Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After a busy first week of free agency where do the Steelers stand?

The expectations of experienced fans is that entering into the free agency period Pittsburgh isn't going to be doing much, at least not early on. So,  the amount of movement that has been experienced during this first week has been slightly disorienting. In some respects it has not been atypical of Steelers free agent activities. The newcomers don't qualify as being household names. There were a couple of surprises to some as to who departed, along with some who invoked reactions of 'good riddance', as well as others of whom the separation brings sorrow from a sad, but grateful Nation. Some answers have been reached concerning the team's priorities and the evolving status of the 2014 roster. But plenty of questions, including a number of new ones, remain. Of what we do know, what might it all mean?

Goodbyes

There were arrivals, departures and some retention over the course of the week. The losses were probably the bigger, more dramatic stories.

LaMarr Woodley

To me Woodley's place in Steelers' lore is marked by causing Kurt Warner to fumble at the end of Super Bowl 43. Though there were just seconds remaining, it is fair to say that given how the game had played out until that point, the outcome was still in doubt. A big moment in that it, once again, thrust the Steelers organization to the summit of championship achievement with an unprecedented sixth Lombardi Trophy, demonstrated the dynastic tendencies of that particular collection of players who overcame a number of challenges, including the most difficult schedule anyone had to contend with in decades, and established  their second year coach as a worthy successor to a forty year coaching legacy.

To members of the BTSC community who have been here awhile Woodley's departure speaks to the prescience of site founder Michael Bean who, correctly it seems, pointed out the risks of signing the outside linebacker to an expensive long term deal given his body type. But even though the move came as no real surprise, the loss of any big contributor to a team (think Steve Smith, DeMarcus Ware and Vince Wilfolk) is always a bit stunning, especially if said player is believed to still have something remaining in the tank.

What does it mean? Financial issues were obviously the main driver here, and if Woodley continues to experience difficulty staying on the field due to health issues in Oakland there is likely to be little in the way of regret. However, the ice has now gotten quite thin at outside linebacker, and Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have their work cut out for them. A large segment of Steelers fans considered Jason Worilds a bust as recently as this past summer. The question with Worilds (beyond the anticipated signing of a long term deal) is whether what he demonstrated during the 2013 campaign is sustainable or was it a flash in the pan during a contract year? The other question is whether Jarvis Jones can make the necessary leap this season. Then there is the matter of depth, or lack thereof. It might be interesting to see, as a possibility first floated in these parts by Rebecca Rollett and now being bandied about some now that he's been released, if James Harrison might be brought back (at veteran's minimum) for spot duty and leadership purposes.

Larry Foote. What does it mean? Finances were decidedly not a factor in this decision, one that was likely motivated by the fact that it was probably just time, or close enough to it for the aging veteran inside linebacker. Over the past week the belief has been that the release of Foote may signify a vote of confidence in second year linebackers Vince Williams and Terence Garvin, or in the progress of the rehabilitation of Sean Spence. Some have speculated that a inside linebacker may be taken high in the draft. That may be, but it should be remembered that with LeBeau's complex scheme, few first year players are able to step in and perform at a high level immediately. This would be especially true given the leadership demands of this particular position. A free agent acquisition would be the better solution here if the players on hand are not yet ready. This would also provide the best chance of closing the leadership deficit created by Foote's departure as well.

Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Anticipated by some and hoped for by others, Hood leaving for Jacksonville is no great surprise. On the other hand, Woods going to the Titans caught a lot of folks off guard. Woods was considered to be one of the good ones; a rising, under the radar type that many viewed as being on the cusp of a solid contributor for years to come. Hood occupied a space of disappointment and contempt in the eyes of some, his crime not being Aaron Smith.

What does it mean? Deep enough last season to be able to discard Alameda Ta'amu with barely a shrug, this unit also now seems thin. This is due not just to the loss of Hood and Woods, but also to the realization that Steve McLendon is not Casey Hampton. This in no knock on McLendon. Rather, it is validation of what you would think was a common sense notion, but in too many cases is not; that Pro Bowl caliber players are not easily or casually replaced. The situation has been addressed with a free agent acquisition and could also be a target in the draft. The other possible consequence is that the departure of Brett Keisel may no longer be the slam dunk that many had thought.

Jonathan Dwyer. Fair to say this came as a surprise to many as Arizona continues to be Pittsburgh West. The light came on for Dwyer after being cut at the end of the summer. He showed a great deal in terms of both ability and attitude. Maybe it was too little too late.

What does it mean? Yes, Dwyer had a good year. But on reflection the decision to not compete for his services is less mystifying when you consider the fact that though they are relatively new to the Steelers, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howlings are hardly rookies. And when Will Johnson is thrown in the mix there is nothing that Dwyer brought to the table that can't be matched by those who remain. And a configuration that includes Stephens-Howlings provides more diversity of attack. And of course there is the belief that quality backs can be had in both the later rounds of the draft as well as later in the free agent cycle if necessary.

David Johnson. The defining moment for me was a block thrown that freed Rashard Mendenhall to run for the game winning touchdown in overtime against Atlanta in the season opener of the 2010 season. Johnson, who is off to the Chargers, a solid all around performer who could play both tight end and fullback was another player who, for reasons that allude my understanding, rubbed many Steelers fans the wrong way. He was off to very strong starts in both 2012 and 2013 when his seasons were ended by injuries.

