How Kirk Cousins “How Do You Like Me Now?” Callout Vindicates Dan Rooney’s Contract Negotiation Stance

One of the peculiarities of being a Steelers fan first and a football fan second is that it becomes easy to forget just how differently the rest of the NFL operates sometimes. In fact, when I read that a team has extended a contract during the season, my first reaction is often “…But wait a minute, players don’t get signed during the season.

  • But of course they do – It just doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Reading Andrew Brandt’s column in MMQB on the Kirk Cousin’sHow do you like me now?”call out to Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, brought home just how wise Dan Rooney was to install the Steelers regular season contract negotiation blackout policy in 1993.

  • Can you imagine something like the Kirk Cousin’s incident happening in Pittsburgh?

No, neither can I. That’s not to say that the Steelers are immune to contract malaise. Alan Faneca was not happy about not getting his extension in 2007, and he grumbled about it loudly in the off season, but that ended when the games started.

Dan Rooney, Steelers contrat negotiation policy

Dan Rooney following the 2010 AFC Championship victory. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images via BTSC

Jeff Reed likewise was unhappy that the Steelers didn’t extend his contract in 2010, and that unhappiness perhaps contributed to Mike Tomlin’s decision to cut him.

  • But by and large, you don’t see these types of contract-based stories popping up in Pittsburgh during the regular season.

Reporters certainly ask players in their contract years if they want to come back, as they did with Lawrence Timmons after the Steelers win over the Giants, but answers usually run along the lines of “I’d like to stay, but we’ll see what happens in March.”

It wasn’t always that way, however….

Free Agency Comes to Pittsburgh….

1993 was the first season that the NFL experienced free agency, thanks to the Freeman-McNeil verdict. The new era saw the Steelers say good by to long-time stalwarts like Tunch Ilkin, but allowed them to bring in veterans like Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

  • At the time, most fans thought that Dan Rooney was cheap, but the Steelers also pioneered success in the salary cap era by resigning their own players.

During that 1993 off season, the Steelers came to terms with Neil O’Donnell, Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson a year before their contracts expired (O’Donnell had been a RFA). They also wanted to reach similar deals with Rod Woodson and Barry Foster, but couldn’t get them done in the summer. So negotiations continued, as the 1993 Steelers got off to a 0-2 start.

Patricia Rooney is the only one who knows if her husband Dan watched ESPN PrimeTime that night, but Chris Berman’s lead on the Steelers game talked about the Woodson and Foster contracts, and showed in image of a guy handing out money….

…If Dan Rooney did see that ESPN, he could not have been pleased.

1993 the Year of the Locker Room Lawyer

While the Steelers had locked up their best defensive player and, at the time, best offensive player the rest of the locker room was not happy, particuarly because after inking Woodson and Foster, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe decided to cut off further negotiations until season’s end.

Tight end Adrian Cooper went as far as to tell Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If everyone’s contract would be done, I think we’d be 4-0 instead of 2-2. It has something to do with it. We’re unbeaten since they signed the two big guys.”

Big things had been expected of Adrian Cooper, so much that the Steelers openly discussed trading Eric Green. Cooper’s breakout season failed to materialized, and after the season he explained to reporters, “I feel neglected. As a result, my performance was a reflection of how they treated me.”

  • As soon as Tom Donahoe heard that, Cooper was on the next bus out of town, heading to Minnesota via trade.

But even Merril Hoge, a man whose ethics are beyond question, confided, “When we went 0-2, I think they thought players were more concerned about their contracts. That may have been true.”

After the season Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe all agreed that contract issues had been a distraction for the Steelers in 1993. Their solution was to use the regular season to focus on winning, not negotiating.

The results speak for themselves. Although he may have wanted his contract extension sooner than he got it, Ben Roethlisberger certainly never considered walking off of Heinz Field and screaming “How do you like me now?” at Kevin Colbert, because the focus in Pittsburgh during the season stays where it should, on winning.

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Setting Up for a Late Semester Surge: Steelers Report Card for Giants Win

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the growing pains his student suffered early in the year won’t fuel a late semester surge, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New York Giants.

