A look at the moves the Steelers made in free agency last week tells an intriguing story about the team they may field next season.
They brought in cornerback Patrick Peterson, guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo and linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. They also re-signed safety Damontae Kazee and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi.
Meanwhile, corner Cam Sutton left for Detroit, linebackers Robert Spillane (Vegas) and Devin Bush (Seattle) departed, and edge rusher Malik Reed signed with Miami. William Jackson III and Myles Jack were cut for salary cap purposes. And Minkah Fitzpatrick’s contract was restructured. All told, the Steelers shed around $30 million in cap space while adding about $30 million in new signings.
To quote the great Larry David: Pretty good, Mr. Khan. Pretty, pretty, good.
The swap of Sutton for Peterson is interesting for two reasons. Sutton is six years younger, and Peterson is a big name. Traditionally, the Steelers like to invest in younger players in free agency, and tend to stay away from former stars on the back ends of their career. But Sutton was expensive, and Peterson came at a reasonable price, and from a football standpoint the two should be comparable, at least for 2023. That made it a sensible move from Khan’s perspective, especially with a deep pool of cornerback talent in the upcoming draft.
The loss of Reed was expected and comes without much consequence. The loss of Jackson isn’t a loss at all, considering he never played a down for the Steelers yet carried a huge cap hit.
Which brings us to the signings of Herbig, Seumalo, Holcomb and Roberts, and the re-signings of Ogunjobi and Kazee. Practically speaking, they all strengthen areas of weakness and free the Steelers to draft for want instead of for need. Pittsburgh could still opt for a corner at pick #17 and a linebacker at #32. But they don’t have to. Perhaps there will be an offensive tackle in one of those spots they like better. Or a wide receiver. Or a defensive lineman. They now have options.
On the other hand, these signings signal an intention to become more physical in some way, and provide a window into the type of team the Steelers are creating.
Take the inside linebacker position. Holcomb and Roberts are both throwback players. They play hard-nosed football, which means they get downhill and tackle. Holcomb is the more athletic of the two and will likely upgrade the versatile Mack position Bush manned last season. Bush was never the same player after the knee injury that cut short his sophomore season in 2020. His mobility was compromised, which limited his effectiveness. He couldn’t run sideline-to-sideline anymore, or change direction quickly, or stay with tight ends in coverage. And he seemed to lose his willingness to plug gaps and mix it up in the trenches. Too often, Bush tried to run around blocks rather than play through them. Holcomb will assert himself more willingly, while providing better pass coverage.
Holcomb does come with a lingering injury of his own. He hurt his foot last season, causing him to miss ten games. But the Steelers felt confident enough about it to give him a 3-year, $18 million deal. A healthy Holcomb will mix Spillane’s physicality with better athleticism. He has superior lateral movement, and his motor is everything one could expect from an NFL linebacker. Holcomb also wore the green dot in Washington, which speaks highly of his football IQ and leadership qualities.
In many ways, Holcomb is the antithesis of Bush. He was a walk-on at North Carolina and a late-round pick who has been a classic overachiever. Bush, the son of a former NFL player who was highly recruited out of high school and the #10 overall pick in the 2019 draft, projected the opposite at times. When asked at training camp last July whether he felt 2022 was a make-or-break year for him, Bush responded, “Like as a Steeler? I mean, it’s a business. I’ll still be in the NFL, so we’ll see.” Bush’s play seemed to mirror that attitude at times. Holcomb, who has had to fight and claw for every opportunity as both a college and professional player, projects intensity, not indifference.
Roberts will be different from Jack, too, particularly in terms of his physical play. Jack had a decent 2022 for the Steelers, recording 104 tackles in 15 games. But he was miscast as the Buck linebacker, which requires a true gap-stuffer in the Vince Williams mold. Jack was more of a Mack, and the pairing of him with Bush was never a natural fit. Neither was an accomplished strong side player, leaving the Steelers scrambling at times to fit the run adequately from the second level. Pittsburgh could have slid Jack to the Mack and found a banger to pair him with at the Buck. But his $8 million salary didn’t justify his play on the field, or trying to reconfigure the linebacking corps around him. So, the Steelers took the cap savings and moved on.
