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

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

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

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

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

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kaboly’s Wrong; Willie Parker’s ’08 Comments, Brown’s Record Not Analogous

Let’s begin with some clarifications. Steel Curtain Rising isn’t crazy about Mike Tomlin’s agreeing with Ben Roethlisberger’s request to keep Antonio Brown’s record. But the play worked. The Steelers beat the Jaguars. And there’s whole hearted agreement with Terry Fletcher that it’s time to move on.

  • But Mark Kaboly’s argument is flawed, and that must be discussed.

Writing on the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Steel Mill Blog, Kabloy commends Ben for sticking up for his teammate and criticizes Tomlin for agreeing. Kaboly makes all of the relvant arguments – that winning should be enough, the team doesn’t need distractions, and suggests Tomlin undermines his trademark  “style points don’t matter.”

That’s all fine and fair game. Even if one feels this has become “much to do about nothing” Kabloy’s on solid ground so far. But then he makes this argument:

The year was 2008 and running back Willie Parker told the media on a Wednesday that he thought the team was getting away from Steelers football by throwing the ball too much.
The next day, Tomlin called a press conference.
Now, Tomlin never called an impromptu press conference before that day and he never called one since.
Full disclosure – the quote which appears next actually came before the two paragraphs above]
I especially remember “every day I walk by five Lombardi Trophies, not five rushing titles.  Willie (Parker’s) comments could be construed as selfish …”

Kaboly’s essential point is that Tomlin missed a chance to send the message home that team comes first. And on the surface he’s picked a pretty powerful quote out of the past.

But Kabloy’s also taking the quote out of context (he might actually be misquoting Tomlin, but we’ll leave that for the Watch Tower) on a number of counts. First, Willie Parker’s comments came in mid-December a week after the Steelers had beaten Dallas and right before an all important show down with Baltimore.

  • Willie Parker’s comments were ill-timed, to say the least.

Parker was making some pretty pointed comments about Bruce Arians’ offense, and doing so in a season when his health and production had greatly declined. (Thank God for Mewelde Moore – the unsung hero of the ’08 Super Bowl team.) What he said then was clearly premeditated, whereas Tomlin’s decision was made spontaneously during a game.

Kabloy’s making a valid point by indicating that Tomlin has potentially jeopardized the “team first mentality.” But he’s mixing apples and oranges in trying to compare it to Willie Parker’s comments of Decmeber 2008.

‘Nuff said. Time for Steelers Nation to move on.

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In Heart of “Redskins Territory,” Shadow of Ravens Roost, Steelers Nation Stands Strong!

dinos aspen hill barber shopping center

Our story starts at Dinos Barber Shop in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. Aspen Hill, Maryland is about ten miles from the DC border, and the shopping center is so thoroughly suburbanly non-descript that the KGB used it as a rendezvous during the Cold War. (Seriously, the Washington Post documented it 1999.)

  • But in the late 70’s, as the Cold War was heating up again, there were no Soviet spies in Dino’s, just Steelers fans.

At least there was one. His name was George. He had the front seat on the left hand side, closest to the front of the store.  Along either side of his mirror, he had the Iron City cans that featured the Super Steelers. If memory serves, he also had a framed copy of the Sports Illustrated cover of Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell’s joint sportsman of the year award.

  • At age 6, even though I was well acquainted with the 4 hour drive to Pittsburgh, this seemed “normal” to me.

After all, when my folks had taken me to Sears to get me a winter jacket, there’d been a rack divided in equal proportions of Redskins, Cowboys, and Steelers jackets. Coming at the end of the Super Steelers Dynasty, this would change quickly.

  • Just as I reached double digits, Joe Gibbs was working his magic in Washington.

And that meant that I spent the rest of my schooling being asked, “Are you a Redskins fan?” “No.” “Then you’re a Cowboy stuck in Redskins territory.”

Or “Are you a Redskins fan?” “No” “Dallas sucks!”

…Yes, even though suburban Maryland of the 80’s was very much a land of transplants, if you weren’t a Redskins fan, in most people’s minds it automatically made you a Cowboys fan.

But I digress.

Although George the barber remained faithful to his Steelers roots, visual evidence of the nascent phenomenon that we now know as Steelers Nation became sparse. Yes, you could find Steelers stuff, but only in equal proportions with the other 27 NFL teams.

