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Steelers Must Not Run the Wheels Off Le’Veon Bell

By Chris Gazze

With Le’Veon Bell only guaranteed to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers for one more season, the shouts to “run the wheels off” Bell are getting louder by the minute.

It is easy to understand why after Bell turned down a deal worth more than $12 million per year, according to a report by Tom Pelissero of NFL Network. If he didn’t sign Pittsburgh’s offer this year, what makes anyone think he’ll sign a similar offer next year?

Rather than ease the load for Bell, get the most of his $12.12 million franchise tag this year and run him until the wheels fall off as head coach Mike Tomlin famously did to Willie Parker.

While this approach would probably get the Steelers the most value in terms of touches per dollar, it is not a smart approach and one that Tomlin needs to avoid in 2017.

Bell is one of the most well-conditioned, physically imposing running backs in the NFL, but also one who has not proven to be durable. He’s only played all 16 games in the regular season once and finally played in the playoffs for the first time in three opportunities last season.

Although not necessarily injury prone, Bell has suffered through a foot injury, multiple knee injuries, and a groin injury. With an average of over 24 touches per game over the course of his career, the chance of injury is there for each time he handles the ball.

Perhaps this was no more evident than in his suspension shortened 2016 season. After missing the first three games, Bell was a workhorse for Pittsburgh’s offense and averaged 28 touches in 12 regular season games.

By virtue of clinching the division with a Week 16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Bell got some much-needed rest after averaging over 39 touches over his previous six games.

Bell’s workload didn’t decrease once the playoffs started as he carried the ball 29 times—at one point running the ball 13 of 14 plays—for franchise-record 167 yards in the Wild Card round against the Miami Dolphins. He topped his own record the following week with 170 yards on 30 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs.

After years of waiting, Bell’s presence in the playoffs finally paid off, at least until the AFC Championship game. Following his fifth carry, Bell left the game with a groin injury. Although his absence wasn’t the reason the Steelers lost, it certainly did not help their cause.

Later, we would learn that Bell injured his groin against the Dolphins, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“I continued to play on it,” Bell said after the initial injury vs. the Dolphins. “It wasn’t like it hurt my performance at that time, but I definitely felt it. I went through the week. I wasn’t telling anybody I was hurting, I didn’t want people to get nervous.”

And it didn’t hurt, at least until it counted the most. And people didn’t get nervous, particularly his head coach.

“He was doing a great job of managing it,” said Tomlin, via Teresa Varley of “It didn’t cause him to miss any practice time, let alone game time. It was something to manage. When you look at the journey that is the season, I think just about every guy down there is dealing with and managing something in an effort to stay on the grass.”

Tomlin continued, “I was aware of it. It wasn’t significant to the point where it affected planning or the anticipation of planning in any way. It’s unfortunate that it became an issue in game.”

That says it all. Tomlin uses a heavy rotation with his defensive lineman and outside linebackers to help preserve their bodies, but it is not an approach he takes with his running backs. Just ask Parker or Rashard Mendenhall. Both backs had seasons with over 300 carries.

The history is there. Tomlin has run the wheels off his running backs one more than one occasion and it is something that he should anticipate and plan for.

Will it be difficult to take off a guy who averaged 157 all-purpose yards per game last season? Absolutely. However, it’s also a move that is necessary to keep Bell on the field when it matters most—the playoffs.

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Anatomy of a WR – Demarcus Ayres

By G Stryker

Demarcus Ayres was drafted in the 7th round of the 2016 draft, thanks to an extra pick the Steelers gained by trading Brad Wing to the Giants. He was a small receiver at 5’9” and 182lbs, and timed a lethargic 4.72 40yd dash in predraft workouts. He had an excellent 2015 season for Houston amassing 97 receptions for 1221 yards and 6 TD.

Ayres was also a successful returner, making the all AAC team in 2013 for kick returning, and also becoming their punt returner in 2015. His measurables and size dropped him in the draft, but by watching his film, there are some really nice things to get excited about. He plays quicker and faster than his recorded 40 yard dash speed, and he has nice wiggle as a ball carrier. Let’s take a look at his 2016 highlights to
see what his tendencies are as a pass catcher in the NFL.

Below are his 2016 Highlights. Follow along with me below.

0:14 Catches a sideline pass with both palms on the ball and his elbows are inside his body frame. This is an excellent catch, using his body to shield the defenders, and immediately
catching the ball with excellent hand placement. Having both palms on the ball secured the possession even after being hit immediately.

