Interview with Neal Coolong, Editor, Behind the Steel Curtain
First, can you let us know what’s new at Behind the Steel Curtain and what we should expect in terms of coverage over the next few months?
You’ll probably read a bit on the draft. Replace “probably” with “will” and “a bit” with “a ton.” We’re really hoping to cover a wide range of draft news and info, including player breakdowns, mock drafts and coverage of all prominent All Star games.
Odds are outstanding I will be so burned out of the draft come May I’ll completely freak out any time anyone mentions Troy Edwards, but odds are good that would happen today anyway.
Along with that, we’ll run a few feature packages on upcoming roster decisions (there’s one underway now by our senior writer Dale Grdnic on a summary of each position and what we can expect in terms of additions and subtractions from those spots in 2014) and free agency. We’ll add in some current roster breakdowns in terms of performance this past season and any other news that may come up during the harrowing non-football time.
An up and down season for this team, but one with more ups than downs the second half of the season, albeit too little too late for the playoffs. What do you attribute the second half turn around too, and is it sustainable going into next season?
I think the second half turnaround was really attributed to the one thing the team hasn’t had during its 16-16 slide over the last two years; continuity. They had almost the same offensive line starters over an extended period of time, and those starters all had some prior experience at their positions. That hasn’t really happened in the Todd Haley Era. The team also got the real benefits of the experienced gained by rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, as well as some cohesion between Haley and Ben Roethlisberger in terms of strategy.
It’s quick and easy to attribute it all to the No Huddle, but I think more than that, it worked because Roethlisberger used it within the structure of Haley’s offense. Quick passing, well-schemed runs and easy checkdowns have brought Roethlisberger to a level where he’s acting more like a CEO than a wild gunman – he’s taking gains, avoiding losses and the result of that was more points and fewer turnovers. Even in the games they lost over the last eight, they had a chance to win both of them at the very end.
Just imagine if Antonio Brown’s feet were a quarter of an inch narrower.
All of these things (except Brown’s feet) are sustainable heading into next season. The core group is intact – Roethlisberger, Brown, the offensive line (plus the return of Pouncey) and Bell. Add a healthy Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth to the mix (a vastly underrated aspect contributing to the team’s horrendous start).
The Steelers have had limited success as of late getting solid production from younger players. From you perspective, how much of this is an issue with the quality of the drafts versus player development?
We should establish expectations on these players before answering that question. If Ziggy Hood and/or Cameron Heyward were not perceived to be as good as Aaron Smith circa 2007, were they busts? Did they fail to develop? Jason Worilds’ lack of ability to play the run as well as James Harrison could, does that make the decision to draft him a bad one?
I think the perspective here is exactly the problem. The Steelers were an outstanding football team for a long time. Two Super Bowls, three AFC championships, a 15-1 season, never falling below .500. These aren’t traits of teams that struggle in terms of either drafting or player development. It just goes to show how hard it is to stay on top for an extended period of time.
That said, there are examples of missed picks littered around the draft histories of every team. It’s the ones who didn’t develop in concert with the ones who did but the team failed to re-sign. The Steelers of the mid-to-late 2000s didn’t really have that problem. They developed talent and they kept that talent. Perhaps history will show conclusively they kept a few players for a bit too long, and that caused a few younger players to leave via free agency (Keenan Lewis, Mike Wallace, etc.) because the cap space wasn’t available to make more competitive offers to them.
Maybe we’ll just see the team that’s been known for much of the salary cap era as being outstanding in the draft and outstanding in knowing when to pay a player and when to let him walk missed on a few picks and was off a bit in its timing with a few players.
But better late than never. Worilds and Heyward are both proving to be valuable investments that perhaps just needed a little more time to season and stay healthy in order to be productive. Cortez Allen could be a candidate for a leap like Worilds and Heyward had in 2013. Bell already looks to be a 1,500-yards from scrimmage kind of player. David DeCastro will be among the best interior offensive linemen in the game as early as next year.
Top to bottom, I think it’s just some slower development combined with unrealistic expectations of players coming in as good as the ones in the mid-2000s. If we didn’t know anything about the Steelers and had no emotional investment, we would think it’s a budding team with a younger roster than many might think. They very well could be a double-digit win team next year.
What young players do you see really taking big steps next season, and why?
David DeCastro showed his promise has turned to expectation in 2014. Last season may have been his second in the NFL but it was his first full season, He’s only played 18 games, but in that time, we’ve seen plenty to suggest he’s going to be everything Steelers fans thought he would be when he fell in the 2012 NFL Draft. He plays with outstanding leverage and has a high level of athleticism. What I think will push him over the edge this year is he’s really going to come into his own physically. With a second training camp under his belt, not to mention another year in the Steelers’ weight training program, he’s going to add some pop to his pads and will become the level of guard Alan Faneca was in his time in Pittsburgh.