Fans didn’t give up on the Black and Gold in the ‘80’s, but there was no internet, no Sunday Ticket, no Redzone, and mediocre teams don’t draw that much coverage.

Fast Forward, from Mid-80’s to 2014… 

aspen hill shopping center dinos 2014 suburban strip mall

A recent trip back to my old stomping grounds in Aspen Hill showed the Aspen Hill Shopping Center alive and well although changed. Dino’s is still there, although George is long gone – having been upset when Dino expanded but declined to delegate management of his new stores to the old hands. Peering through the window I saw that Italo, my dad’s old barber, was still there.

He, like Dino’s itself, is a survivor of a strip mall that has seen incredible turnover. But alas, peering inside, no evidence of Steelers Nation was apparent in Dinos.

A few doors down, it was a different story.

Heading into “5 Below” with my brother’s kids in tow, my wife called out “Hey, you need to see this.” Here is what she was taking about:

steelers nation redskins ravens aspen hill maryland

I smiled.

Redskins stuff was obvious. Although Daniel Snyder seems intent on discovering just where their goodwill reaches the breaking point, the truth is the Washington Redskins have a loyal fan base. To outsiders, the Ravens might seem an obvious choice, and perhaps it is, but it caused a raised eyebrow nonetheless.

The last NFL season in which I lived in the US (and Aspen Hill) was 2000, the year the Redskins won hands down the off season Lombardi, and the Ravens won their first real Lombardi. As the two franchises were crossing their respective thresholds to fantasy and reality, you could pick up a subtle undercurrent of support for the Ravens among life-long Redskins fans.

  • So perhaps the beach head that the Ravens roost laid has grown roots since then.

That seems logical enough given that the DC and Baltimore suburbs have grown into each other, the Ravens have contended while the Redskins have pretended, and given the fact that Washingtonians shift sports loyalties easily (before the Nationals arrived, I only knew one native Washingtonian who refused to root for the Baltimore Orioles as the “home team” — this bud’s for you M. W.)

Of course there is no such easy explanation to “justify” the Black and Gold robust representation in this retail sector. And it wasn’t just with the backpacks.

 You could see it with balls…

steelers nation fans redskins maryland washington dc suburban md

Key chains….

steelers fans aspen hill maryland nation

And even with sandals.

steelers nation ravens maryland fans pittsburgh aspen hill maryland

Yes, ladies and gentleman, in the heart of “Redskins Territory,” in the shadow of the Ravens Roost, the footprints of Steelers Nation leave their indelible mark.

Parting Shot

The really cool thing about this is that a chain like 5 Below almost certainly manages its stock based on a supply and distribution business intelligence algorithm. In other words, they have a computer program that directs merchandise to where it sells.

  • That means there are plenty of Steelers fans in Aspen Hill Maryland.

Like all good vacations, ours came to an end. The first leg of our trek back to Buenos Aires began at Washington National Airport, located in Virginia just across the river. As we waited to board, my wife again called my attention to something in in the distance.

What a beautiful sight it was:

steelers team plan washington national airport 2014
Steelers US Airways Jet

As, as yours truly observed in 2008 on the night when Ben Roethlisberger got injured and Byron Leftwich led Pittsburgh over Washington as Steelers fans took over FedEx Field, DC might be “Redskins Territory…”

But it’s still part of Steelers Nation!

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Chargers Cut Max Starks; Could Starks-Steelers Hook Up One Last Time…?

The Pittsburgh Steeerls have announced that they will make their final cuts on Saturday, but many other NFL teams are not content to wait.

The San Diego Chargers made one move that should catch the attention of Steelers Nation:

Chargers announced: Released veteran OT Max Starks.
— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) August 30, 2013

Ah yes, Max Starks. Earlier this year the Steelers completed one half of what has become a familiar ritual for them – informing Max Starks that he is no longer in their plans. Starks, opted to sign with the Chargers seeking starting money.

But a woeful performance vs. the San Francisco 49ers made him expendable (Starks himself is reported to say that it was the “worst game of his life.”)

  • Its been widely acknowledged that the Steelers would search the wavier wire in depth to bolster their offensive line.

Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams are set as starters, although Kelvin Beachum has been rumored to challenge Gilbert. But Beachum is also a back up at guard and center.

