Word to the Wise: Huey Richardson Proves Even Busts Can Debut Preseason with a Bang

The rookie Steelers linebacker offered incredible promise. He arrived at St. Vincents a first round pick having been taken 15th overall. Distinct from his outspoken peers, this young man remained set on speaking with his actions instead of his words.

Playing not one, but two positions, defensive end and inside linebacker, in his preseason debut, his stat line screamed:

  • He sacked  the hottest young quarterback in the game
  • He pressured the passer on two other occasions
  • He forced one fumble and recorded another tackle

And when it was over, “I still have a long way to go” remained the rookie’s only words.

In terms of both form and demeanor, it was a preseason debut that even a noted stoic head coach like Chuck Noll could have scripted better. Unfortunately, it was also the preseason debut of Huey Richardson, the most notorious first round bust in modern Steelers history.

The date was August 17th 1991 and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. And, to be 100% accurate, Richardson had seen spot duty in Pittsburgh’s previous preseason game. But his lesson remains relevant today: Preseason reveals a lot, but sometimes it can be deceiving.

Olasunkanmi, Adeiyi, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Olasunkanmi Adeiyi Steelers preseason debut. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Several Steelers rookies stated their claim to permanent spots on Pittsburgh’s roster in the process. Receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson made electrifying catches. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi came up with a strip-sack. Chukwuma Okorafor showed that he could perhaps serve as a legit swing tackle this season. Mason Rudolph looked poised and delivered the ball on target.

  • Such fast starts from rookies are you want to see this early in the summer.
  • But while starting strong is nice, sustaining a strong start remains essential.

As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminded, Terrell Watson, Doran Grant, Jordan Zumwalt and Derek Moye all authored outstanding single game preseason performances in recent years, yet none of that translated into anything of note when the games counted.

  • So how is an educated fan to know the difference between a preseason flash in the pan and the beginnings of something bigger?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Stefan Logan and Isaac Redman earned a lot more with their rookie preseason than James Harrison did, but Harrison had the far better career.

  • Perhaps Huey Richardson’s experience can serve as a guide.

When the Steelers drafted Huey Richardson in the 1991 NFL Draft, the move drew praise. I remember a friend who wasn’t a Steelers fan and who knew far more about football than I did calling me telling me what a great pick he was.

Yet red flags arrived early and often with Richardson. He refused to talk with the press. The quote above which Ed Bouchette secured perhaps contains all only words Richardson ever uttered to the Pittsburgh press corps.

On the fields of St. Vincents things didn’t get much better. As Bouchette later recapped in Dawn of a New Steel Age, “Players made fun of the way he back-pedaled on pass coverage and how he ran stiffly.” In practice Richardson botched play after play.

  • Huey Richardson had even managed open training camp by breaking his nose in non-contact drills.

All of that, however, came before Richardson’s “breakout” preseason performance. But afterwards “It seemed like he was a force every once and a while” was the only praise that Ed Bouchette could muster out Dave Brazil, Richardson’s defensive coordinator.

The lesson it seems is that fans should first watch and then read between the lines when assessing a rookie’s preseason performances.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Remembering the Steelers 1992 Win over the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium

When people think of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher‘s first season in Pittsburgh–1992–one of the first things that comes to mind is his initial game, a 29-24 come-from-behind victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston.

Yes, it was a great way to kick off a career that would certainly put The Chin in rarefied air is it pertained to Pittsburgh coaching legends–the decision to try a fake punt, down 14-0 early in the game was an indication to the old AFC Central Division that this Steelers team and this Steelers coach were here to win.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

And win the Steelers did in ’92, five of their first seven games, in fact, and were primed for a first place showdown with Houston, a rematch that would take place at Three Rivers Stadium on November 1, 1992.

With the help of an old LA Times post-game article, we know the Oilers jumped out to a 6-0 first half lead thanks to two Al Del Greco field goals–one from 29 yards away and the other from 19 yards out.

Pittsburgh took the lead later in first half on a one-yard run by Barry Foster, a running back who would go on to break the Steelers single-season rushing mark with 1,690 yards and tie an NFL record with 12 100-yard games.

