Somehow, the Steelers' search for a competent cornerback — never mind a shutdown starter — brought them back to the Cleveland Browns.
Only hours after being cut Wednesday, Joe Haden escaped the city we commonly call the Mistake by the Lake by signing a reported three-year, $27-million deal with their AFC North nemesis.
Haden was one of the few Browns with credibility, a two-time Pro Bowler and one of only two NFL players with 100 pass breakups since 2010.
When it comes to mistakes, however, the Steelers have it covered at corner.
Since Ike Taylor retired in April 2015, they have drafted five cornerbacks, traded two more draft picks for three others and signed a crew of castoffs. It started with the selection of Senquez Golson in the second round, their highest pick at corner since Bryant McFadden in '05.
Golson was supposed to be a solution at cornerback. He was projected as having “Pro Bowl potential,” and NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock called Golson “one of the best pure zone corners I've seen.”
Instead, Golson is in jeopardy of becoming one of the biggest busts in Steelers draft history.
Golson could go down in second-round shame with the likes of millennium misses Mike Adams, Limas Sweed, Ricardo Colclough and Alonzo Jackson.
But it's hard to call Golson a bust when we haven't even seen him play. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expressed his frustration when asked how to evaluate Golson, given that he's never had him in uniform.
“There's nothing to evaluate,” Tomlin said with an elongated pause. “He hasn't practiced.”
Golson has spent the past two seasons on injured reserve, following a torn labrum as a rookie and a Lisfranc fracture last year. On July 30, the first day of practice in full pads, he pulled his hamstring and hasn't practiced since.
“It's more frustrating, knowing what I can do and not being able to show it,” Golson said. “I've learned to embrace the adversity. I've had my share. Do you know anybody who's been through more than me, back-to-back-to-back like that, without even seeing a game?”
If Golson doesn't play in the preseason finale Thursday at Carolina — and there are no indications he will — it will mark the 50th game he's missed, counting preseason, regular season and postseason.
The Steelers have sent a strong statement about their dissatisfaction with the play at corner. The past two years, they traded with the Eagles for Brandon Boykin, the Browns for Justin Gilbert and the Redskins for Dashaun Phillips, signed free agents like Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh and drafted Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen.
The signing of Haden was welcomed with open arms by Steelers players who have their sights set on the Super Bowl — the NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala called Antonio Brown an “advocate” — but should come with a warning: Haden allowed an NFL-high six touchdowns last year and a passer rating of 158.2 in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
Yet Haden had three interceptions last season, the same as Burns. William Gay was the only other Steelers corner to get a pick on a defense that ranked 16th against the pass and 24th in completion percentage allowed. That's what Golson, who had 10 interceptions as a senior and 16 in his career at Ole Miss, was supposed to bring to the Steelers' secondary.
“He's a ballhawk,” said Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent who played with Golson at Ole Miss. “When that ball is in the air, it's his.”
That is, if Golson ever plays.
It's hard to see how the Steelers can justify keeping Golson, although placing him on IR or hoping he clears waivers and then signing him to the practice squad are options. Golson indicated he's only days away from returning to practice, but the Steelers are just days away from making cuts to get down to a 53-man roster.
Golson is hopeful he can stick with the Steelers, even though he knows the NFL adage that you can't make the club in the tub. He believes he owes it to Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who invested in him but have yet to be rewarded.
“I don't want to be anywhere else, don't want to play for anyone else,” Golson said. “What I bring to the table, I want to bring it here. I see what they're building here. I owe it to them.”
The Steelers owe Golson nothing at this point, and their preseason roster moves at cornerback make you wonder if he's run out of time with the team.
Signing Haden shows the Steelers have run out of patience, finally paying a premium at a position that's long been a problem.
Even if Haden is a No. 2 at this point, pair him with Artie Burns and deepen the intrigue with a talented Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh has built depth with William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh,Cameron Sutton and others. They will need that depth with nickel packages and different matchups. But it became clear during camp that a sturdy No. 2 option on the outside was not on the roster. Why else would the Steelers take some of Cockrell's first-team reps and give them to Sensabaugh?
Players are excited about this move. One prominent player on the defense told me they were "hyped" to acquire a player who can help instantly.
