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March 4, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: “Of course” Gradkowski would welcome return as Steelers backup QB

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Bruce Gradkowski: “I love it here. This is my home”/Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review photo

 

 

Bruce Gradkowski’s playing career, through no fault of his own, in a manner of speaking has come to somewhat of a screeching halt in Pittsburgh.

 

Screenshot_2016-03-04-13-42-31-1

Gradkowski’s career playing time (courtesy NFL.com)

 

That doesn’t mean he’s eager to continue it anywhere else.

 

 

Entering the final weekend of his contract with the Steelers, Gradkowski told me after the season ended that he would welcome re-signing with his hometown team.

 

 

“Of course,” the Green Tree native and Seton-LaSalle alum said. “I love it here. This is my home.

 

 

“And of course the Rooneys and this organization; I mean, it’s the best in the league. And I have been around and I have seen it all, but this locker room and the coaches (don’t compare). It’s been an enjoyable three years for me, and I think there’s special things ahead.”

 

 

The Steelers’ face some decisions at quarterback – but they’re the kind of decisions (re: at backup) the vast majority of teams in the league would gladly trade for. Of course, they’re set at starter with Ben Roethlisberger. Yet with Big Ben having turned 34 this week, the organization has to at least be generally aware that, perhaps, his durability might not be what it once was. This is not an indictment on Roethlisberger – just an acknowledgement of the aging process of human beings, as well as of the four separate injuries that caused Roethlisberger to miss time (of varying lengths) last season.

 

 

So, what to do? Two of the three men on the roster behind Big Ben on the Steelers’ QB depth chart in 2015 are unrestricted free agents: Gradkowski and Mike Vick. Landry Jones (himself entering the final year of his contract) and Dustin Vaughan (a second-year player from West Texas A&M signed to a reserve/future contract in January) are the other quarterbacks on the roster currently.

 

 

Gradkowski, at the present time, would seem to have the best “backup” resume of the group. He has 20 NFL starts to his credit, more than half of which coming as a rookie in 2006 with Tampa Bay. He also started at least one game during stops with Cleveland and Oakland, and he at least got to throw 29 regular-season passes playing the 2011 and ’12 seasons in Cincinnati.

 

 

Then he came to Pittsburgh in 2013 on a three-year contract to serve as the top backup to Roethlisberger…  only to sit idly while Big Ben had the two most healthy concurrent seasons of his career.

 

 

Then, this past season, with Roethlisberger under siege because of a myriad of ailments, Gradkowski himself could only offer support from the sidelines, as he spent all of the 2015 regular season on injured reserve.

 

 

“It was tough – of course I want to be out there physically playing, and that was tough this year because there’s nothing like being out there on the field with the guys,” Gradkowski said.

 

 

“But I tried to help Landry out as much as I could because it was his first opportunity to play and I have been in that position before so I wanted to help him as much as I could. Same with Mike, coming in with a different system and having to play real quick when he just got here. So anything I could help contribute to those guys, I tried to do.”

 

 

It’s far from certain that a player on IR will be visible around the Steelers facility throughout the season, or on the practice field or traveling with the team on road games. Gradkowski was all of those things in 2015. It was a common sight during games to see him as much a part of an in-game sideline strategy session with Roethlisberger as offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner.

 

 

“I just think you continue to build that relationship, that happens,” Gradkowski said when asked about the apparent confidence, comfort level and respect the coaching staff and Roethlisberger had for Gradkowski’s input. “Todd, Randy and Ben, we all collaborate, and I have learned a lot from Ben over the years. The guy has so much poise and composure during games and in the locker room and he’s been a great leader for us. It’s great to see it – he’s the best in the league and to be able to learn from someone and to help him in any way I can on a day-in and day-out basis, it’s been an honor.”

 

 

Gradkowski is just roughly 13 months younger than Roethlisberger (even if he has 149 fewer NFL starts). That doesn’t mean, he said, he still isn’t learning. Recognizing that the reality is that he’s closer to his playing career’s end than its beginning, Gradkowski admitted he “definitely enjoys” the coaching aspect and didn’t deny it could be part of his future.

 

 

“Going through (a year on IR), I got to see everything from a coach’s side, and I have enjoyed that,” he said. “I got to learn a lot and it also still kept me to be part of the group, because it’s tough not being able to contribute on the field physically. To be off the field trying to contribute mentally kept me in the game this year and I loved it and had a ball because I love these guys in the locker room. And to see all the adversity we have overcome this year and to make it to the divisional round – and of course we were short of our  goal and what our expectations are – but I’m proud of the guys for what they have accomplished this year because it’s just a fun group, great coaches, great locker room.”

 

 

One that Gradkowski perhaps will remain part of in 2016 and beyond.

 

 

 

 

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February 26, 2016
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Penn State’s Hackenberg explains ‘diss’ of Franklin

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INDIANAPOLIS — Christian Hackenberg thanked Bill O’Brien.

The Penn State quarterback then went on to thank his quarterback coach; the former offensive coordinator; the strength and conditioning staff; the trainers; video guy; the communications guy; and the fans.

It may have been an honest mistake, but Hackenberg left out his current coach James Franklin when handing out thanks after he declared for the NFL Draft following the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 1.
Hackenberg, who is one of the top quarterbacks at the NFL Combine this week, finally got to explain his ‘diss’ of Franklin.

