letting the Ben Roethlisberger situation affect they way they think, they go with with their blue collar roots and draft a lineman.

With the 18th pick of the 2010 draft, the Steelers selected Center/Guard Maurkice Pouncey of Florida.

"I don’t think there was any big secret or surprise, because I think that every mock draft that I saw had us picking Maurkice Pouncey,” said director of football operations Kevin Colbert. “We’re extremely excited that he was available for the 18th pick.”

At 6-foot-4, 304 pounds he has NFL size. He started as a true freshman, and last year was dominate. It was a reason originally many draft boards had him as a late firrst to early second rounder, but his stock soared as the draft neared.
"I'm so happy to be a Pittsburgh Steeler," Pouncey said,I'm so happy they picked me. I just like the Steelers that much."

His list of postseason honors includes the Remington Trophy, given to college football best center, and making several All American teams such as the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and The Sporting News.

Pouncey also has a mean streak and one thing about him is most of his starts came against high caliber teams. Pouncey also understands angles and puts himself in a good position to finish off opposing players. He also is strong and aggressive.

The Steelers were looking to draft a center last year, but the two they had their eyes on all went before they picked, meaning Pouncey, who can also play multiple positions was a very viable option in the 2010 draft. Although Justin Hartwig is the incumbent, Pouncey, who is just 20, is he heir to a position that has seen greatness for the black and gold since the 1970's. He is expected to begin play at guard for the team.

According to Wes Bunting of the National Football Post

"Pouncey is a massive 6-5, 318-pound interior lineman who displays the flexibility and power to consistently overwhelm defenders in the run game, as well as the fluidity and athleticism to slide his feet and mirror in pass protection. Pouncey not only looks like the nation’s top center prospect, he grades out as one of the draft’s top overall talents in my opinion. He has the makings of someone capable of winning a starting job in training camp and eventually developing into one of the league’s top centers."

Here is Maurkice Pouncey's complete Scouting Report.

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11 March 2010

Steelers Dive into Free Agency

PITTSBURGH - Fresh off their retreat to the mountains, Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff wasted no time diving into the free-agency market, as the team signed four players including a familiar face in one of the most active days in team history.

In somewhat of a surprise, because he said he had planned on staying in South Beach instead of returning to the South Side, the team also re-signed veteran Ryan Clark. The deal to be a 4 year deal in the neighborhood of $17 million with at least $5 million of the contract to be paid during the first year.

"It's a four-year deal. My agent should be on the phone with them right now," Clark told Josina Anderson of Denver's Fox 31 news."But I think in the end, both sides got what they wanted."My plan was to retire a Steeler. It took a little longer than I wanted it to to get this deal done."

The Steelers are also bringing back a key component of the Super Bowl XL winning team, Antwan Randel El. He has signed a three year contract with terms unknown.

Also signed were veterans Will Allen and also as speculated by numerous sources wideout Arnaz Battle.

Both are special teams aces, both are familiar with members of the coaching staff, and both should see playing time, with Allen filling Tyrone Carter's role of backup safety. Allen's contract is believed to be a three-year, $4.4 million contract that included a $975,000 signing bonus, while Battle's is a three year deal worth $3.9 million.

In addition, former Bills lineman Jonathan Scott, who is 6-foot-6, 318 pounds and started eight games for offensive line coach's Sean Kuglar's old team last season, was also signed. Scott was a former fifth round pick of the Lions.

Another former Steeler could be making a homecoming too, as two sources have told the Pittsburgh Sports Examiner that Larry Foote could be coming back to town. Foote is expected to meet with both the Cardinals and Redskins this week.

BIOS ON THE NEW GUYS:

Battle (6-1, 208) was originally drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. He spent seven seasons with the 49ers and played in 88 career games as a wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner. For his career, Battle has 178 receptions for 2,150 yards and 11 touchdowns as a receiver. In 2009, he was the 49ers primary punt returner with 21 returns for 61 yards and added three kickoff returns for 68 yards.