I’m also excited for Bell running behind DeCastro. Injuries held him back last year as well, and I think he was effective as an all-around offensive threat. I don’t think, however, he ran the ball particularly well. It was clear there were still some things he was figuring out even until the end, but this is a kid who had around 300 touches this season and fumbled once – in his first 100 yard game, a grind-it-out victory over the Green Bay Packers in what was easily Bell’s best game as a pro.
Keep an eye on Nik Embernate – an undrafted free agent from 2013 who suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. The team was high on him last year, and as this offensive line continues to improve (I know, right?? The line has IMPROVED), he could find himself pushing the bar to get on the field.
We know this offseason will being about a few changes in terms of veteran players let go. What players do you realistically see the Steelers parting ways with and who gets re-signed?
It’s a really interesting set of circumstances this offseason.
Ben Roethlisberger – Team needs a lower cap number for their franchise passer, and that passer would like some new money. Seems like the perfect match. Roethlisberger has the ability to help the team by signing a new deal, and the team has a chance to help the future of that team by giving him a bit more guaranteed money in exchange for smaller salaries over the next few years – not all that dissimilar to what Tom Brady did in New England. Will he? Will they? A lot of things hinge on that extension.
Troy Polamalu – He has zero chance of playing for his $10.88 million cap number in 2014. The team would cut him if he didn’t agree to a new deal, and only get hit for $2.6 million against the 2014 cap. A few more years, a few million more dollars, Polamalu stays where he belongs for the rest of his career, gets some new money out of it and the team drops his cap number maybe as much as $6 million in 2014.
On the Fence:
Jason Worilds – Really hard to see how this will work. To his credit, he absolutely blew up over the second half of the year, putting up pass rush statistics the Steelers haven’t seen since Harrison in his prime. On the downside, he’s been injured plenty often over the last few years, did not really come alive until the second half of this year – incidentally when he was going against some of the least talented right tackles in the NFL. What’s his price? It could be anywhere, really. The Steelers won’t match a franchise-level deal.
LaMarr Woodley – Worilds deal, in many ways, affects the future of Woodley. Constant injuries have held Woodley back, and without those, he was producing at a solid level. Solid isn’t what a team should get for the size of Woodley’s cap number in 2014. The team may make him a post-June 1 designation, taking something of a cap hit in 2014, but really taking a hit in 2015. They’d save money on the move (without factoring in replacement cost) in the upcoming season but really pay for it the following year. Woodley’s basically missing every other game at this point in his career, and it may just be time to move on.
Ike Taylor – One of a few players who had restructures done for the sake of clearing up cap space, he’s in a prime position for an extension. But does the team want to give him that extension? One of the aspects of the roster working in Taylor’s favor is they really aren’t deep at the position. A spot that used to have Taylor and Keenan Lewis with the rising Cortez Allen at the nickel spot is now down to 34-year-old Taylor, William Gay and Allen (the last two aren’t signed past 2014). Depth is at a premium here, but other moves the team may make can help create some cap space to bolster that depth, and have Taylor play through his current deal.
Ziggy Hood – This depends solely on two things. Does Hood feel he can get more on the open market? Is he ok accepting what could end up being a one-year starting position while the team continues to develop younger options (it’s a good defensive line draft at the top, and the team has spoken highly of Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams, not to mention having Al Woods on stand-by as well).
Larry Foote – The Steelers have to like the idea of having another draft to help bolster some depth at inside linebacker, and for as badly as the team missed Foote in 2013, Vince Williams and/or another free agent for a few bucks cheaper than Foote’s scheduled to make is probably the right direction. This isn’t to say Williams is the unquestioned starter by any means, but Foote may just be making too much.
Brett Keisel – It will come down to Keisel or Hood, and maybe neither. It’s just tough to not let him test the market, and he’ll likely bring in an offer from another 3-4 team looking to bolster its defensive line with a proven winner and leader.
Ryan Clark – A dependable safety, Clark can probably make more than what the Steelers would be in the market to offer. He could also skip the head-rattling world of the NFL and head to the studio.
A little early for the draft, but who are some of the players from your perspective the team should be targeting in the first few rounds, and why?
