The Alliance of American Football is set to begin their inaugural season this weekend, just a week removed from the NFL’s Super Bowl. The newly formed league will feature eight franchises playing a ten week season, with the championship game taking place around the time of the NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, the itch for football in Pittsburgh will have to wait for September to roll around, as 7/8 teams are geographically on or below the 35th parallel. No plans for expansion have officially been announced quite yet, however if the league finds success in year one, expansion may undoubtedly be on the horizon in the near future.
Outside of the NFL, football in Pittsburgh past the collegiate level hasn’t exactly thrived. Between multiple arena football teams, a women’s professional team and a USFL team, no team has garnered the respect and support quite like the Steelers have.
Yet that could all change if a team lands in Pittsburgh. The AAF appears to have solid ground to stand on, securing big names in football such as Bill Polian and Jared Allen while striking TV deals with CBS and NFL Network. Pittsburgh already has professional connections with the league, as Troy Polamalu (Head of Player Relations) and Hines Ward (Player Relations Executive) are involved with the AAF.
Our very own Alan Saunders also noted the collegiate connections over at Pittsburgh Sports Now, as several former Pitt players will suit up this weekend in the AAF. Panther fans will recognize names like Scott Orndoff and Dontez Ford along with other Pitt alumni playing in the upstart league.
With all of the Steel City connections, it got us thinking… What would a Pittsburgh team look like in the AAF?
Team Name: Pittsburgh Thunder (As much as this city loves alliteration with it’s sports teams, we can all agree the Phantoms or Power doesn’t sound as great. Plus the weather speaks for itself here).
Team Colors: Black and gold (Obviously).
Mascot: Steely McBeam (Just kidding).
Venue: Heinz Field (Perfect for spring football).
Uniform: I’m a really big fan of Arizona State’s all-black uniforms here. Obviously the team would need to axe the ASU logos, but perhaps a script “Steel City” across the chest and slapping a lightning logo on the sides would do it justice. Keep the sleeves too, and watch jersey sales go through the roof.
— azcentral sports (@azcsports) August 13, 2018
General Manager: Jerry Reese
In your first season, you need a leader at the GM position who knows how to win. Look no further than former New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese. Reese’s time as GM lasted 11 seasons, seeing two Super Bowl championships during his time in New York. With deep experience in scouting, Reese as the background of eyeing talent while also being a capable winner at the professional level.
Coaching Staff: Bill Cowher (Head Coach), Dick LeBeau (Defensive Coordinator), Todd Haley (Offensive Coordinator)
Man, this is a yinzer dream and nightmare at the same time. It would take some serious money to lure Bill Cowher away from CBS and play second fiddle as a coach in Pittsburgh, yet if Cowher still has the desire to coach, he could dominate in the AAF. With Dick LeBeau out of a job, the coaching itch may be enough to convince him to again join forces with Cowher and coach with half of the pressure he’s been accustomed to in previous years.
Lastly, Todd Haley isn’t a very popular name in Pittsburgh for a variety of reasons. Yet when given the chance, he’s done some great things on the offensive side of the football when the talent is there. It’s up to Haley to put his ego aside and simply coach football. If he can accomplish that, this coaching staff would undoubtedly be the best in the league.
It would take an eternity to fill a 53 man roster, but just for the sake of time, I will only highlight players of notable recognition. Since we cannot pull from any active NFL rosters, we will use some active NFL free agents mixed with a few former Steelers and Pitt players as well.
Quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III, Tom Savage
After what appeared to be a career doomed to be over after struggling with injuries, Robert Griffin III signed with the Baltimore Ravens and showed serious glimpses of the player he once was. If RGIII’s ultimate goal is to again be a starting quarterback, that simply won’t happen in the NFL next season. Griffin could sign with the Thunder, showcase his dual-threat abilities in Haley’s offense and build his career back from there. Tom Savage, former Pitt quarterback, could be a valuable back-up to RG3, and perhaps a homecoming wouldn’t hurt his progress either.
Running Backs: DeAngelo Williams, Kenjon Barner,
DeAngelo Williams returns to Pittsburgh and picks up right where he left off with the Thunder. After being forgotten about in Carolina and eventually released by the Steelers despite excellent play, Williams still has some gas left in the tank, and is a fan favorite here in Pittsburgh. The Speedy Kenjon Barner would work on special teams mostly, but he could fill a role in Haley’s offense and become a player we all thought Dri Archer should have been.
