Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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All In: Steelers Resign Joe Haden. Its Both a Risk and the Right Move

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 off season by extending cornerback Joe Haden’s contract by 3 years. The new deal is for 32 dollars and includes a 16.2 signing bonus.

  • It says here that the Steelers resigning Joe Haden is the right move, but one that carries some risk.

Before explaining why, let’s fess up and eat a slice of humble pie. When Cleveland unexpectedly released Joe Haden this time two years ago, yours truly published a missive titled “Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?.” The Steelers had struggled to find quality quarterbacks and had made a series of attempts at rehabilitating other team’s cast offs.

Those efforts included trading with Cleveland to get Justin Gilbert a year earlier, a move that ultimately failed.
This is one time when a blogger is pleased as punch to be wrong.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Steelers immediately inserted Joe Haden into the starting line up, and Joe Haden became an immediate leader of the group. People forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half of 2017, as the Steelers defense carried the team to a 7-2 record.

  • Joe Haden’s presence made that possible.

Joe Haden gave the Steelers what they have craved since Ike Taylor began to fade – a quality cornerback. But he also became a leader both on and off the field. Indeed, while most outsiders peg the demise of the Steelers defense to Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion suffered in Cincinnati, the Steelers defense had actually begun to slip when Joe Haden got injured against the Colts.

  • Perhaps most importantly, Joe Haden gave the Steelers secondary, and in fact the entire defense something it has lacked – playmakers.

The best example of that came last season during the win over the New England Patriots, when Joe Haden made a leaping catch to intercept Tom Brady in the Red Zone. That’s exactly the type of defensive spark the Steelers have needed in games like that, but been unable to find.

Opportunity Costs and Risks

Every long-term contact signing contains risks and carries opportunity costs. Joe Haden is 30 years old, and cornerback is a young man’s game. Ike Taylor was 31 years old when he signed is 3rd contract from the Steelers, and while Ike delivered two solid years of play, he began to slip in 2013 and by 2014 he was done.

  • Likewise, the decision to sign Joe Haden means that the Steelers will not be able to extend the contracts of Sean Davis or Javon Hargrave who are both 25.

While Sean Davis is injured, and still must deliver, Javon Hargrave played exceptionally well down the stretch in 2018 and figures to the type of season that will allow him to cash in as a free agent.

But given the fact that the Steelers have had far better luck at replacing quality defensive lineman than then have had with replacing quality NFL cornerbacks, it is a wise risk to take.

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Saying Goodbye: Steelers Cut Eli Rogers, Trade Jerald Hawkins to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their roster cut downs yesterday and while Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not unload any major surprises on the fan base, the team did part way with two veterans.

  • The biggest and perhaps most difficult move was the decision to cut veteran wide receiver Eli Rogers.

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, spent the year on injured reserve, and emerged as their starting slot receiver by the end of training camp in 2016. By season’s end, Eli Rogers was their defacto number 2 wide out.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That role was probably a step too big for Rogers, but no one can deny that Rogers 48 catches and 3 touchdowns equaled phenomenal production for a player that few fans had even heard of going into August. In 2017 Eli Roger’s production dipped, thanks largely to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant‘s presence, but Eli Rogers played extremely well in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on all five attempts.

However, Eli Rogers did well grabbing 12 of 14 balls thrown his way during the season’s final 3 weeks, as Rogers gave the Steelers a legitimate 3rd wide receiver. Going into training camp, Eli Rogers was seen as competing with Ryan Switzer for a roster spot. While this writer asserts that Eli Rogers is a better wide out than Switzer, Switzer is a better return man, and with James Washington and Donte Moncrief that’s a trade off the Steelers can afford to make.

Steelers Trade Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay

The Steelers also traded Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay, exchanging a 7th round pick and Hawkins for Tampa Bay’s 6th round pick. The Steelers of course drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hawkins had a strong training camp, only to get injured in the Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints.

Hawkins would be back in 2017, only to get injured in spring practices in 2018. Word was he was not fully recovered going into 2019 and effectively found himself behind undrafted rookie free agents.