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Eli Manning has no where to run as Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison close in. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger found himself playing against a much tougher defense, and the numbers bear that out, although a number of recievers did drop catchable balls. Against the Giants Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 26 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. It should be noted that while Eli Rogers receiver got both hands on the ball, it was slightly under thrown. The Steelers were 7-15 on third downs and 1-1 on fourth downs and the latter stat really counted. A solid day for the Steelers signal caller. Grade: B+

Running Back
The New York Giants have a stout run defense, and Le’Veon Bell had to work for his yards on a number of occasions. But Le’Veon Bell earned the tough yards against the Giants, saw his patience pay off when the hole was not immediately clear, and hit the holes hard when they were there. And he also 6 passes for 64 yards to add to his 118 rushing yards. Roosevelt Nix was used extensively at fullback, and he played well. Le’Veon Bell did cough up the ball which led to New York’s non-garbage time fumble, which drops his grade a notch. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
This was the Ladarius Green the Steelers thought they were getting when they signed him to a 20 million dollar contract. Ladarius Green proved to be again be a field flipper and a difference maker in catching six passes for 110 yards, including a touchdown. Jesse James also saw extensive action, and if he did have an early drop, he made up for it on later plays including a critical 4th down conversion in the 4th quarter. Both tight ends acquitted themselves well. Grade: A

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The Giants managed to “contain” Antonio Brown fairly well, as Brown only had 6 catches for 54 yards. But he made those catches count, with a jaw dropping touchdown catch and another excellent toe tapper to keep the ball in bounds on the Steelers final touchdown drive. Brown didn’t get a lot of help for the rest of the receivers.

Eli Rogers did have a nice 18 yard catch, but that was his only one. Cobi Hamilton caught two balls, but they only amounted for 11 yards. Sammie Coates saw limited action at wide out and did not see a pass come his way. Ladarius Green’s emergence should help Antonio Brown, but Brown will need help during December. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger saw more pressure than he has in recent weeks, but per the numbers on ESPN, he was only sacked twice and only hit three more times. More importantly, the Steelers offensive line’s pass protection held when it needed to.

Any breakdown of the game tape is going to reveal battles at the line of scrimmage that the Steelers offensive line lost. But as the game wore on, the Mike Munchak’s crew wore down the men in front of them and ultimately, imposed their will in the fourth quarter. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The New York Giants didn’t come into the game with much of a rushing offense and didn’t establish one during the game. Stephon Tuitt didn’t put up a lot of statics, but he was moving around and forced New York to account for him. Ricardo Mathews earned his first sack as a Steeler, and ended an attempted Giant’s 4th down conversion. Overall the line played so well, that yours truly didn’t notice that Javon Hargrave missed the second half with a concussion. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons has taken a lot of heat for supposedly slowing a step this season, but he has put together several strong games and stepped it up a notch vs. the Giants, making a field flipping interception when New York threatened in the Red Zone. Ryan Shazier’s stat sheet might seem slim, but he made a key pass defense in the Red Zone. Bud Dupree hasn’t made any splash plays, but getting around the field (and he was held a lot.)

And what else can you say about James Harrison? He’s 38 years old and has had 5 sacks in five weeks. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers secondary took another stride forward this week. Odell Beckham may have pleased fantasy owners, but the Steelers kept him out of the end zone.

Artie Burns continues to improve, particularly in his tackling. Mike Mitchell also played another strong game defending two key passes. But the real star of the show was Sean Davis, who made several plays early on, and then came down with an interception when the Giants were trying to rally. Grade: A

Special Teams
It was a quiet week for the Steelers special teams, with the Giants making little noise in the kick return game, and the Steelers got two decent returns. Randy Bullock came in at the last minute and knocked in 3 field goals and one extra point. You can’t ask for much more than that. Penalties continue to be an issue, and that drops the grade of this unit. Grade: B

Coaching
It was easy to write off the Steelers wins against the Browns and the Luckless Colts. Sure, the Steelers haven’t always done well in those “should win” situations, but its also true that neither team offered the Steelers a real test.

  • Todd Haley designed a game plan that called for ball control, and his unit executed it to near perfection.

And if the Steelers still need help at receiver, Haley was able to incorporate Ladarius Green as a vertical threat, something which clearly made a difference in this game.

Keith Butler’s defense delivered what is perhaps their strongest performance of the season, with the Steelers forcing the Giants to go 0-3 on 4th down conversions.

More importantly, several members of Butler’s defense stepped up at critical moments to deliver splash plays. We saw a lot of that in 2015, but not much so far this season. Hopefully this is a sign of more to come.

