The Steelers Brain Trust is “Comfortable” with Their QB Situation. They Have No Other Choice.

As has become his custom in recent years, Steelers president Art Rooney II addressed the media in the aftermath of the 2019 regular season, one in which Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for a second straight year.

Perhaps more so than in 2018, when the Steelers missed the postseason after squandering away a 2.5 game lead in the AFC North with six weeks to play, Art II was probably a little more understanding of last season’s failures, given the absence of his most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–for all but six quarters of the regular season.

  • That Pittsburgh finished 8-8 instead of totally collapsing in the wake of Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury was commendable.

But this does not mean the quarterback play of the backups was stellar. In fact, one could describe the contributions of second-year man Mason Rudolph and rookie Devlin Hodges as workman-like on their best days and absolutely awful on their worst.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

And maybe that’s why it may have been a bit of a surprise when Rooney said he was comfortable with the Steelers quarterback situation–specifically with Rudolph as his team’s backup–heading into 2020.

“As we sit here today, we are all comfortable with Mason being our backup,” said Rooney on January 15 via Steelers.com. ” Speaking of unusual seasons, he had an unusual season. He had to deal with some unusual circumstances, including injuries and everything else. I think it was an experience for him . . . the old story, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hopefully it is that kind of situation for him. I think we are all pretty comfortable with Mason coming back as our backup and being a guy who can continue to develop.”

  • Of course, the key phrase in that Rooney quote may be “As we sit here today,” because lots can happen between now and the start of training camp and the regular season.

But I wouldn’t count on it. In fact, I think Rooney was preparing the fans and the media for a free agency period that doesn’t include the signing of a veteran backup quarterback. And not necessarily because Art II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are “comfortable” with Rudolph.

  • Being “comfortable with Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Hodges may just be their only option.

As always, the Steelers are right up against the salary cap, with not much room to work with. Also, with the current lack of a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) beyond March of 2021 (March always marks the start of the NFL’s new calendar year), the team doesn’t have the ability to free up cap space by restructuring contracts.

As of now, all general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin can do to make room is cut veteran players. Will that free up much space? Probably not enough of it.

You might think that’s a shame what with such a stellar (and perhaps unprecedented) class of veteran quarterbacks on the verge of hitting the free agent market next month.

  • But let’s be real.

Unless Roethlisberger says that he’s had enough and decides to retire before or around the start of unrestricted free agency, the Steelers wouldn’t even bother pursuing guys named Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or even Teddy Bridgewater. Heck, even someone like Ryan Tannehill would probably command the kind of salary that would eat up most of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Why? Those guys are going to be looking for starting offers–offers they’ll no doubt receive from teams dying for better quality in an always quarterback deficient league.

And on top of that, any quarterback that seems good enough to be someone’s quality veteran backup is probably going to be deemed valuable enough to sign on as a starter somewhere.

  • Perhaps they could bring in a veteran as insurance, but unless it’s one of the top guys out there, what are the odds he’d be much better than Rudolph?

Rooney knows this, as do his executives and coaches. Maybe Rooney is truly sincere in saying he’s comfortable with the quarterback situation, but if he’s not, why would he say that knowing he doesn’t have the financial resources to go after someone better than Rudolph? Saying it would just incite the fans. It would also make Rudolph look weak.

The days of looking over at the Steelers sideline and seeing names like Charlie Batch, Tommy Maddox and Byron Leftwich listening in as Roethlisberger and his coaches plan the next play are over.

  • $30 million annual salaries for the starters pretty much ended those days.

$33 million is what Pittsburgh will pay Big Ben next season, and if you decide to go all out to keep your starter, you’re not going to be able to invest much in your backup, save a high-pedigreed draft choice.

Rudolph, who the Steelers picked in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is that, and he has two more years remaining on his rookie deal.

The Steelers are likely going to head into 2020 hoping for two things when it comes to their quarterback position: A healthy Roethlisberger and an improved Rudolph.

  • If they get 100 percent of the first thing, it doesn’t matter about the second.

If they can get 75 percent of the first thing, they just have to hope the second thing has improved enough to get them through a few games.

  • If they get zero percent of the first thing, it may lead to another season without the playoffs.

These are the realities the Steelers are facing, and that’s why they may have no choice but to be comfortable with their quarterback situation.

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Chiefs Win in Super Bowl LIV = Goodbye to Another Steelers, NFL Season

With the Chiefs 31-20 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night in Miami, Florida, yet another football season has come to a close.

If you’re a Steelers fan, (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog, you most likely are) you might have declared the 2019 season over the second they were eliminated from the playoffs following a Week 17 loss to the Ravens on December 29.

I can’t say that I blame you for that. After all, when you’re a fan of a particular team, it’s that team that you want to see do well. It’s that team that you dream about hoisting the Lombardi and hosting the parade.

Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Super Bowl LIV

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes after Super Bowl LIV. Photo Credit: Mark Terrill, AP via Inquirer.com

Unfortunately, the moment quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, even dreaming of such glorious championship scenarios seemed kind of silly.

But the Steelers hung in there, and like the great and proud organization that they are, they stayed in that championship chase — albeit with spit, wire and a couple of totally inexperienced quarterbacks in Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges — much longer than anyone thought they would.

They made us believe in and love defense again. They gave us a glimpse into what the future could be with T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush leading the way.

However, that talk is talk for another time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I waited for the 2019 Steelers season to start the moment Super Bowl LIII was over last February.

I talked about free-agency, the draft, OTAs and mini-camp. And when training camp finally arrived at the end of July, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew it was just a matter of time before the Steelers were kicking off against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football.

Again, the 2019 season wasn’t one that you or I or any other Steelers fan would have considered ideal–far from it. But it was a season, and aren’t those always great?

Isn’t it fun to have something to look forward to? Isn’t it awesome that we can derive so much pleasure from a sport and a team that we’re not directly involved with?

  • I love the Steelers, but I also love and respect the NFL. I defend it when others try to tear it down for unnecessary reasons.

I also soak up every last ounce of the playoffs, even when the Steelers aren’t in them. I want to witness the drama and the excitement. I want to feel the good emotions as well as the bad ones that other teams and their fans experience in January and February.

  • I believe that helps me appreciate just how hard it is for teams to achieve Super Bowl success.

The Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. Think about that for one second. That’s a long time to go in-between Lombardi trophies. The 49ers won their fifth title back in 1994, and they’re still one shy of number six, which has been the standard for excellence since the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII 11 years ago.

The Patriots, who are deciding on whether or not they want to bring back 43-year old quarterback Tom Brady next season, might be stuck on six Super Bowl titles for the next 11, 25 or, heck, even 50 years.

  • There are no guarantees in the National Football League.

Many great men have played and coached in the NFL, and most of them will probably tell you just how hard it is to reach the Promised Land. To do it once is difficult enough. To sustain that kind of success over a period of years and sometimes even decades? That’s a whole different level.

This is why I own books about the Super Bowl. This is why I have old VHS tapes of NFL Films Super Bowl highlight shows. This is why I now often go to YouTube (I’ve graduated to streaming television) and watch whatever archived football material I can find.

A Football Life, ever see that show? And not just the ones that highlight former Steelers coaches and players. Check out the one about Bill Walsh, the late, great head coach of the 49ers, a man that in many ways was the godfather of the modern passing game. Find the one on Terrell Davis, the former Broncos running back who had his career cut short due to injury.

  • Watch America’s Game, like A Football Life, it’s an NFL Films produced show that chronicles each Super Bowl champion, starting with the 1966 Packers.

Go on Youtube and search for Missing Rings, a bit of a spin-off of the America’s Game series that chronicles some of those really great teams that could never truly get over the hump.

  • The Steelers are a fantastic team, but they’re also a part of a fantastic league.

Oh well, Super Bowl LIV is in the books. I guess the countdown to September and the 2020 season is on.

The NFL offseason is a long one, but only because the NFL regular season is worth waiting for.

 

 

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Like the Oscars, Simple Hall of Fame Consideration Marks NFL Greatness

It seems like the annual arguments about who should or shouldn’t be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have an extended shelf-life this year; that’s thanks to the NFL’s special series of inductees as part of the Centennial Class that commemorates the league’s hundred-year anniversary.

  • Former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and safety Donnie Shell were beneficiaries of this special selection process, as both were elected for the Class of 2020.

Next week, former Steelers guard Alan Faneca, who has been a finalist several times, and former safety Troy Polamalu, who is eligible for the first time, will find out their fates next weekend, on the eve of Super Bowl LIV.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated


Will Alan Faneca finally get in, or will he be a victim of a possible first-ballot induction of Troy Polamalu, as well as the Steelers bias that always seems to plague certain Black and Gold alumni, what with so many of them being represented in Canton, Ohio?

Will former Steelers offensive tackle Larry Brown ever get in? How about possibly the greatest snub in franchise history, L.C. Greenwood, the late, great defensive end who was part of Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain front-four of the 1970s?

For that matter, what about former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, the man with 1000 catches, a Super Bowl MVP and a reputation as the best blocking receiver in NFL history on his resume?

How about current head coach Mike Tomlin, a man that, despite his consistency and lack of a losing season, has almost as many critics as he does supporters among Steelers fans?

  • Alan Faneca, no matter how long he has to wait, will get in, same for Troy Polamalu, who is only on the bubble for his first-ballot induction.

As for the likes of Larry Brown, L.C. Greenwood, Hines Ward and Mike Tomlin? It might never happen. I mean, let’s be real. Cowher may not have gotten in, if not for the NFL’s special centennial celebration, same for Shell.