Behind 7-6 early in the third quarter, the Oilers lost their star quarterback and Steelers nemesis, Warren Moon, after Moon was hit on the chin by cornerback Rod Woodson.

Speaking of nemeses, Cody Carlson, the unknown youngster who cost Pittsburgh a division title and playoff spot just two years earlier when he filled in for an injured Moon in the 1990 regular season finale and torched the Steelers defense for 60 minutes, entered the lineup and continued where he left off.

  • Carlson connected with receiver Webster Slaughter for an 11-yard score to make it 13-7.

That was bad enough, but just 1:03 later, Ray Childress scooped up a fumble by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell and raced eight yards for yet another touchdown, stunning the Three Rivers crowd and giving Houston a 13-point advantage.

But the Steelers were no strangers to overcoming such deficits against Houston in ’92: “We were down 20-7, but we’ve been there before,” Cowher would go on to say later.

  • The Steelers were there before, and they were about to do that again.

Early in the fourth quarter, Neil O’Donnell connected with tight end Adrian Cooper on a two-yard touchdown pass to pull Pittsburgh to within 20-14.

Midway through the final period, following a fumble recovery by legendary linebacker Greg Lloyd, the Steelers went ahead, 21-20, on a five-yard touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to the other and more decorated tight end, Eric Green.

It wasn’t over yet. The Oilers had one more chance. Cody Carlson had one more opportunity to stick a dagger in Pittsburgh’s heart–and if not end its season, at least capture sole possession of first place.

As Carlson methodically drove the Oilers’ offense down the turf at Three Rivers Stadium in the final moments, I could sense another heartbreaking loss coming on the horizon. As the seconds ticked off the clock, and Cowher kept the Steelers final timeout in his back pocket, I figured a turnover was all that could save the day.

And when Cody Carlson set up Del Greco at the 22 with seconds left, I kind of resigned myself to second place in the Central.

  • Little did I know that Bill Cowher had been responding to pleas from assistants to use with “Don’t worry, he’s going to miss the field goal.”

Bill Cowher’s instincts were on the mark. The day was actually saved by Del Greco, himself, who hooked the seemingly make-able field goal, giving the Steelers not only sole possession of first place, but an all-important sweep of Houston.

As the fans in attendance went nuts, some of whom were seen dancing and hugging on the top of the dugout, I felt the kind of magic that fans must have experienced two-decades earlier, when the 1972 edition came out of nowhere and captured the hearts of an entire region (for good).

Yes, it felt like the 70’s to a 20-year old who really didn’t know any better. The one thing I knew for sure:

  • The 1992 Steelers had put the rest of the NFL on notice.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Greg Lloyd, who never backed down from a fight and was certainly at the forefront of the team’s resurgence in the 1990’s:

“I’m sure (the Oilers) are going to say ‘What if, what if, what if?’ That’s a tough loss for them, but a great win for us.”

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Ed Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, an Iconic Tale of the Birth of Cowher Power

What is it like to witness the end of one era and the beginning of another? Every journalist  dreams of the opportunity.  Fate afforded the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette the chance to do just that in 1992 when Pittsburgh Steelers transitioned from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher.

  • Except there was a “catch.”

The devastating 1992 pressman and drivers’ strike that shut down the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette left Ed Bouchette without a paper to print his stories. Fortunately, the Post-Gazette kept Ed Bouchette employed as part of their skeleton staff, and Sagamore Publishing approached him about chronicling both the end of Chuck Noll’s tenure and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s.

  • The result was Dawn of a New Steel Age, a 214 page volume published in 1993.
Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

In a market awash with books on the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll find some that are excellent (think Their Life’s Work and/or His Life’s Work), some that are good (think The Ones that Hit the Hardest), others that are average (think the Greatest 50 Plays in Pittsburgh Steelers Football History) and some that are downright awful (think Jack Lambert: Tough As Steel.)

  • Then there are the iconic books, ones that serve as a touchstone for their respective generations.

Think Roy Blount’s Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Truthfully, people don’t discuss Dawn of a New Steel Age in such reverential tones as they do with Three Bricks.  Perhaps they should, because Bouchette’s book really is that good.

