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Labriola on being all-in, Irma, tag-teaming

Posted Sep 8, 2017

The Steelers always are all-in, but this time they had salary cap room, too.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* The Steelers were very active during the weekend that contained the mandatory cut-down from 90 to 53 players, and what was somewhat uncharacteristic for the team was its involvement in adding veteran players with starting experience to fortify soft spots on their depth chart.

* To recap, in chronological order, the Steelers swung a trade for tight end Vance McDonald, signed marquee free agent Joe Haden to a three-year contract worth a reported $27 million, traded Sammie Coates to the Cleveland Browns, traded Ross Cockrell to the New York Giants, and then swung another trade to acquire J.J. Wilcox from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

* In some fans’ minds, the flurry of activity in the trade market, as well as the signing of Haden, was somehow the Steelers’ response to Ben Roethlisberger going public with his thoughts on retirement last winter. While that certainly makes for a nice story, I believe there was something more tangible and measurable at work.

* Money under the salary cap.

* As a team that has some established offensive stars but not so many on defense, the Steelers find themselves in a spot with respect to the salary cap that they haven’t enjoyed for almost a decade. Part of it has to do with a lot of their players still being up-and-comers, as opposed to established stars on their second or third NFL contracts, and part of it certainly has to do with the significant annual increases in the salary cap over the past couple of offseasons.

* Salary cap room, enough of it to get a deal done with Haden while also leaving enough cushion to continue discussions with Stephon Tuitt on a contract extension made adding a newly-minted, high-salaried free agent possible. The trades that brought J.J. Wilcox and Vance McDonald to the team also were a function of salary cap space, since the Steelers were adding veteran players in exchange for draft picks, and veteran players cost more.

* That’s what was at the heart of this flurry of moves, this flurry of moves that have been described as a departure of business-as-usual by the Steelers. It was cap space, not a different outlook on an upcoming season, because the Steelers always are all-in.

* They were all in at the time of the 2015 NFL Draft when they were trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to trade up in the first round to draft cornerback Trae Waynes. They were all in earlier that same year when they sent out feelers to unrestricted free agent Darrelle Revis to gauge his interest in returning to his hometown to play professional football. In the case of Revis, anyway, the Steelers were hamstrung by the lack of salary cap space.

* But this year was different. And it was different because of their salary cap, not because of any change in their expectations heading into a new season.

* From the time that training camp opened until the time the regular season was upon them, the Steelers also made a couple of expected, but still significant, moves to maintain the status quo at the top of what can be referred to as the football operations part of the franchise. Both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert were signed to contract extensions, which means the Steelers will be led by the same coach-GM duo into 2020 at least.

* Their history together most often is portrayed in Super Bowls won, playoff appearances, the absence of a single losing season, but Joe Haden being in Pittsburgh today is another example of why Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are a good team.

* Both of them believe in the value of hitting the road during the pre-draft process, and they have gotten very good at working those situations as a tag-team. Such was the case in 2010 during the Florida Pro Day. It was there that Colbert and Tomlin cemented their opinion about the value of Maurkice Pouncey, but it also was there that they unknowingly laid the foundation of a relationship with a player they both knew they would have no chance of drafting.

* As the top cornerback in that draft, there was no way Joe Haden was going to fall to the Steelers at No. 18 overall in the first round, but Tomlin and Colbert still engaged him, still spent time with him to get to know him, and Haden was happy to give them all the time they wanted.

* Doing this kind of due diligence is worthless more than 90 percent of the time, but Tomlin and Colbert still put in the effort and do the work. Maybe the time they spent with Haden laid the foundation for the comfort zone that helped him pick the Steelers when there were other teams interested after he was released by the Browns.

* It definitely didn’t hurt.

* Earlier in the week, the NFL announced the Tampa Bay at Miami game that had been scheduled for Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium would not be played there with South Florida bracing for Hurricane Irma, forecast to be a Category 5 storm. At that time, the league said it was exploring other options and would make a subsequent announcement.

* In the days following, it became known that the NFL was exploring the option of playing the game at a neutral site, and two of the locations being considered were Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

* With the Eagles in Washington and the Steelers in Cleveland, both of those facilities were available all day Sunday for kickoff whenever the NFL decided it wanted the game to begin. And while both are first-class facilities and certainly would have provided an NFL-caliber venue for both teams, the better idea was what the league ultimately decided to do, which was postpone the game until Nov. 19, when both the Dolphins and the Buccaneers have a bye as part of the NFL’s Week 11 schedule.

* That’s the better idea – even though it costs both teams their bye and forces them to play 16 games in a row – because separating families in times of disaster is never a good idea.

* Say a player, or a coach, or a team staff member who’s a member of the traveling party, has a wife and a couple of young children. What are they to do when Irma hits? It’s not right that they should be left to fend for themselves while an adult member of the family is at a football game, job or not. Then what happens if the damage from the hurricane prevents them from returning to the area until, say, the middle of the following week? Just not worth it.

* And the Dolphins and Buccaneers can take solace in the plight of the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers, who opened on the road – in Jacksonville – and then were off for 14 days because the terrorist attacks on 9-11 forced the postponement of the NFL's games on Sept. 16-17, and then the Steelers had their scheduled bye on Sept. 23. That meant the Steelers had to play 15 straight games, and they finished 13-2 in those on the way to a 13-3 record that had them enter the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

* Before I forget, there was one other factor involved in the flurry of personnel moves the Steelers made in the days at the end of the preseason.

* Injuries.

* That’s right. The Steelers had done things in an attempt to bolster their defensive backfield, to give them the flexibility to play more man-to-man coverage, to shore up a weakness at slot cornerback.

* But Senquez Golson spent three summers here and was able to practice only a handful of times because of shoulder, foot, and hamstring injuries. And Cam Sutton injured a hamstring and missed just about all of training camp, and then he re-injured the hamstring after putting together a promising debut in the third preseason game and ended up on the injured reserve list.

* If Golson turned out to be what he was expected to become, the Steelers would’ve had themselves a slot cornerback with ball skills, and if Sutton had given himself a chance to develop by utilizing the practices at Saint Vincent College and then the preseason, they could’ve had an outside cornerback capable of lining up opposite Artie Burns and playing man coverage.

* Maybe they wouldn’t have been as interested in Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox then, but that wouldn’t have meant they were any less all-in, either.