Having said all of that, however, the simple fact that people are arguing over whether or not individuals like Greenwood and Ward are deserving, that speaks volumes for the marks they left on the NFL.

The fact that entire radio segments have been designated to Mike Tomlin’s Hall of Fame resume in the wake of Bill Cowher’s election, that tells you all you need to know about the former’s abilities as a head coach.

We tend to make fun of and/or look down on individuals that spend many years on the Hall of Fame bubble. Take Drew Pearson, a former receiver and a member of those famed Cowboys teams of the 1970s and ’80s. Many folks mocked and/or criticized Pearson last week for his emotional response to being denied enshrinement, yet again, even as a part of the NFL’s special centennial class.

  • But, while Pearson certainly had a right to be disappointment in his exclusion, no one had the right to criticize him for it.
  • I would be disappointed, too. I’m guessing you would, as well.

None of that matters, anyway. Simply having the opportunity to be disappointed was a testament to the wonderful career Drew Pearson had in the NFL.

  • Simply having sportswriters stand up before Hall of Fame voters and advocate on his behalf, well, that says a lot about the mark his career left on the NFL.

Remember the late Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama? Anyway (and excuse me for talking politics), he called his nomination the great honor of his life. Just like former NFL players and coaches who find themselves on the Hall of Fame bubble, we tend to look down on the party nominee who the lost presidential election, this despite the fact that nearly half of American voters thought he or she should be the leader of the free world.

It is not always that way in our “Winner Take All Culture.” While winning an Oscar is clearly the prize that everyone in the movie business longs for, simply getting nominated is an honor in and of itself. Just think of how many times you’ve seen actors or directors introductions start with, “Nominated for Oscar 11 times….”

Simply getting nominated is an honor, just as getting serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be considered an honor that carries no shame for those who don’t make the final cut. 

 

 

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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1 Quick Post-Season Lesson for Steelers Fans? Defense Ain’t As Sexy As We Thought

Maybe you’re one of those Steelers/football fans that likes to say things like, “I’d much rather watch a low-scoring defensive-battle than a shootout.”

First of all, no you wouldn’t. And, second, even if you think you would, I encourage you to go back and watch some old NFL games from the early-’70s, back when bump-and-run coverage was still a thing. And I’m not talking about old highlights provided by NFL Films, complete with the iconic music as a backdrop and John Facenda’s heavenly voice doing the narration. Go back and watch some old network broadcasts on NBC, CBS or ABC–they’re usually readily available on YouTube.

  • I guarantee you, you won’t make it through one of those 13-10 snooze-fests before, well, dosing off.

Speaking of 13-10 snooze-fests, maybe that will be the title of the Steelers NFL Films-produced highlight show that’s released to the public each and every summer. It would be fitting, since most of Pittsburgh’s games ended with scores in the teens–and they were just so hard to get through.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see the resurgence of the Steelers defense. It was encouraging to watch the unit carry the team for most of the year, following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a lot of fun watching T.J. Watt wreak havoc on quarterbacks week after week, to the tune of 14.5 sacks. How about his bookend at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who had a career year with 11.5?

  • As a unit, Pittsburgh’s defense once again eclipsed the 50-sack mark, posting a suffocating total of 54.

How about all of those takeaways? What suddenly brought those on?

  • How did they go from a paltry 15 a year earlier, to a whopping 38 this past season?

And perhaps the most important new element to the Steelers defense in 2019: an ability to close out a game while holding a slim lead, something the unit did multiple times–including in one-score wins over the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals, games where the opposing offenses had the football late in the fourth quarter and a chance to either win or tie.

Yes, the return to defensive dominance really was a lot of fun and helped make fans believe the impossible could happen:

  • Pittsburgh could make the playoffs with an offense that was a founding member of the “One Touchdown a Game” club.

But hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see now that people were just getting swept up in the fun times the defense was providing. Because “lousy” may be too kind when describing the Steelers offensive struggles in 2019.

It was painful to see. Even at their best, it was hard to watch quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges perform without cringing just a little. And at their worst? Let’s just say it’s a good thing those little “bricks” they sell down at the Strip District are made of foam and not the stuff they use for the ones that build houses.

  • The Steelers offense finished near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistic–including total yards and points per game.

But what could you do? Even before Roethlisberger’s injury, the other two “Killer BeesAntonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell had departed. And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner looked more than capable of filling the voids created at both the receiver and running back position, they were either too injured or too compromised due to quarterback play to really be of much help last year.

But if we’re being honest, while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are fine players, the odds of them ever reaching the levels of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were fairly long to begin with, Big Ben or no Big Ben.

It’s quite popular in this day and age of social media for fans to demand their favorite teams clean house and get rid of the divas and the troublemakers. Such was the case in recent years when it came to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and even Ben due to his advancing age.

  • But be careful what you wish for.

I went to a Penguins game recently and, in addition to the absence of center Sidney Crosby (long-term injury) and winger Phil Kessel (traded this past offseason), the team was missing center Evgeni Malkin due to an illness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the game went into overtime tied at zero. The Penguins won, but it was quite obvious that they were a different team while missing so much fire power on offense.

Maybe the Penguins are a bad example, considering they’ve managed to remain in playoff contention despite the loss of so much offense. But I wonder what their 2019/2020 campaign would look right now if Malkin were out with some sort of long-term ailment. Instead, he’s carried the team on his back and is playing some of the best hockey of his life. It helps that he’s one of the best hockey players in the entire world.

Imagine if, along with Kessel, Malkin was traded away–something many fans have called for in recent years?

  • It’s easy to talk about getting rid of a bunch of players. It’s quite another to replace them.

Not only did the Steelers offense lose All Pros, they spent a good bit of 2019 dealing with the absences of the Pro Bowlers who were entrusted with replacing those All Pros.

Obviously, the best teams don’t just dominate on one side of the ball, they find success through balance. But if I had my choice, I think I’d much rather have a potent offense and a struggling defense than the other way around.

  • You can always out-score your opponents, but it’s just so hard to totally shut them down.

That’s what Pittsburgh’s defense was tasked with in 2019, and while it held up better than most units would have, it couldn’t perform miracles.

Finally, the Steelers may have helped you fall in-love with defense again in 2019. But I hope they also forced you to appreciate the importance of a really good offense.

 

 

 

 

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Will the Steelers 2019 Season Quiet Their Entitled Fan Base?

It has been said that the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are entitled. Fair enough, and the reason that it’s fair is because it’s true.

  • But can you really blame the fans for acting like it’s their birth-right to win Super Bowls and have consistent success?

After all, regardless of what happens on Sunday, the Steelers will kick off the final game of their 2019 regular season with more than a reasonable shot at qualifying for the playoffs.

Although 2012 remains the lone season when a Mike Tomlin team was eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final gun, playing for the postseason in week 17 didn’t seem possible after Week 2 when it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had suffered a severe elbow injury that would require surgery and end his 16th season well before it even had a chance to pick up the steam necessary for the team to meet its usual high standards.

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

But if you’re reading this page, you obviously know the team, despite totally inexperienced and (it would be appear) talent-deficient quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges playing musical chairs all season while trying to lead an offense that has left a lot to be desired in the skill-position and offensive line department, has managed to win eight games (so far) and has a direct line to the playoffs with a win this Sunday coupled with a Titans’ loss.

Again, if you’re reading this page and are an entitled Steelers fan, you should know this kind of thing rarely happens in the NFL. When a quarterback the caliber of a Roethlisberger goes down, the team usually sinks faster than someone who owes the mob a lot of money.

  • But, again, if you are an entitled Steelers fan, I can’t say that I blame you for not only expecting this kind of success, but demanding more.
  • If you’re under 50, you were born into such Steelers success.

The Steelers were a franchise that couldn’t have been more of a laughing-stock from its founding in 1933 all the way up until 1971, when it still had yet to win its first postseason game.

Then, 1972 happened, the Steelers won 11 games and a division title. And just when it looked like their fairy-tale season would end on December 23, 1972, in a hotly-contested divisional round playoff game against the Raiders at old Three Rivers Stadium, the Immaculate Reception happened. Do I even have to explain that play to you? If so, Google it. It involved Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua, Jack Tatum and a ricocheted football that either hit Fuqua or it didn’t (and there has always been a question of whether or not it hit the turf of TRS before Franco gathered it in and galloped into Steelers lore).

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

That play, one that has been impossible to duplicate in the 47 years since it happened — which further illustrates just how improbable it actually was — launched the Steelers dynasty.

  • Can you imagine that?

A few years later, following the first two world championships in team history, the Steelers began the 1976 season looking to three-peat as Super Bowl champions. Unfortunately, along with a rocky 1-4 start to the season came a severe neck injury suffered by quarterback Terry Bradshaw after being slammed on his head by Browns defensive lineman Joe “Turkey” Jones in a Week 5 loss in Cleveland.

Terry Bradshaw would go on to miss a total of six games that season and was replaced by Mike Kruczek at quarterback. In those six games, Mike Kruczek didn’t throw a single touchdown and averaged 126 passing yards per game. But thanks to an all-time great defense, MIke Kruczek won all six of his starts. The Steelers recovered from their 1-4 start and won their next 10 games before falling to the Raiders in the AFC title game.

  • In many ways, that ’76 team is considered to be the best one in franchise history.
  • So, you see, even a Steelers season that didn’t end with a Lombardi Trophy was still a fairy-tale.