Credit Kevin Colbert for getting a 6th round pick for a player that the Steelers were going to cut anyway.

Other Steelers Who Got a Visit from “The Turk”

The Steelers cut a host of other players to reach the roster limit. Those cuts included:

Quarterback:
Devlin Hodges

Running Backs:
Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian and Malik Williams,

Wide Receivers:
Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, Eli Rogers and Diontae Spencer

Tight Ends:
Micky Crum, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Trevor Wood

Offensive Line:
Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassanauer, Patrick Morris and Damian Prince

Defensive Backs:
Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jhvonte Dean, P.J. Locke and Trevon Mathis

Linebackers:
Jayrone Elliott, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Sutton Smith and Robert Spillane

Defensive Linemen:
Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles and Conor Sheehy

Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry held off their respective  challenges from Matthew Wright and Ian Berryman.

Marcus Allen, Derwin Gray, Trey Edmunds, Patrick Morris, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Robert Spillane have already returned to the Steelers practice squad. One spot remains open, and Jim Wexell points out, it could be filled by either Sutton Smith or Johnny Holton.

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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How I Learned of Rocky Bleier’s Incredible Comeback Story

Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.

The Super Steelers were a national phenomenon. Growing up as the child of “Pittsburgh Expats” in the Washington DC suburbs, names like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris (although I thought his name was Frank O’Harris) and Jack Lambert were well known to me before Super Bowl XIII, which is the first Super Bowl I’m old enough to remember.

Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier comeback

Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:

Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”

  • That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.

But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.

My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):

“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.

In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.

  • After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.

My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.

While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)

  • I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.

I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.

Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.

  • Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.

Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”

When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.

In 1976, Rocky Bleier ran for 1030 yards, during a 14 game season, which complemented Franco Harris’ 1128 yards, making the duo only 1 of six tandems to pull off twin 1000 yard rushing efforts in a single season.

Rocky Bleier, ESPN "The Return"

Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.

  • Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.

No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.

But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.

 

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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Mason Rudolph vs Joshua Dobbs and vs a Bit of Steelers History…

The early word out of Latrobe is that 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph looks good. Rudolph spent the 2019 off season working with Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics and footwork.

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, Mason Rudolph is throwing the ball with greater velocity, carrying himself with greater confidence, and showing more poise in the pocket. That’s good news for Mason Rudolph who enters his second summer at St. Vincents fighting Joshua Dobbs for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is also interesting because Mason Rudolph is just fighting Joshua Dobbs, he’s also fighting a bit of Steelers history:

  • Pittsburgh just doesn’t have a good record of “developing quarterbacks.”

No, we’re not talking about the likes of Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Len Dawson, and Bill Nelsen whom the Steelers pushed away only to see them return to punish Pittsburgh. Those were personnel mistakes. But the Steelers simply lack a strong record for grooming quarterbacks from the bullpen.

Before the salary cap, NFL coaches nurtured quarterbacks like fine wine. Often times they’d draft quarterbacks with an eye towards developing them for a few years rather than start them as rookies.

Super Bowl winners Roger Staubach, Joe Theismann, Jeff Hostetler, and Mark Rypien all did lengthy apprenticeships on the bench before earning status as full time starters.

  • Together, Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger have more Super Bowl rings than the aforementioned quartet combined, but both men started as rookies.

Ben Roethlisberger got a baptism by fire as a rookie, and led the Steelers to Super Bowl XL a year later. Bradshaw’s ascension to Super Bowl caliber quarterback started with the first game of his rookie year. The process resembled a traumatic midwifing rather than methodical maturation.

  • When the Steelers have tried to go the draft and develop route, things haven’t panned out as planned.

The Steelers picked Mark Malone with the 1st pick in the 1980 draft, and Malone had 3 years to learn at the feet of Terry Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt. Mark Malone led the 1984 Steelers to the AFC Championship in his first year as a starter, but it was all downhill after that.

During the 1987 season, when Mark Malone was in route to posting a 46.4 passer rating (no, that’s not a typo that’s forty six point four), Chuck Noll defended his decision to keep Bubby Brister on the bench explaining, “He needs to develop.”

Bubby Brister posted a 65.3 passer rating when he became the starter in 1988 and a year later he helped the 1989 Steelers “Shock the World!” by winning a playoff game after losing their first two games by a score of 92-10.

  • But alas, Bubby Brister never matured into anything other than a serviceable starter.

(And this is from someone who told a taunt that the Cowboys were going to “Win the Aikman Derby” on a Boy Scout camping trip in late 1988, “We don’t need Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister.”)

Neil O’Donnell spent his rookie year behind Bubby Brister and Rick Strom. As Bob Labriola observed in his early 1991 off season roster analysis in the Steelers Digest, “If all goes well a year from now O’Donnell will have done nothing more than watched and learned while holding a clipboard.”

Of course an injury to Brister in a week 7 game against the Giants trust O’Donnell into the starting lineup where he stayed, save for two games at the end of the ’91 season, until Super Bowl XXX.

By that time Kordell Stewart had gotten himself into the mix as “Slash” and remained there until late 1996 when Bill Cowher formally elevated him to backup status. That didn’t last long as Stewart was the full time starter by opening day 1997.

In between O’Donnell and Stewart, there was Jim Miller, another quarterback the Steelers had drafted to develop. Jim Miller got 1994 and 1995 to mature, but his stint as a starter lasted all of one game.

Word to the Wise on Mason Rudolph – Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Does this history somehow spell doom for Mason Rudolph? No, not at all. As Mike Tomlin would remind us, “Mason Rudolph is writing his own story.” But history offers an important lesson nontheless.

Just as it was for O’Donnell in 1991, the plan in 2004 was for Ben Roethlisberger to watch and learn behind Tommy Maddox. At 12:11 in the 3rd quarter of a week two contest against the Baltimore Ravens, Gary Baxter changed everything by knocking Maddox out of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the field, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since.

God willing, several years lie between Mason Rudoph and his first meaningful NFL snap. But its good to know he is making strides towards being ready just in case.

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Controversy on Kevin Colbert’s Non-Contract Extension? NOT!

Art Rooney II used the opening of training camp to dispense with any potential distraction about Mike Tomlin’s future in Pittsburgh with a contract extension. However, the absence an extension for Kevin Colbert remained a bit of a mystery.

The mystery lasted little more than 24 hours, when Art Rooney II told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  “At this stage of the game, he’s really not looking to do any long-term planning. We talked and we agreed he’d rather wait till after the season to talk about the contract.”

  • This of course led to speculation about Kevin Colbert’s standing in the organization.

Colbert however quickly clarified the situation, going on Steelers.com to confirm that he has no plans to leave the organization nor is he angling towards transitioning out of his current role. At age 62, however, he’s simply not making long-term plans.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The fact that Kevin Colbert’s status with the team could become a situation he evaluates yearly has been reported throughout the 2019 off season by reporters such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Jim Wexell, among others.

Sometimes When You Smell Smoke, There Really Is Fire – But Not Now

While the internet and social media have loosened things up to a point, the NFL remains a tightly managed product. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors that even the most engaged fan is unaware of.

  • When unwanted stories bubble to the surface, teams still have tremendous power to tone them down, if not quiet them outright.

The Steelers are no exception. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t get along. All sides involved bent over backwards to tell everyone that the Ben Roethlisberger-Todd Haley relationship was fine. Yet, we know now that it wasn’t.

Shortly after the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown Who began, through surrogates in the press. Yet, the public was told that nothing was wrong. We know now that things were different.

Looking further back into Steelers history, rumblings of a breakdown between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began not too long after Super Bowl XXX. Over the next four seasons, the attentive fan could catch glimpses that contrasted with assurances that all was fine between the two. Of course, it wasn’t. By 1999 Cowher and Donahoe were barely speaking, forcing Dan Rooney to choose.

  • All of this is to say that often times skepticism in the face of the party line can be a healthy thing.

But this isn’t one of them. If Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert say that everything is fine, then Steelers Nation should take them at their word.

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Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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