Mike Tomlin appears to have succeeded in getting his team to avoid riding the roller coaster. They didn’t let a four game losing streak take the wind out of their sails, and they didn’t allow winning 2 games in 5 days to go to their heads.

The one real quibble we have with the coaching are the penalties. The Steelers win could have been much more decisive were it not for inopportune flags and this is becoming a reccuring issue, and hence drops the coaching grade. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
He won’t get the ink that his counterpart is deservedly getting. He didn’t score a touchdown and probably won’t make any ESPN highlight reels. But this young player atoned for a drop with a nice 16 yard catch, helped set up the Steelers first touchdown with an 11 yard catch, and caught a 5 yard 4th down conversion that iced the game, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Giants.

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Pittsburgh Gets Physical: Offensive Line, Defense Deliver as Steelers Beat Giants 24-14

December football has arrived. As the temperatures drop, this is the time of year when the contenders rise above the pretenders. It is impossible to label a 7-5 team “a contender” but the Steelers 24-14 win over the New York Giants gives Steelers Nation hope that they can soon earn the label.

And what’s more encouraging is that the Steelers authored this win, to borrow the words of Jim Wexell, by reverting “to a formula that helped them win two Super Bowls last decade,” a formula that combines physical, playmaking on defense, a ball control rushing attack paired with a field flipping passing game.

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Ladarius Green stretches for more yards during the Steelers 24-14 win over the New York Giants. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Offensive Line Tolls the Bell

The Pittsburgh Steelers best three players are Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. All three have Hall of Fame level talent. The Cowboys loss confirmed that The Triplets can’t carry the Steelers alone, but during the Colts win others flashed that they might be stepping up.

  • The Giants game confirmed that players are stepping up on multiple fronts.

An underperforming offensive line was a constant in the Steelers 5 losses this season. They either protected Ben Roethlisberger or opened holes for Bell, but struggled to do both simultaneously.

Undaunted by coaching against tough a Giants defense, Todd Haley opted to ram the ball down New York’s throat. The Giants made 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage proving they’re for real..

But those plays stand out as the game’s exception, not the rule. Unlike the Ravens game, the Steelers offensive line created room for Le’Veon Bell to run, and when they couldn’t, Bell created his own space. Le’Veon Bell’s 118 yards will keep fantasy owners happy, but the offense did its best work late in the game.

  • With 7 minutes remaining to play, the Steelers offense imposed their will to defended their 14 point lead.

Todd Haley force fed the ball to Le’Veon Bell 8 times, as Bell gained all but 5 of the Steelers 48 yards and set up Randy Bullock’s insurance field goal.

Sometimes, It IS Easy to Be Green….

An offensive line and a running back grinding out victory late in the 4th quarter certainly appeals to the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” purists in Steelers Nation, but it isn’t very sexy. A tight end who can stretch the field and make opponents pay is.

  • Against the New York Giants, Ladarius Green put Bills, Bengals, Ravens and Colts on notice that they will ignore him at their peril.

The Steelers have needed someone to take heat off of Antonio Brown, and against the Giants, Ladarius Green proved he can be that player. Green made 2 “field flipping” plays against the Colts, but the New York Giant’s 5th ranked defense figured to give him a stiffer test.

  • Ladarius Green aced the exam with flying colors.

Green set up the Steelers first field goal with his 37-yard reception. After that, Ben Roethlisberger found Green for completions of 9 and ten yards. In the third quarter Brown flipped the field again with a 33-yard catch and topped it off with a 20-yard touchdown catch.

On a day when the New York Giants bottled up Antonio Brown as well as any other team has, Browns jaw-dropping end zone and sideline catches notwithstanding, the Steelers needed another playmaker and Ladarius Green delivered.

New and Old Playmakers Drive Dominant Steelers Defense

Can it just be that 21-days ago commentators, including this one, had written the obituary on the Steelers 2016 defense? Yes, that happens when a defense surrenders 2 touchdowns inside of the 2-minute warning.

  • But the Giants game reinforces that reality that the NFL season is a 16-round fight.

And the Steelers defense has rallied since suffering what could have been a season-killing TKO at the hands of Ezekiel Elliot.

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Ryan Shazier shadows as Lawrence Timmons returns Eli Manning’s interception for 58 yards. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review.

You can use a host of statistics to document the Steelers defensive dominance over the Giants – limiting them to 234 total yards, nearly shutting out Odell Beckhman in the first half, holding the Giants to 14 rushing attempts – but none of those do justice to what the Steelers defense accomplished.