After Beachum the Steelers have Guy Whimper, who has lived up to his surname by all reports…

…Could the Pittsburgh Steelers and Max Starks be destined to complete the cycle? Could we see Max Starks once resign with the Steelers for a final time.

The Steelers and Starks are very much like that couple in high school that keeps breaking up, only to get back together again. The Steelers and Starks have more break ups and reunions that The Who.

The “no we won’t” “yes we will” relationship between Starks and the Steelers began before the waiving and resigning began. In 2008 the Steelers named Starks their transition player, yet Max Starks couldn’t win a starting job and couldn’t even get top back up priority over Trai Essex in 2008, making him the highest paid 4th tackle in NFL history.

It could happen again. Its a good bet that his dear friend Ben Roethlisberger will lobby Kevin Colbert to bring him back.

Eagles Cut Robinson, Dixon

The danger of the Philadelphia Eagles becoming “Steelers East” appears remote, as the Eagles cut former Pittsburgh Steelers Dennis Dixon and linebacker Adrian Robinson. This move comes one week after Adrian Robison was traded to Philly.

Felix Jones on the other hand very well may have earned himself a roster spot.

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Watch Tower: Troy Polamalu Overrated? Yeah, Right.

Tory Polamalu is not finding much love in the peanut gallery these days.

The Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year recently found himself on the blunt end of some pretty harsh criticism of two members of the national media. Let’s dissect these arguments.

Polamalu “Over Rated”?

CBS Sports Pete Prisco went so far as to label Troy Polamalu as the league’s “most overrated player.” He further explained:

He was selected as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 — an award I couldn’t figure out — and then disappeared in the playoffs, even getting trucked by Ray Rice of the Ravens in the playoffs.

He was a spinning top in the Super Bowl, trying to cover Packers receivers and instead watched them rip off big gains and two touchdowns on his watch.

The Packers exposed the reason I think Polamalu is overrated. He isn’t great in coverage and the NFL is now a cover game. [Emphasis added]

Ok, let’s attack Prisco’s points on Polamalu in order.

He can’t understand Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the year award? Really?

All he did was make game-changing plays in contests against Atlanta, Buffalo, and Baltimore. His play-making ability also ensured that the Steelers struck blood early and dominated rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.

  • OK, both teams were terrible in 2010, but these were both crucial, must win division contests in December. That’s when underrated players fold.

Let’s not forget the red zone interception that Polamalu made against the Raiders, which slammed the door on any possible comeback in a game where the officials seemed determined to penalize the Steelers for sneezing, let alone hitting, too hard.

As for the Ray Rice comment, having watched the play again, give Rice (and the entire Ravens offense) credit for an incredible play. Polamalu appears to have simply miss judged the angle on his hit. Not to excuse him, but hardly an error that negates the rest of his accomplishments.

Polamalu’s Performance in the 2010 Playoffs

Polamalu took some criticism for not making a dramatic play against Baltimore but, as Joe Starkey pointed out, Joe Flacco only passed for 125 yards in that game, didn’t complete a pass longer than 16 yards, and his top two receivers had zero catches for zero yards.

That only occurs if good things are happening in the secondary. And good things do not happen in the Steelers secondary if Polamalu’s plays poorly.

  • It is true that Polamalu was not up to par in the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, but he was playing with an Achilles injury.

The argument that a player is overrated if his level drops off in post-season is both a valid and one which Mike Wallace perhaps needs/may need to answer.

But has Prisco forgotten what a healthy Polamalu can do in the playoffs? Perhaps, so let’s remind him:

Yeah, now you were telling me that Polamalu was overrated?

49 Players Ahead of Number 43?

Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King has been issuing his own list of the NFL’s top 100 players, and he only rated Troy Polamalu at number 50 (while also questioning another ranking that put Ben Roethlisberger at 41.

King explains his low rating of Polamalu this way:

Here’s why I put the reigning defensive player of the year where I did: This list is not based entirely on how a player played in 2010, or where his current body of work places him today. It also includes how a player will play in 2011 and the future. The past is important for establishing greatness, and Polamalu has certainly been a great strong safety. But what is he now? I’m not sure. He’s missed 13 games due to injury in the last two seasons. He was mostly invisible in the Steelers’ run to the Super Bowl last season.

I take issue with King’s comment that Polamalu was “invisible in the Steelers run the Super Bowl” for the reason below.