“It was one of those times where it was really emotional,” Hackenberg said “I didn’t have anything written out. What came to mind were the people who had spent a lot of time with me, the people who had brought me to Penn State. Coach franklin and I had a conversation. I thanked him in person. I thought that was best for our relationship. Thanking him in person on a personal level.”

That explanation doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative.

Hackenberg had solid freshman season under O’Brien’s pro-style offense. When O’Brien left for the NFL and was replaced by Franklin, Hackenberg’s numbers suffered in the new coach’s spread-style offense.

“We’re fine,” Hackenberg said.  “No hard feelings there. He’s doing a great job up there in terms of recruiting and getting the program headed in the right direction.”

Here is the full transcript of Hackenberg at the Combine

(How much did you learn from O’Brien?)
“Coming in, I had an accelerated learning curve. I didn’t get to early-enroll. Had a great bunch of guys around him. Guys who had been in the system. They definitely helped bring me along. It was a great experience overall for me.”

(Playing for O’Brien).
“The system fit great and I had a great opportunity to come in and play and throw to a guy like Allen Robinson. I had a lot of people around me who made it a good transition for me and allowed me to grow and own the offense.”

(Trained with Jordan Palmer, brother of Carson)
“Just going back and watching my film was a big step. Seeing where I could improve. We wanted to work on improving my consistency and my base. That will lead to consistency in everything else. Accuracy and being able to deliver the ball. Being able to focus on it for 6 to 8 weeks consistently has been awesome. I’ve made a lot of strides there.

(Would you like to play for Houston and O’Brien?)
“I think it would be a great opportunity. But at the end of the day, I’m here just trying to be the best prospect I can be and impress as many football teams as I can.

(2nd and 3rd years at Penn State)
“The big progression for me was just maturity and just being able to grow into a leadership role. That within itself was something I took a lot of pride in. Was elected a team captain two years in a row my sophomore and junior year. I took a lot of pride in that. I was able to work through adversity. I think adversity really shapes who you are. Success is easy to roll with. But how you respond to adversity is really huge.”

(The struggles the last two years and the doubters)
“My biggest fear is not being able to reach my full potential. Just being able to work on my game for the last eight weeks with Jordan and really improve and make strides in that area and see where my ceiling is and where my potential can take me is really exciting. I just want to be the best player I can be, and whatever I have to do, whatever sacrifices I need to make to get there I’m willing to do it.”

(What do you bring to the table?)
“I’ve dealt with a lot of NFL-type situations as far as adversity. Handling a lot of things. Handling a shorter deck. We were playing with 43 guys on scholarship my freshman year. I played in a pro system my freshman year. Understood it really well and picked it up quickly and was able to roll with it.”

(The poor pass protection the last couple of years and impact on your fundamentals and footwork and decision-making)
“I don’t think it has to be retooled. It’s just a matter of being consistent in things. At times you can lose consistency. Being able to finally focus on that the last six weeks getting ready for combine, I feel I’ve made great strides there and that’s been huge.”

(Your confidence level)
“Always embracing the challenge. Always looking at it as a new opportunity. An opportunity to get better and win games. That’s what it’s all about.

(How helpful playing for O’Brien for a year has been)
“Having that base, playing in that system was huge. Just talking terminology-wise, the tape that I watched, things that I had access to. He had just gotten done coaching Tom Brady, who is one of the best that every played. Having that at 18, having all of those tools available and being able to tap those resources really helped me develop a good base in terms of football knowledge, defensive knowledge. Having to change systems was huge for me as well. Being able to pick that up and translate things and see what crosses over. Overall, the entire experience was a huge positive for me. There was a ton of adversity. But it was stuff you’re going to deal with at this level. You see it year in and year out. Changing systems. New coaches. New personnel. So it was a great experience for me. having the opportunity to do that at 18-19 years old, it’s only prepared me for the rest of my career.”

(The film study with Jordan Palmer)
“The first week we kind of broke down my film to kind of get an idea of what we wanted to work on on the field. Then we broke it up into two three-week segments. First three weeks we followed the Cardinals to the playoffs. So we broke down Green Bay and Carolina and Denver defensively. He sent me home with a lot of homework. I’d draw up blitzes and pressures. Anything I didn’t know we would just talk about. It was a good way to accelerate the learning curve in terms of the terminology that NFL teams use. The last three weeks, we broke down Carson Palmer and Blake Bortles. And then we’re going to break down Andrew Luck when I get back. Just to do a little bit of quarterback study. Comparison to see if we can pick a few things out.”

(What’s biggest thing you want teams to know about you?)
“The most important thing is that I’m trustworthy. I’ve been through adversity. I’m battle-tested. And I’ve handled it and haven’t flinched and am still willing to work and not hurt from it. I can continue to get better. I think my potential is here and I think I’m on the right path to reach it.”

(Things you need to get better at)
“It goes back to inconsistency. My footwork was the biggest thing for me. It was mostly the base. Having tO move around so much, I got over-extended in the pocket and that led to accuracy issues. Being able to fix that and be super-consistent in it, has made me more comfortable with my accuracy in terms of delivering the football.”