  • The Steelers defense dominated because it combined physical football with splash plays at critical junctures of the game.

Lawrence Timmon’s interception end zone interception and 58-yard return both took points off the board and set up the Steelers first touchdown. Artie Burns, James Harrison, William Gay, Ryan Shazier and Timmons all stepped up to log yet another 4-down goal line stand when the Giants entered the Steelers Red Zone early in the second half.

With Eli Manning racing to avoid pressure, Sean Davis’4th-down interception prevented the Giants from transforming a Ben Roethlisberger interception into points.

  • Ricardo Mathews led a gang sack of Eli Manning on 4th down, effectively ending New York’s final chance rally for victory.

Last February Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided to attempt a little addition by subtraction by letting go of underperforming and/or overpriced veterans on defense. Growing pains tied to that decision cost the Steelers during the 1st three months of the season.

But December football has started, and the win over the Giants shows that the Steelers early-season sacrifices are beginning to bear fruit for Keith Butler‘s defense.

Steelers Must Maintain Focus

Unlike its last two wins, the Giants victory arrives without an asterisk and that’s a welcome because both the Ravens and Bengals are also bringing their best football to the table here in December. The good news is that the Steelers control their own destiny and are free to focus on one opponent at time.

Mike Tomlin’s ability to get his team to do just that will define whether the 2016 Steelers end December football earning the title of “contender.”

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Vote Now Steelers Nation: Steelers Game Ball Winners for Giants Game

Winning sure is fun, even if the Steelers didn’t make it as easy on themselves as they should have. The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants to the tune of 24-14 and had it not been for a plethora of penalties and inopportune times, the Steelers victory could have been more decisive.

  • But as Mike Tomlin is probably reminding us now as I write this, “They don’t add style points.”
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Antonio Brown and Ladarius Green during the Steelers 24-14 win over the New York Giants. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

As we do after every Steelers win, we invite citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners. Here are the candidates who’ve made it to the ballot:

Who deserves a game ball for the Steelers win over the Giants (votes for multiple players allowed)

On offense, Ben Roethlisberger earns a ballot slot due to his strong performance. Ladarius Green had what might be a breakout game, including his critical touchdown late in the game. Le’Veon Bell didn’t always have room to run, but showed why he is the most complete running back in the league. Antonio Brown’s yardage totals might have been down, but he came down with the ball in the end zone, and made another critical catch late in the game.

  • Remember, you are not limited to these choices. If you think that Jesse James deserves a game ball, please by all means write in his name. Better yet, write in his name in leave a comment pleading your case.

On defense, Sean Davis leads the balloting. Even before his interception, Sean Davis had a strong game, coming up to make a number of critical stops.

Lawrence Timmons also gets a nod on the ballot, as his interception was critical. Mike Mitchell also gets a ballot slot, as he came up with several key pass defenses against Odell Beckham Jr.

James Harrison recorded yet another sack, and again was strong in run defense. And Ricardo Mathews gets a ballot slot thanks to his sack of Eli Manning late in the game.

  • One good candidate for a write in would be Artie Burns, who lead the team in tackles, and had a key pass defense in the end zone.

On special teams, we’re also giving a slot to Steelers emergency kicker Randy Bullock, who knocked in 3 field goals and was perfect on extra points.

Thanks in advance for taking time to vote. Please be sure to check back for Steel Curtain Rising’s full analysis of the Steelers win over the Giants.

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Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

News that a Chris Boswell abdomen injury forced the Steelers to sign Randy Bullock sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation just 24 hours before the Steelers critical matchup with the New York Giants at Heinz Field.

  • And so it should, Chris Boswell has proven to be a very accurate kicker and beyond that, a pretty good clutch kicker.
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Chris Boswell kicks a for the Steelers vs. the Bengals in October 2015. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via Yahoo! Sports

But Steeles Nation’s collective trepidation is also felt so deeply because past history of Steelers emergency kickers has been pretty dismal. Or it should say, history of “Steelers emergency kicker” because in the modern era, the Steelers have only had to go to their “Spare Parts” list to sign a kicker once.

Steelers Emergency Kickers of Yesteryear

It happened in mid-November 1998, when a Norm Johnson strained calf muscle forced the Steelers to sign Matt George, and it is not an experience Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith or anyone else in Steelers Nation would wish to repeat.

  • There were red flags around this move even before Matt George’s foot touched the pigskin.