Dawn Deftly Weaves Steelers Present with Steelers Past

I remember reading Steelers Digest’s profile of Dawn in 1993, but in those pre-Amazon days getting a copy outside of Pittsburgh was hard. However, I spied a copy at Station Square just before the Steeler ’96 home game against the Bengals, and it has served as a reference book ever since.

Bouchette divides his book neatly into 20 chapters, seamlessly weaving a tale where each chapter tells an independent story that contributes its unique elements to a unified narrative.

One critique of journalistic prose is that it too often sacrifices historical context for immediacy In contrast, too many history books offer dry recitations of fact that fail to convey a sense of present, or the flavor of the moments they’re recounting.

  • Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel  Age does the opposite.

A reader who picks up the book today can follow the progression of the 1992 Steelers and gain what it was like to experience the birth of Cowher Power as it happened, while understanding just how those moments fit into the context of Steelers history.

Bill Cowher, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher in 1992. Photo Credit: thisisopus.com

That’s a more difficult feat that it may seem. Jim O’Brien’s books on the Steelers deliver excellent insights, yet they often read like collections of individual stories that don’t from a central narrative.

  • Read today, Bouchette’s approach provides a refreshing contrast to our Twitterized communication landscape.

Another writer charged with telling the same tale could have easy fallen back on “The game passed Noll by and Bill Cowher offered a breath of fresh air.” But Bouchette doesn’t do that, and because of that the Dawn of a New Steel Age succeeds in making  unique contributions to Steelers history.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Why DID the Steelers slip into mediocrity in the 1980s? Poor drafting is the answer, but Dawn of a New Steel Age delivers insights into WHY the Steelers drafting slipped so badly. Art Rooney Jr. touched on this a bit in his book Ruanaidh, as did Michael MacCambridge and Gary Pomerantz.

  • Bouchette arrived sooner, however, and in many ways still tells a more complete story than those who follow.

For his own part, Bouchette isn’t ready to describe that part of the book as “ground breaking,” but upon re-reading this chapter he asserts, “I will say that maybe some of Noll’s best coaching jobs were during the strike of 1987 and the 1989 season.”

While a Dawn of a New Steel Age offers the appropriate deference to what Noll accomplished with limited talent in the 1980’s, one thing stands out: the implicit criticisms made of Noll that many of Bouchette’s subjects offer.

And that’s another strength of the book. The breadth and depth Bouchette’s interviews are unparalleled.  Bouchette managed to talk to  the ball boys to lesser known Rooney brothers and everyone in between.

When asked if he would get similar access should he try to write a similar book today, Bouchette explains explaining, ‘No, I would not get nearly the access. We all had open access to all the assistant coaches and could sit down with them in their offices and chat. Same with guys like Tom Donahoe. Dan Rooney always was great.”

Bouchette continues, “Today, I might be limited to the players and a few interviews with Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, perhaps Kevin Colbert.”

Bill Cowher Arrives in Pittsburgh

As the title suggests, Dawn of a New Steel Age doesn’t focus on the 80’s, but rather on the birth of the Cowher-era. And the insights Bouchette delivers on the 1992 Steelers are just as rich as his reflections on the 80’s. To that end, Bouchette devotes full chapters to the 1992’s key actors:  Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Neil O’Donnell, and Barry Foster.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher & Dan Rooney, January 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Bouchette also offers one of the first profiles of Art Rooney II.

Art Rooney II is now of course the face of the Rooney family, a role he’s occupied since Dan Rooney left to serve as ambassador to Ireland in 2009. But in 1992 Art Rooney II had only recently assumed the title of Vice President of the Steelers and still maintained an active law practice.

Bouchette also had the presence of mind to foreshadow the 2008 Steelers ownership restructuring. As he explains, “I also wanted to look into the crystal ball to see what might become of the Steelers franchise because Dan Rooney and I had talked about it previously.”

Even in the early 1990’s, the Rooney brothers “… did not want to see ownership splinter among all their kids and grandkids.” To that end, Bouchette got Pat Rooney on the record predicting, “’Art’s going to have to buy out the partners,’ and I wrote that sources said Dan is preparing to do just that. So, I would say I came damn close to predicting what would happen 15 years later.”