0:20 Running full stride, the ball is thrown slightly low to his center, hand positioning is pinkie to pinkie placing both palms on the football for another immediate secure on the catch. Finished this off with his first career TD. This was the best hand positioning he could have to open his palms to the ball, in this situation.

0:36 This was a sideline out route that he came back toward the ball for. By doing this, he created space from the defender and secured the ball pinkie to pinkie putting both palms on the ball for an immediate possession. Elbows were also in, creating the best rotational hand placement he could have. At 40sec on the replay, you can see his foot positioning was perfect to keep in bounds to secure the catch. This play looks like a veteran receiver, not a rookie.

0:44 I’m not sure if he hand checked to gain space or adjusted his route, but he did create space from the defender. As he moves toward the catch, he leans back, opening his body to the ball, placing both thumbs together to open both palms to the football. He finishes the play with a nice stiff arm to gain a few extra yards. This play was important to the Steelers season, as Ayres was on the field and contributing on the game winning drive, in his first game, to help the Steelers win the division.

Runs a nice route, coming across the field on the drag, he adjusts his route to avoid Eli Rogers on the cross and catches the ball in space with room to run. The ball is thrown slightly
behind him, but he doesn’t slow his feet down. He places both hands to the left of his center mass, pinkies together, opening both palms, and follows the ball with his hands to secure the football in stride. The only thing I can nit pick, is I think he brings his route too far toward the line of scrimmage to clear Eli. He already had the depth, and lost depth coming back to the ball in open space.

1:00 Attacks the football by going up to get it, thumbs touching, palms open, secures the ball
immediately, and takes a good hit. Being aggressive to the ball gave him this possession. Anything less would have been defended.

1:08 Same pattern as 0:50. Does a better job of not losing depth running this cross past Eli
Rogers. It looks like he opens both palms with his thumbs together to immediately secure it, and with great hand positioning, it allows the receiver to immediately secure the football and
tuck it away. He turns into a runner after the 2yd reception, stops his momentum and cuts up field as the defender passes by him. Also showed nice wiggle at the first down line to create 5 more yards when he splits the defenders.

1:20 Both hands up thumbs in, palms open, basically secures the ball entirely with his right hand
and hand placement is so perfect, that the tuck is immediate. He takes a 3 yard route, stops his momentum to the middle of the field by cutting outside, gaining 8 more yards and the first down. (Eli Rogers has a nice block on that play as well).

1:30 is down field blocking and continues with the block through the entire play. He shields his
man so Bell can score untouched. This is a nice block rarely seen by rookies. (since rookies usually give up blocking after 2-3sec on a running play), and even more rarely seen by receivers
his size.

1:40 Faces the ball, thumbs together, both palms on the ball. Ayres is hit quickly, but with both
palms on the ball, possession is again secured.

1:45 Opens his body to the ball. Pinkies are together, both palms are open, and looks like he
uses his body as a third point on the football at the catch. If it wasn’t for a nice shoestring tackle by the defender, this would have been a big gain. This was the same play as his TD earlier in the game. The Steelers liked what they saw on this play so much, that they went back to it on 4th down in overtime, to extend the drive and eventually secure the win. What I see here is a receiver with a compact catching window, who increases his catching percentage by placing 2 hands on the ball and opening his palms to the football. He has excellent hand placement, he keeps his elbows inside his body, and runs well after the catch to gain more yardage. I think he can work more on his routes, and coming in and out of breaks, but as an NFL WR, he passes the eye test, and does not look like a rookie, let alone a 7th rounder.

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No extension for Bell; Will play 2017 on Tag

By Justin McGonigle

The Steelers and running back LeVeon Bell did not come to an agreement prior to the 4pm deadline set Monday by the league. Bell instead will sign his 12.12 million dollar franchise tag offer that was placed on him in February.

Bell now becomes the highest paid running back in the NFL eclipsing Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy’s 8 million per year salary. After missing the first three games due to a suspension in 2016, Bell ran for 1268 yards, caught 75 passes for 608 yards and a combined 9 touchdowns.

The Steelers worked until the final seconds attempting to finish a deal with Bell, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement. With the deadline passing the Steelers won’t be able to discuss a contract extension with Bell until the conclusion of the 2017 season. If they are unable to reach an agreement then they will be able to franchise him again next season for 120% of his salary this season. That comes in at over 14 million.