Wide Receivers: Cobi Hamilton, Devin Street, Justin Hunter, Tavon Austin, Santonio Holmes
The Tavon Austin signing might be a stretch, considering teams may still be able to value him for his positional flexibility. The receiving group isn’t necessarily strong, yet has some Pittsburgh name value/enough talent to carry a team for a couple seasons. We know the potential of Hamilton/Hunter from their few glimpses as members of the Steelers, and Pitt alumni Devin Street may just need a second chance to prove he can perform at a high level after tearing it up at Heinz Field during his college days.
Linebackers: Michael Mauti, Jason Worilds, Arthur Moats, Elvis Dumervil
Secondary: Keenan Lewis, Ryan Clark, Shamarko Thomas, Brandon Boykin,
Special Teams: Shaun Suisham (K), Jeff Locke (P)
Pittsburgh is first and foremost a football town, despite what some people may tell you otherwise. The success of the Steelers has instilled a religious following for not only professional football, but all levels of the beautiful sport. With name recognition scattered across the board for Steelers/Pitt fans to flock to, selling tickets should be of no problem, especially if you’re attempting to decide between going to a Pirates game or trying out the new AAF.
Given the history of startup teams in the Steel City, the Thunder may not last more then a handful of seasons. However with a loaded coaching staff, decent roster and great foundation from the AAF, the Thunder could produce a winning football team that can keep Pittsburgh fans entertained during the spring time for years to come.
Steelers Cut Kicker McCrane, Ex-AAF DB Tocho
The Steelers released kicker Matt McCrane and defensive back Jack Tocho on Thursday, opening roster spots ahead of their rookie minicamp and signaling at least a bit of faith in kicker Chris Boswell.
McCrane, who was signed by the Steelers at the end of the 2018 season after Boswell was placed on the injured reserve list, was 3 for 3 on field goals in his lone game with Pittsburgh.
The 24-year-old McCrane is a Kansas State grad and also spent time with the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders in his rookie season.
Boswell, who is entering the first season of a four-year, $16.8 million contract extension that was signed before the 2018 season, is coming off his worst year statistically with the Steelers.
In 2018, he hit 13 of 20 field goals overall, and 65% success rate was next-to-last in the league.
The Steelers will still have some competition for Boswell this summer, as they singed Matthew Wright as an undrafted free agent just after the draft. Wright spent the last four years at UCF, where he made 77.5% of his field goals.
Tocho, 23, signed with the Steelers after the AAF folded. He had been playing with the Birmingham Iron. The former seventh round pick of Minnesota spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons on practice squads of the Vikings and Washington Redskins.
The Steelers will have their first-year players, draft picks, undrafted rookies free agents, and tryouts at rookie camp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side this Friday through Sunday.
Exclusive with Steelers Linebacker JT Jones
J.T. Jones is a first-year outside linebacker that signed with the Steelers in April after playing with the Atlanta Legends of the AAF this spring. He spent 2018 with the Atlanta Falcons after going undrafted out of Miami (Ohio).
First, congratulations on signing with the Steelers. Tell me why you decided to sign with the Steelers?
Well, it was really the opportunity to continue to play football! I was down to go anywhere really, but what I liked about Pittsburgh was the history and tradition — stuff like that.
And I grew up looking up to Mike Tomlin, the things he’s done. Being a black head coach, that was a big thing for me. Playing for him — especially with him being a defensive guy — that’s big too. And I love James Harrison. I modeled my game after him and always wanted to play the position he played. This was the best opportunity for me. It’s an amazing time.
It’s interesting you bring up Harrison as you’re a similar player to he and Ola Adeniyi. How does being a smaller guy at outside linebacker effect your style of play?
I’m not as big as most guys who are edge rushers, but my technique, speed, and relentlessness I think set me apart. I’m smaller but I have a lot of power in my lower body. I’ve faced and beaten 6-foot-7 offensive tackles before. I’m good at using my leg strength and have long arms. I find my own way of getting things done. Like Harrison. He was crazy strong and I’m tying to get to that point too, spending time in the weight room. I won’t be as strong as him, but still. … I have fast feet too so if I can’t overpower a lineman, if they can’t touch me, I can always run around them.
How did playing in the AAF help you?
Well it was much better than sitting at home. It helped me continue to get better. The only way to get better is to go against people. The AAF was an opportunity for me to wok on my craft and get on film too, which was important to me. It got me here. And it helped me work on moves. It helped me to prefect my pass rush. Not that I’m perfect I mean, but it helped me to get better.