Beating the Ravens in December in Baltimore was most certainly an integral part of the Steelers run the Super Bowl.

Beyond that, I am unable argue to vigorously against the rest of King’s charge.

  • Troy Polamalu is one of the greatest players in the game today – when healthy.
  • Given what he does, the way he does it, and when he does it, it I argue that Troy Polamalu has the mark of an all-time great – when healthy.

If you think the later comment is an overstatement, think again.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Lynn Swann’s enshrinement in Canton during the 1990’s when Hall of Fame voters, including King, resisted his induction was that even 20 years after his retirement, fans would still marvel at an acrobatic catch and say “That was a Lynn Swann catch.”

  • 20 years from now, people are likely to look at incredible defensive plays and say, “That was a Troy Polamalu play.”

But with that said, King, sadly, may be right. Earlier this off season Tim Gleason of Behind the Steel Curtain aka “Mary Rose” compared Polamalu to a European sports car – best car on the highway – when not in the shop.

Polamalu’s explosive play is taking its toll on his body.

With 8 seasons under his belt Polamalu is unlikely have the type of 14 season career that other great safeties like Ronnie Lott or Donnie Shell had.

But Steel Curtain Rising certainly hopes that Polamalu has a couple of three more years of peak performance left in him.

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Reflections on Alan Faneca’s Retirement

Former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, perhaps the franchises best player at that position, retired Tuesday ending a 13 year career.

  • Drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft, Faneca broke into the starting line up and remained a fixture at guard for a decade.

During the team’s 2003 season Faneca proved his value to the team yet again, by shifting to left tackle (on first and second downs) when injuries had decimated the team’s offensive line. Faneca’s peers nonetheless voted him to the Pro Bowl.

Alan Faneca Tom Donahoe’s Last Great First Round Pick

Tom Donahoe, whose personnel moves had a huge hand in the Steelers return to contender status of the 1990’s, is oft remembered for a series of premium picks in the late 1990’s that either “didn’t pan out” (Troy Edwards) or were outright busts (Jermaine Stephens, Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat.)

But Faneca was has last great, and arguably greatest pick, and certainly his best first round pick overall. Coming to the Steelers in 1998, Faneca got a unique vantage point into Steelers history.

Faneca participated in (although did not contribute to) the decline of the Cowher-Donahoe era, helped usher in the rebirth and subsequent “knocking on heaven’s door” phase of the early Cowher-Colbert era, basked in the glory of Super Bowl XL, and stayed on for the beginning of the Mike Tomlin era.

No Money, No Honey….

Faneca, who was drafted mere months after the Steelers 1998 AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos, would suffer through the agony of two more AFC championship losses, both at the hands of the Patriots, and both at Heinz Field.

Alas, Faneca never had the chance to exorcise those AFC Championship demons with the rest of his teammates as he had departed for the New York Jets as a free agent in the 2008 off season.

Alan Faneca’s departure was not without some acrimony. Pittsburgh wanted him back but, as is their nature, the Steelers were not ready to break the bank for Faneca.

When it became clear an agreement was not in the offing, Faneca asked for a trade, and criticized the team for failing to provide him with financial security – an odd comment from someone who’d been paid tens of millions of dollars by the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin inherited the situation, and managed it well. Faneca might not have been happy, he might not have bought into Larry Zierlein’s new blocking schemes (not that he should have) but he certainly gave his all while on the field, right up until his final game against Jacksonville.

  • Fanaca of course played for New York for two seasons and then finished his career at Pittsburgh West, aka the Cardinals.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to who will be the first pure-Cowher era Steeler to enter into the Hall of Fame. While Jerome Bettis will likely beat him there, if there is any justice Faneca will some day join him.

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Worst Steelers Offensive Coordinator Poll Recap

Perhaps it is odd to recap a poll that closed months ago, but between the 2010 NFL draft, the Steelers Judiciary woes, and working a second job, I simply have not had time.

The poll began in February and ran for over a month, attracting over 100 votes. Bruce Arians “won” the poll is a little of a surprise, which I’ll address at the end.

For now, let’s look at the other “contenders.”

The “Bottom” Seven

Ken Whisenhunt and Tom Moore drew only a single votes, and that is one vote too many for both men.