Bill Cowher, Perhaps as Steelers Nation has Never Seen Him

Bill Cowher is of course the protagonist in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. And Cowher’s presence and influence on the momentous events of the Steelers 1992 season are evident on every page of Bouchette’s book.

  • Bouchette quotes Cowher liberally, and fans who remember the rest of the 90’s or the 00’s will find a more affable Cowher in the pages of Dawn.
Bill Cowher, Three Rivers Stadium

Bill Cowher at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: NFL via WTAE.com

When asked if 1992 represented a sort of honeymoon between the press and Bill Cowher, Bouchette agrees, detailing, “… The newspaper strike helped, as Cowher so often points out. We had our moments, especially in 1993. Bill was an interesting coach to cover. He had a range of emotions and did not hide them.”

In his autobiography Dan Rooney observed hiring a new coach almost forces a franchise to start from zero.  He would know. Dan Rooney watched in agony has as Art Rooney Sr. cycled through 11 head coaches while failing to win a playoff game in 4 decades.

  • Dan followed by winning 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches in 4 decades.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers surprised the NFL. Many pre-season publications ranked them in the mid-20’s in an era when the league only had 28 teams. Bouchette was surprised however, submitting that “The Steelers of 1990 and 1991 were not terrible and I believe we all recognized the disconnect between the coaching staff and players during that period.”

  • Bill Cowher may not have reset the franchise to zero, but he did author a new era for Steelers football.

A Dawn of a New Steel Age captures that process in real time. Bill Cowher’s arrival spurred changes from top to bottom in the Steelers organization, including their approach to the draft, the way they practiced, even how players conditioned. Bouchette documents it all.

When asked what a Steelers fan can gain by reading Dawn of a New Steel Age in 2018, Bouchette suggests “A perspective because it is now a history book. I thought I detailed pretty well the end of Noll’s coaching career and why it came to an end, the start of Cowher’s career as a head coach, the culture of the Steelers and how they were to survive into the future.”

  • That’s an accurate self-assessment, but perhaps one that does not go quite far enough.

After the 1992 Steelers upset road win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola declared, “Something special is happening to this team and this city.” He was right. 1992 was a special time to be a Steelers fan.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is a special book because its pages capture and preserve the energy that awoke Steelers Nation in 1992 for all who read it.

Editor’s note, as of this posting, copies of Dawn of a New Steel Age appear to be available on Amazon.

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Madden 19 Does Cam Heyward Right – Now What About Super Tecmo Bowl Screwing Bubby Brister?

EA Sports fixed Cam Heyward’s Madden 19 rating. Excellent. But Generation Xer Steelers are still smarting, “Where was all of this outrage over Bubby Brister’s Super Techmo Bowl rating?”

For those of you too young to remember, and for those old enough to never forget, Nintendo’s Tecmo Bowl and Super Tecmo Bowl were the Madden of its day. Oh, Madden co-existed with the Tecmo series, but John Madden Football (as it was called then) was more of a PC game.

  • The Apple IIc John Madden Football version was more of a football strategy game than a live-action video game.

Tecmo Bowl beat those early Madden incarnations by a mile. The game play of the original Tecmo Bowl had its faults. It didn’t field 11 players, only offered a 4 plays menu, only featured 12 teams, and players could get bounced from the screen when your opponent made a big play.

Super Tecmo Bowl fixed those problems, incorporated the entire NFL, expanded play selection, and offered more realistic game play. The original Super Tecmo Bowl came out in 1991, so it was based on the 1990 season. It was a good game, yet it was not terribly kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The main reason?

  • Bubby Brister’s Super Tecmo Bowl rating sucked.

Now let’s be clear folks. If the Bubster did suffer from being on the short end of Super Tecmo Bowl ratings stick, its not quite the same level of football “injustice” as Ben Roethlisberger going for so long without getting recognition as an elite quarterback.

1990 was Bubby Brister’s third year as a starter, which when quarterbacks evaluations shift from potential to performance and Bubby’s limitations were becoming clear by then.

  • But Super Tecmo Bowl royally screwed Bubby Brister.
Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll in Steelers 1988 opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Super Tecmo Bowl featured 56 quarterbacks, or 2 for each team and, believe it or not, the Super Tecmo Bowl ratings for each quarterback are available on the internet. Where does Bubby Brister rank? 44th Out of 56. In fact, Rick Strom, Brister’s backup is listed at 43.

  • Rick Strom threw all of 22 passes in 1990, completed 14 for one interception.
  • Meanwhile, Bubby Brister threw 20 touchdown passes in 1990, and earned an 81.6 passer rating.

Clearly Bubby Brister was no Joe Montana, but among others, Super Tecmo Bowl lists Marc Wilson, John Fourcade, Ken O’Brien, Erik Wilhelm, Jeff Carlson(who?), and Tom Tupa (a punter for heaven sakes) above Brister. This despite the fact that Brister had a playoff game win on his resume, and despite the fact that no General Manager in the NFL would have picked any of the players above Brister in 1990.

Indeed, as Steelers fans who played Super Tecmo Bowl learned, Rick Strom WAS in fact a better starter than Brister. (If you’ll believe, there’s actually a Super Tecmo Bowl fan forum where Strom vs. Brister gets debated. And to be fair Super Tecmo Bowl listed Greg Lloyd as the 5th best linebacker, and this was long before Greg Lloyd won national recognition.)

  • Ah, how times have changed.

Back then we didn’t have the internet or social media to launch protests over such slights. After walking to school uphill (both ways!) barefoot in the snow, we simply had to buckle our chin straps, grab our game controllers and play the hand dealt to us. Which wasn’t too bad.

Yours truly once led the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory in a college dorm room Super Tecmo Bowl Championship with Rick Strom starting for the bulk of the season. It wasn’t until reaching the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers, Bubby Brister came off the bench to hook up with Louis Lipps to get Gary Anderson into field goal range to force over time.

From there it was Rod Woodson beating Jerry Rice on a jump ball in OT, a couple of runs by Merril Hoge, Warren Williams and Tim Worley and Gary Anderson was kicking another long one for the win. So:

  • Kudos to Cam Hewyard for getting his Madden 19 rating boosted,
  • Kudos to Antonio Brown for getting on the cover of Madden 19,
  • Kudos to me for winning Super Tecmo Bowl in spite of an exaggeratedly bad Bubby Brister rating.

To moral to this story?

Training camp can’t come fast enough, so we can focus on real football again.

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Do Eric Green’s NFL Stats Suggest an Underachiever or a Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era?

When the Steelers selected Liberty tight end Eric Green with the 21st pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, I was a little underwhelmed, but that was nothing new.

After years of watching Pittsburgh select players like John Rienstra instead Keith Byars (1986) or Aaron Jones instead of anyone else on the planet (1988), I was used to my draft day fantasies being dashed by the Emperor Chuck Noll, a four-time Super Bowl-winning coach who certainly knew a little more about football than I did.

The Steelers did trade four spots down with the Cowboys, who used the 17th pick to select Florida running back Emmitt Smith, a man who would go on to capture the NFL’s all-time rushing record. But being angry over that now would be revisionist history, especially when you consider Pittsburgh used the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft to to select Tim Worley, a running back Chuck Noll said reminded him of former all-time rushing leader Jim Brown.

  • Anyway, as far as 1990 tight end prospects were concerned, Eric Green was believed to be the cream of the crop, so there was that.

On the face of it, the Steelers picking a tight end with their first round draft pick seemed rather odd, given that even the most hardcore Steelers fans old enough to remember the era would be challenged to remember a tight end other than Bennie Cunningham.

OK, Mike Mularkey had come to Pittsburgh via Plan B Free Agency, and had been a key role player in the 1989 Steelers playoff season, but the fact that he only needed 22 catches to be an “impact tight end” should tell you what you need to know about tight ends in the Steeler offenses of the 80’s.

But Chuck Noll had just hired Joe Walton as his new offensive coordinator, and Joe Walton’s offensive philosophy was very tight end-centric.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Therefore, looking at things from a pragmatic standpoint–and not through the eyes of an 18-year old Steelers fan who was looking for that draft day splash–the selection of Eric Green actually made sense.