Tell me a bit about working on moves. How do you build on your confidence and perfect your pass rush moves?
You can’t win every rep but at the same time you can’t keep doing the same stuff. I’m excited for camp to start. That’s something I really enjoy. Getting four to five reps. On long drives, we’re both tired, me and the offensive lineman. I may have already used all of my moves at that point, but I know he’s going to be more tired than me. I know that if my moves don’t work I’ll have a counter – I’ll need something new. And I enjoy making up new stuff and trying it out Even if it doesn’t work I still need to stay confident.
And your comfort level in coverage?
I’m comfortable with dropping. I worked on it a lot while in Atlanta, playing Sam backer.
Also training-wise, I would work on my drops and hip fluidity all the time along with my pass rush. I know that I can do both well, and I need to be able to cover to compliment my rush.
Coming from a MAC team like Miami, how does it feel to have a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, from your school, as your quarterback now?
Oh it’s cool. He is the face of our entire program at Miami. He put our school on the map in a way. I used to want to sack him! I know I won’t get the chance to do that now, but I’m glad to be playing with him. He’s a helluva fine player, a helluva fine leader. To be part of the organization he is on is great. I really enjoy the idea of playing on the same team as him.
How does knowing that the Steelers really value undrafted free agents and have a high number of them on the team every season help your confidence in making the team?
Honestly, I felt a lot of energy on my visit. I didn’t know that it was a high number like you said, but it makes sense. It’s clicking now – I felt the energy on the team. It’s important to me because I was so underrated in high school and college. They didn’t look just at the big names. They just want ball players, and I’m the guy for that.
What impressed you most about your visit to Pittsburgh – what stands out about your visit?
Oh, definitely, the room where they hold all of the trophies. I’ve seen and been close to trophies. I’ve held trophies. But six of them — all lined up! That was pretty dope. And talking to the coaches, I could feel it was a family atmosphere. That adds to the excitement and confidence. I didn’t get too much of an opportunity for interaction – they were busy with draft stuff and all, and I was with two other guys who were visiting too. We really were in and out – we flew back that same day. But it was a great vibe.
Anyone you know on the team currently?
Yeah, my family is close to Bud Dupree. We grew up in the same area in Georgia, so it’s like family with him. And Marcelis Branch, we played together in Atlanta and roomed together. It’s dope that he and I can be on the same team again.
Lastly, what should we know about you off the field? What non-football things excite you?
For not on the field stuff? I like to play PS4 and just relax. And outside of football I also like to travel and see landscapes and go hiking. I love eating, too. I’ve been getting pointers on where to eat in Pittsburgh – where to get burgers and stuff.
I’m sure Primanti’s has been raised a number of times as well? The one with fries and coleslaw on the sandwiches?
No it hasn’t – but I just added it to the list!
Former Steelers Shine on AAF Opening Weekend
With the 2018-2019 NFL season now in the rear-view mirror, Steelers fans are still able to wave their Terrible Towels thanks to former Steelers playing in the Alliance of American Football’s inaugural weekend.
The Steelers serve as an affiliate for the AAF’s Birmingham Irons, meaning any players cut by the Steelers (Or Browns, Patriots, and Bills) would be at first grabs for Birmingham.
Seven former Steelers are currently playing for the Iron: Jacob Hagen, Jamar Summers, Johnny Maxey, Josh Frazier, Casey Sayles, Larson Graham and L’Damien Washington. The Irons shut out the Memphis Express 26-0 behind a dominant defensive display from Summers, who tallied a forced fumble, three tackles and two other passes defended aside from the interception he had here:
— The Alliance (@TheAAF) February 10, 2019
Former Steelers made their names known throughout the rest of the AAF, including linebacker Terence Garvin, who recorded eleven tackles along with the AAF’s first ever interception, while also bringing back another errant pass for a touchdown in a 40-6 win for the Orlando Apollos.
Terence Garvin pick six pic.twitter.com/hm3b1PiAdU
— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) February 10, 2019
In the same game, Atlanta also had two players formerly of the black and gold. Legends receiver Justin Thomas recorded 4 receptions for 35 yards, while cornerback Doran Grant registered two tackles.
The AAF has seen successful ratings through its first week of play, showcasing how much Americans truly love the sport of football no matter how it’s presented. With strong showings by many former Steelers this past weekend, opportunities may present itself for players to once again find themselves on NFL rosters after the season concludes.