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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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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The Long Wait Is Almost Over, Steelers Fans Training Camp to Start Soon

Didn’t it seem like only yesterday when you were standing in front of your television set and screaming for, of all teams, the Cleveland Browns to “Come On, baby!” and vanquish those Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium?

That’s right, things had gotten so bad, the Steelers, your Pittsburgh Steelers, needed the help of those once hapless–and win-less–Browns in order to salvage what once seemed like a damn-near certainty: a third-straight AFC North title.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Terrell Edmunds

JuJu Smith-Schuster works against Terrell Edmunds at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unfortunately, the Steelers and their fans were put in such a strange predicament on the final Sunday of the 2018 regular season thanks to an epic collapse over the final six weeks that saw a 7-2-1 record and a 2.5 game lead in the division implode into a 9-6-1 record and a half a game deficit behind Baltimore in the standings.

Unless you’ve been in a coma the past seven months, you know those Brownies didn’t do it, and the Steelers found themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since Ryan Succop indirectly ended their hopes five New Year’s Eves earlier.

It’s obviously been one ugly offseason — this is what happens when you blow a big lead in the standings and must rely on the Browns to save the day — but here we are today, on the eve of training camp.

No more talk of Antonio Brown‘s antics, his motives, his happiness or his sadness. He’s gone, the rage over the third and fifth-round draft picks the Steelers received for him in a trade with the Raiders has now dissipated.

Same for the anger over the ongoing contract saga of Le’Veon Bell, the man who sat out the previous two training camps, as well as the entire 2018 regular season, and is now a member of the New York Jets after finally being allowed to enter free agency this past spring.

  • In their absences appears to be peace and calm. Along with the serenity seems to be a renewed focus and determination.

Those things are easy to have when a couple of major distractions are gone. It’s also easy to have a new and positive attitude in the offseason when you can post videos of the defense getting together for a cookout, or the offense spending some quality time at Ben Roethlisberger‘s summer home in Georgia.

  • It’s easier to smile and laugh when you don’t really have to prove anything to anyone.

It’s easy to look good during offseason workouts when OTAs, rookie camp and mini-camp are all conducted sans pads and hitting. This is especially the case for veterans who have been around the block and know what to do to get their bodies right for the grind of training camp.

It’s easy to get hyped about the newest draft class–and even some undrafted free agents who may have some impressive college stats and/or highlights on Youtube.

But now it’s almost time for that grind to begin. It’s time to answer some questions under the glaring sun at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Steelers have been conducting training camp since the 1960s.

It’s time for the fans, who only get to hear about offseason workout sessions such as OTAs, to consume some football with their own eyes. They get to hear the hitting as they, too, bake in the hot sun of Latrobe.

It takes a lot to get through six months without football–you may have even tried to consume the now defunct AAF, a minor league football spring startup that came and went faster than the Steelers 2.5 game lead late in the 2018 season.

But we did it again, Steelers fans. We made it through the truly cold days of winter (January is always so much harsher when Pittsburgh isn’t in the playoffs), the renewed promise of spring and those dog days of summer (you know which ones I mean–those three or four weeks before the start of training camp).

Now, here we are, on the cusp of fall, the greatest season of them all.

It’s almost time, Steelers fans.

 

 

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Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019 – Exploring the Pros & Cons

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare start St. Vincents this week in Latrobe all eyes are on Art Rooney II and his pending decision to extend or not extend Mike Tomlin’s contract.

The Steelers longstanding policy has been to extend the contract of their head coach 2 years prior to the expiration of his current deal. Dan Rooney began the practice with Bill Cowher in the 1990’s and Art Rooney II continued it in 2017 just months after his father passed away.

  • However, both seasons have ended in disappointment since Mike Tomlin’s last contract extension, leading to speculation that change may be in the air.

Here we take a look at the Pros and Cons of extending Mike Tomlin’s contact in 2019.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II has a decision to make on Mike Tomlin’s contract. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

The Cons of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

For many, there is no debate. Much of Steelers Nation, perhaps even a majority, has wanted Mike Tomlin gone and wants no part of seeing him stay around. This site isn’t inclined to join that chorus but the arguments against extending Mike Tomlin are legitimate.