The Steelers had brought Matt George to training camp with them that summer, but cut him in late August. In other words, they’d seen enough of him to know that he wasn’t their first choice of a “in case of emergency break glass” kicker.

The Steelers brought Brett Conway to Three Rivers Stadium, gave him a tryout, and negotiated with him for two days, thinking they had a deal in place. Then suddenly, Brett Conway left the building.

Brett Conway left on the advice of his agent, after the Washington Redskins offered him spot on their practice squad, infuriating Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher.

The Steelers signed Matt George, who, after missing several kicks during pre-game warmups, kicked low on a 36 yard field goal kick which the Tennessee Oilers blocked.

The Steelers instead went for it on 4th down, only to have Kordell Stewart stopped. The Titans took the lead on the next drive on an Al Del Greco field goal. In desperation, the Steelers tried to lateral their way to retake the lead with time expiring, but the Oilers ran in a loose ball to score an insurance touchdown.

For the record, the Tennessee Oilers won the game 23 to 10 thereby completing their first (and only, at least as the “Tennessee Oilers”) season sweep of the Steelers. Norm Johnson returned the following week and kicked through the end of the 1999 season. Although Matt George wasn’t the only reason the Steelers lost the game, he never played another down in the NFL.

  • As Bill Cowher candidly confided after the game, “I now realize how important it is to have a kicker.”

It is safe to say that, if he didn’t already know that, Mike Tomlin learned that lesson last season as he stood with an injured Ben Roethlisberger watching Michael Vick and Josh Scobee struggled in the Steelers Heinz Field loss to the Ravens.

Hopefully Randy Bullock’s tenure as Steelers emergency kicker won’t force him to relive those memories.

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Steelers Sign Kicker Randy Bullock after Chris Boswell Injury, Cut Al-Hajj Shabazz

Just 24 hours before their show down with the New York Giants at Heinz Field saw Pittsburgh make a worrisome, as the Steelers sign kicker Randy Bullock after hastily adding Chris Boswell to their injury list, citing an abdomen injury.

The Houston Texans drafted Randy Bullock in the 5th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and Bullock held a roster spot with the team despite not kicking. Bullock returned to kick for the Teaxans during the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, when he made 80.3% of his field goal attempts. During 2013, Bullock was perfect from inside 40 yards, but struggled a bit from that range in 2014.

  • During 2015 Bullock, split his time between the Texans and the New York Jets, and again kicked consistently inside of 40 yards.
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Randy Bullock kicks for the New York Jets in 2015. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via New York Times

Bullock did however miss 3 extra points, including two in Houston, which undoubtedly contributed to the Texans decision to part ways with him. Bullock played in the season opener for the New York Giants, where he did not attempt a field goal, but went 2 for 3 on extra points.

Does Steelers Sign Kicker Randy Bullock = “Here go again” for Steelers Nation?

Twitter is wonderful for communicating bite sized bits of information. In 2016 Twitter has almost evolved into Steelers Nation equivalent of the raven for Westeros. And as they say in Westeros, “Dark wings, dark words….”

And after reading a Tweet like that, Steelers Nation can be forgiven for issuing a collective “Here we go again” sigh….

Jeff Reed took over from Todd Peterson in mid-2002 and no other kicker’s foot touched the ball until the Steelers dismissed Jeff Reed following the following the 2010 spanking at the hands of the Patriots. The Steelers signed Shaun Suisham, and Shaun Suisham held a monopoly on kicking duties until the NFL Hall of Fame Game.

While an “abdomen injury” is cause for concern (did Boswell have an appendectomy? We don’t know), the Steelers haven’t put Boswell on IR. Which is good. But the Steelers limited history with emergency place kickers is less encouraging.

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Ben Roethlisberger & Antonio Brown Edge Out Surprise Dark Horse in Steelers Colts Game Ball Voting….

Game ball voting in the wake of the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts came with a few surprises. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown tied for top honors, with both men earning 9 votes a apiece for their efforts, with a defender coming in as a close second.

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After the Colts win Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger tired in game ball voting, with a surprising dark horse as second. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Given the outstanding performance of the Steelers defense (albeit against an Andrew Luckless and rapidly ailing Colts offense) the fact that a defender came in second should surprise no one, as the defense logged plenty of splash plays. But the top defensive vote getter didn’t author any of those said splash plays….Steelers Colts thanksgiving game ball winners, ryan shazier, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown

  • Instead, it was Ryan Shazier who earned the most game ball votes of the defense, coming in with 8 votes.