Chan Gailey and Ron Erhardt polled three votes a piece, which is a slight surprise, given that so many fans blame Gailey for calling goal line passes that were intercepted in the 1997 AFC Championship game when he had Jerome Bettis in his backfield.

Gailey is not worthy of the “worst coordinator” ignominy, but I expected that more fans would beg to differ.

Inspector gadget, aka Mike Mularkey picked up five votes, and while Mularkey perhaps got a little too captivated with his own innovations, Pittsburgh’s offense enjoyed a lot of success during his tenure.

Kevin Gilbride was the first to break double digits with 11 votes and that is how it should be as he is the first offensive coordinator to merit serious consideration for the “worst ever title.” Bill Cowher’s hiring of Gilbride, he of run and shoot fame, mystified me from its announcement to Gilbride’s dismissal. Gilbride never seemed to “get it.”

Gilbride was bad, but he was not the worst Steelers offensive coordinator ever.

Joe Walton vs. Ray Sherman

The poll went up while the article “Walton’s Mountain, Good Night Chuck” was on Steel Curtain Rising’s home page.

So it is no surprise there that Walton took an early lead.

But the Walton article got put down and ultimately off the home page, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians picked up support quickly.

The real debate is between Sherman and Walton.

Ray Sherman had one ill-fated season as the Steelers offensive coordinator. Picked after the 1997 season on the heels of Jerry Jones surprise decision to hire Chan Gailey as his head coach, Sherman arrived as a second tier choice.

Still, Sherman had a good track record with Brad Johnson and it was thought that he would transform Kordell Stewart into a finished product.

Instead Sherman was an unmitigated disaster.

Stewart had his own weaknesses, so perhaps it is too harsh to condemn Sherman for “ruining him,” but Ray Sherman certainly failed to foster Kordell Stewart’s development.

Under Sherman, Stewart became tentative, the long ball disappeared and Sherman was either unwilling or unable to call plays that capitalized on Stewart’s mobility. Bill Cowher took note and stripped Sherman of his play calling duties late in the season.

Sherman’s offense was predictable. I can remember a third and long situation during one late-season drubbing, where I said to my buddies at the Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon, “Watch, it is going to be a weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” Sherman called just that, and to the surprise of no one, the Steelers failed to convert.

In Sherman’s defense, John Jackson’s departure had already weakened his offensive line and disintegrated further with Justin Strzelczyk’s injury. The Steelers had also lost Yancy Thigpen and neither Charles Johnson, Will Blackwell nor Jahine Arnold could pick up the slack.

Why It Is Walton

I’ve already written at length about Joe Walton (click here to read the full article) so I’ll only add a few more comments.

Walton’s offensive line had its own weaknesses and his wide receiving corps was less than stealer.

Like Sherman, Walton shares in possibly having had a hand in ruining a promising young quarterback whose raw talent mirrored his myriad flaws.

On balance, however, for me Walton was worse than Sherman because he stubbornly refused to change even when evidence mounted that his system was failing. Worse yet, the Steelers had established themselves as a team on the rise after the 1989 season, and they floundered under Walton.

A final point in Walton’s “favor.” Ray Sherman arrived in 1998, just as the Steelers defense ws beginning to decline. In 1990 however, the Steelers had the number one overall defense, an effort wasted by Walton and his offense.

About Arians

Steel Curtain Rising regulars know how I went from being an Arians’ Attacker to an Arians Agnostic, so I will not recount that journey here (you can click on the highlighted links to read more.)

One does not need to be an Arians’ Apologist to know one thing: The Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with Arians as offensive coordinator, and Arians’ game plan played a crucial part in the Steelers victory.

Arians may not be the Steelers best offensive coordinator, but he certainly is not the worst.

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Tomlin Gives Veterans the Bye Week Off

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has given his veteran players the entire bye week off. This move is unprecedented for a Steelers head coach, as both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher required their players to practice for least some of the bye week, as did Tomlin during his first two years as head coach.

Surprising Move?

This move comes as a slight surprise. In spite of the Steelers 5-2 record, many aspects of the team’s performance can still be described as sloppy – two kick returns for touchdowns and two turnovers in the Red Zone in the last two games alone.

None the less, this is the Steelers latest bye week since getting the November 11th game off back in 1990, and this does give veterans a good chance to rest their bodies.

Rookies however, will be required to report on Wednesday and Thursday.