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February 20, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: An ode to the least-fitting nickname in NFL history and the man who held it (Heath Miller)

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HEATH

 

 

The first time I asked Heath Miller about his nickname was more than eight years ago. The last time was this past summer.

 

Each inquiry, he gave a sheepish, almost-embarrassed smile but politely answered it. After all, “Big Money” hardly describes Miller’s laid-back, unassuming and quiet persona.

 

“I don’t think it’s my nickname anymore,” Miller said with a chuckle back in November 2007. “Some people called me that in college, I think, because of my personality more just kind of a just a sarcastic name. And it kind of stuck.”

 

When I asked him in Latrobe during 2015 training camp, he was even less expansive. But he was just as polite.

 

Classic Heath Miller. He had no need for any attention heaped on him – in fact, he almost uncomfortable that he deserved ANY, as if to say, Just because I perform an athletic skill, why does that make me important? or, I’m just one small part of what we do around here; feel free to talk to any of my teammates who deserve it.

 

With that said, almost counter-intuitively, he still somehow managed to make himself one of the more approachable figures in the Steelers locker room. No matter the topic, no matter the time, no matter the situation, Miller was accommodating and respectful to any questions. (And believe me, he’s heard some dumb ones).

 

Like his game on the field, Miller’s personal style wasn’t loud and bombastic. It was almost boring. Take his typical choice of footwear spotted on him in the locker room? Regular old New Balance sneakers (the only reason I happened to notice this is that these always stood out to me for the sole reason of because they’re pretty much what this particular boring sportswriter wears – albeit Miller’s were always newer and cleaner).

 

It’s just one tiny, insignificant detail in Heath Miller’s life – but it seems perfectly fitting for the muted and low-key Super Steeler Pro Bowler.

 

“Certainly, that’s kind of the way I am,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any hiding going on.”

 

True to form, how do you think Miller proposed to his wife of more than eight years, Katie? Of course, it was anything but over-the-top or extravagant.

 

“I surprised her and just took her to this place that had a few of our friends over,” Miller said during that chat not long after his wedding eight years ago.

 

What, you were expecting an airplane carrying a banner or a flashy, public to-do?

 

That’s not Heath Miller.

 

Quiet – but commanding utmost respect. Humble, yet carrying an almost regal quality about him.

 

So, how in the world did Miller not only get a nickname like, “Big Money”… but get a candy bar named after that, too – complete with Miller’s face standing as the centerpiece of a piece of paper currency (83 “dollars,” of course)?

 

“My agent thought it would be pretty funny and sarcastic,” Miller said of the chocolate, toffee and crisped rice concoction that was sold in the Pittsburgh area in the year after the team won Super Bowl XL.

 

There’s nothing funny or sarcastic about calling Miller the best at his position in the history of one of the NFL’s marquee franchises.

 

 

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February 19, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Roosevelt Nix- “It’s just a blessing to be part of something great like (the Steelers)”

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Nix

 

 

 

Late in the afternoon of Jan. 9, 2015 – five days after their 2014 season ended with a disappointing home playoff loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens – the Steelers announced the signings of six players.

 

The only rostered player was LB Terence Garvin, a special teams standout entering his third season. The other five were those “reserve/future” contracts that you hear so much about this time of year.

 

Translation: Most likely mere training camp bodies who will never sniff the team’s 53-man roster.

 

To wit, just by looking at what happened to the players who signed that day:

 

  • –WR Brelan Chancellor didn’t even make it to OTA’s in May before being released
  • –TE Michael Egnew was cut a week into training camp, the Steelers’ first outright release in Latrobe last summer
  • –DE Matt Conrath and S Alden Darby made it to the final cut of the preseason… but still were out of football by Labor Day.

 

But there was one other player signed that day. A first-year former college defensive end from Kent State by the name of Roosevelt Nix.

 

Of the eight players brought in from outside the organization and signed to reserve/future deals last winter, Nix is the only one to make the team. In fact, of the 15 players overall signed to such contracts, he was one of only two to make the team (OT Alejandro Villanueva was signed four days before Nix, along with six others who’d finished the 2014 season on the Steelers’ practice squad).

 

The point being: A player signed by a team to a reserve/future contract in January typically has little chance of making the team.

 

In Nix’s case, that was particularly true considering he was undersized (5 feet 11) at the position he knew best (defensive line) – and at the time of his signing, he was listed as a “linebacker.”

 

Nix ended up being a fullback of all things.

 

All part of the wild ride that was Nix’s 2015 in Pittsburgh.

 

“I definitely recognize that it’s been a blessing to be part of something great like this,” Nix told me the day after the Steelers’ 2015 season ended with their playoff loss in Denver.

 

As Nix spoke, he was standing in crutches, his right foot in a boot after a metatarsal injury sustained in the penultimate game of the regular season in Baltimore on Dec. 27.

 

“The recovery is going fine,” Nix said. “I’m just listening to the trainers; I should be back to normal training, no problem, here in a little bit.”

 

That’s good news for Nix, who’d endeared himself to teammates and coach Mike Tomlin over his improbable first NFL season.

 

He won the No. 1 fullback job and was often used as a lead blocker. He even caught two passes. Mostly, though, he became a valuable special teams contributor.

 

“Individually there are still some things I can work on,” he said. “I’m just ready to take some time, assess the season and get back to work.”

 

With Will Johnson about to become an unrestricted free agent, it would seem that Nix is secure in being the top fullback for the Steelers in 2016. True, on the surface that’s not worth too much in an offense (and in a league) that doesn’t utilize a fullback too often. But Nix managed to play 151 snaps in his 15 games – more than 10 per game. That’s 14 percent of the offense’s total for the season; factoring in when he was injured, that represents that Nix played roughly one-sixth of the Steelers’ offensive plays.

 

That’s likely more than Johnson played last season (Johnson has taken reps at tight end since 2014, so at least a portion of the 206 offensive snaps he took in 2014 were not at fullback – 206 would be 18.5% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps). That’s an indication Nix had the trust of the Steelers’ offensive coaches.

 

Of course, Nix’s more obvious impact was on special teams – he had nine tackles and a forced fumble. Most tellingly, though, he fit in seamlessly and proved he belonged in the NFL. He not only made the 53-man roster, he was activated for every game in which he was healthy. The Steelers would go on cut more established players (Ross Ventrone, for example) in lieu of losing Nix.

 

Not bad for an undersized defensive end from Kent State who’d been cut a week into his previous training camp (with the Falcons in 2014) and initially had about as much of a chance to make the Steelers as, well, a now-forgotten guy named Brelan Chancellor did.

 

Nix vows he’s not merely satisfied with that. He claims he’ll be much better in Year 2 in his new life as a fullback.

 

“Oh, by far,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is ever going to be great after one year of anything. There’s a lot of things that I still need to work on – things that I have gotten better at and things I can still improve, and I’m 100 percent willing to fix all of those and be the best player I can be.”

 

 

 

 

Listen to The Kaboly Show, Trib Steelers writer Mark Kaboly’s weekly program on TribLive Radio Click here to hear Mark discuss the Steelers offseason, with guest Adam Crowley of Steelers Nation Radio.

 

 

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February 12, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: It’s a *big* offseason for BIG Dan McCullers

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As always, here’s the weekly post prologue urging you to listen to quality, informative audio entertainment in the form of the Steelers Roundtable show on TribLive Radio. Mark Kaboly, Ralph Paulk and I discuss how the Broncos defense’s dominating performance in the Super Bowl relates to the Steelers’ immediate future. We also delve some into the team’s free agency priorities. It’s the final show for six weeks, so click here to listen now while you have the chance!

 

While you’re at it, check out Monday’s episode of The Kaboly Show – although it continues year-round, because Mark is special.

 

 

 

 

The 2015 season began with a degree of promise for Daniel McCullers. Coming off a rookie season in which he gradually went from “project” to “usable rotational defensive lineman” as a 22-year-old sixth-round pick, it was looking as if the Steelers might have found something in the former Tennessee Volunteer who stands 6 feet 7 and weights, oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of between 350-400 pounds.

 

McCullers played 35 snaps during the first two games of this past season, and one school of thought was that he was being groomed to take over as the top nose tackle with Steve McLendon scheduled to become in unrestricted free agent in March.

 

But then a knee injury struck McCullers, and he missed the next three games. He’d end up playing just 70 snaps over the final 11 games of the season – 26 of which coming Nov. 1 against Cincinnati when end Stephon Tuitt was out because of injury. In Seattle four weeks later, McCullers didn’t play at all. He played just 12 snaps over the final five games (counting playoffs).

 

It was clear that McCullers didn’t do enough to earn the coaches’ trust. On a team with a thin defensive line and one in which one of the stellar ends (Cameron Heyward) said after the season that he and Tuitt would prefer not to carry so heavy a load, McCullers wasn’t able to get on the field too much.

 

McCullers played about as much over the final 10 games of 2015 as he did in 2014, and he was mostly (barring an injury to someone else) just a subpackage, situational, specialized player.

 

Still, the big guy insists he was “most definitely” a better player in ’15 than he was as a rookie.

 

“I learned a lot being with the Steelers and with this D-line, being with Cam, Tuitt, all the guys, you learn so much,” McCullers told me last month. “And I’m gonna take it all in. I feel like I am progressing a lot and getting better each and every week.”

 

When McCullers was drafted, keeping his weight down was the concern that jumped out. It likely will always be something he has to keep in check, as his stated priorities for the offseason exhibit:

 

“My plan is just to stay in the best shape I can possible,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, don’t lose my shape, don’t get out of shape and come back ready to go. And continue to work on my fundamentals and my technique.”

 

McCullers said the defensive line corps under coach John Mitchell are “close,” and his feelings toward McLendon – the 30-year-old, six-year vet ahead of him on the depth chart – prove that. If McLendon does leave as a free agent, especially considering fellow veteran Cam Thomas is also a UFA and not expected back, McCullers’ role might figure to expand.

 

“That’s up for the coaches do decide; that’s their job,” McCullers said. “But Steve is a great player; he helped us a lot this year and however it goes for him, I hope the best for him.”

 

While the importance of a nose tackle seems to dwindle every year in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, the Steelers still would likely think twice about letting McLendon walk. And even if he does, they’d likely bring in another veteran to replace him. Plus, there’s plenty of speculation they’ll be targeting d-line help in the draft.