The money is more than expected, but $7 million in the first year isn't outrageous, and the Steelers don't structure contracts with guarantees beyond the first year or occasional roster bonus. In other words, this likely isn't a $9-million-per-year proposition, but something in between. The Steelers entered the day with about $13 million in cap space and should be able to finalize a deal with defensive end Stephon Tuitt, too.
Despite battling injuries the last two years, Haden was a high-level corner before then and has had success in the past guarding talented Bengals receiver A.J. Green, whom the Steelers see twice a year. Former Browns coach Mike Pettine was on record in 2014 saying Haden was one of the league's best. Obviously the Browns felt production didn't match the $11.1-million salary, but the guy can still play, and the age (28) works.
He can play man, which the Steelers want, but if he's lost a step, he'll be capable in the Steelers' zone coverage. For Pittsburgh, it's about flexibility and matchups. Haden enhances both areas.
Stocked with first-round picks and returning most of its starters, the Steelers' defense believes the window is now to chase a seventh championship.
McDonald, who signed a three-year, $19.7 million contract extension with the Niners in December, had career highs in receiving yards (391), yards per reception (16.29) and touchdowns (four) in 11 games last season before suffering a shoulder injury.
The acquisition reinforces the Steelers' need for playmaking at tight end since Heath Miller retired in 2016. Last year's experiment with Ladarius Green didn't pan out. Jesse James and Xavier Grimble, despite showing flashes, were inconsistent catching passes in training camp.
Ben Roethlisberger likes to target tight ends in scoring range, particularly on back-shoulder throws in the back of the end zone. McDonald, with seven touchdown catches since 2015, should be able to help.
Coach Mike Tomlin, who recalls liking McDonald's skill set coming out of Rice in 2013, has made clear his tight end crop needed an infusion of competition.
"The guys hadn't been consistently varsity enough for our comfort," Tomlin said of his rotation through the first three weeks of preseason games. "It's as black and white as that. They've had some moments positively and had some moments negatively. We were in the market for a guy who was NFL capable. McDonald is that.
"We're not going to anoint him in any way. We're going to put him in uniform like the rest of them and continue to allow them to sort themselves out. It's reasonable to expect the guys that are here to respond positively in the right way to his presence and elevate their play."
The Steelers have carried three or four tight ends in past years, so it's possible James, Grimble and veteran blocker David Johnson will battle for two spots.
On the business side, McDonald's contract won't handcuff the Steelers, who will take a $4.162 million cap hit in 2017 but can escape the contract next year if willing to accept $4.2 million in dead money.
The Steelers haven't had much success with recent trades and hope this one plays out differently. The Steelers gave up late-round picks to acquire a pair of cornerbacks, Brandon Boykin in 2015 and Justin Gilbert in 2016. Neither player became a long-term factor for the defense.
The Niners first began shopping McDonald during draft weekend, something coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch acknowledged at the time. Unable to find a trade partner, the 49ers held on to McDonald, and he spent most of training camp working with the starting offense.
But the Niners have been particularly pleased with rookie George Kittle, whom they drafted in the fifth round this year. Kittle's ability to block and run routes has him poised for a big role and made McDonald expendable.
In trading McDonald, the 49ers will have to shoulder the leftover weight of a lucrative contract extension he signed with the team late last season under former general manager Trent Baalke. The Niners must absorb the remaining portion of McDonald's $7 million signing bonus on this year's salary cap, which isn't a problem because they've got the most cap space in the league.
A second-round pick in 2013, McDonald had issues with injuries and drops during his tenure with the 49ers. He missed 16 games over four seasons, and his 15.8 drop percentage was worst among tight ends with at least 75 catchable targets since 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
McDonald had 64 catches for 866 yards and seven touchdowns in his four years with the team.
"We would like to thank Vance for his contributions to this organization on the field and in the community over the last four seasons," Lynch said in a statement. "Although I have only known Vance for a short time, I quickly learned that he and his wife, Kendi, have been tremendous representatives for the team in the community and their service to others is quite commendable. We wish the McDonald family all the best as they move on to a new opportunity in Pittsburgh."
PITTSBURGH – The Steelers’ situation at running back will get a whole lot less interesting by the end of this week.
Starter Le’Veon Bell is expected to report to the team Friday and sign his franchise tender offer of $12.12 million.