Enter Roberts, who was drafted in 2016 by a New England organization that loves its Buck linebackers. From Ted Johnson to Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower, Bill Belichick’s defenses almost always feature a hammer in the middle who can stop the run. Roberts started 33 games in four years in New England before following former Patriots coach Brian Flores to Miami. There, he started 43 of the 47 games for which he was active, recording 107 tackles this past season. Roberts is not a superior athlete and will most likely come off the field on 3rd downs. But he gets downhill at the snap like it’s his raison d’etre. The manner in which Holcomb and Roberts approach the position, and the physicality they bring, will make the Steelers much different at inside backer than they’ve been the past few seasons.
The return of Kazee and Ogunjobi make the defense more physical in their own ways. Kazee’s ability to play the deep middle against the pass frees the Steelers up to run more Cover-1 and Cover-3 schemes, where they can add a safety to the box or get aggressive with the blitz. This means Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds — provided he returns — can play closer to the line of scrimmage, where they can both create havoc.
Ogunjobi helps to solidify the middle of a defensive front that, when he was healthy last season, was difficult to run against. Ogunjobi didn’t really recover from the foot injury he suffered in 2021 until after Pittsburgh’s bye in week nine. Prior to that, the Steelers yielded an average of 118 rushing yards per game. After the bye, when a healthy Ogunjobi teamed with Cam Heyward to provide a formidable duo at defensive tackle, that number fell to 98.
The signings of Holcomb and Roberts and re-signings of Kazee and Ogunjobi signal a clear mandate for the defense: stop the run on early downs and create situations where the Steelers can unleash their pass rush and get creative with their talented secondary.
Their moves on offense fit the same theme. Herbig, who is massive at 6’4-345, is a guard in the Ramon Foster/Chris Kemoeatu mold. Don’t expect him to pull on power and sweep plays or to excel at climbing and blocking linebackers in space. But as a people-mover who can push defensive tackles off the ball, Herbig is a force.
Seumalu started all 20 games in Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run last season, and has started 60 games over a seven-year career. He finished in the Top 20 among all NFL guards in both run-block and pass-block win rate last year. Seumalo is also credited with helping line coach Jeff Stoutland design Philadelphia’s run game, which finished second-best in the NFL in yards per game. Anyone who paid attention to what Philly was doing on offense last season had to notice both their physicality and the creativity of their scheme. Seumalo was significant in both regards.
Pittsburgh’s run game last season became more effective as the season progressed. New line coach Pat Meyer did a nice job helping the unit to jell while reshaping both their mindset and their technique. Scheme-wise, Pittsburgh used virtually no gap runs over the second half of the season, relying almost exclusively on inside and outside zone. The zone game is built on interior double teams designed to displace defensive tackles. If Pittsburgh wants to continue in that fashion, Herbig and Seumalo — both of whom have history with assistant general manager Andy Weidl, by the way — are excellent additions. But, with Seumalo’s experience and ability, there is room to expand the scheme if the Steelers want to get back to running power, counter and sweep.
Seumalo didn’t leave his job as a starter in Philly to be a backup in Pittsburgh. Expect him to replace Kevin Dotson at left guard. Herbig will likely be the swing guard who backs up Seumalo and James Daniels. Herbig could also start if necessary. It’s hard to say where all of this leaves Dotson, but at the moment he looks like the odd man out. Regardless, the plan on offense appears to be coming clear: build a run game that keeps the Steelers ahead of the chains and puts Kenny Pickett in situations that minimize risk and keep the playbook open.
It was an intriguing first week of free agency for the Steelers. The front office sent a message with their signings about the type of team they desire. Expect that team to be physical up front and to build out from there.
This was discussed at length on Monday’s “Let’s Ride” podcast. Be sure to check it out in the player below: