Steelers 2022 Season Review – Rebuilding the Right Way in Pickett’s Rookie Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2022 season 9-8, just barely missing the playoffs but giving the franchise its 19th consecutive non-losing campaign since 2003. The quick take away?

  • Sometimes denial is desirable.

2022 was a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh. Just don’t expect Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan or even Kevin Colbert to utter the word. In fact, expect them to reject the concept. To understand why go back to the words of Bill Cowher.

After consecutive losing seasons in 1998 in 1999, reporters asked Bill Cowher the Steelers were rebuilding in 2000. The Chin rejected the idea immediately, explaining, “Anytime you say you’re rebuilding, you’re giving yourself an excuse for losing.”

I don’t know if Mike Tomlin ever rejected rebuilding so eloquently, but his actions prove that he shares his predecessor’s philosophy.

But if Mike Tomlin will not, and should not say the Steelers were rebuilding in 2022, I can and I will. In 2022 the Steelers showed right way to rebuild. Let’s look at how and why.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Laying the Foundation: 2023 Off Season

The secret to rebuilding the right way is as simple: Successfully rebuilding in the NFL means doing your best to field a winning team as quickly as possible in a way you can sustain in the future.

  • But if that’s easy to write, it’s hard to execute.

The NFL certainly doesn’t lack “Get rich quick” schemes. The wisest move of the Steelers brain trust was to avoid any of those temptations, as they declined to throw draft picks and guaranteed contracts to bring Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or even Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the Steelers focused their rare salary cap abundance on shoring up weaknesses at offensive line by bringing in Mason Cole, James Daniels and at inside linebacker with Myles Jack. And they remained true to the core franchise philosophy of building through the draft.

While the success or failure of their ’22 draft will hinge on Kenny Pickett’s development, the story of the 2022 phase of the rebuild belongs as much to the rest of the Steelers 2022 draft class as it does to Pickett.

Before the Bye – Life Without a Franchise Quarterback

Other commentators have described the Steelers 2022 season as “The Tale of Two Season: Before the Bye and After.” You can muster many statistics from both sides of the ball to show how bad the Steelers were before their bye week. You can point to Najee Harris playing injured, the offensive line’s slow development under Pat Meyer and/or T.J. Watt going on injured reserve.

Those are all valid points. But the simple explanation for the Steelers 2-6 is the best one: For the first time in 18 years, Pittsburgh was playing without a franchise quarterback.

Gunner Olszewski, Brenden Schooler, Steelers vs Patriots 2022 home opener

Gunner Olszewskimakes the tackle after muffing a punt. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Watching the Steelers try and fail to comeback against the Patriots in week 2, I had no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger, at least the 2021 edition of Big Ben, would have gotten Chris Boswell into position to tie the game. I’d argue that had Roethlisberger returned the Steelers would have won 2 of the three against the Jets, Browns, Dolphins.

Instead we saw Mitch Trubisky playing not to lose and the Kenny Pickett playing like a raw rookie. The defense  struggled without T.J. Watt; although new comers Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were improving it against the run, as foreshadowed in the upset of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.

After the Bye – Coming Together, Growing Together, Winning Together

The conventional explanation ties the Steelers 2nd half turn around to Kenny Pickett’s development. And be clear about it, Pickett’s growth was critical.

Heyward first “appeared” when Tampa’s defense ‘forgot’ him and Mitch Trubisky found him in the middle of the field for a 49 yard gain that set up an insurance touchdown as the Steelers secured their second win. Next, Kenny Pickett found Heyward open in the middle against Atlanta, giving the Steelers their only touchdown in a game that improved their record to 5-7. Heyward’s next big play came with 25 seconds left against the Raiders where he took a toss 21 yards before wisely taking a knee, allowing the Steelers to kill the clock and improve their record to 8-8.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Injuries forced him into the starting line up in the season finale, where he:

  • Converted a 3rd and 1 with a six yard scamper.
  • Caught 3 of 4 passes thrown on the game-closing touchdown drive
  • Those catches included a 27 yarder on 3rd and 8

Connor Heyward earns this extended shout out because his arc exemplifies the arc of so many on the team.

The offensive line gelled, allowing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to run smarter instead of just harder. Backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland did the same in Indy when injuries forced them into the game. George Pickens arrived in Pittsburgh making acrobatic catches – as the season progressed he started making them in clutch situations. Steven Sims made several clutch catches of his own down the stretch, while Diontae Johnson managed to break his nasty habit of running backwards after a catch. Pat Freiermuth played well from the get go, but continued to deliver even when limited by a knee injury late in the season.

  • On defense, the story is similar, but it revolves more around T.J. Watt’s return.

The Steelers lost T.J. Watt in the opening upset of Cincinnati, and struggled in his absence. Even if Watt wasn’t at wasn’t at full strength until December, he still forced defenses to account for him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

And that’s why both veteran leaders like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as emerging leaders like Alex Highsmith and Cam Sutton authored their biggest “splash plays” after Watt’s return.

  • But growth also fuels part of the 2022 Steelers defense’s story.

After getting embarrassed against the run at home against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin turned to rookies DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, and the duo helped shut down several stout rushing attacks in late December.

Every player had a hand in the pile pushing the Steelers late season surge. And anatomical measurements aside, no player had a bigger hand than Kenny Pickett.

Pickett’s Progress

Drafting a first round quarterback in the NFL is pro sport’s ultimate risk-reward call. Consider this: between 1994 and 2021, Washington has drafted 5 first round quarterbacks and won 2 playoff games.

In the same timespan, the Steelers have drafted one first round quarterback and appeared in 9 conference championships and 4 Super Bowls. So the Steelers took a risk when they took Kenny Pickett.

  • We’re still don’t know if that risk will pay off, but the early returns are positive.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Even during Pickett’s interception-laden early appearances, the game never looked “too big” for Pickett the way it sometimes did for Mason Rudolph or say Kordell Stewart. After Mitch Tribuisky’s strong performances in relief of Pickett and after the trashing from Philly, there were calls for Mike Tomlin to “put Pickett on ice” for the rest of the season.

Tomlin stuck by quarterback and Pickett delivered:

  • A come-from behind win against the Colts on Monday Night Football
  • A flawless two minute drive to comeback against the Raiders
  • An improvised throw on a broken play to clinch the comeback against the Ravens – on the road

Let’s be clear. Pickett has a lot to prove. He needs to play better earlier in games, use the middle of the field and improve his deep ball accuracy. But Pickett can learn those things. Pickett’s comebacks reveal traits that  quarterback’s cannot learn.

In 2021 thanks to the heroics of their aging franchise quarterback, the Steelers made the playoffs when they didn’t deserve to. In 2022 the Steelers came together as a team around their rookie quarterback and missed the playoffs even though the probably deserved to make it.

Missing out on competing for a Lombardi is always a disappointment, but that disappointment shouldn’t cloud the fact that the 2022 Steelers showed the NFL how to rebuild.

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Steelers Retain Matt Canada – No the Hindenburg Hasn’t Been Sent to Rescue the Titanic

It is official. Mike Tomlin has retained Matt Canada as the Steelers offensive coordinator for at least one more season. Predictably, Steelers Nation is acting like the Hindenburg has just been sent to rescue the Titanic.

It is not.

Steelers fans love to revile their offensive coordinator. It’s an annual pastime. Thanks to marriage of Madden and Fantasy Football, everyone seems to think that working an as offensive coordinator is easy.

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

I’ve railed against Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians. Yet, as the “FIRE MATT CANADA” cries reached a fever pitch, I’ve largely kept my silence, even when joining the chorus would have delivered plenty of clicks.

There are several reasons for this, reasons why Tomlin’s decision isn’t a disaster and might even be a good thing. Let’s look at why.

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

Steelers retaining Matt Canada ISN’T akin to sending the Hindenburg to rescue the Titanic.

“You Have to Have the Players.” – Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney routinely made this statement whenever he was asked to explain the Steelers continued success. The Steelers record, headlined by 6 Super Bowls, since he took control of the team from Art Rooney Sr. in the 60’s vindicates the late Chairman.

  • The Steelers offense under Matt Canada had hardly been the Greatest Show on turf.

In 2020 the Steelers posted a 9-7-1 record that featured 7 come from behind wins. The offense was at its best when Ben Roethlisberger was in the 2 minute drill, calling his own plays.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

Not exactly. Ben Roethlisberger was a bad fit for Canada’s offense. This old dog wasn’t going to learn any new tricks. And Roethlisberger was playing behind a make-shift offensive line, with a rookie running back and a rookie tight end.

  • During the first half of 2022 the Steelers offense regressed.

This isn’t opinion. Its fact. The Dr. de Acero commented to me, “Nunca habia visto un ofensa de los Steelers tan inepto” – I’ve never seen a more inept Steelers offense. And he was right. But we’ve also never seen such an inexperienced Steelers offense.

  • Who were the most experienced veterans on the Steelers offense?

Chuks Okorafor, Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry (and Gentry missed most of 2019 and 2020 in IR.) Outside of those three and Derek Watt, no one had more than 2 years of experience with the Steelers.

Moreover, emerging leaders such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth were in their second years. George Pickens and Connor Heyward were rookies. Mitch Trubisky was in his first year with the team and Kenny Pickett was a rookie.

Assembling an offense on the field is a bit different that designating a week’s starters for Fantasy Football. It takes time for 11 guys to learn to play together. Even Joe Gibbs, who perhaps had the greatest offensive mind in the modern NFL, started in Washington going 1-6 before finishing 8-8.

(And Gibbs had veterans like Joe Theismann, John Riggins and future Hall of Famer rookie Art Monk to lean on.)

“Not Making Change for the Sake of Change” – Mike Tomlin

The quote above was Mike Tomlin’s to questions about whether he would fire Matt Canada midseason after the Steelers got pasted by the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin would be asked that question several other times during the course of the season.

Each time Tomlin would preach the virtues of a systematic as opposed to reactionary approach to coaching.

Tomlin’s philosophy prevailed is illustrated by Mike DeFabo tweet:

That turn around might not have led Fantasy Football owners to scramble to trade for Steelers skill players to add to their team, but those statistics added up to wins.

  • How did Matt Canada and the rest of the offensive staff pull off this turn around?

There’s no secret here. They didn’t execute any massive schematic change (although they did make some tweaks.) Instead, they eliminated the execution errors that had plagued the team earlier in the season and, once that happened, Canada’s system worked.

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

This is true. Canada’s offense does lack explosive or “chunk” plays. Even taking into account the turn around in the 2nd half of the season, under Matt Canada, the Steelers remain bottom feeders when it comes to passes longer than 20 yards.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But how much of this is by design and how much of this is Canada’s “fault?”

Perhaps a little of both. As Steel City Insider film reviewer D.I. Davis has pointed out since week 1, the Steelers might lack long passing gains, but the deep routes have been there and receivers have been open.

  • If you doubt that look no further than to George Pickens’s tantrum during the middle of the season.

Mitch Trubisky tried to get aggressive in relief of Pickett against the Ravens and his 3 interceptions likely kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pickett too stuck with the short passes, particularly early on. As the season progressed, he got a bit more adventurous downfield, albeit with mixed results.

  • On the flip side, Matt Canada’s offense clearly favors ball control.

That might not be exciting, but as the wins over Carolina and Cleveland proved, if you ball control combined with drives that end in touchdowns instead of field goals can be downright lethal.

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

As mentioned above, I too was a harsh critic of former Steelers offensive coordinators Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians.

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Walton’s tenure was a disaster and his last NFL job (although he did excel at Robert Morris). Ray Sherman’s was arguably worse, lasted one year and he only had one more season as an NFL coordinator.

I also defended Sherman’s predecessor, Chan Gailey for his aggressiveness in the 1997 AFC Championship loss to the Broncos. As the seasons and AFC Championships mounted between 1997 and 2005, I began to regret his decision to put the game in Kordell Stewart’s rather than Jerome Bettis’ hands.

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

A good chunk of this sites content during our first year in 2008 was directed at criticizing Arians. Then came the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII where Arians’ offense excelled. And of course Arians enjoyed tremendous success since leaving Pittsburgh.

  • The moral of this stroll down memory lane is two-fold.

First, Matt Canada may not be Pittsburgh’s next Bruce Arians, but he has earned the chance to try. Second, Mike Tomlin is far more qualified to make that judgement than I am.

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Under the Radar: Steelers Sign Anthony McFarland, 16 Others to “Futures Contracts”

What does 30 yards on 6 carries and 11 yards on 2 catches earn you today?

  • Apparently a second shot at an NFL career.

As the first week of their 2023 off season closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already signed 17 players to “futures” contracts and none more intriguing than Anthony McFarland. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland out of the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.

As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.

  • The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.

But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

  • McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.

NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.

Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.

That changed in 2022. When injuries felled both Harris and Warren against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped in, providing the foundation that allowed Kenny Pickett to stage his first comeback. This is the first sign that the change will continue.

Other Futures Signings

Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:

Cody White, wide receiver
Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver
Rodney Williams, tight end
Master Teague, running back
Jason Huntley, running back
Emeke Egbule, linebacker
William Dunkle, guard
Duke Dawson, defensive back
Scott Nelson, defensive back
Ryan McCollum, center

The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:

Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver
Madre Harper, defensive back
Kenny Robinson, defensive back
Chris Wilcox, defensive back

If nothing else, with Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all headed for free agency, the Steelers are adding quantity to their defensive backfield.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sad to see summer starting so early, but encouraged by his students 2nd semester spring, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for their win over the Cleveland Browns in the 2022 season finale.

Najee Harris, Grant Delpit, Steelers vs Browns

Grant Delpit can’t stop Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett completed 13 of 29 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Pickett wasn’t perfect. There were times when he tried to force the ball to receivers while others were open, and his deep passes were off target. But the Steelers converted 9 of 15 third downs, with Pickett convert 3 third downs on their final drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 84 yards on 23 carries and his 3.7 yards per carry average doesn’t due justice to the fight he show and his ability to force piles to fall forward. Harris also caught one pass for 10 yards, while Derek Watt ran once for one yard and a touchdown. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had two targets but no catches for the first time in memory. Zach Gentry had on catch, but it was for 23 yards and helped jumpstart the Steelers first touchdown drive. The real star here was Connor Heyward, who 3 catches on 4 targets two of which converted third downs on the final touchdown drive. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens caught 3 passes for 72 yards on six targets and may have gotten screwed out of a completion on the sidelines. But Pickens came up with clutch catches, whether in the end zone or on third down. Diontae Johnson will close the 2022 without a regular season touchdown, but he did catch 2 passes on 10 targets in addition to a two point conversion. Steven Sims had one jet sweep for 16 yards, while Gunner Olszewski and 2 for four yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once and only hit twice, impressive considering the presence of Myles Garrett on the other side. The run blocking could have been a little better, but the Steelers ran the all when they needed to. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Nick Chubb averaged 6.4 yards a carry – but never got into a rhythm thanks in part to the Steelers stuffing him on other carries. Cam Heyward had another age-defying day leading the unit with 8 tackles, 4 QB hits, 1 batted pass and 2 sacks. Actually, it should be 3 sacks, but he was flagged for roughing the passer on a make up call for Larry Ogunjobi’s uncalled face mask on his sack. Grade: B+

T.J. Watt, Myles Jack, Nick Chubb, Steelers vs Browns

Gang tackle! Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith led the unit with 8 tackles apiece, with Highsmith adding 2 and half sacks and 3 QB hits. T.J. Watt had half a sack and while he wasn’t credited for a tackle for a loss, he did have several for no gain. Myles Jack had four tackles while Mark Robinson saw more action but blitzed when he should have stayed in coverage leading to a long pass on a scoring drive. The linebackers did well, but let Deshaun Watson slip through their fingers too many times. Grade: B

Secondary
The Browns were 5-12 on third down with long passes of 38 and 36 yards. Levi Wallace changed the game with his interception before the half, killing Cleveland’s two minute drill and allowing Pittsburgh to take the lead. Damontae Kazee’s interception in the 2nd half confirmed, allowing the Steelers to add 10 points in mere minutes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 10 tackles while James Pierre and Cam Sutton had a pass defense. Grade: A-

Special Teams
The Browns only average 18 yards per kick return but did have one 35 yarder, plus a longer won that negated by a penalty. Chris Boswell hit both of his field goals Steven Sims did a respectable job returning punts, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
Will this be Matt Canada’s last game as Steelers offensive coordinator? Mike Tomlin wasn’t saying at his season ending press conference. If it was Canada’s final game, it will have been the best outing for his offense.

No one would mistake Canada’s offense in the finale for, say, the explosive 1995 Steelers offense that featured “Slash,” but Pittsburgh executed a balanced plan, controlled the clock and despite some early hiccups, finished drives in the Red Zone. “Chunk plays” were still spared, but at they also took shots down field.

Teryl Austin closed the season with a strong effort. The Browns only put 13 points on the board and, while the decision not to handoff more to Nick Chubb is a bit of a head scratcher, the numbers say that Austin’s defense limited his effectiveness.

One thing Austin will have to do in future meetings is scheme better to prevent Watson from breaking out, as he did that far too often.

Mike Tomlin earns some criticism for not challenging the first touchdown run, as a score there could have set up a blowout. Even if the offense did fumble the ball away two plays later, the defense forced a punt, revealing a team that was mentally prepared to execute in the biggest game of the season.

Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Browns

Jaylen Warren wills himself to a 1st down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As Tomlin himself concedes, the Steelers 2022 evolutionary process now comes to a “screeching halt” but his team is peaking as the season ends, which is always a sign of good coaching. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
George Pickens will likely earn ESPN highlights for his catch. Connor Heyward will turn heads. But this player caught the ball — well behind the line of scrimmage — on third down with his QB getting hit, and while he was in a sea of Brown jerseys and yet willed himself a 1st down on a drive that ended with the Steelers touchdown. For that Jaylen Warren win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 season finale win over the Browns.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Dare to Dream Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher daring to dream that his classroom once again features a franchise quarterback, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s stat line of 16 of 27 for 168 yards and one touchdown appears so “pedestrian” at first glance. But there was nothing pedestrian about the poise and playmaking instincts he showed on his final pass. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his first 100 yard game, a 111 yard one to be exact, mixing long runs and tough yards on 22 carries. Jaylen Warren ran for 76 yards on 11 carries with Derek Watt converting a 3rd and 1 for 3 yards. Warren and Harris combined for 5 catches, none more important that Harris’ game winner. Harris also pushed Pickett on a 4th down conversion. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 6 targets for 36 yards to lead the team, but his 20 yard catch brought the Steelers to midfield on the game winning drive. Neither Zach Gentry nor Connor Heyward had a catch, but contributed to run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 35 yards, Steven Sims had 3 for 34 yards and George Pickens “only” had 2 for 29 yards. Miles Boykin didn’t have a catch, but helped push Kenny Pickett across the line on a QB sneak. Gunner Olszewski executed a nice reverse and made a key block on Warren’s long run. Plays like that, along with the receiver’s stats won’t make Fantasy Football owners happy.  But the reality is that the quality of each individual play is why the Steelers playoff hopes are alive. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit nine times. The latter number is too high, but is OK given the context. However, the offensive line contested the line of scrimmage from the very beginning and paved the way for the best rushing effort of a Steelers offense since Le’Veon Bell’s prime. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 4 tackles followed by 3 by rookie DeMarvin Leal. What the stat sheet doesn’t show is the number of times the Ravens rushers were either stopped for zero or minimal gain. An excellent night for the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led the unit with 8 tackles including one for a loss. T.J. Watt “only” had one sack, but it came two plays after J.K. Dobbins 22 yard run and helped ensure it was the last run of the night. Watt also had another tackle for a loss and 3 other QB hits. Alex Highsmith and 3 tackles – for little or no gain. Grade: A

Secondary
The Ravens were 5 for 12 on third downs. And for the second consecutive week, an opponent’s desperation comeback attempt ended with a Steelers interception, this time at the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also led the unit in tackles. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he made 3 others including a 51 yarder. The Steelers gave up a long kickoff return, only to have their defense deliver a save. Pressley Harvin averaged 5 yards a punt including one inside the 20. Grade: C-

Coaching
Complainers about Matt Canada’s offense will find plenty of fodder given the Steelers partly pass numbers, sluggish Red Zone performance and settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Again.

So be it. The Baltimore Ravens are on of the toughest teams in the NFL to rush on, and the Steelers waltzed into their home and rushed the ball down their throats earning a 10 point advantage in the time of possession.

  • Moreover, the Steelers committed to the run and that delivered dividends as the game wore on.

On defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores decided that the Ravens weren’t going to repeat their success running against the Steelers, and deployed a 4-4-3 scheme that featured 2 rookies to stop the Ravens. And stop the Ravens they did.