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Did you know? Monday Fun Facts

Shazier can get dah man down

According to Pro Football Focus, Shazier allowed the fewest yards (1.08) in the NFL in 2016 after making first contact against runs. The minimum to qualify for that stat was 20 first contacts. Behind him in that stat were two defensive linemen in Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams and Malik Jackson of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Hey – Ward we missed ya

4 out of the five highest rushing totals against the Steelers last year were with Heyward out of the lineup

Today you say today?(July 8)

Today in #NFLHistory
The @steelers (then known as the Pirates) become an @NFL franchise when Art Rooney paid a $2,500 fee to own the team.

They say it’s yinz birthday !(July 8)

Do ya know Jack?

Tats the truth, honest

Le’Veon Bell has numerous tattoos including two scriptures. He has Jeremiah 1:5 ( Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations) on his left arm with a picture of his mother embracing him after Michigan State suffered a loss in the Big Ten Championship. Bell also has John 3:16 on his left arm, along with “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” per Wiki

Boney Tony

Antonio Brown was so thin in high school they called him “boney Tony” – – All four of Antonio’s children have the initials, AB.(Antonio Brown Jr., Autonomy Brown, and Ali Brown, as well as a daughter, Antanyiah Brown)

This year as most know he could be the first WR to 5 consecutive 100 reception seasons. Wouldn’t it be great if he could do it on a team first to 7 SB wins? I dare to dream.

Speaking of tats

Martavis Bryant has tat of an NFL shield logo on his abdomen to remind him he was drafted in the 4th round and for personal motivation.You have to wonder where the pot leaf insignia is hidden.

Speaking of homegrown, what?

1979 Steelers were the first team to be entirely home grown. Every player on the Steelers’ roster was either drafted by thesteelers-football Steelers or was signed as an undrafted free agent. That means that not a single player on the Steelers’ roster that year had worn another NFL uniform in their career leading up to 1979…per

6 is a popular number

Besides 6 trophies cough the most in the league, Steelers have had six home fields.

Forbes Field (1933-1963)
Shibe Park (1943)
Comiskey Park (1944)
Pitt Stadium (1958-1969)
Three Rivers Stadium (1970-2000)
Heinz Field (2001-present)

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Camp Battles – RB edition

By: Leif Adams

In my second installment of this series I am moving to another position of strength for the Steelers in running back. Le’Veon Bell has established himself as the best all purpose back in the NFL. He is a dual threat running or receiving out of the backfield and is a match-up nightmare for defensive coordinators. He is the obvious starter going into the season barring injury or suspension. That being said there is a few key battles going on behind Bell with a few interesting offseason moves by the Steelers.

First move was not re-signing DeAngelo Williams. DWill a fan favorite had more than served his purpose the last few seasons coming in during injury or suspension of Bell and not having a noticeable drop-off in production out of the running game. But last year Williams did seem to lose a step only managing 3.5 ypc an entire yard less than he did in 2015. Also, his long run was a measly 17 years last year while in 2015 he had two runs of 53 and 55 respectably. In my opinion the Steelers front office made the right move allowing Williams to pursue his pro wrestling career as father time catches everyone eventually.

The second noteworthy move would be drafting hometown favorite James Conner out of Pitt in the 3rd (105th overall) round. Conner looked to be a very high pick after his Sophomore season having nearly 1,800 yards with 26 TD’s and average 5.9 yards a crack. Conner looked to improve on his monster sophomore campaign going into his junior year when he was diagnosed with cancer. This stunning and life changing turn of events put Conner’s NFL dreams on hold while he fought for his life. Conner prevailed through a life challenge most cannot even grasp. He came back after he medical redshirted and had a very productive season with running for nearly 1,100 yards at 5.1 ypc and getting into the end zone 16 times. Conner also showed better hands hauling in 21 receptions for 302 yards and 4 more scores. Conner also stated he didn’t feel like he was back in football shape until the last 4-5 games of the season. In his last 5 regular season games Conner average 6.3 ypc for 529 yards and 9 TD’s while catching 5 balls for 102 yards and two more scores. If Conner was just getting back into football shape at the end of the season he could end up as the backup to Bell and even pushing for some playing time to keep Bell fresh for what we hope to be a Super Bowl run.

The other offseason move was the Steelers signing veteran Kniles Davis from the Chiefs. Davis whom has been a special teams ace as a return man has never really hit his stride carrying the rock as a RB. In his NFL tenure he has a total of 805 rushing yards while averaging 3.2 ypc. Not the kind of stats and average you’d expect from a guy who runs a legit 4.3 forty yard dash. But the Steelers I feel brought him as competition and to maybe bolster the return game if he makes the 53 man roster. His deal is a straight up 775k contract with no guaranteed money. So he will be motivated to work hard this summer.