Fast-forward many decades to the 2005 season and a Steelers team that just barely qualified for the NFL playoffs as the AFC’s sixth seed. Historically, wildcard teams had rarely fared well in the postseason–especially the ones tasked with winning all of their games on the road just to reach the Super Bowl.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Not only did the Steelers become just the second team in league history to win three road games on the way to the Super Bowl, they did the 1985 Patriots one better by knocking off the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Where was that Super Bowl held? In Detroit, Michigan, hometown of legendary running back Jerome Bettis, who got to announce his retirement right after the game in a stadium–Ford Field–that was built not far from where he was born.

  • What about the head coaches–okay, the last three?

The Steelers have had exactly three head coaches in the last 50 years. That’s because after Chuck Noll retired following the 1991 season, the Steelers replaced the four-time Super Bowl-winner with Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native who would go on to achieve great success in his own right–including bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi in 26 years.

Bill Cowher resigned following the 2006 season, and the Steelers replaced the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist with Mike Tomlin, a man who, in addition to winning a Super Bowl of his own, has never had a losing record in 13 seasons as Steelers head coach.

  • And that brings us back to 2019, and a team that may actually see postseason life, despite having a practice squad offense that is lucky to score one touchdown per game.

If Pittsburgh advances to the postseason and even wins a game, would you really be surprised? Only if you’re not an entitled Steelers fan.

 

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Should Mason Rudolph Start for Steelers Against the Jets?

Just two days after his young, rookie quarterback threw four interceptions in the Steelers 17-10 loss to the Bills at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football, head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Devlin Hodges would retain his starting role against the Jets in Week 16.

  • Not much of a surprise.

While Devlin Hodges didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to match the “Duckmania” that was born during the 2009 National Duck Calling Champion’s previous three starts and 16 quarters of action in total, fact is, he “didn’t kill us” as Tomlin famously summed up Hodges’ relief efforts, when he rescued a struggling Mason Rudolph in the second half of a game against the Bengals on November 24 and did just enough to guide Pittsburgh to a come-from-behind victory.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Even though his four-interception performance did help kill the Steelers chances against Buffalo, I believe Devlin Hodges retaining his starting role is the logical direction to take for a Steelers team that’s 8-6 and still has the inside track on the sixth seed in the race to qualify for the AFC playoffs.

However, if you were to go by the reactions of a lot of fans and even media members following Sunday’s rather frustrating loss to a Bills squad that appeared to be ripe for the picking, you would have thought the next logical step would be to go with Rudolph in the penultimate game of the 2019 regular season.

Based on what?

In Rudolph, we’re talking about a quarterback that really hadn’t shown a whole heck of a lot of special talent or even an “it” factor during his first nine games as the replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field.

  • This isn’t to say Manson Rudolph was terrible.
  • This isn’t to say he didn’t have his moments.

But he was a guy whose foot-work, accuracy, pocket presence and, eventually, confidence were all called into question. Sure, these things can be corrected. Heck, for all we know, he may have already taken huge steps in fixing these problems during his three weeks as Hodges’ backup — after all, Mason Rudolph may not be a rookie, but in terms of NFL experience, the second-year man from Oklahoma State is essentially at that level.

  • But we don’t know if Mason Rudolph has improved his game while not playing. How could we?

The only thing we know about Mason Rudolph is that he went from looking just okay during his first seven games of action, to looking completely lost during his final six quarters — including that abysmal performance against the Browns on Thursday Night Football, in-which he threw four interceptions and became the center of a national NFL scandal, thanks to an ugly brawl with defensive end Myles Garrett in the game’s final seconds.

  • Fact is, the offensive production hasn’t been much better under Devlin Hodges than it was with Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers have scored just one offensive touchdown in six of the last seven games–including Hodges’ last two games as a starter.

Although, in fairness to Devlin Hodges, he does look more capable of moving the offense and making plays downfield. Yes, that hurt him the other night, as the game-plan seemed to call for more passing than running against a Buffalo team that was elite while defending the former and just okay while defending the latter.

But Rudolph may have made those same mistakes against Buffalo. When you’re dealing with quarterbacks this young and green, a conservative approach seems to be the best one–why the Steelers didn’t stick with that approach is an article for another time.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to find much to love about Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges in terms of talent and performance. Let’s face it, if Hodges didn’t have a cool nickname and backstory, and if he didn’t remind old-time Steelers fans of Bubby Brister, he may never have endeared himself to the faithful in the first place.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked if Hodges will have a short leash if he continues to struggle against the Jets this Sunday. To paraphrase the veteran head coach, he said he does not anticipate failure, and that he will cross that bridge if and when he comes to it.

  • Obviously, Devlin Hodges does have a short leash, especially with the playoffs on the line.