While Shazier did not have a bad game, his stat sheet only reads 3 tackles. This is all the more surprising because Shazier only garnered 3 game ball winner votes following the Steelers win over the Browns in a game in which his strip sack set up the game sealing touchdown. Still, Ryan Shazier won Steelers Thanksgiving honors for 2016, and those types of articles can sometimes influence voting.

  • Javon Hargrave was the man who scored that touchdown only to get left out of the cold in game ball voting, despite a plea for write ins.

The voters were much kinder to Javon Hargrave following the Colts game, giving him 6 votes, which, while good, was below James Harrison‘s 7 votes. Mike Mitchell was next for the Steelers defense, getting 4 votes  which is perhaps a little low considering the monster game he logged.

William Gay’s low vote total is perhaps a tad surprising, since he opened the action with a strip sack and closed it with an interception – but it is only fair to note that he also gave up a very long completion that set up the Colts first touchdown. Sean Davis likewise only got 2 votes, despite being recognized as the Unsung Hero of the Colts game.

Once again, Steel Curtain Rising offers a heartfelt thank you to all of you who voted.

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

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Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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The Ladarius Green Deep Threat: Can Steelers Take Heat Off of Antonio Brown?

Thanks to the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers don’t have a serious number two receiving threat to take the heat off of Antonio Brown.

Oh, it seemed like they did during the first five games, when second-year man Sammie Coates was catching deep pass after deep pass (and even some shorter ones) and looked to be a viable alternative to the troubled Martavis Bryant, who has all the talent in the world but, by the end of 2016, will have missed 20 of a possible 48 career games due to suspensions alone.

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Ladarius Green catches a pass in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo credit: ESPN.com

But like a lot of other aspects of the team, Sammie Coates, who suffered a deep gash on his hand as well as a broken finger (or two) against the Jets a week earlier, began to take a turn in the wrong direction versus Miami in Week 6 and really hasn’t been the same since.

Eli Rogers, the second-year Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisville, has backed up his training camp and preseason praise by steadily improving as a slot receiver as the year has progressed. As for the likes of Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, well, they haven’t been able to pick up the slack left behind by the absence of Martavis Bryant the the struggles of Sammie Coates because they haven’t been around.

Markus Wheaton was finally placed on Injured Reserve after battling a shoulder injury since training camp, while Heyward-Bey has been out since suffering a foot injury against the Ravens on November 6.

  • In other words, those rumors you heard about the Steelers having a deep and talented receiving corps were false.
  • Don’t get me wrong, it might be deep and talented, but it’s also injured, inexperienced and troubled.

Either way you look at it, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have the plethora of weapons many thought he would.

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger has the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell to go along with maybe the best receiver. But just ask Antonio Brown how tough the sledding has been this season, with regards to beating double and triple coverage week in and week out.

Enter Ladarius Green…

Speaking of rumors, let’s address those rumors you heard about Ladarius Green, the super-talented understudy to Antonio Gates in San Diego, who came to the Steelers as a free-agent in March with the intent of redefining the tight end position in the wake of Heath Miller‘s retirement, they seemed mostly false for close to a year.

  • Sure, you may have believed the Ladarius Green deep threat hype in March, April, May and June.

But when training camp rolled around in late-July, and Ladarius Green, who had offseason ankle surgery before evening signing with Pittsburgh, was still sidelined while recovering from the procedure (or post-concussion headaches, depending on what you believed), skepticism may have started to creep in.

And when Ladarius Green was placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list before the start of the season, thus ensuring that he would miss at least the first six games, well, if you were like a lot of other Steelers fans out there, you may have been of the opinion that the Steelers didn’t do their homework and signed damaged goods–and it would have been hard to blame you.

  • Turns out, Ladarius Green missed the first eight games of the season, before finally making his debut in the Steelers loss to the Cowboys in Week 10 at Heinz Field.

While he did catch three passes for 30 yards against the Cowboys, fact is, Ladarius Green looked kind of lumbersome. That look carried over to Cleveland one week later, when he failed to catch a single pass.

  • This was the guy with the 6’6″, 240 lb frame who had the speed of a receiver?

But just when Steelers Nation may have been ready to write Ladarius Green off as a waste of a free-agent signing, there was Ben Roethlisberger this past Thanksgiving night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, back-peddling to avoid a hard-charging Colts pass rush on third and 13, before unleashing a deep throw off of his back foot.