And NFL teams are required to trim their rosters from 90 to 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday, two days after the Steelers play their final preseason game Thursday night at Carolina.
Given that Pittsburgh has only kept four running backs, including fullback Roosevelt Nix, on their 53-man roster in recent years, there’s not a lot of time remaining for things to be settled.
Bell, an All-Pro player, will take one spot and Nix another. Third-round draft pick James Conner, who leads the team with 124 yards on 24 preseason carries, is all but assured of the third spot.
That leaves veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis battling with youngsters Terrell Watson and Trey Williams for the final spot.
All have had their moments in the past or during this training camp, making this a tough call for head coach Mike Tomlin heading into the final preseason game.
“All of these guys are professionals working their tails off,” said Tomlin. “The big thing is what guys do with the opportunity given.”
Considering those factors in this preseason, Watson might have the inside track on the final spot given his performance thus far.
After rushing for a team-best 40 yards on eight carries and catching four passes for 42 yards in last Saturday’s 19-15 loss to Indianapolis, the 24-year-old former Azusa Pacific star working to try and make it with his fifth NFL team, might have his best chance yet.
“Every time I go out there, I’m hungry,” Watson said. “I want to make a statement and play my game when my number is called.”
For the 6-1, 240-pound Watson, that has been the case.
He always seems to fall forward, something that has caused Tomlin to take notice.
“He has a distinguishing trait. He’s a downhill runner and (has) displayed that consistently,” said Tomlin.
Tomlin has nicknamed him “Nightmare,” a tip of the hat to another former running back out of Azusa Pacific, Christian Okoye. Okoye, called the Nigerian Nightmare, set all of the rushing records at the school before running for nearly 5,000 yards in six seasons with Kansas City.
Watson broke all of Okoye’s records.
But that hasn’t led to a full-time job in the NFL.
He originally signed with Cincinnati after going undrafted, spending the 2015 season on the team’s practice squad. Cleveland signed him after that season and he made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp but was released two days later and signed to the practice squad.
The Browns released midseason and he spent a month on Denver’s practice squad before being signed to Philadelphia’s active roster at the end of last year.
Despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the regular season finale against Dallas, Watson was released by the Eagles, opening the door for him to sign with Pittsburgh.
“This has been a great spot for me,” said Watson. “(Running backs coach James Saxon) is really big on teaching us how to run routes like a receiver and catch the ball. That has allowed me to really improve my overall game. I feel like I’m a much better back than I was earlier in my career.”
It was a career that almost never got off the ground.
Watson speaks with a pronounced lisp that impeded his learning process as a youngster. He was a special education student throughout much of middle school and into junior high because of it.
Those educational issues caused the recruiters to stay away, with Azusa Pacific, an NCAA Division II school in the Los Angeles, Calif., suburbs, being his only offer.
He’s used to fighting the odds to make it.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder being a D-II kid,” Watson said. “I want to go out there and make people not want to tackle me.”
Odds and end zones
After being off Monday, the Steelers will practice today at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex before flying to Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday. … Thursday’s game will be the 15th consecutive season the Steelers and Panthers have faced each other in the preseason.
The “battle” at one cornerback spot between Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh seems like a smokescreen.
Just like the notion of Willie Gay at safety. The only place Gay should be moved is to the unemployment line. Flip Gay over. He’s done on this side.
This tinkering is designed to make it look like coach Mike Tomlin is doing something to fix the Steelers’ broken secondary.
Too little, too late.
Except for that broken secondary, the Steelers are a Super Bowl team. If they don’t make it, the secondary will be why.
The Steelers should have repaired the secondary in the off-season. They should have done a lot. Instead, they did a little. Not enough.
The Steelers took Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton in the third round, and insanely expected cornerback Senquez Golson, a second-round choice in 2015, to finally be healthy.
He isn’t. Golson, as always, is injured. It’s Golson’s third year, and he’s never even played a snap in an exhibition game. Sutton missed lots of camp, too.
The Steelers kicked the tires on trading for Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. But that’s not the Steelers’ style. Anyway, it would have been difficult to fit Johnson’s $16.7 million cap hit. The Steelers also considered free-agent corner Dre Kirkpatrick before he re-upped with Cincinnati.