But if Tomlin does go to Mason Rudolph during the game, it won’t be because his talent dictates that he’s the better option. He’d just be the quarterback currently not “killing” the Steelers offense.

 

 

 

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Devlin Hodges And The Defense Lead Steelers To 20-13 Win Over Browns

Photo credit: ABC News.

Looks like the Browns may have to wait another year to realize those Super Bowl dreams.

Undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges completed 14 of 21 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception, as the Steelers came from behind to defeat the Browns, 20-13, at Heinz Field on Sunday.

The victory improves the Steelers record to 7-5, and they still have the inside track on the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with just four weeks to go.

As for the Browns, they are now 5-7, and it would be best to categorize their postseason chances as slim.

Things did start out quite well for the Browns, who methodically had their way with Pittsburgh in the first meeting, a 21-7 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14.

Cleveland took the opening kickoff and efficiently marched downfield on a time-consuming drive down to the Steelers six-yard line. The key play on the drive was a remarkable throw by quarterback Baker Mayfield on third and 14 that was topped by an even more remarkable sideline catch by receiver Jarvis Landry that was initially ruled incomplete, before being reversed after a challenge by Browns’ head coach Freddie Kitchens.

But after a neutral zone infraction by Bud Dupree gave Cleveland a first and five from the six, the Steelers defense held strong and forced the Browns to settle for a 31-yard field goal by Austin Seibert.

As for Pittsburgh’s offense, it did virtually nothing in the first quarter, gaining a net-total of four yards on two possessions.

The Browns made it 10-0 midway through the second quarter on a fifteen yard catch-and-run by running back Kareem Hunt.

But just went it looked like the Steelers were in deep trouble, they let the Duck fly. Facing a third and nine from the Pittsburgh 18, Hodges let loose with a pass down the left sideline that was pulled in by receiver James Washington, who was actually the real hero, as he showed great body control and concentration by getting both feet in-bounds for a 31-yard catch near midfield.

The drive ultimately stalled at the Cleveland 21, where kicker Chris Boswell connected on a 39-yard field goal to make it, 10-3, visitors.

Following a quick three-and-out by Cleveland, the Steelers offense built on its new-found momentum, marching 69 yards on a five-play drive that culminated in a 30-yard touchdown catch by Washington to tie the score at 10 just before the half. Washington displayed even more concentration than on the sideline pass, by not only fighting off blatant pass interference, but by wresting possession of the ball away from the Browns’ defensive back who interfered with him.

The Steelers carried their momentum into the second half, taking the opening kickoff and marching 69 yards yet again, this time on a seven-play drive that culminated in a hard-fought, one-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Benny Snell Jr., to make it 17-10.

The key play on the drive was made by, you guessed it, Washington, who pulled in a 44-yard catch down to the Cleveland 15 while being tightly contested by cornerback Denzel Ward.

Three plays later, Ward was involved in another key play on the drive, by interfering with rookie receiver Deon Cain on a third-down pass into the end zone, a call that gave the Steelers a first and goal at the one.

Moments later, the Steelers offense would have the football again, and in really decent field position, thanks to a strip-sack by Dupree and a fumble-recovery by defensive lineman Cam Heyward at the Cleveland 46.

Pittsburgh did advance the football to the Browns’ nine but ultimately had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Boswell to make it 20-10, early in the fourth quarter.

Cleveland’s offense got on a bit of a roll on the ensuing drive, advancing all the way to the Steelers 14. But on third and 10, Heyward and Dupree combined to sack Mayfield and force a 34-yard field goal by Seibert to pull the Browns to within a touchdown midway through the final period.

The Browns got the football back one play later on an interception by Terrance Mitchell on a pass in-which there seemed to be some miscommunication between Hodges and rookie receiver Diontae Johnson.

Mitchell returned the interception to the Pittsburgh 30 yard-line.

But not only did the Steelers defense hold strong, it pushed Cleveland’s offense back on a third-down sack by defensive lineman Javon Hargrave at the 38.

The Brown’s sent Seibert out to attempt a 56-yard field goal, but instead of that, he performed a pooch punt that was eventually downed at the Steelers one. Head coach Mike Tomlin challenged that a Browns’ player made contact with the football as part of his body was in the end zone–something that appeared to be obvious on replay and would have given the Steelers possession at the 20. Unfortunately, the call was upheld, putting Pittsburgh’s offense in a very precarious position.

How did the offense respond? Perhaps with the most important drive of the season to date.

Snell rattled off 12 yards on the first play, while Hodges converted on two third and six passes–one to Johnson and another to tight end Vance McDonald.

The Steelers ultimately had to punt, but not before advancing the ball to their own 47 and not until their was only 1:53 remaining.

The Browns advanced the football to their own 40, thanks mostly to a questionable roughing the passer call on Dupree, but cornerback Joe Haden put an end to the competitive phase of the game with a diving interception at the 1:06 mark.