Last years not so forgotten man after a costly playoff fumble Fitzgerald Toussaint will be preparing to keep Kniles Davis off the roster. Statistically speaking last year was Toussaint’s best as a pro with 58 rushing yards on 14 carries. He did have some return man duty but didn’t really knock anyone’s socks off. From what I can tell is Toussaint is a decent utility player but not going to excel anywhere on the field. He does have a good understanding of the playbook and is able to help on special teams so right now he has a slight lead over Davis. But this #3 and likely final true RB position roster spot to me will be one of the more intriguing camp battles.

Behind Toussaint are seasonal camp body Brandon Brown Dukes, journeyman camp body Trey Williamson, and my dark horse to take the #3 spot in Azusa Pacific alma mater of one Christian Okoye whom Terrell Watson crushed all Okoye’s records. Watson is a legit 4.5 40 back at 6-1 240lbs. He is pretty upright and not a lot of wiggle but he runs north/south and when he has a full head of steam it is not easy to take him down. I feel he has the ability to be the #3 RB and be the #2 FB and if he can show some special teams ability I think he makes the roster and even has a shot to earn a hat on Sunday. He’s not going to be returning balls but if he can use that speed and body to hustle and make some tackles I feel he sticks on the roster. Watson has a lot of challenges in front of him with two veterans and one being established on the team but I like what I saw from Watson and I am excited to see how he performs in camp and preseason.

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Steelers Defensive Line Still Thin

Defensive line still thin
By Justin McGonigle

With training camp just over a month away the Steelers will be entering a crucial training camp when they reconvene at St Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. The Steelers fell one game short of a trip to their ninth super bowl but they have enough pieces to make the next step. It was a familiar face that stood in their way and an all too familiar result.

Defense was the word after the Steelers exit from the playoffs. GM Kevin Colbert turned to the draft to help fill the void by selecting edge rushers TJ Watt, and Keion Adams, and cornerbacks Cam Sutton, and Brian Allen. Watt and Sutton could find themselves playing a significant amount of time this season. On the defensive line they signed former Jaguar Tyson Aluala to help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward on the ends. He will fill the gap vacated by Ricardo Mathews who wasn’t re-signed after his one year contract expired.

Last season the defensive line was ravished by injuries that included Heyward being placed on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral muscle against the Cowboys. Tuitt missed the last two games of the regular season with a sprained knee, and Mathews missed the Steelers wild card game against the Dolphins. Rookie Johnny Maxey and LT Walton picked up the slack with nose tackle Javon Hargrave. While Hargrave has entrenched himself into the Steelers defense after a solid rookie season there isn’t much behind him as far as depth. Fourth year player Daniel McCullers was supposed to be the heir apparent to Steve McLendon when he left for New York, but McCullers was never able to capitalize on the opportunity that the Steelers gave him. He has been mostly disappointing even though his size suggested that he could plug the middle of the Steelers defense like former nose tackle Casey Hampton did for many seasons.

The Steelers only carried six defensive linemen last season, but they could be forced to keep seven if Johnny Maxey continues to develop. He wasn’t a liability at the end of the season when he stepped in for Tuitt and Mathews. Tomlin and Colbert obviously feel comfortable with what they have as starters but the back-up nose tackle spot should have been addressed. Tuitt, Heyward, Hargrave, and Aluala are guaranteed to make the roster. Walton would have to be widely unimpressive in training camp to lose his spot, but he will be in a competition with Maxey should the Steelers elect to go with six linemen again this season.

PITTSBURGH, PA – JANUARY 1, 2017: Quarterback Robert Griffin III #10 of the Cleveland Browns is sacked by defensive tackle Daniel McCullers #93 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during a game on January 1, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

McCullers likely will keep the back-up nose position only because of the lack of competition. The Steelers brought back Lavon Hooks, and Roy Philon on futures contracts following the 2016 season. Both of whom spent time in training camp last season. Philon was with the Steelers during the 2014 preseason before being released prior to the regular season. He bounced around with Chicago and Detroit before coming back to Pittsburgh. Hargrave should be ready for training camp but he injured himself during OTA’s and missed time. Should this happen during the regular season the Steelers would most be forced to use McCullers more but they could opt to use a two linemen look with only Tuitt and Heyward. It is a look that the Steelers have used quite a bit in the past.