Two years ago, when the Steelers last extended Mike Tomlin’s contract, the team had indeed suffered a brutal AFC Championship loss to New England, but it looked like it was on the verge of completing an end-to-end rebuild around Ben Roethlisberger without dipping below .500.

  • Anyone who thinks that it is “easy” to rebuild a team around a young franchise quarterback should look at Don Shula and Dan Marino’s experience in the 80’s and ‘90’s.

Yet, the Steelers have taken steps backwards in each of the following two seasons, and they’ve done it against a background filled with a lot of distractions. Are those distractions Mike Tomlin’s fault? Well, in many cases, the truth probably is “No.”

Mike Tomlin didn’t make the decision to franchise Le’Veon Bell on his own. Its entirely possible that Mike Tomlin wanted to cut James Harrison in the summer of 2017 but wasn’t not allowed to. (The fact that James Harrison was a candidate to be cut is a matter of record, the rest is my speculation.)

While Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism for enabling Antonio Brown, it isn’t much of a stretch to argue that Tomlin kept Brown’s Diva tendencies in check far better than Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin did with their Diva wide outs. The bottom line is, Brown was a distraction early last season, then his issues were largely forgotten and only resurfaced at the end.

  • Regardless, deciding to extend Mike Tomlin could be seen as sending a signal that the team’s current direction is acceptable.

Does anyone think the trend lines this team has established over the last two seasons are acceptable?

The Pros of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

There are also strong arguments in favor of extending Mike Tomlin’s contract. For whatever his faults are as a head coach, and Tomlin has faults just as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did, Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

There is only one other NFL head coach whose record is head and shoulders above Mike Tomlin’s. Contemporaries with similar records, such as John Harbaugh, Sean Peyton and Pete Carroll have arguably struggled more than Tomlin has to rebuild around a franchise QB.

Results don’t lie. After knocking on heaven’s door in 2016 the Steelers have taken steps backward.

  • But will refusing to extend Mike Tomlin right this trend?
  • Sure, it could send a message that everyone needs to shape up. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Opting not to extend Mike Tomlin’s contract now would instantly create another distraction. That subplot would play out on social media and the “content aggregation sites” starting with the first training camp scuffle and lasting all the way until the final decision to go for it on fourth or not in the last meaningful game of the season.

In contrast, and to the extent that locker room and off the field distractions have impacted results on the field, extending Mike Tomlin’s contract could be a remedy.

Extending Mike Tomlin’s contract now would send a clear signal to everyone on the roster, “Mike Tomlin is our coach. He’s staying put. Listen to him if you want to do the same.”

Awaiting Art Rooney’s Decision

Art Rooney II has a decision to make. This past off season he’s shown an ability to pivot the Steelers standard operating procedure. The Steelers were ready to use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell by all accounts, yet had a change of heart. And at each opportunity they doubled down in their quest to improve weaknesses at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

  • Will he also make a similar pivot with regard to his head coach’s job security?

For my money, I don’t think he should. The list of NFL owners who’ve tried and failed to fire their way to a Lombardi is long. That’s because good NFL coaches are hard to find. Mike Tomlin’s record shows he’s one of them.

Ultimately Art Rooney’s decision doesn’t come down so much as to whether he thinks Mike Tomlin contributed to the problems of the last two season, but whether he’s confident that Mike Tomlin can be part of the solution.

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Yes, You Can Be a “Pittsburgh Dad” without Being A Steelers Fan. Happy Father’s Day Dad

Steelers themed Father’s Day pieces are in vogue. You’ve seen them everywhere from Steelers.com, to paid sites, to blogs. Writers take time out to thank their fathers for instilling in them a life-long passion for the Steelers, and/or talk about how they’re doing the same with their sons.

  • Those pieces are from the heart, and almost always a must-read.
  • Yet this site has never joined the cause because my father isn’t much of a Steelers fan.

Dad and I. Pawley’s Island South Carolina, Summer 1979.

Oh yes, he’s Pittsburgh born and bred, and pounces his “dahntahn” pitch perfectly even if he hasn’t lived in Steel City since the 60’s. But sports in general, and the Steelers in particular, are little more than background noise for the man who got his start on Warrington Avenue in Allentown and spent his formative years on Cedarcove Road in Baldwin.