 

There’s no shortage of moving pieces on the Steelers’ defensive line, but no matter how it plays out, the 2016 offseason and training camp could prove to be a big opportunity for “Big Dan” McCullers.

 

 

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February 7, 2016
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: The week behind a Super (Bowl) week

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160207_122918_COLLAGE-1160208_074800_COLLAGE-1

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been an interesting week out here in the Bay Area leading up to Super Bowl 50 — interesting and long.

I guess that’s what happens when the Super Bowl host city is an hour drive away from where the Super Bowl is actually taking place, but I digress.

This is my fourth Super Bowl I’ve covered in my career, but first not involving the Steelers.  That should make it easier, right?

Absolutely not.

I approached this first non-Steelers Super Bowl week trying to relate every story back to the Steelers in some form or fashion. Now, that would’ve been easy if the Arizona Cardinals beat the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, but, as we know, they didn’t.

That made it difficult to find a dozen Steelers-related topics over a week.

In order to do that, I stalked out Radio Row.

Radio Row is a collection of, well, radio people all in one place. What makes this valuable is that companies use professional football players as a vehicle to promote their product through a mass collection of media all at one spot.

I got some and missed some.

I got Bill Cowher, Kelvin Beachum, Kevin Greene, Aaron Donald, Brett Keisel and Chad Brown.

I tried with Antonio Brown; totally missed Le’Veon Bell; never ran into DeAngelo Williams; and got enveloped by the mass around Hines Ward and was pushed to the side.

Oh well, you win some and lose some.

Well, I do appreciate all you readers out there and, in case you missed something, this was my week of work in San Francisco/Santa Clara/San Jose.

Enjoy!

Ex-coach Cowher says Steelers ‘are very close’ to being a team to beat

Ex-Steeler Sanders enjoys Media Day spotlight

Former Steelers Cotchery enjoys leadership role with Panthers
Steelers LT Kelvin Beachum rules out move to guard

Panthers owner Richardson uses the Rooney way in Carolina

Former Steelers DE Keisel adjusting to life of retirement

10 years later, Parker’s 75-yard run stands as best ever in SB

Steelers’ Brown still not happy with Burfict, Jones

NFL commish pushes for in-game ejections in aftermath of Bengals/Steelers

Former Steelers LB Greene not holding breathe for Hall induction

Greene gets the knock and gets into the Hall of Fame … finally

Manning ready to pass the torch to Newton in SB 50

Manning, Broncos stun Panthers in SB 50

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February 5, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Jordan Berry believes he had what it takes to break Steelers punting curse

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Post prologue: Click here to listen to this week’s episode of the Steelers Roundtable Show. Ralph Paulk and I are in the palatial TribLive Radio studios on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, while a sleepy Mark Kaboly joins us live from his hotel room bed (before 6 a.m.) in Northern California, where he is covering Super Bowl 50 for the Tribune-Review. We preview the game and chat 2016 Steelers issues.

 

 

2015 Preseason Carolina at Pittsburgh

 

 

The results of Jordan Berry’s first season were mixed – the Steelers punter flashed potential, but lacked consistency. While fans might  have opinions, the team’s front office will make its thoughts known in the coming seven months.

 

But does Berry himself believe he’s shown – and has – what it takes to, at last, become the Steelers’ longterm answer at what has been a revolving door of a position?

 

“Definitely,” he told me. “It’s something where you love to do it and if you can try to stay in one spot, that’s definitely better. I feel like overall I had a pretty decent year this year; obviously I was not as consistent as I would like. But I feel like I can build on that and come back next year stronger if I keep working at it.”

 

Berry had surgery performed on his right shoulder less than week after injuring it during the Steelers’ divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos last month. By all accounts, it was a successful procedure that shouldn’t affect his preparations for the 2016 season all that much (aren’t all surgeries initially reported that way?), and there’s no reason to believe Berry will be prevented from being the Steelers punter for their regular-season opener the second weekend of September.

 

That said, it’s no slam dunk he will hold onto the job.

 

I’ve written about this before, but in the nine seasons Mike Tomlin has been coach of the Steelers, he has used nine punters: Daniel Sepulveda, Mitch Berger, Paul Ernster, Jeremy Kapinos, Drew Butler, Zoltan Mesko, Matt McBriar, Brad Wing and Berry. The gig has changed hands 12 times (three times because of injury, eight due to performance and then the trade of Wing at the end of last training camp… which, in some ways, could be attributed to performance because Berry had beaten him out).

 

What makes the revolving door at punter under Tomlin so fascinating is that he spent two draft picks (using one to trade up in the fourth round) to take a punter during his first draft. He clearly believed/hoped Sepulveda would stabilize the gig for a decade or so. Sepulveda, though, battled injuries and inconsistency over a five-year career in which he punted in just 52 games.

 

Not unlike Berry’s first season…

 

The good:

  • His 28-to-2 ratio of punts landing inside the 20 vs. those that went for touchbacks was one of the best in the league (he was 11th in inside-the-20 kicks and only two punters had fewer touchbacks)
  • That was a big part of Berry having only 19 punts returned against him – by far the fewest in the league and the best ratio of non-returned punts in the league.
  • That ties into the 21 fair catches Berry induced; considering he only punted 59 times, that ratio also led the NFL.