So, the Steelers go into the season with the same secondary that Tom Brady carved to ribbons in the AFC championship game. Gay might as well have had a target painted on his back. Brady shredded Gay, but not just Gay.
The secondary wasn’t good enough then. It’s not good enough now.
But it isn’t totally useless.
Second-year pro Artie Burns is blossoming as a cover corner. He may isolate on the opposition’s top receiver, following his man from side to side.
Free safety Mike Mitchell is hard-hitting meat and potatoes. Second-year strong safety Sean Davis is solid, and getting better.
Cockrell isn’t awful. He’s just not a starting-caliber outside cornerback on a legit contender, and has been exposed in the preseason by the Steelers’ attempt to play more man coverage.
Gay used to be OK. But at 32, he’s washed up. The Steelers defense plays nickel on two-thirds of the snaps. That makes Gay a de facto starter.
The first half of the Steelers’ season isn’t too difficult. That affords Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake time to figure things out and break in the younger DBs.
If Sutton stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine he won’t get an opportunity. Cornerback Mike Hilton has had a good preseason and could challenge Gay for the nickel spot. Safety Jordan Dangerfield has two preseason picks but gets no respect, no respect at all.
The Steelers didn’t need a receiver, but they took Southern Cal's JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round because they considered him a first-round talent and because they don’t (and shouldn’t) trust Martavis Bryant.
Smith-Schuster’s talent duly noted, the Steelers should have selected a corner. But management has long underestimated the importance of that position.
The Steelers might win a Super Bowl with their secondary. It’s just very unlikely. God forbid Burns or either starting safety gets hurt.
Darrelle Revis is still unsigned. He's got to be better at age 32 than Gay is.
Another ill-advised draft pick was taking long snapper Colin Holba of Louisville in the sixth round. The notion of drafting a long snapper at all seems ludicrous. Holba’s high snap caused kicker Chris Boswell to miss an extra point in Saturday night’s exhibition loss to Indianapolis. Free-agent signee Kameron Canaday may claim the spot.
As Don Cheadle said in "Ocean’s Eleven,” “You had one job to do!”
Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte hits a two-run single off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
CINCINNATI -- Andrew McCutchen was angry that plate umpire Jeff Kellogg wouldn't let him call time to get ready to hit in the fourth inning.
McCutchen didn't need Kellogg's help in the fifth.
The Pittsburgh center fielder snapped a 0-for-15 slump with a run-scoring single, helping the Pirates to a 5-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday.
McCutchen argued with Kellogg in the third after Kellogg wouldn't let him call time to slow down Reds pitcher Tyler Mahle.
"I thought he was quick to the plate," McCutchen said after the game. "I asked him three times, and I got one. It's all about safety for me. They'd buzzed me earlier. I want to be ready."
He made sure he was ready with Starling Marte on second base and out in the fifth, singling to center field for a 3-1 Pirates lead.
"I wasn't going to try to let anyone get in my head," he said. "I was ready. He left one out over the plate, and I was able to get an RBI. I was able to be victorious for one at bat."
John Jaso and Starling Marte each drove in two runs against the Central Division last-place Reds, who left 11 runners on base, including three in the ninth, while slipping to 2-4 on their nine-game home stand. They have scored two runs in their last 19 innings.
"The game was sitting there for us to win and we didn't do it," Reds manager Bryan Price said.
Mahle (0-1), promoted from Triple-A Louisville to start, walked four Pirates and hit another. The right-hander gave up three runs and four hits with five strikeouts.
"Once I started to play catch, I was fine," Mahle said. "I got a little wild. I had to slow everything down. I like to work fast, but I got a little too fast and walked a couple guys."
Marte capped a three-hit day with a two-run single in the ninth.
Pirates starter Jameson Taillon, who allowed five walks in five innings during his last start on August 22 against Los Angeles, again had control problems. The right-hander walked four Reds while giving up five hits and two runs. Manager Clint Hurdle replaced his pitcher with A.J. Schugel with runners on first and second and nobody out in the fifth, leaving Taillon ineligible for a win.
Schugel (3-0), with the help of Diaz throwing out Schebler trying to steal second to end the sixth, faced the minimum six batters over two innings for the win.Felipe Rivero pitched the ninth for his 16th save.