We’ve dipped into this quite a bit on the site, and haven’t made our way into the middle rounds just yet. Looking at realistic options for the No. 15 pick, I think Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt shows a lot of promise, and could be the versatile, multi-position three-down kind of player the defensive line could use. I was also very impressed with Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman (to the point when he blows up at the Combine, we’ll see only single digits in front of his name in any mock draft).
C.J. Mosely also looks like an outstanding prospect. By the time the Combine and All Star games are over, I think you’ll start to hear people connecting Mike Evans to Pittsburgh (although I’m not sold on him being worth that pick). Ultimately, if you told me now I’d get a 5 percent stake in the team if I was right with my prediction today, I’d say NT Louis Nix from Notre Dame.
The team could use Steve McLendon in a similar fashion as I suggested Tuitt could, giving them some added athleticism and spontaneity among their front seven. Nix is a true nose tackle, and for as solid as McLendon has been, he isn’t. Nix fits a need, and considering the Steelers gave up a slew of big runs this past year (none of those came on third down, either, so the idea of Nix not being on the field much doesn’t really matter), it seems to fit player value as well as team need better than any others I could see falling to 15.
Likewise, any free agents in the Ryan Clark, Jame Farrior mode could you see the team realistically targeting this offseason to plug some holes on this roster?
The fun part about following the Steelers during free agency is we don’t know who the next Farrior and Clark are, so naturally, we assume that’s what we’ll get when they step on the field.
We will already get to see a fully healthy (knock on wood) Matt Spaeth, which we were sort of robbed of last year. That’s a plus right there. Otherwise, I am not entirely sure who, if anyone, they’d really target, but if they did, it would likely be because they were unable to keep one of their own free agents.
Hardest thing to predict…any Steelers movement in free agency.
A quick Word association game here. Give us the first 1-2 words that come to mind on these players:
Cortez Allen: Needs to rebound
Maurkice Pouncey: Contract year
Kelvin Beachum: Mike Adams?!?
Ike Taylor: Can’t catch
Cameron Heyward: Wreck-It
Jarvis Jones: Carbs are Good
Lamarr Woodley: No Harrison
Larry Foote: Steeler Forever
Mike Adams: New Coach
Terrence Garvin: Proved Nothing
Jerricho Cotchery: Thanks, Tannebaum!
As someone who follows this team daily, how have you Mike Tomlin improve most as a coach and what specifically does he do that most contributes to the team’s success? What does he need to improve on?
I think Mike Tomlin is honest with his players. You hear that in the voices of players, both current and former, who all seem to indicate there’s a strong level of respect for Tomlin and the way he approaches his work. Having that level of honesty in one’s communication and having the guts to stand behind it are vital components of leading in a group dynamic.
Most will rip Tomlin for a few in-game decisions over the years, and I’d struggle to find any coach who’s not guilty of that at various times. It’s an extremely complicated game, and you don’t necessarily have loads of time to react. I’m a hack writer with the ability to hit pause, rewind, watch again then write about what I just saw, and I still look over what I wrote in the past, wondering how I came up with that stupid of a conclusion.
The decision to go for the touchdown against the Packers was odd enough to me I wonder if Tomlin’s real intention was just to have Bell run square into the line and fall down. Tomlin’s explanation behind why he decided to try for a touchdown wasn’t exactly satisfying to me, and from what I saw, millions of others, but I appreciate the fact he holds himself accountable – even if he is defending questionable decisions no matter how ridiculous the decision seemed to be.
A general criticism now I think is how his team has started out slowly in each of the last three seasons – the worst being 2013. Oddly, the team started out on fire in 2010, when they were down their starting quarterback. One main goal Tomlin should have this offseason is preparing this team for the season, obviously, but they have to quietly talk about the importance of winning the opener, against whomever and wherever it will be held.
We’ve seen statistical/data analysis really increase in terms of how the media, fans, and front offices apply it to their respective sports – especially in baseball and hockey. Why do you think that’s been slower to occur with the NFL? And do you see that changing?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve wrestled around with this a bit in spare moments and in bouts of insomnia, but I’m not entirely sure how advanced statistics play a role in the NFL. At the same time, I couldn’t tell you how to interpret most advanced statistics in hockey either. But generally speaking, I see football as the most spontaneous game out of all of the major sports. In basketball, there are only 10 players on the court and the court is only so big. There are thousands of stats through which the shooting tendencies of a player or a team can be extrapolated.
Again, I’ll admit my ignorance, I just think the advanced statistical measurement of other sports works to a better degree than in the NFL, where everything teams are doing depends so much on what just happened. It’s all happening so fast, yet, there’s still roughly 30 seconds between what just happened and the next play. It creates a sense of chaos that’s both hard to ignore and hard to quantify at the same time.