  • But then I thought, isn’t that the point?
  • That you can be a perfect Pittsburgh dad and not be a Steelers fan.

Well, it is. And to explain why, we’ll go back to where I got my start. The venue is Dino’s barbershop, which still operates in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. My dad hasn’t been a patron for years, but it is where he got his hair cut when we first moved to Maryland in the early 70’s and where I started getting my hair cut.

  • For a long time, Dino himself cut our hair. Then we moved on to get it cut by George.

dinos barber shop, Aspen Hill Shoppnig Center

Although I’m not sure if George was from Pittsburgh, he most certainly was a Steelers fan: His barber’s ledge featured a framed copy of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell and various now-iconic Iron City Steelers cans.

  • This is important because it was in George’s chair that I first got a clue that my dad might be an atypical Pittsburgher.

It would have been the early 80’s, after the glory years ended, but the before the glow had completed faded, when George asked, “So your father’s from Pittsburgh, eh? Boy, I bet there’s nothing your daddy likes to do on Sundays than drink beer and watch football.”

The question surprised me. The only time my dad watched football was when the Steelers were in the Super Bowl.

  • So I asked, “You mean, when the Steelers are on, right?”

George clarified, “Sure, but I’d guess your daddy likes doing that on Sunday whether he can see the Steelers or not.” George’s entire line of questioning wasn’t simply strange, it was foreign. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father sit on the couch to watch TV on a weekend afternoon, let alone watch football.

My father and I share many things, and one of those is that God gave us many gifts, but athletic ability is not one of them. He, like me, spent his childhood always being the last picked for teams only to end up getting lambasted by “friends” whenever we failed to catch a pass or make a basket in games that both of us would have preferred not to be playing.

  • In contrast to me, my dad is graced with an ability to take his athletic inability in stride.

Al Thomas doesn’t pretend to be perfect, and if someone else has a problem with that, well it is their problem, not his. I don’t know at what age he realized that not having athletic talent was just the way things were and the way things were going to be, but whenever that moment came he accepted it and didn’t give a rat’s ass over whether his peers thought less of him for it.

  • He certainly never thought less of himself. And that’s a lesson he still offers me to this day.

One of the byproducts of that process is that my father developed an almost complete lack of interest in sports.

For me, things were different. When I was young, my dad would tell me, “Don’t worry. The older you get, the less important athletics will be, and by the time you’re an adult, they won’t matter at all.” And yet, while I longed for the to get to high school when mandatory gym class would end, high school was where I chose to make my first foray into organized athletics.

And I didn’t go out just for one of those “wimp sports” like track or cross country (let’s be clear folks – that’s what I thought then about those sports, not what I think now).  I went out for wrestling. And I was every bit as bad as expected. I’d go for weeks without scoring a point in practice during my first year.

My coach, amateur wrestling Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, didn’t cut people, but he later admitted that he almost pulled me aside to ask me “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

  • Mr. Moquin’s patience and my persistence paid off.

While I never grew into a “good wrestler”, by my senior year I was Varsity starter. A below average one, yes, but a legitimate Varsity starter. Wrestling is tough. And to this day I remain proud that, of the dozen novice sophomores who came out for wrestling in the fall of 1987, I was the only one who was still on the team as a senior in the spring of 1990.

  • The others had found the sport too demanding and quit.

Perhaps, not incoincidentally, it was at this same time that I started actively following the Steelers, at least as actively as someone could do in suburban Maryland before in those pre-Internet days.

  • My dad supported my foray into wrestling, even if he never quite understood why I was so devoted to it.

He was also perfectly OK with my rising interest in the Steelers, although I’d know better than to ask to watch NFL Primetime over 60 Minutes or Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights. Nonetheless, I can say that my father took me to my first football game, the 1990 Steelers pre-season game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Even he, a certified football ignoramus, knew enough to tell me how horrendously lost the Steelers’ offense looked under Joe Walton.

That game also provided a mini-preview to the phenomenon that was to become Steelers Nation – EVERYONE in our row overlooking the end zone from the lower end of RFK was a Steelers fan.

  • In many senses my father’s lack of Steelers fanaticism is ironic because, besides his “Dahntahn’s”, he is very much a “Pittsburgh Dad.”