What didn’t seem to make sense about a player selected in the second half of the first round–and from tiny Liberty University — was his willingness to holdout all of training camp, preseason and Week 1 of the regular season. Chuck Noll went as far as to say that Green would have to be a genius to contribute after missing so much time.

When Eric Green did finally sign, he was of no use through the first month of the season, neither was Joe Walton’s tight end-centric offense, one seemingly a little too complex to grasp for the likes of quarterback Bubby Brister, a player who certainly fit the mold of someone who had charmed cheerleaders into doing his term papers for him while he attended Louisiana Tech.

Under Joe Walton’s complex scheme, the 1990 Steelers infamously didn’t score an offensive touchdown during the first four games (note the Steelers Media Guide consistently gets this wrong) and were only saved from an 0-4 start thanks to a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by D.J. Johnson and a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rod Woodson in a 20-9 Week 2 victory over the Oilers.

The Steelers did finally break through offensively in a 36-14 Week 5 victory over the Chargers, which just so happened to be Eric Green’s coming out party. Against San Diego, Green, who at 6-5 and 280 pounds and blessed with speed and athleticism that defied that kind of size (at least in those days), was a bit of a catalyst, catching three passes for 22 yards and two touchdowns.

After Green’s breakout debut, Noll conceded, “He’s a genius.”

  • But it was the following week, in a 34-17, come-from-behind victory over the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, where Eirc Green really burst onto the scene.
  • Like the week before, Eric Green’s catches and yards were humble (just four for 28), but he caught three touchdowns.

For the season, Eric Green would go on to catch 36 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as a legitimate weapon for a Steelers offense that sorely needed as many as it could find. In 1991, Green continued to establish himself as one of the best young tight ends in the NFL, catching 41 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns.

1993 would be Green’s best year as a Steeler–and as a pro–as he caught 63 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns, earning himself his first of two-straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

  • Unfortunately for Eric Green, his 1994 season would be his list in Pittsburgh.

Eric Green’s legacy in Pittsburgh was tainted by a six-game drug suspension in 1992 and yet another hold out prior to the ’94 regular season. After the ’94 season, Eric Green left as a free agent and finished out the remainder of his 10-year NFL career with the Dolphins, Ravens and Jets

For his career, Eric Green caught 362 passes for 4,360 yards and 36 touchdowns–including 217 catches for 2,681 yards and 24 touchdowns as a member of the Steelers.

Eric Green the Right Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era

The conventional wisdom among Steelers fans is that Eric Green never lived up to his potential.

But Eric Green’s size, speed and overall athleticism defined a player who was clearly ahead of his time. Had he come along maybe 20 years later, there’s no doubt Eric Green would be up there with the likes of Rob Gronkowski as not only one of the best tight ends of his time, but one of the best offensive weapons in the game of football.

At the end of the day, Eric Green will never be known as an all-time Steelers great. But, had he played in another era, he may have been one of the greatest tight ends who ever played in the NFL.

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Review of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel – Jack Lambert Liked It and So Will Serious Steelers Fans

Who are former Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Dudley, Elbie Nickel, John Reger and Myron Pottios and what they mean to the franchise’s legacy? Unless you’re in your mid-60’s or older, you’ve probably never heard of them, let alone considered their importance.

After you read Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel, an 187 page volume published in 2006 and reissued in 2011, you’ll know more about 36 men who wore the Black and Gold before during and after the Super Bowl era and what’s more, Wexell’s work will make you care about their contribution to the Steelers legacy.

  • At first glance, Jim Wexell’s lean, simple structure to Men of Steel might appear to be a drawback, but in truth it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Each of the 36 Steelers Wexell profiles gets between four and five pages to tell their story, including first hand interviews, highlights from the player’s career and an update on each player’s “Life’s Work.”

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger on the cover of the 2011 edition of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel

Wexell effectively employs this spare approach to lend a rich relevance to the stories of familiar players to players from yesterday that even the most diehard Steelers fans will struggle to recognize.

The average “educated Steelers fan” might be vaguely familiar with the Steelers role in effectively ending the career of Y.A. Title, but most probably don’t know that the man who sacked Tuttle on that fateful play was John Baker, a man who went on to serve as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina for the better part of two decades.

Devoting so much space to pre-Noll era Steelers might seem counter-intuitive from a commercial stand point, but Wexell explains, “I wanted to get the same amount of Steelers from each era, with the stipulation that I have to talk to them.”

Expanding on this goal, Wexell details, “I heard that Steelers fans wanted more of the stars, but I just assumed they had access to the internet. I’ve always wanted to know about some of the older players.” Wexell learned and shared stories.

And on that front, Wexell delivers, benefitting on guidance from the Steelers legendary PR man Joe Gordon, who for example, pointed him in the direction of Johnny Lattner, the only Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the Steelers.

Jim Wexell weaves each tale by starting with a key fact or action taken by the player, establishing its significance to the narrative and then providing the reader with a firsthand account from the player. After that, Wexell navigates seamlessly through the player’s college, pro and post-football careers.

  • Each chapter ends with the player moving on just as the reader turns the page to begin the next in medias res narrative a new player.

A book browser who might pick up Men of Steel, scan its table of contents, and see that Wexell takes 16 chapters to get to the beginning of the Super Steelers era could easily put the book down thinking there’s nothing interesting in there for fans focused on rooting for Mike Tomlin to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

Wexell combines crisp, succinct sentences with detailed, game-specific research to deliver compelling stories about men who blazed the trails that opened the way for the NFL and the Steelers to become the icons we adore today.

Wexell matches his economy of words with copious research, as he relates, “There’s really my art. I love research. I love sitting in libraries and poring through microfiche.”

Men of Steel Narrative Galvanized by Super Bowl Era and 80’s Stories

The majority of Wexell’s Men of Steel is devoted to telling the stories of the Steelers from the Chuck Noll era onward. Steelers fans will see names that they know, starting with Joe Greene and ending with stories on Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger.

Wexell secured an exclusive interview with the Steelers signal caller prior to Super Bowl XLV and also documents a pre-draft nugget linking Roethlisberger to Steelers scout Mark Gorscak (the need for greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation process has long been a pet cause of this site.)

Along the way, Wexell scores a rare interview with Jack Lambert. When prodded about how he got the reclusive Steelers legend to speak, Wexell shares that he’d tried, and failed to get an interview for his first book, Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain and for Men of Steel:

[For] , Men of Steel, I made the cursory call. He didn’t answer. I left a message, again, figuring he wouldn’t call back. But he did. “I don’t usually return calls to people like you,” he said with a pause. “But I thought your first book was the best Steelers book ever written. How can I help you?”

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

Lambert not only answered Wexell’s questions, but was surprised that the author only wanted to speak with him for 45 minutes and confesses, “To this day I’m kicking myself for not having more philosophical questions for a guy who obviously wanted to talk about pure football.”

Still, Wexell got enough to impress one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time, as after sending him a copy, Jack Lambert wrote Wexell back:

It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting down in the basement with my friends, a Michelob bottle and a pack of Tareytons. A long overdue thank you for sending me “Men of Steel.” … I just finished it and enjoyed catching up on some of my old teammates.

Aside from Lambert, Wexell also had the foresight to include stories on then yet-to-be Hall of Famers Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene.

But that’s essentially a function of the fact that we already know so much about those men. You’re not surprised when you enjoy reading Merril Hoge’s reflections on how special the 1989 Steelers playoff run is the way you unexpectedly crave more after learning of John Reger’s role in the 1955 MNF season opening win over the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field.

  • And, to be clear, Wexell succeeds in providing fresh insights on modern-era Steelers.

For transparency’s sake, its important to note that Men of Steel is not a perfect work and does contain a few factual errors. But just as a quarterback can throw an interception but still play a great game, these mistakes don’t keep Men of Steel from being a great book.

When asked what Steelers fans in 2018 can expect to gain by reading Men of Steel, Wexell concedes that he hasn’t given the question much thought, but then offers, “I love writing biographies because that’s where I learn the most.”

This reviewer concurs. Jim Wexell’s love for his subject matter is apparent on every page of the book, and so are the lessons he’s learned from those Men of Steel.

As of this posting, limited copies of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel remain available on Amazon.com.

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20 Years Ago Today: Greg Lloyd’s Steelers Career Ends – Looking Back at a Linebacking Legend

Time flies. 20 years ago today the Steelers cut former All Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd. It hardly seems possible, just as it hardly seems possible that 10 years have passed since we published our original version of this profile of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. But it has been that long.

Pittsburgh yields nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to linebacking excellence, and Greg Lloyd distinguished himself as a top member of that elite group.

  • In 1987 the Steelers drafted Greg Lloyd out of Ft. Valley State in the six round.

Expectations of 6th round picks from Ft. Valley State run low, but Greg Lloyd so distinguished himself that ESPN ranked him at 27th in 2008 on its list of “Top 50 All Time Draft Steals.” Greg Lloyd would have ranked higher on the list, but so many of the things Greg Lloyd brought the field were intangible.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

If, as Mike Tomlin used to say, Hines Ward is a football player first and a wide receiver second, then Greg Lloyd was a warrior before he was an outside linebacker.

  • Greg Lloyd was about intensity, attitude, fury, and “Just Plain Nasty.”

What most people fail to realize is that Greg Lloyd played his entire career with an ACL missing in one knee, and another ACL basically stapled together in his other knee. Lloyd overcame these liabilities because he had an undeniable on-the-field presence.

Jerry Olsavsky tells the story of making a tackle as a rookie and reaching down to help the opposing player up, only to have his hand slapped away by as Greg Lloyd commanded “We don’t do that here!”

Greg Lloyd was relentless. Lloyd was not blessed with anything near the athletic skills of Rod Woodson, but Greg Lloyd set the tone for the Steelers defense. Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career saw Number 95 start 125 games for Pittsburgh, register 53.5 sacks, make 659 tackles, and force 34 fumbles. Not bad, for a guy out of Ft. Valley State.

When Rod Woodson went down in the first game of the 1995 season, Lloyd animated the concept of stepping it up. In his best season ever, Greg Lloyd made 117 tackles, registered 6.5 sacks, intercepted three balls, and forced six fumbles.

Greg Lloyd exploded at the snap and wrought havoc in the offensive backfield. Seldom was Number 95 outside of the camera view when a tackle was being made. Greg Lloyd was the rare player who altered the course games with the sheer force of his will.

The Steelers were losing 9-3 at half time in the final game of the 1993 season to a mediocre Browns team. They needed to win for a shot at the playoffs. In the locker room Greg Lloyd read his team the riot act, smashing a chair, offering to go out and play offense if that unit continued to be unable to do its part.

  • Greg Lloyd backed word with deed.

Two weeks prior he’d torn his hamstring, but readied to play by doing more than the required rehabilitation. He dominated the Browns, leading the team in tackles, making one sack, forcing two fumbles, and saving a touchdown by running down a Cleveland ball carrier from what seemed like ten yards behind.

  • Unfortunately, in the first game of 1996 it was Greg Lloyd’s turn to go down with a season-ending injury.

He recovered and was back on the field for opening day 1997, but was slow to regain his dominating presence. Greg Lloyd opened the second half of the season by registering a sack in games 9, 10, and 11. He opened week 12 against the Eagles like a house of fire, knocking Bobby Hoying down as he threw the ball away on an early pass. After that play I remember proclaiming to the members of the PSFCOB at the Purple Goose Saloon, “Greg Lloyd is Back!”

  • Alas, that would be Lloyd’s last play for the Steelers.

He seriously injured his ankle on that play, and a brush with Veteran’s Stadium artificial turf resulted in a staph infection that caused him to lose more than 20 pounds.

Still hobbled by injury, Lloyd nonetheless reported to mini-camp and drilled with the team, an act which made an impression on rookie Hines WardBill Cowher praised Lloyd’s competitive drive, but the team was forced to cut him shortly before training camp.

That was 2o years ago this week. While Joey Porter, James Farrior, Jason Gildon and for a time LaMarr Woodley certainly carried on the Steelers linebacker legacy, but no one (save for James Harrison) has ever matched Greg Lloyd’s intensity, explosiveness, or on-the-field presence.

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Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

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