Has the NFL Neutered the Steelers?

Prologue -December 7th, 2005

In just 3 weeks Pittsburgh has fallen from 7-2 to 7-5. Crucial losses to AFC contenders Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati rob the Steelers of their swagger. The final game ends egregiously, with Chad Johnson taunting the Heinz Field faithful by wiping his cleats with a stolen Terrible Towel.

The morning after the Post-Gazette speculates as to whether Jerome Bettis was second guessing his decision not to retire and, worse yet, fans learn that the Steelers could run the table yet fail to make the playoffs.

That Wednesday morning the Steelers return to the South Side to a surprise. Bill Cowher announces a practice in full pads. Long time veterans cannot remember a full pads practice this late in the season. But order it he does, and the Steelers go on an 8 game winning streak that ends on the podium in Detroit at Super Bowl XL….

Does This Impact the Steelers?

Ask Mike Tomlin how this affects the Steelers and he’d likely dismiss any impact, pleading lack of concern, as long as the rules apply to everyone….

Sounds like common sense, but the Steelers, more than many teams, have established a foundation in being physical.

The new CBA between the owners and the NFLPA stipulates that during the 17-week regular season, teams are only permitted a maximum of 14 padded practices. Moreover, coaches can practice in pads 11 times during the first 11 weeks with a single two-padded practice permitted once during that span.

During the final six weeks of the season, only 3 padded practices are permitted.

Those are the restrictions. How might they be impacting the Steelers?

Neal Coolong, of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTWC) offered this assessment in a personal email following the Trashing in Texas.

The direction of this game is becoming an absolute joke. We are [explicative] year because we cannot practice with pads on, and our defenders are so freaked out about getting fined every game they aren’t hitting. Add that with the lack of practice time on the things, you know, you DO IN THE GAME YOU’RE PLAYING, you have a weak team that [sic] supposed to be physical.

In other words, they’ve Steeler-proofed the NFL.

Look at that screen play [vs. the Texans] on third and long in a must-stop situation for Pittsburgh’s defense. Polamalu doesn’t want to hit Foster the way he’s supposed to be hit, because that involves the helmet and could lead him to a penalty, or another fine. Instead, he literally jumps on top of him and lets gravity do the rest.

Pittsburgh is facing a running concept they hadn’t seen much of, and they can’t practice in pads to truly replicate what it feels like in the trenches when guys are cutting you. Because of that, every team is doing it to them, and they can’t keep up…. Their practice time in pads has been reduced 200 percent, and the physical defenses (Pittsburgh, Jets, and yes, the Patriots).

Our offensive line is in the same position. When will you get to know a person better, when you spend a day with them or when you exchange instant messages? Not being in pads and hitting their opponents during the week hinders their ability to learn each other’s tendencies and work together on their weaknesses. They could last year, which is why they kind of held up despite all the injuries. Same amount of injuries, most of the same guys, completely different results.

Neal’s logic flows flawlessly and he makes quite a compelling argument. But as Yoda might say “Reality not always does coherent logic add up to.” Aristotle argued that if you drop two objects the heavier one will fall to earth first. It made so much sense that no one thought to challenge him until Gallieo tested it from the Tower of Pisa and discovered Aristotle was wrong….

Neal was hardly the first fellow member of the blogging community to comment about the dramatic reduction of physical contact in NFL practices, so I thought it best to bounce his observations off of someone who has been watching the Steelers practice for decades. In his weekly PG Plus chat of two weeks ago this was how Gerry Dulac responded:

Clearly Dulac doesn’t think new rules on contact in practice are an issue. I don’t want to wade too much into a shadow debate between a friend and a serious journalist whom I respect. At this point Steel Curtain Rising will lay both issues out and comment that this is a story that will continue to develop.

The issue of how teams coach their players to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits is another issue.

The ironic thing about this is that after the Texans game Mike Tomlin reportedly ordered is two-pad practice and the Steelers rebounded with their best and most physical game of the year by far vs. the Titans.


The issue of the lack of contact was discussed on CBS both before and after the game. The exact flow of the conversation escapes memory, but Bill Cowher clearly said that were he still coaching, he’d want an extra padded practice in his back pocket.

One can imagine he would, if for no other reason than his famous full-pads December practice that sparked his Super Bowl run wouldn’t be possible in 2011.

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