The textbook we read in Sociology 101 while in College listed characteristics typical of blue collar parents vs. white collar parents. Based on that check list, my father scored out as a blue collar parent, despite the fact that he was a college graduate and life-long white collar worker, and despite the fact that my grandfather could have been considered a “white collar” worker.

  • It seems that Pittsburgh imparted its working class mentality and ethics into my father (and mother, too) just the same.
  • He was a better father for it and I am a better son because of it.

As far as the Steelers are concerned, it occurs to me that our father-son-relationship kind of flips the script. Yes, I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV with him. He took me to my first football game. But the Steelers were something I had to find myself.

I can remember at my brother’s wedding reception my father telling me, “Have you talked to Scott (my brother’s new brother-in-law), he went to Colorado where Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans of the Steelers went.”

To which I inquired, “How did you find that out?” and he explained, “Son, I’ve learned that because I’m a male, and because I’m from Pittsburgh, people automatically assume I’m a Steelers fan. And at this age I’ve also learned that saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like sports’ is a conversation killer.”

Yet, my father will tell you now that my own passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers has prompted him to pay more attention. Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a blogger was getting an email from him after he finished reading my profile of John Stallworth, telling me how much he had enjoyed reading it.

  • But as nice as that is, it is only an extra.

I had to learn to twirl a Terrible Towel on my own, and I learned it pretty well. And that’s fine.

But there’s so much about life, being a good friend, being a good husband, being a good person and being a better man that I could have only learned and can only continue to learn with the guidance and mentorship of my father.

Thank you dad. Happy Fathers Day!

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Ignore the Media – JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Community Activity Is Great for Pittsburgh, Steelers

If you ever wanted to know why so many athletes and coaches have such disdain for the media, they’ve given you two really good examples in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article for Behind The Steel Curtain urging everyone — including the media and fans — to stop taking positive quotes from Steelers players and trying to twist them into negative narratives.

  • Why did I have to write such an article?

Because of the reactions to quotes from both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that couldn’t have been any more positive and of the “taking the high road” variety.

Yet, instead of believing Ben Roethlisberger when he apologized to Brown during his interview with KDKA’s Bob Pompeani that he was sorry for his part in the deterioration of his relationship with former receiver Antonio Brown, you had people calling him a phony and a liar. You even had people such as former Steelers outside linebacker and assistant coach Joey Porter, who appeared on The NFL Network, saying Roethlisberger’s apology was too little, too late.

Then there were those who tried to read things into the positive comments JuJu Smith-Schuster made to the media two weeks ago — to paraphrase, he said he would put team success above individual numbers, and that he’d have no media restrictions in 2019 — as slights at Antonio Brown, who has gone out of his way to attack Smith-Schuster on social media this off-season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster water ballon fight

JuJu Smith-Schuster at his first annual water ballon fight. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Speaking of JuJu Smith-Schuster, as you well know, he’s been an omnipresent social media character since the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Everywhere you turn, there’s JuJu Smith-Schuster doing things like dancing with elderly folks at a retirement home, having water balloon fights with little kids at the park and dancing with teenagers at their prom.

Yes, the prom.

Last weekend, Smith-Schuster attended the Chartiers Valley High School prom as the “date” of a male student whose actual date broke up with him right before the event. The kid sent JuJu Smith-Schuster a direct message on Twitter asking him to go with him, and the receiver obliged — the two showed up with matching tuxes and everything.

You might think this would be received as what it was: one of the most unique and refreshing Steelers personalities to come along in quite some time doing something really cool for a high school student who no doubt had his heart broken right before one of the biggest events of his life.

  • Instead of it being a truly depressing time for him, this kid probably had the night of his life and will now forever remember his prom as well as his “date.”

Smith-Schuster attending a kid’s prom is nothing unique in the celebrity world. They do it all the time in cases such as this, when a young fan approaches them — usually on social media — and asks them to be their date.

This isn’t usually perceived as perverted or just a phony publicity stunt aimed at furthering the celebrity’s brand. But if you have listened to some folks in the Pittsburgh sports media this week, “sick” and “phony” are just some of words used to describe JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives.