 

The bad:

  • Berry finished 24th in the league in net average (39.1 yards).

 

The ugly:

  • There were 32 punters for the 32 teams in the NFL this season that punted at least 56 times. Berry finished 31st of those 32 in gross average (42.6 yards).

 

 

Berry did not have a touchdown return against (of course, that’s largely attributable to the coverage team, but he deserves a measure of the credit, too), and the 165 total return yards on his punts was fourth-fewest among the league’s kickers. He also did not have a punt blocked and had the longest punt in the NFL this season (79 yards against Arizona).

 

All, good.

 

But, by the “eye test,” Berry also had way too many botched kicks off that didn’t travel far enough. There aren’t easily-accessible stats for this, but everybody remembers the two punts of 27 yards from the Steelers’ own territory during their playoff loss at Denver. They were the sort of kicks that, quite frankly, happened too often this past season.

 

So, how does Berry intend on addressing that?

 

“It’s just reps and a mental process getting it right,” Berry said “It’s just sticking to this pro-style punting which I didn’t do a whole lot of in college. This was really my first year of doing that by itself and all the different situations you get put in: whether it’s a strong crosswind, or cold, or the heat and al that sort of stuff. Just getting those reps in all those situations; this year was very valuable for that. So I think next year while now I have a lot of that under my belt I should be able to come out a lot stronger and be a lot more consistent.”

 

Another year of being more fully immersed in “pro-style” punting (as opposed to the “Aussie” style he was able to use in college and, of course, growing up in Australia) should benefit Berry in 2016. As will the fact that he is signed by the Steelers as a fully-rostered player this spring and summer. That by no means is a guarantee he will earn the job – Berry is the favorite and expected to, but don’t be shocked if the Steelers add a punter to push him in camp. Still, his plight in 2016 is nowhere near as daunting than it was last year, when he was desperate to impress a team, meaning he had to be constantly kicking. The relative “rest” could pay dividends later, he says.

 

“Last year, I am trying to be like in sort of that high-performance level from all the way back in January right through,” Berry told me, “so I couldn’t take some time off and really get prepped for the season properly. This year, I’ll just be trying to compete for the job (merely) before we actually start the season.”

 

 

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January 30, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Delayed free agency? Mike Adams takes it in stride — and the Steelers might benefit

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Post prologue: Just because the Steelers season ended doesn’t mean that TribLive Radio’s Steelers Roundtable did. Ralph Paulk, Mark Kaboly and I tackle the conference championship games and how close the Steelers are/were to being at that level. Click here to listen.

 

 

 

Adams

 

Professional athletes only get so many chances to test their worth on the open market, just a finite number of opportunities to theoretically play wherever they want.

 

For Mike Adams, that precious occasion was lost – or, at least, delayed for a year.

 

Our Mark Kaboly was the first to report, back in December, that an obscure stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement meant that Adams would NOT become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Adams wasn’t around much during the designated open locker room sessions for the media this season to get his reaction, but I finally caught up to him the day after the Steelers’ season ended.

 

If Adams was perturbed by the aforementioned little-known rule (it a states that if a player spends the entire final season of his contract on the physically unable to perform list that his contract will be carried over to the following season), he did a good job of hiding it:

 

It’s no secret that I love being here. So to be able to be back for a year and not have this year, in a sense, count against me, was kind of a good thing — not (merely) kind of a good thing; it was a great thing.

 

Adams, understandably, took the high road. But it can’t feel good to have your freedom (one that’s earned through surviving four years in the National Football League) away – not that this is the Steelers’ fault. Adams had back surgery not long before training camp opened, leading to his PUP designation.

 

Coach Mike Tomlin said on Reporting Day at St. Vincent College that Adams would return to practice in “four weeks.” Thirteen weeks later, by the Steelers’ sixth game, Adams was still not cleared to practice. That began a five-week window in which Adams could have began practicing, followed by 21 days in which he HAD to practice for his season not to officially end.

 

Needless to say, Adams never practiced and never was removed from PUP.

 

“I was (frequently) here (at the facility) – but it’s just always different when you’re not out there practicing or playing,” Adams said of his lost 2015 season. “For me I have never been out for a year before so it was a new experience. Definitely an experience to grow mentally stronger and to be able to sit and review myself just sit back and look at the things I need to work on in a bigger perspective.

 

“You reflect and you are here to watch these guys all grow, such as (guard) David DeCastro making All Pro. I’m just proud of my friends, the way they grinded this year, fought through adversity, losing guys. And real proud of (tackle Alejandro Villanueva) the way he stepped up this year. So it was a heck of a year to sit and watch these guys and I’m sure proud of the way they played.”

 

The Adams situation, in some ways, ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Steelers. Most importantly, Adams’ absence facilitated Villanueva making the 53-man roster when the season began. It also forced the Steelers to play him when left tackle Kelvin Beachum was lost for the season with a knee injury.

 

If Adams had been able to play, the Steelers might not ever know what they had in Villanueva.

If Adams had been able to play, the Steelers would have faced the prospect of having TWO of the three tackles they dress on gamedays head for unrestricted free agency (Beachum is a UFA) – and they would have encountered that with no evidence Villanueva could handle the job.