DEBUT DEJA VU
For the second time in franchise history, both this season, a Reds pitcher and catcher made their major league debuts as the starting battery. On Sunday, it was Mahle and C Chad Wallach, the son of former major league 3B and current Marlins bench coach Tim Wallach. On April 6, it was RHP Rookie Davis and Stuart Turner.
With the bases loaded, nobody out and a 1-0 count on cleanup hitter, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage had an effective talk with Taillon on the mound. Duvall struck out looking, Scooter Gennett popped out foul and Jose Peraza flied out to end the threat.
Joey Votto had reached base in a season-high 29 consecutive games before going 0-for-4 on Saturday. He bounced back to walk five times on Sunday for the second time in his career, tying a franchise record.
Pirates: 2B Adam Frazier left the game in the middle of the third inning with right hamstring discomfort.
Reds: RHP Scott Feldman was transferred to the 60-day disabled list. Feldman underwent arthroscopic surgery to "clean out" his right knee on Tuesday.
Pirates: Pittsburgh hopes to make it six wins in seven games at Wrigley Field this season in the first game of a three-game series on Monday. RHP Trevor will make his fifth career appearance and third start against the Cubs, all this season. He is 1-1 against Chicago.
Reds: After an off day on Monday, the Mets arrive for a three-game series. Rookie RHP Sal Romano, who's logged a career-high seven innings in each of his last two starts, will make his 11th career appearance and start and first against New York.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' first-team offense ran 15 plays for three points against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night. That won't fuel the Super Bowl chants. But the connection between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still looked effortless on two over-the-middle plays for 28 yards. The yardage doesn't look like much, but they could have filled up the stat sheet. The timing is there. This is the preseason, and the offense looked to spread the ball around in a 19-15 loss.
QB depth chart: After Roethlisberger took a strip-sack on the first drive, the Steelers didn't mind removing him on short work to avoid injury. Roethlisberger completed 6 of 9 passes for 73 yards on two drives, mostly working the intermediate passing game. Landry Jones, back from an abdominal injury, played like a reliable backup by completing 21 of 31 passes for 163 yards and a score.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked ...: Adequate but not flashy. The Steelers moved the ball but seemed content running the offense without taking any major risk, which is fine for this setting. Targeting Knile Davis and Jesse James in the red zone resulted in a quick field goal. The Steelers' defense aided the Colts' opening-drive touchdown with a missed tackle and a holding penalty at the goal line. On the second drive, Ryan Shazier's leaping interception in zone coverage was the highlight.
One reason to be concerned: The secondary had a few issues once again, which isn't overly alarming in a small sample size but still a factor. Artie Burns and Robert Golden failed to bring down Donte Moncrief in the open field, resulting in a 55-yard gain that should have been an easy tackle. Ross Cockrell, who split first-team reps with Coty Sensabaugh, played more physical than a week ago but got called for pass interference and got beat by Phillip Dorsettdown the sideline for 32 yards. Giving up yards will happen, but the Steelers will need to minimize the miscues before Week 1.
That guy could start: The lone available starting spot on the offense is running back -- for Week 1 only, if Le'Veon Bell needs a spell after returning to the team on short notice. The trio of James Conner, Knile Davis and Fitz Toussaint (leg injury) isn't electric, but it can help in short spurts. Davis opened the game with gains of 10, 11 and 9 yards. Conner looked more decisive than the previous week, with 26 yards on four carries.
Rookie watch: Third-round cornerback Cam Sutton's making plays was a welcome sight, considering the Steelers' need for cornerback depth. Sutton missed most of training camp but acquitted himself well in his debut, recording a diving pass breakup and a tackle for a loss. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster appeared to hurt his knee on an 8-yard reception but returned to the game and broke a tackle for a 15-yard gain.
X-man: Tight end Xavier Grimble's slick one-handed catch for a 10-yard touchdown reminds why the Steelers are intrigued by him as a backup tight end and red zone target. Grimble committed a few drops in training camp, but he's an impressive athlete who can block.
Unfamiliar sight: A 39-year-old franchise sack leader running with the second-team defense in a preseason game was different. But James Harrison produced in that role with a half-sack of quarterback Stephen Morris. The power off the edge looks intact.