For the day, the Steelers defense limited Mayfield to 196 yards passing while sacking him five times.

As for Washington’s day, he pulled in four passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, while Snell finished the day with 63 rushing yards and a score.

Next up for the Steelers is a trip to Arizona where they will take on the Cardinals next Sunday at 4:25.

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This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful The Steelers Haven’t Tanked In 2019

“They’re clearly not trying to win,” is a phrase that’s been thrown around quite liberally during the 2019 regular season.

You’ve heard people say it about other teams like the Dolphins, Redskins and Giants. There are just a lot of bad football teams out there right now, and many of them decided to give up on the season before it even started. Why? They just didn’t think they had the pieces to compete and were more interested in seeing what they had in their younger players. They were also more interested in acquiring the best picks possible for the 2020 NFL Draft.

  • In other words, they decided to tank.

Maybe it’s just me, but this phenomenon of tanking–this mindset of “Well, we don’t have the pieces to win a title, so we might as well just blow the whole thing up and start over”–is becoming more and more prevalent in all of professional sports. It’s grown in popularity in baseball, basketball and hockey in recent years, and now it seems to have become a thing in the NFL.

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

It is a bit surprising to me that NFL teams are starting to develop this mentality, considering football is the ultimate team sport, where one or two players don’t normally make a difference. I realize finding that franchise quarterback can go a long, long way in making that difference, but I also know the chances of landing one, even at the top of the draft, aren’t as great as one might think–this has been proven time and time again.

If you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know this has never been an issue. You know that the team is always interested in winning, in competing, in fighting to stay in contention even when tanking might be easier.

And if ever there was a season where tanking might have been the route to go, it’s this one, where personnel issues have been a thing since Week 2, when franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that required surgical repair.

After losing four of its first five games–including two of the first three that young Mason Rudolph started at quarterback–it looked like Pittsburgh would have no choice but to tank. And after Rudolph was knocked out of the Ravens game with a concussion and would miss the following week’s match-up against the Chargers in Los Angeles, how could the team not throw in the towel, especially with Devlin Hodges, an undrafted rookie quarterback who was cut in training camp, as the starter?

  • The Steelers didn’t throw in the towel that Sunday night in Los Angeles. In fact, they won in impressive fashion, before winning three more with Rudolph back under center.

Fast-forward to today, and the Steelers are now 6-5 and currently sit in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Yes, the odds still seem fairly long that they’ll actually qualify for the postseason, especially with such a putrid offense, one that is not only dealing with the absences of so many key cogs–including injured receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, injured running back James Conner and suspended center Maurkice Pouncey-but with a full-blown quarterback controversy.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

That’s right, Hodges, the undrafted rookie, the guy known as “Duck” thanks to winning a duck-calling contest when he was a child, will start against the Browns this Sunday at Heinz Field, a game with huge playoff implications.

If Pittsburgh wins, it will improve to 7-5, effectively eliminate Cleveland from the race (the Browns would drop to 5-7) and put itself in a prime position for a postseason berth.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Yet, not many are giving the Steelers a chance in this game. I get that. But it also feels like not many people want the Steelers to win because, well, even if they make the playoffs, what are the chances of them doing anything?

  • Not great, but so what?

“I’d rather see them not make the playoffs if they’re just going to go one-and-done,” is a popular phrase you’re hearing from Steelers fans this season.

Another phrase you hear thrown around these days–the era of the tank–is “I’d rather see the Steelers go 3-13 and reload with high draft picks next year.”

Really? Would you also much rather spend a year in a coma? That’s what you’re saying in a sports sense if you want your team to tank for picks. How could you possibly enjoy such a season?

Whatever happened to hope? Whatever happened to the journey being more enjoyable than the destination? Whatever happened to collecting fond memories?

During my weekly Steelers podcast this past Monday–The Hangover–my co-host reflected on the 2002 campaign–the one that gave us Tommy Gun (Tommy Maddox) at quarterback–and how that season, one that ultimately saw Pittsburgh win an exciting wildcard game against the Browns at Heinz Field before bowing out the following week in an equally exciting, if extremely heartbreaking, overtime loss to the Titans in the divisional round, helped get him through some personal issues he was dealing with.

Isn’t that what sports are all about? They’re a distraction, a pastime, they’re their to make us forget about the tough issues in our own lives.

  • They’re there to give us up, to give us something to believe in that’s bigger than we are.

Sure, we’re talking about sporting events–games–but if they weren’t important on a grand scale, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are.

I realize the Steelers chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl are really, really slim. But I also know how tickled I will be if they actually qualify for the playoffs. I also know how excited I’ll be in the week leading up to whatever postseason match-up Pittsburgh may find itself in. I also know how nervous I’ll be watching that game, and how ecstatic I’ll be if the Steelers happen to win. Those are the times you call people out of the blue (who calls anyone anymore?) just to say, “Did you see that?”