What does it mean? With Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth both healthy and Will Johnson settled in nicely at fullback, D. Johnson has no place of significance on the Steelers roster unless someone gets hurt. If he stays healthy I wonder if he could be a player who might return in a few years.

Tackle Levi Brown and cornerback Curtis Brown were released last week.

Who's staying

Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller. Signed new three year deals last week. Along with Ben, Ike Taylor and Greg Warren will be the last surviving players that were part of the Super Bowl 40, 43 and 45 teams.

What does it mean? Both players are still functioning at a high level and will be cornerstones upon which the team will attempt to launch another championship effort. But more will be required than just their on the field efforts. Arguably, the expectations and boundaries they help to establish off the field will be every bit as important, even more so at times. And that they are also two of the most popular players will be a benefit at a time when many fans may experience a sense of loss because many familiar faces have either disappeared or are now seen in foreign locales.

Ike Taylor. Another instance where many were expecting another outcome, Taylor accepted a pay cut and hopes to retire as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

What does it mean? With cornerback being one of the more expensive positions in free agency this year do you want to make that kind of investment that the removal of Taylor would have required. At the risk of repeating myself, the likelihood of a first year player being able to start and star in Dick LeBeau's system is pretty low. Troy, for example, did not do it. With having an excellent relationship with the team owner and possessing some of the stronger leadership traits, should it come as a surprise that a way was made to retain his services for a  least another year? As to whether this is the last year, I think that depends. What could develop might be consistent with how Jerome Bettis was handled in his final years; a series of one year renewals based upon performance.

Will Allen, Greg Warren and Cody Wallace. These three round out the players retained by the team over the course of the first week.

What does it mean? Allen's signing in tandem with Troy, and now the addition of Mike Mitchell means that safety is the one position on the defense that is more or less settled. The only question being how things will be configured around Troy, and while not yet official as of this writing, Ryan Clark is gone. The team might have been tempted to save a few dollars and go younger at long snapper, but chose stability instead. What is also usually overlooked is that Warren is also part of that dwindling number of three time Super Bowl participants, a valuable veteran presence. The Wallace signing may reflect more of a necessity than a preference. Fernando Velasco's achilles injury likely means that he is months, at minimum, from being able to contribute, and then it would still be a matter of when (or if) he fully recovers. Wallace also brings that much valued position flexibility to the mix as well.

Who's new

Mike Mitchell. Besides the departure of Woodley, the signing of the free agent safety Carolina would be the top story of the week.

What does it mean? Obviously, if there was any lingering doubts as to Ryan Clark's time in Pittsburgh being up, this move was a definitive statement. As we get to know more about Mitchell it appears that a lot of characteristics, from style of play to an outspoken nature, with Clark. Whether he and Polamalu can reproduce the complementary chemistry remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether he, like Worilds, can sustain the level of performance he demonstrated in 2013. Shamarko Thomas could still be a very big part of this equation. The addition of Mitchell takes the pressure off as far as having to carry starter responsibilities, but if I were Mitchell I wouldn't take my status on the team for granted.

Cam Thomas. Not a lot of enthusiasm around this move. Its being characterized as providing depth to the D line. None seem to be suggesting at this point that he will be a difference maker. As with Mitchell a lot may depend upon how Thomas reacts to the environment in Pittsburgh.

Limbo

Emmanuel Sanders may be signed with the Broncos by the time you read this if the reports are to be believed. Otherwise there has been no movement at wide receiver thus far with Plaxico Burress and, in particular Jerricho Cotchery still out there. The chances that the team may retain tight end Michael Palmer were enhance with D. Johnson leaving. Reports are that the team is flirting with running back James Starks (Green Bay), while there is no word concerning Felix Jones or LaRod Stephens-Howling. The future remains unclear for Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, offensive linemen Fernando Velasco, Guy Whimper and Eric Olson, linebackers Stephenson Sylvester and Jamaal Westerman and punter Mat McBriar. Anticipated contract adjustments for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a long term deal for Worilds also not settled at week's end.

The summary of the week is an emphasis upon addressing defensive concerns; something that must be done in great measure by free agency if you're hoping for immediate progress given the complex Pittsburgh system. Some success has been achieved in getting the defense younger and faster. As to whether they will be better remains to be seen.

Rapoport

This guy. It appears that he's expanding his range, showing that he's more than a one trick pony (pissing off Steeler Nation).

Hamstrings

Perhaps its ironic that on the week that LaMarr Woodley goes away, a move that was fueled in part by a series of leg injuries, that the Steeler medical brain trust would be cited for developing improved methods for addressing hamstring injuries.

Import/export

The Steelers lead the league as the top net exporter of talent according to a piece in the National Football Post. They also lead the league in that they play the fewest number of players imported from other teams. Certainly something to consider as we continue in free agency. The story behind the statistics can be revealed in the expectations and habits that are on display as the Steeler Way.

Zone defense

Paper Champions' tutorial on this subject continues this week.

There's no need to fear...

Where PaVaSteeler chronicles the further adventures of super hero GM Kevin Colbert. Accusations of substance abuse have been leveled.

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