Trust in Tomlin’s Judgment

Back during training camp in 2008, Steel Curtain Rising questioned Tomlin’s liberal use of the injury report. When the playoffs arrived Steel Curtain Rising was forced to eat its own words as numerous veterans cited Tomlin’s ability to keep the team fresh for the stretch run as a key to success.

So at this juncture, it’s best to simply trust that Tomlin knows what his players need and is giving it to them.

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2008 Steelers Identity Forged in Win vs. Jaguars

The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers stood out in so many ways.

From start to finish, the Steelers were consistent throughout the 2008 season, distinguishing them from all other contenders.

Seperating the Contenders from the Pretenders

Some started with a brilliant bang, only to end with dull thud (think Redskins, Broncos.) Others took their fans on a roller coaster ride (think Eagles, Cowboys, Jets, and in a different manner, the Cardinals) that ended as they all do, at a full stop on level ground.

  • The Colts and Chargers started slow, finished fast, collided with each other, and then the latter kicked to Santonio Holmes.

The Giants and Ravens were pretty stable, but New York ran out of steam when Plaxico shot himself, and as for the Ravens, well there’s a reason they played us so tight.

No one matched the Steelers’ steady hand.

Monday Night, Week Five The Steelers Signature Moment

Pittsburgh was consistent, if maddeningly so. Dominating defense, razor sharp quarterback play when it counts, mixed with leaky pass protection, injuries, and difficulty running the ball.

Given that continuity marked their 2008, one might ask, “What was the signature game of the Steelers 2008 season?”

  • While there was no turning point, there was one, defining game. And it came in week 5.

The Steelers Monday Night victory over the Jacksonville proved to be the pivotal moment of the Pittsburgh’s 6th Super Bowl season, because on that night the 2008 Steelers identity was defined.

Why Jacksonville?

Why a victory over a 4-12 team instead of the many Pittsburgh victories over NFL heavyweights you ask?

Good question.

  • Each of those games provided plenty of drama, were packed with hard hits and game saving heroics.

The NFL’s best tested the Steelers in 2008, and Steel Curtain Rising takes nothing from those trials by fire.

But the Jacksonville game was defining for the Steelers because it brought together the elements that make mid-season NFL drama what it is:

  • In 2007, Jacksonville became the only team to defeat the Pittsburgh at home twice in a season
  • The Jaguars manhandled the Steelers in the process
  • The Steelers were only 3-7 at Jacksonville…
  • …and entering the Monday Night game they brought a 4 game losing streak to the Jaguars
  • As much as anything else, the 2006 loss at Jacksonville showed that any Steelers Super Bowl XL title defense would be long, and hard road
  • Jacksonville may have ended up at 4-12, but they entered the game 2-2, and in week five it was far from clear that their season would end in disaster.

All of this is compelling, but its just the tip of the iceberg

Injuries are no excuse….” – Steelers Head coach Mike Tomlin, on many occasions

Early in his maiden campaign as Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin laid down a basic tenet of his core coaching philosophy.

  • Injuries are no excuse

That sounded good enough as the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks sans five starters, including Hines Ward, Santoino Holmes, and Troy Polamalu.

But injuries mounted throughout the 2007 season, and the Steelers sorely missed Tory Polamalu, Aaron Smith, and Willie Parker during the home stretch. Tomlin stuck to his guns, but it got harder and harder not to roll your eyes.

Tomlin’s coaching credo was put to the extreme test against Jacksonville.

  • Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel were injured out
  • Nick Eason, the number one back up defensive lineman, was also out
  • They’d lost starting right guard Kendall Simmons the week before against the Ravens
  • The Ravens also removed first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall from the line up
  • Against Jacksonville, Steelers would lose Marvel Smith, their only Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman
  • Ben Roethlisberger did not practice the entire week prior to the game, and the day before was unable to throw beyond five yards.

And just to keep it interesting, the Steelers were down to their fourth and fifth string running backs, if you count Carey Davis.

Becoming Mike Tomlin’s Team

Mike Tomlin made sure the Steelers did not come to Jacksonville looking for excuses. And the Jaguars showed no mercy, intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returning it 72 yards for a touchdown.

As they did time after time in 2008, the Steelers refused to answering with a 12 play 72 yard touchdown drive of their own.