 

As it stands now, the Steelers could stand pat at tackle, if they so choose, with Villanueva the starter on the left side and Adams the “swing” backup to him and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Adams (about $1.13 million) and Villanueva ($525,000) both are signed on the cheap. There’s much less pressure to draft a tackle, to explore acquiring one in free agency or to go out of their comfort zone (dollars-wise) in what they offer Beachum for an extension.

 

Adams, in effect, could just slide right into the never-used Byron Stingily’s spot on the 53-man roster. The Steelers can prioritize other positions in the draft and free agency – or, of course, still bring Beachum back.

 

You never, ever wish anyone to get injured, but… in short, the sequence of events that began with Adams’ back surgery (him having his free agency delayed, the Steelers getting a look at Villanueva, Villanueva doing a no-worse-than-adequate job) worked to the team’s advantage.

 

Of course, Adams needs to get himself back to full health and back in playing shape.

 

“I’m feeling good now, doing some stuff, just keep on following the protocol and get ready for next year,” he said.

 

Adams was drafted with great promise in 2012, falling to the second round in part because of a failed drug test (marijuana) but considered by some a first-round talent. That, of course, didn’t materialize commensurate with his play over his first three seasons: 41 games, 20 starts, at least two benchings – usually because of trouble pass protecting. But Adams has been a good enough run blocker, and he seems like a good fit as a “sixth lineman” as the tackle-eligible formation the Steelers sometimes run.

 

In short, the Steelers could do a lot worse when it comes to a backup tackle.

 

Adams, by appearance, lost a not-insignificant amount of weight this season while recovering from his back trouble. He downplayed that as an issue, however (saying he was still “around 300 pounds”), and with good reason considering there are still several months until that will matter.

 

“You worry about what you can control,” Adams said, “so I’m gonna worry about getting healthy and going out and playing the way I can play. And let the rest carry the rest.”

 

 

 

One more shameless plug for this week’s Steelers Roundtable show.

 

Have a good weekend.

 

 

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January 22, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: In 2016, the problem the Steelers face at kicker is a “good” one

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POST PROLOGUE: THE FIRST AFTER-SEASON EDITION OF THE STEELERS ROUNDTABLE ON TRIBLIVE RADIO HAS AIRED. RALPH PAULK AND I OFFER KNOWLEDGEABLE STEELERS INSIGHTS. MARK KABOLY TALKS SOME, TOO. GIVE IT A LISTEN BY CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

 

Bos

SUISHAM

 

 

 

The kicker quandary the Steelers faced for a two-month span in 2015 was that they couldn’t find one.

 

In 2016, it’s that they have too many.

 

“Two very capable kickers,” coach Mike Tomlin said this week, “is a good problem to have.”

 

In actuality, the Steelers have THREE kickers on their offseason roster after inking Ty Long to a reserve/futures contract the other day. No disrespect to Long – who was considered one of the better kickers to be draft-eligible last year and has a strong leg – but he was brought in as an offseason leg. It would take quite the run of highly-unlikely circumstance for Long to be seriously considered to open the 2016 regular season as the Steelers’ kicker.

 

No, the debate will be Shaun Suisham or Chris Boswell. Both are liked within the organization and both have made some clutch kicks over their Steelers tenures. But, ultimately, only one will stick with the team past the first week of September.

 

The smart money is on Boswell – for economic reasons. He is under contract at $525,000 this coming season with the same salary-cap hit. Suisham, meanwhile, is scheduled to make $2.4 million with a cap number of about $3.5 million.

 

Easy, right? But it’s not necessarily that simple.

 

For one, the economics are clouded by the fact that cutting Suisham carries with it some “dead money” that will count against the cap. If he’s cut before June 1 (which has pretty much zero chance of happening), the Steelers would actually be paying MORE at the kicking position by choosing Boswell than they did if they chose Suisham. (Boswell costs no dead money if he is cut). But even if Suisham is cut after June 1, the 2016 cap charge for him is more than $1.1 million, meaning that the 2016 expenditure the Steelers use for kickers would be more than $1.6 million (counting Boswell’s salary) – not to mention a 2017 charge will be applied. Viewed that way, the cap situation isn’t as much of a factor.

 

A trade of Suisham – seemingly the best-case scenario for all parties – carries with it similar salary-cap implications as a release. At least the Steelers get something in return, right? Well, there’s no guarantee another team will give up even a late-round pick for a 34-year-old who recently had a major knee injury (Suisham sustained a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee making a tackle during the preseason opener in August). The Steelers, ironically, might serve as the cautionary tale for this: They gave up a sixth-round pick for 33-year-old kicker Josh Scobee late in training camp – he lasted four games and was bad enough to get cut.

 

At very least, for this to play out, Suisham will have to have a strong preseason –in terms of health, in making kicks and in showing leg strength on kickoffs. But then if that happens, will it make the Steelers think twice about letting go of a guy who was so good for you for 4 ½ seasons? (Counting playoffs, Suisham has made 63 of his past 68 field-goal attempts; he is a perfect 172-for-172 on extra points as a Steeler).

 

Also, let me be clear: Boswell was good. Very, very good. He made 29 of 32 field goals (oddly enough, the exact same stat line Suisham had the year before), and perhaps more telling, he clearly earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates.

 

But is a 14-game sample size enough? It’s a question that at least is worth asking.

 

At 25 (he’s 24 until March 16), Boswell is nine years younger than Suisham. He’ll also remain under team control (and, likely, very cheap) for another two seasons beyond 2016. Suisham is due to earn that aforementioned $2.4 million salary through 2018, with decreasing “dead money” penalties for cutting him before each season.

 

As you might expect, the individuals involved aren’t saying too much illuminating about how they expect things to play out.

 

“I have no idea,” Boswell said. “I feel like I improved a little bit.  I think there is a lot out there I can improve on. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, I have no idea.”

 

Suisham’s only priority right now remains getting back to health.

 

“We will see where we go from here and continue to rehab and work to getting back to kicking,” he said.

 

“It’s a long process and I won’t know the answer until I start to kick some footballs again… Outside of my ACL, I had a significant injury to my meniscus that I’m trying to baby through the process a little bit right now; hopefully it heals itself the way it needs to.”

 

One last factor to consider: Kickoffs. It’s the forgotten component of the NFL placekicker’s job description – but it remains important. To be honest, neither Boswell not Suisham is particularly stellar at this aspect of the game, at least relative to other NFL kickers. Just 26 of Boswell’s 74 kickoffs went for touchbacks. While that’s an oversimplification of kickoff leg strength, that rate (35.13 percent) is near the bottom of the league – but it virtually matches Suisham’s 2014 (35.95 percent).

 

By comparison, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, for example, had touchbacks 85 percent of the time. That can be quite a weapon against a team with a stronger returner; teams very rarely open a drive outside their own 20.

 

 

 

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out once Suisham is back to full health.

 

 

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January 19, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski — James Harrison: ‘I can still play; it’s… if I want to.’ Will the Steelers want him?

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Deebo

 

A day after James Harrison said he had yet to make a decision about whether he will retire or not, the 37-year-old remained noncommittal over his future on the day the Steelers had their season-ending team meeting.

 

“Yeah, I mean, I’m not making decisions yet. I have a lot of time,” Harrison said.

 

Retirement, of course, is a two-way street – if Harrison wants to play, the Steelers have to want him back. After all, he already retired once… on Aug. 30 of a year when no team had signed him. (When the Steelers came calling three weeks later… he was right back in the league).

 

The Steelers won’t publicly divulge what they think of Harrison’s ability to contribute in 2016, when he would be the NFL’s oldest defensive player. But what does Harrison think?

 

“Yeah, I can still play,” he said, “it’s the fact of if I want to continue to play.

 

“I’m getting older; that’s an understatement. And it’s a lot harder on my body to recover and repair. And for me, really the hardest thing for me is just the offseason, the workouts, getting ready to prepare for the season. So, once I get into the season, that’s the easy part.”

 

The former NFL defensive player of the year (when he was a spry 30 years old in 2008) showed he could still play at a high level Sunday in Denver: Playing 53 snaps (his second-most all season), Harrison was tied for second on the team in solo tackles and combined tackles, had a game-high three tackles for loss and had the Steelers’ only sack.

 

But the performance alone wasn’t enough to convince Harrison to desire a return for a 14th season.

 

“If you were to ask me something like that right after the loss, nobody wants to go out with a loss; it’s going to be immediately, `Yeah, I’m coming back,’ not taking into account everything else,” he said.

 

“Actually, (my body) feels good,” Harrison also said. “That’s the hard part, you know? I feel good, but each year is not going to fall out the way the previous one did. We’ll see.”

 

OK, putting aside whether Harrison WANTS to play this coming season… Do the Steelers want him back?

 

Let’s start with performance. Harrison led all of his outside linebackers teammates in sacks with five (albeit three came during a 12-snap span late in a laugher against the Colts). He also led them in total tackles (40), forced fumbles (two) and snaps played (which, in some ways, suggests that coaches apparently believed he was their best option at the position).

 

Subjectively, Mark Kaboly’s favorite measure (sarcasm noted) is Pro Football Focus’ grades. Say what you want about them – they’re far from infallible – but use it as just one tool for evaluation.

 

PFF rated Harrison as the NFL’s No. 14 “edge rusher” in 2015 – well above teammates Arthur Moats (64th), Jarvis Jones (67th) and Bud Dupree (109th).

 

Of course, the production of all four was limited by the fact they were sharing snaps in a rotation. For the season, per FootballOutsiders.com calculations, Harrison played 55.1 percent of the defensive snaps, Dupree 50.8 percent and Moats an even 50 percent and Jones 40.9 percent. (Jones and Harrison each missed one game).

 

“I think (the OLB timeshare) did (keep us fresh),” Harrison said.

 

“I’m not ready to make a decision (on retirement), so when that time comes, you guys will hear about it, I guess.”

 

The Steelers’ decison goes beyond performance. They’ve spent two of their past three first-round picks on outside linebackers. Here’s thinking they didn’t make those choices believing they had half-time players. But have Dupree and Jones shown enough to deserve more playing time? Then there’s Anthony Chickillo — has last year’s sixth-round pick shown HE should be getting some defensive snaps on the edge? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” is keeping Harrison at 38 is just blocking the development of a bunch of guys in their early 20s?

 

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

 

 

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