Who was this pass intended for? How about Ladarius Green, who had a step or two on the guy covering him and pulled the pass in 35 yards later, thus preserving the drive and setting up a touchdown and a 21-7 advantage.

Late in the game, with the Steelers still holding that 21-7 lead and looking for a knockout blow, Ben Roethlisberger again hooked up with Ladarius Green on another long pass–this time for 32 yards.

The Roethlisberger-Green duo didn’t deliver the knockout blow, but they did land the body shot that set up the uppercut (the third touchdown catch by Antonio Brown) that put the Colts down for good.

  • So, what am I saying with all of this?

Maybe that there’s some teeth behind the Ladarius Green deep threat. Maybe he isn’t such a wasted free-agent signing after all. Sure, he’s late to the party, but it’s not time to go home just yet. There are five games remaining in the 2016 campaign, and Pittsburgh (6-5) is in a dogfight with those Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title.

  • Maybe Sammie Coates will never rebound from his current struggles, and maybe the Steelers receiving corps will be compromised for the rest of the year.

However, perhaps Ladarius Green deep threat, can provide the second receiving option that takes the heat off of Antonio Brown and gives Ben Roethlisberger a huge and fast target to spread the field vertically with.

Will Ladarius Green redefine the tight end position for Pittsburgh? Who knows? But maybe he’ll help redefine the rest of the 2016 campaign  for the Steelers and help elevate their offense to the Super Bowl unit everyone thought it was supposed to be.

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I Don’t Care about Karlos Williams’ 10 Game Suspension. Neither Should Steelers Nation

Karlos Williams, a running back formerly of the Buffalo Bills and brother of Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams, was signed to the Steelers practice squad in October. 

  • A fifth round pick by Buffalo in the 2015 NFL Draft, Williams showed great promise as a rookie, rushing for 517 yards and seven touchdowns.

Unfortunately, he showed great immaturity after that, reportedly turning up at his second training camp overweight and ultimately being released when he was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

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Steelers practice squad running back Karlos Williams and brother Vince Williams. Photo credit: John Grieshop, Brett Carlsen Getty Images via FOXsports.com

After serving his suspension, the Steelers snatched up Karlos Williams, who signed him to their practice squad in October. Not only did some consider it a foregone conclusion  that Pittsburgh would eventually promote Karlos Williams to the active  roster; some even speculated that he could be nice insurance for the seemingly inevitable departure of star running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams both of whom are free agents after this season.

The reality: Karlos Williams never did get promoted to the Steelers active roster during his six week stay on their practice squad. Also,  it was announced on Wednesday that he will serve a 10-game suspension for, again, violating the NFL’s drug policy.

The Internet being what it is, and fans being who they usually are, many began to angrily lament the signing of such a troubled player a la Martavis Bryant — and another blemish on the Steelers (mythical) previously spotless record.

Yes, much like a traded away seventh round pick, some people apparently bought in way too deep on the addition of Williams to the team’s practice squad and are now considering this a major setback for the organization.

Please.

  • I could care less about Karlos Williams 10 game suspension. In-fact, before Wednesday’s announcement of his suspension, I had completely forgotten all about him.

As for the notion that he could take the place of a departing Le’Veon Bell next season: If Williams was really that talented and had that kind of can’t-miss potential, well, for one thing, he wouldn’t have been on the Steelers practice squad (he would have been immediately signed to their active roster); secondly, another team would have stolen him off of Pittsburgh’s practice squad a long, long time ago.

This is just speculation (everyone does it, so big whoop), but my guess is Karlos Williams was signed to the Steelers practice squad, as a favor to Vince Williams, his older brother and budding starting inside linebacker.

  • Will Williams, Karlos, that is, ever see action in a Steelers game? Will he ever see action in anyone else’s NFL game? I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

Karlos Williams was the proverbial flier of an acquisition. Had he panned out, great! But, if he didn’t–as appears to be the case after his latest drug transgression–how much of a risk was it in the first place? This is no different than a Major League Baseball team signing a troubled player to a minor league contract in the hopes that he’ll reform his ways and reach his potential.

  • In conclusion, the Steelers are fighting for their playoff lives with just weeks left in the regular season.

They’ve got more important things to worry about than Karlos Willliams 10 game suspension, and so do you.

 

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