And so it was throughout the game. Both teams played hard, the lead changed hands several times, until the Steelers found themselves down 21-20 with 6:33 left to play.

The Steelers had been in a similar position against Jacksonville in the playoffs…

  • …this time they closed the game, setting the tone for rest of 2008

An 80 yard touchdown drive that establishes the lead with two minutes remaining always impresses. And that is what Ben Roethlisberger delivered. But the statistics do not tell the tale. During the drive Ben hit four different receivers, two Steeler running backs ran the ball, and the team converted three third downs.

Ben was not sacked on the drive, but he took such a beating that Al Michaels joked that Roethlisberger should replace Robert Downey Jr. should an Iron Man II be filmed.

On third and 8, Ben hit Hines Ward for 18 yards, but the hit he took after the pass left him writhing on the turf in agony

Down one point, the easy money says your QB is hurt, set up to kick for 3. Even the god of Down and Dirty football, John Madden himself, proclaimed as much.

He forgot to tell the Steelers.

Two plays later Roethlisberger hit Ward again, for an 8 yard go ahead touchdown pass that he literally threw as two Jacksonville defenders were driving him to the ground

Exorcising the Demons

It wasn’t over yet. Jacksonville got the ball back at their 26 with 1:53 left.

The Steelers defense had been manhandled in their first meeting against the Jaguars in 2007, and then embarrassed by Garrard’s late game heroics during the playoffs.

  • Not this time around

The Jaguars converted a 4th and 9, and on the ensuring first down Garrard scrambled… But this time Aaron Smith was there, limiting Garrard to only two yards, 30 fewer than his 4th quarter playoff scramble.

  • Then it was James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley’s turn.

James Harrison sacked Garrard for a six yard loss and forced a fumble in the process, and LaMarr Woodley pulverized the Jaguar lineman who’d audaciously recovered.

Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger was taking a knee.

In a hostile environment, missing several of its biggest stars, with its quarterback ailing and under tremendous pressure, the Steelers prevailed on that night in Jacksonville, and they did so with poise and determination.

Win @ Jacksonville Set Tone for 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

Time and time again during the 2008 season, the Steelers would rally in similar fashion. Different heroes might emerge, but calm under pressure, dogged perseverance, and faith in one another were always constants.

The win vs. the Jaguars was a night where Pittsburgh embraced and vindicated their coaches “no excuses, the standard is the standard” rallying cry. It was the night where the Pittsburgh Steelers became Mike Tomlin’s team. 2008 Steelers identity was forged in victory over Jacksonville and the win set the tone for the season destined to end with the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII.

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Super Bowl XLIII: Dick LeBeau vs Ken Whisenhunt – Who Won the Game Within the Game?

The popular story line of Super Bowl XLIII was of course Mike Tomlin against Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. The man Dan Rooney chose to lead the Steelers vs. the men to whom he said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

Engrossing as that was, it wasn’t the true story. The real story was how would Dick LeBeau, one of the greatest defensive minds in league history, stack up against Whisenhunt, an emerging offensive wizard.

Heading home from the game I told my wife that if the truth were to be told, Whisenhunt out coached his former colleague. I repeated much the same on the phone to my folks at about 2:00 am Buenos Aires time.

James Harrison, James Harrison Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison Super Bowl Pick Six, James Harrison Super Bowl interception, Steelers vs Cardinals, Dick LeBeau Super Bowl XLIII

James Harrison begins his record breaking pick six in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: SI.com

LeBeau vs. Whisenhunt: The Obvious Answer Isn’t Always the Right One

Browse though major sports sites, and that is also the story line the national media is pushing. But as is often the case, the first, seemingly obvious, answer is frequently incorrect.

For LeBeau partisans, the numbers do not paint a pretty picture. Kurt Warner passed for 377 yards, and three touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald caught 6 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Arizona scored 2 touchdowns inside of 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.

  • Larry Fiztgerald scored on what was perhaps one of the most explosive offensive plays vs. the Steelers in their history.

These are impressive numbers in any circumstance, and they look all the more impressive when you consider that Arizona did this against the NFL’s number one defense.

The Arizona Cardinals deserve ever pat on the back they get for almost engineering the greatest Super Bowl comeback in NFL history. Praise is justified.

But pats on the back are no substitute for a Lombardi Trophy, just as piling up more yards on offense will never supplant the most important stat: the final score.