Ron Cook, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and co-host of the Cook and Joe Show on 93.7 The Fan, said JuJu Smith-Schuster, 22, was “sick” for attending a prom full of teenagers. He said if JuJu Smith-Schuster had attended the same prom as his daughter, he would have had a huge, huge problem with it.

Mark Madden, the controversial sports shock jock host on 105.9 The X and long-time critic of Smith-Schuster (like Hines Ward before him), has continued to pile on the young receiver this week for his ongoing community presence. And while he said JuJu Smith-Schuster attending the prom wasn’t a problem in and of itself, when you combine it with everything else, it’s clearly obvious he’s simply trying to build his brand.

“Why is there always a camera present,” scolds Mark Madden every time Smith-Schuster is in the news for some community involvement that often shows him having fun and including everyone around him.

  • Again, you wonder why so many people associated with professional sports have a problem with the media.

In this mostly cynical age we now live in, even the fans have started to pile on JuJu Smith-Schuster: “For once, I’d like to see him do something nice in the community without a camera being there to document everything!”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Here’s a third-year player, who appears to have the ability to be one of the best receivers in the NFL sooner rather than later, doing nothing but positive things for a Steelers organization that, believe it or not, needs an image overhaul, yet, instead of applauding JuJu Smith-Schuster for his “breath of fresh air” approach to life as an NFL player, we’re questioning his motives? Instead of acknowledging the fact that he made a high school kid’s day by attending his prom, we call it inappropriate?

  • Forget JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives, I’m beginning to question the motives of the media, of certain fans.

As far as the average fan that is concerned with JuJu Smith-Schuster documenting his community involvement for the purposes of posting it on social media, you’ve got some nerve. Yeah, I’m taking to you, person who likes to show me what you just had for dinner, where you had it and who you had it with.

  • Don’t we all do that kind of stuff on social media?

If we go to “karaoke night” and post a video of our horrible singing on our Facebook page, do people accuse us of trying to further our brand? No, they usually just “like” it and tell us how much fun we are.

As for the recent push back by the media who is seemingly trying to turn Smith-Schuster from a good guy into a villain, I’m guessing that has a lot to do with him not being as accommodating as some local reporters would like.

There are rumblings — rumblings hinted at by Mark Madden himself on an almost daily basis — that JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be the friendliest guy when the cameras are off. Or, let me put it this way: he may not be the friendliest guy to the MEDIA when the cameras aren’t rolling. “That kid is about a year away from being an a-hole,” Mark Madden quoted WDVE’s Mike Prisuta, a Steelers reporter and insider, as saying one afternoon during Smith-Schuster’s rookie season.

And there’s the rub. JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be fully on board with the local media, and that’s why some are starting to turn on him and question the motives for his ongoing community involvement.

  • With all due respect to the media, I don’t really care if he likes you guys or not.

I think fans have been conditioned to believe someone is a bad person if he or she doesn’t necessarily like reporters. But if you take a step back and examine things a little closer, that’s usually not the case.

  • For example, it’s quite obvious Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t like reporters, yet, nobody thinks he’s a bad person.
  • Chuck Noll didn’t think much of the media, but nobody ever questioned his character.
  • Bill Cowher had a contentious relationship with the press, but that antagonism remained in the background, at least while the Steelers were winning.

Let’s face it, it’s a weird dynamic, the one that exists between professional sports and the media. Coaches and athletes have to work closely with the media on a daily basis, this despite the media often being critical of them.

2018 steelers throwback jerseys, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Franco Harris, John Banazack

JuJu Smith-Schuster donning Steelers throwback jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

I don’t blame the media for being critical when a performance dictates such an opinion, but you can certainly see where the person being criticized may not want to be very chummy afterwards.

Again, JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 22 years old. And while he’s clearly a master of the social media game, he may have some work to do in-order to improve his relationship with the sports media–the one that really can shape public perception.

  • As for the sports media, it may do you some good to stop looking for trouble when it’s not present.
  • What exactly are JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives with regards to his continuous community and social media presence?

Who cares? Everyone is having fun. Nobody is being harmed.

The media comes to play every day, and will certainly be there to make the tackle if and when Smith-Schuster does screw up.

As for now, stop trying to draw him off-sides with your false steps.

 

 

 

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Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

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

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

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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