Allen (6-1, 200) has played all six NFL seasons with Tampa Bay after being drafted by the Buccaneers in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. Allen made two starts in 2009 before being placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured List following Week 9. In his six seasons with the Buccaneers, Allen had 63 special teams tackles and was named the team’s special teams captain in 2008. He started 26 games in six years and had 174 career tackles and four interceptions

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29 April 2009

2009 NFL Draft Analysis

1st Round – Pick 32 = DT/DE Evander “Ziggy” Hood ~ 6’3” 300

College - Missouri

Ziggy Hood was one of my favorite players from the 2009 Senior Bowl and I have felt that he would fit as a 3-4 defensive end better than any other position. He is stout against the run and has good pass rush moves and is more athletic than given credit for. I addressed the Steelers defensive line as a need that had to be addressed due to the age of the group. Every starter is over 30, so Hood will have his chance to start in a year. He may even take snaps away from RE Brett Kiesel this season.

3rd Round – Pick 79 (from Denver) = OG Kraig Urbik ~ 6’5” 328

College - Wisconsin

Urbik was another guy I loved during the Senior Bowl week. Urbik is a very big, very strong guard who played tackle in college. He lacks great lateral quickness but makes up for it with his excellent technique. He is a smash you in the mouth, blue collar blocker who will fit very nicely in black and gold. This pick also addresses the team’s biggest need which was their offensive line. Expect Urbik to compete for a starting spot and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was the team’s starting right guard come week one.

3rd Round – Pick 84 (from Denver through Chicago) = WR Mike Wallace ~ 6’0” 199

College - Ole Miss

Once again here is another guy I was lucky to watch all week long at the Senior Bowl. Wallace will come in to replace WR Nate Washington who departed for Tennessee. Wallace is a legit deep threat with outstanding speed & jumping ability (4.33 in the 40 & a 40 inch vertical). He will battle with WR Limas Sweed for playing time as the #3 receiver.

3rd Round – Pick 96 = CB Keenan Lewis ~ 6’0” 208

College - Oregon State

Lewis made 48 starts in his college career and is known for his press man coverage. He has elite size and could fit in very nicely with Pittsburgh’s zone scheme. Lewis is another guy who was at the Senior Bowl. Cornerback was another need for the Steelers who lost starting CB Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals. Lewis will come in and battle CB’s Deshea Townsend and CB William Gay for the #2 spot.

5th Round – Pick 168 = CB Joe Burnett ~ 5’9” 192

College – Central Florida

Burnett was a great pick by Pittsburgh because of how well he fits into their scheme. He is at his best in a zone scheme because of his lack of top end speed (4.57 in the 40). What he lacks in straight line speed, he more than makes up for with his vision, instincts, strength, and hands. He is a very good kick returner because of these attributes, and can also go up and get the ball at its high point (35.5 inch vertical). He is in the mold of current CB Deshea Townsend and could eventually take his place on the roster.
5th Round – Pick 169 = RB/FB Frank Summers ~ 5’9” 241

College - UNLV

Summers is a guy Pittsburgh drafted to be a short yardage player who will get the tough yards, especially in the red zone. He has the reputation of being very hard to tackle, and also displayed very good hands in private workouts. He was used as a fullback part time in college but prefers to play tailback. Pittsburgh I’m sure will try and convert him to more of a full-time fullback role, but if not, just give him the ball in short yardage situations.

6th Round – Pick 205 = DT Ra’Shon Harris ~ 6’4” 298

College - Oregon

Once again the Steelers go for depth along their defensive line. Talk about the rich getting richer. Harris only started one year in college which could be cause for concern. What he brings to the team is the ability to take on the double team which is what he was known for in college. Playing in the 3-4, this is one of the most important factors in being a successful defensive lineman so the pick makes a lot of sense.

7th Round – Pick 226 (from Bucs) = C A.Q. Shipley ~ 6’1” 304

College – Penn State

Shipley lacks ideal size for the position but had a stellar career at Penn State. As a senior he received the Rimington Trophy which is given to the nation’s top center. Shipley also was a first-team All-American. Shipley is a fierce competitor who plays the game the right way. He was durable during his career and a leader. He also is very strong (33 reps of 225). He has the benefit of not having to start right away, so a few years down the line the Steelers could have a new starter at center.

7th Round – Pick 241 = TE David Johnson ~ 6’2” 260

College – Arkansas State

The Steelers will most likely try Johnson out at fullback because of his very good blocking skills. Johnson could be an H-back for the Steelers and even play a little tight end as well. He has soft hands and could backup multiple positions. This is a very solid pick for the 7th round, especially considering Johnson’s versatility.

Overall Grade - B+