So while we tip the hat to Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, and Todd Haley for making some really great adjustments, at the end of the day Dick LeBeau got the better of them.

Why?

It Is a Four Quarter Game

Because the almost greatest comeback was necessary in the first place.

  • For all of the sound and fury of the Arizona’s fourth quarter rally, the Cardinals littered the first three quarters with squandered opportunities.

The Arizona offense’s failure to get it done during the first 45 minutes is all the more inexcusable for the simple fact that the Steelers offense was leaving too many plays out on the field in the form of two field goals born out of three goal line situations.

Nor do Arizona’s stats indicate that Ken Whisenhunt won the chess match with Dick LeBeau. He and Haley certainly were on to something when they started running Larry Fitzgerald on intermediate routs in the middle of the field in the fourth quarter which unleashed the game’s best receiver. (Dare we ask if it was part of their strategy to wait so long?) Likewise, LeBeau’s decision to blitz more often in the second half backfired on him.

But if Arizona won these battles, LeBeau won a far more critical one.

Did James Harrison Make the Most Critical Defensive Play in Super Bowl History?

Arizona’s interception off a tipped ball as time was expiring in the first half was a gift-wrapped chance to take the lead going into halftime. Not only would they have taken the lead, but they would have taken the momentum going into a second half that would begin with the ball back in Kurt Warner’s hands.

  • Arizona looked like it was going to capitalize on the Steelers mistake. They moved to the one with 18 seconds left (or something like that.)

As if on cue, LeBeau made his master stroke. If Dick LeBeau is master of anything, it is disguising coverage. Steelers piled up close to the line of scrimmage. It looked like LeBeau was going to bring the house. Kurt Warner read blitz, but James Harrison hung back into coverage. Warner did not see him. Warner threw the ball. Harrison saw the ball coming…

  • …and 100 yards later he put up seven points for Pittsburgh.

James Harrison executed, showing once again that he is a player with the will power to alter the outcome of a game.

So kudos to Harrison. You cannot coach that kind of innate ability.

But if you can’t coach that kind of talent in a player, you can position those players to make plays. The play functioned just as the zone blitz is supposed to. LeBeau put James Harrison in position to execute on a play that resulted in what was most likely a 14 point swing in the Pittsburgh’s favor. The Steelers ended up winning by four.

Yes it is true that this argument would be moot had Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and the Steelers offense not authored one of the most dramatic closing drives in Super Bowl history.

But they did, just as the defense kept Warner and company bottled up for three quarters while the Steelers offense too often settled for field goals instead of touchdowns.

Super Bowl XLIII Does Not Tarnish the Defense’s Place in Steelers History

This Steelers defense came very, very close to becoming only the second NFL defense to finish first in both yards against the run and yards against the pass.

Through 18 games they only allowed one 300 yard passer, and only had six quarterbacks pass more than 220 yards.

Nonetheless, some pundits look at Kurt Warner’s 377 yards passing and say, “Gee, does this knock the Steelers defense down a peg?”

  • The answer is no, it does not.

Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and the Arizona offense gave us an electrifying 4th quarter.

But Roger Staubach and his teammates on the Dallas Cowboys came pretty close to pulling off some of their own heroics against the Steel Curtain defenses in Super Bowl X and  again in Super Bowl XIII.

Does anyone say, “yeah, those Steeler defenses of the 70 were great, but Roger Staubach’s two fourth quarter almost comebacks reveal that the original Steel Curtain really had a rusted underbelly?”

Of course not.

This is what happens when offenses and defenses with All Pro, if not Hall of Fame, caliber players go up against each other in the Super Bowl.

Steel Curtain Rising will leave to others to debate the question as to whether or not Kurt Warner belongs in the Hall of Fame. But he is clearly one of the best big play quarterbacks the game has seen. Larry Fitzgerald is probably the best receiver in the football today. They both made great plays.

The Steelers defense also forced a couple of key three and outs, held Arizona’s rushers to 2.8 yards per carry, and made a great play of its own at a critical juncture. And Super Bowl XLIII ended with LaMarr Woodley’s strip sack of Kurt Warner.

How to judge which unit is best?

  • The final score, 27-23, Pittsburgh.

It was close, but in Super Bowl XLIII Dick LeBeau’s defense was better than Ken Whisenhunt’s offense.

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