Eight weeks ago the Steelers record was 2-6. They’d just gotten thrashed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and talk both inside and outside of Pittsburgh was how high within the top 5 of the draft the Steelers would fall.

But Mike Tomlin committed his team to playing to win, his players bought into it, and today their playoff hopes remain alive. Grade: A

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Mike Tomlin hesitates to praise rookies too much. Yet after the Ravens game he described this individual as “combative” and “confrontational” urging that those characteristics were “needed.” Seven tackles on 50% of the defensive snaps were enough to make Mark Robinson the 3rd leading tackler of game and for that he win Unsung Hero honors for the 2022 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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Despite a Low Profile, the Late John Rooney Played Key Role in Shaping Steelers

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner and youngest son of founder Art Rooney Sr., passed away last week at the age of 83.

Of the five Rooney brothers, John Rooney held one of the lowest profiles with respect to the franchise. Yet, despite that low profile, John Rooney did play an important role in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers that we know today.

Here we’ll take a look at that role as well as his larger life.

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, John Rooney Obituary

The late John Rooney. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

John Rooney – Teacher Turned Business Man

John Rooney is the youngest son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and his wife Kass, having been born in 1939, the second of twins. John, like his brothers Dan, Art Jr., Tim and his twin Pat, when to the North Sides’s St. Peter’s Catholic School and then to North Catholic (where Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert also graduated.)

John and his brother Pat studied at Mt. St. Mary’s College, in Emmittsbrug, Maryland, graduating in English. From there he went on to teach English in Plum Boro. John later revealed to author Jim O’Brien for his book 2002 The Chief:

Teaching was the most rewarding job I ever had. I never had another job where you got a rush every day about what you were doing to compare with that. You looked into the faces of the students and you saw that something was coming through. Some learning was taking place. You didn’t get that same sort of rush in business.

But as the father needing to support six kids, Rooney was forced to go into business. He moved to Philadelphia to work in the family’s race tracks, coming home in the summer to help with Steelers training camp.

Rooney admitted to O’Brien that, he like his other brothers wanted to work for the Steelers, “But the door wasn’t really open to anyone but Dan. The rest of us knew – it was made pretty clear to us – that we had to find something different to do.”

  • This is hardly surprising.

Art Rooney Sr. knew that sports franchises could hold the allure of a narcotic. As Ed Bouchtte detailed in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when Art Sr. once asked his son Pat “What are you doing here?” when he saw him show up at Three Rivers Stadium for a Steelers game, reminding him that his part of the family business was in Philadelphia.

  • Indeed. Art Rooney Jr. only entered the scouting department after an unsuccessful foray as an actor.

And while Art Jr. oversaw some of the most successful drafts in NFL history, including the 1974 draft that netted 4 Hall of Famers, communications breakdowns between Chuck Noll and Art Jr. forced Dan to fire his brother in 1986.

Art backed Dan’s decision, true to his “There can only be one boss,” philosophy, but as John confided to O’Brien, “It was difficult for the rest of us when Dan decided that Art didn’t fit into the football picture anymore. That was difficult for my father to accept.”

Although he had no other formal involvement of running of the Steelers, John did inherit 16% of the team when Art Rooney Sr. died in 1988,  setting up to play an important, if not critical role in shaping the structure of the franchise today.

John Rooney’s Role in the 2008 Ownership Restructuring

While the Rooneys are known for their association with the Steelers, they’ve long been dominant players in the race track business. John Rooney helped run tracks in Philadelphia and then Florida along with his brother Tim. And, as John admitted to O’Brien, the tracks were more profitable than the Steelers in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • As gambling laws eased during the 1990’s and the 00’s, the Rooneys added video poker to some of their tracks.

This ran afoul of the NFL’s anti-gambling bylaws (my, how times change) leading Roger Goodell to force the Rooneys restructure the team’s ownership to get into compliance.

  • That’s where things got sticky.

Dan Rooney made his brothers an initial offer, and when they didn’t find that satisfactory, they sought outside investors. Stanley Druckenmiller leapt at the chance to get a piece of his favorite team, and made the four Rooney brothers an offer.

When it came time to make a decision in the fall of 2008, the brothers couldn’t reach a consensus, but that John Rooney “’argued for his brothers to take Dan Rooney’s offer at their meeting, but no decision was made on that matter.’”

The brothers did eventually come to an agreement to the bulk of their shares to Dan and his son Art II and it is certainly possible, perhaps probably that they would have done so anyway, but John’s steadfast support of his older brother certainly helped ensure the franchise’s stability in the face of Druckenmiller’s takeover attempt.

The final deal saw John Rooney retain and 8% stake in the franchise, which was further reduced to 1% in 2015.

  • Nonetheless, John retained his seat on the Steelers Board of Directors until his death.

John Rooney is survived by his wife JoAnn, his kids Sean, Mary Jo, Alice, Peter, and Matt. He was predeceased by his son Jimmy, whom he lost in a car accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Rooney family.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Living Up to Legacy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his students adding to the legacy left to them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Raiders on the 50 Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads the Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 26 of 39 for 244 yards with 1 touchdown and one interception. In truth, Pickett did not look sharp for much of the first 55 minutes of the game. But he delivered perfectly when the game was on the line. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 76 yards on the ground on 22 carries, although perhaps those numbers would have been better had the Steelers committed more to the run. The duo also combined for 7 catches for just under 50 yards. Derek Watt was stopped on third down. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 8 passes thrown to him for 66 yards and the arrow on this kid continues to point up. Zach Gentry caught 1 pass for 1 yard and missed the block on Derek Watt’s run. Connor Heyward took a surprise pitch 21 yards and showed veteran savvy by sliding down in bounds to keep the clock running. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 64 yards on 7 targets, leading the group. George Pickens caught 5 passes on 5 targets including a 25 yarder, the night’s longest, and the game winning touchdown. Steven Sims and one catch for 7 yards on 1 target. Myles Boykin helped push Kenny Pickett to a first down on 4th and 1. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked all night and was only touched on 4 occasions. That’s good. However, the run blocking wasn’t there on a consistent basis, forcing lots of 3rd and longs and consequently, punts. The Steelers need to be able to run the ball in cold weather. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi have only had one stop for a loss, but he helped dominate the Raiders upfront after the opening drive. Montravius Adams had 3 tackles as part of an effort that shut down the Raiders running game on a night when running the ball meant everything. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith closed the third quarter with a 13 yard losing sack of David Carr which helped begin the Steelers rally. T.J. Watt had a tipped pass and a tackle for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles with 12. Grade: A-

Secondary
Arthur Maulet made a heads up play intercepting the ball immediately after Pickett’s turnover. Minkah Fitzpatrick Short circuited their next drive with an interception of his own, and helped set up a sack on a blitz late in the fourth quarter. Cam Sutton made an interception that all but sealed the win for the Steelers. Grade: A

Special Teams
The Raiders did have one long punt return, but its impact was limited. Kick coverage was good and Steven Sims fair caught all but one punt. Pressley Harvin was solid on his returns. Chris Boswell did make two field goals, but he also missed to more. Yes, weather was a factor, but kicking at Acrisure Stadium should be his specialty. Grade: C-

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense struggled for much of the night and one has to question why the Steelers passed 39 times on a night with 9 degree weather. Still, had the field goals not been missed, the last minute drive wouldn’t have been necessary, but it was and his unit executed to perfection.

  • And the toss to Connor Heyward was a beauty that sealed the game.
Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Franco Harris Jersey, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin wearing a Franco Harris jersey. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via St. Albert Gazette

Teryl Austin’s defense made an immediate adjustment that neutralized the Raiders running game and his defense kept delivering even as the offense missed a field goal and punted 3 times in the second half alone.

  • In early October the NFL had left the Pittsburgh Steelers for dead.

They had a rookie quarterback and had been smacked around by the league’s heavyweights and up and comers a like. At this point the smart money was on Pittsburgh spending Christmas “competing” for a top 5 pick.

Instead the Steelers competed for a playoff spot on Christmas Eve. On a night when the Steelers celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and said goodbye to Franco Harris, Mike Tomlin harnessed that emotion without letting his team get caught up in it. Grade: B+

Sung Hero Award
The Steelers tapped him to lead introductions carrying a Number 32 banner. When the game started, Cam Heyward showed why he was worthy to carry on Franco Harris’ legacy, with two sacks, a pass defensed, another tackle for a loss and numerous others for no or little gain, and for that he wins the Sung Hero ward for the 2022 win over the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.

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