The Steelers may give you an opportunity to do and feel all of those things this January, and isn’t that a lot better than tanking for a higher draft pick next spring?

  • You might not think so, but I’m sure glad the Pittsburgh Steelers do.

Thank you, Pittsburgh Steelers, for giving your fans something to hope for this Thanksgiving and beyond.

 

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Win or Lose, Mason Rudolph Has Shown a Lot of Fight as Steelers QB in 2019

As John Madden, the legendary former NFL coach and analyst liked to say, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team.

Mason Rudolph, in his first year as the Steelers starting quarterback, is now just beginning to find that out. Why? After his four-interception performance in a 21-7 loss to the Browns last Thursday night, fans are starting to clamor for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford who is affectionately known as “Duck,” to be put into the lineup.

  • “They need to give Duck a shot, just to see if he can give the offense a spark.”

Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that hasn’t been heard around these parts since just days before Ben Roethlisberger made his first-career start way back in 2004 and soon began playing at a Hall of Fame level.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

Poor Mason Rudolph. Not only did the second-year man out of Oklahoma State barely get to enjoy a cup of coffee as the team’s newly-appointed backup quarterback after winning the job with a productive preseason, he couldn’t even make it to his eighth-career start before fans started calling for the other guy to start in his place.

  • Such is life for a starting quarterback who hasn’t achieved “elite” or “franchise” status.

Many thought he had the potential to be a franchise passer, when Pittsburgh, who had a first-round grade on him, traded up in the third round to select Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Truth is, and a lot of fans won’t want to hear it, Mason Rudolph still might have that kind of potential.

Only problem is, he hasn’t shown it right away. In-fact, he really hasn’t even shown glimpses of that kind of potential up to this point. Why? It could be due to many factors, including a lack of talent at both running back and receiver.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You know, people like to compare Mason Rudolph’s first year as a starter with Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 years ago. But what fans may have forgotten is that Big Ben had Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress to throw to. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was handing the football off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis.

Try as you might, even on its best and healthiest day (receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson as well as running back James Conner may miss this Sunday’s game against the Bengals with injuries), you can’t compare this current group of skill-position players with the one from Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign.

Another reason may be because of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative approach on offense with Rudolph at the helm. It was almost a running joke, early on, the way Mason Rudolph was attempting and completing passes that barely made it past the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, while the play-calling has gotten more aggressive, as Rudolph has gained more experience as a starter, the offensive production hasn’t improved much at all. Actually, it has regressed over the past few weeks.

Again, though, this current group of skill-position players, led by Smith-Schuster and Conner, has yet to prove it can be a force, especially compared to the ones previously headlined by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Combine that with the injury factor and, oh yes, the surprising struggles of the offensive line, and it’s just so hard to evaluate Mason Rudolph’s performance so far.

  • But while Mason Rudolph has yet to show glimpses of greatness, he hasn’t proven to be a disaster, either.
Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Before last Thursday’s dreadful performance, Rudolph had thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions, two of which were far from his fault and should have been caught. And even after last Thursday’s game, Rudolph’s quarterback rating in 2019 is 82.9.

That’s not exactly horrible. In-fact, one might say those are numbers you can build on. I’m obviously no expert on quarterback play, and I realize Mason Rudolph’s footwork, pocket presence and arm strength have all been questioned by those who know why more about those kinds of things than I do.

  • But half the battle is not looking totally over-matched, and thus far, it’s hard to say the moment has been too big for Mason Rudolph.

Actually, you might say the exact opposite. You might say he’s shown great fight. In Rudolph’s third-career start against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, he was knocked out cold, thanks to a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot by safety Earl Thomas. Rudolph had to be helped off the field, and he missed the following week’s game after being diagnosed with a concussion.

And, of course, at the end the Body Bag Game against the Browns, Rudolph helped create a national news story by starting a brawl with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett that eventually ended with Garrett smacking Rudolph over the head with his own helmet.

It’s a shame that the fight ended the way it did, and it’s really a shame that Mason Rudolph, 24, has been turned into a villain by many national pundits and fans, many of whom have implied, without any proof at all, that Mason Rudolph may have provoked Garrett’s dangerous act with some sort of racial slur.

  • But the fight Mason Rudolph showed up until the bitter end of that brawl was admirable.

It demonstrated a frustration, not only with his performance, but with losing a game to a bitter AFC North rival. It showed me that Rudolph is fully committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers, to winning and to getting better as an NFL quarterback.

Dangerous head injuries, aside, Mason Rudolph is probably having the time of his life in 2019. Where he goes from here and how much more he improves is anyone’s guess.

But Mason Rudolph is fighting, and he’s fighting hard. At the very least, you have to love that part of his game.

 

 

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