2018 Steelers Should Steal Page from the Argentina Pumas Rugby Team: Ban Social Media

We’re only two games into the 2018 season, but it’s clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers have problems. Lots of them, far too many problems to cover in a Saturday blog post.

  • But perhaps the Steelers can find one simple solution by looking south to the Argentina Pumas national rugby team.

Years ago, site writer Gustavo Vallegos suggested the Steelers practice tackling technique with the Pumas. His idea is a good one, but I don’t see Mike Tomlin flying Nicholas Sanchez in to the South Side for a mini-tackling technique clinic this fall.

During the Steelers 2015 place kicker crisis, I suggested on Rebecca Rollet’s site that the Steelers sign a rugby place kicker who could both make kicks and tackle.Theoretically this could happen and perhaps soon if Chris Boswell’s slump continues. But realistically, don’t expect to see the Steelers trying out rugby place kickers any time soon.

No, this suggestion far simpler, doesn’t involve any major tactical or strategic shift for either the coaches or the front office and would come directly from the Steelers locker room:

  • Stay off of social media.

The idea is hardly original. But most suggestions that fans circulate, ironically on social media, tend to read like this:

@CoachTomlin MUST ban ALL #Steelers from social media.
NOW! 
#JustDoIt! #HereWeGo

Given Antonio Brown’s antics this year, and Martavis Bryant’s “I want mines” from last year, this is easy to understand. But it won’t work. Mike Tomlin doesn’t have that kind of power, nor does any other NFL head coach.

But during the 2011 Rugby World Cup the players from the Argentina Pumas made a pact – during the tournament they would all stop using Facebook and Twitter. The Pumas’ previous World Cup appearance in 2007 had ended with a historic 3rd place finish, and the players didn’t want anything to distract their 2011 campaign.

  • The key here is that the Pumas’ social media ban came from the players.

A similar social media fast might work in Pittsburgh, if it came from leaders like Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward, Ramon Foster and Joe Haden. A total social media ban is as unlikely as it is unrealistic.

Steelers 2018 captains, Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, Chris Boswell,

Mike Tomlin with the 2018 Steelers captains. Photo Credit: Twitter

A good chunk of the Steeler locker room not only grew up with social media, but have had social media apps on their cellphones since they were adolescents.

Simply wishing social media away won’t work. But veteran leaders in the Steelers locker room can perhaps put some limits on its use and establish a culture on tweeting taboo topics that cause distractions for rest of the locker room. This has worked for the Steelers before.

  • Mid 1995 found the Steelers struggling and team leaders called a player’s only meeting.

One of the meeting’s results was clear: No cellphones, no pagers at practice or in team meetings. Greg Lloyd dared teammates to defy him, promising to smash any violator’s phone.

The 1995 Steelers didn’t bring home “One for the Thumb,” in Super Bowl XXX, just as the 2011 Pumas neither won the World Cup nor did their 4th place finish match their 2007 third place showing. But neither team fell short of its goal because of “outside distractions.”

Staying off social media isn’t going to cure all that ails Keith Butler’s defense, nor will it stop Antonio Brown from blossoming into a full-blown diva (if he’s not already there), nor will it restore David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert back to full health.

But it can sharpen the 2018 Steelers focus on football, and that’s a shift which can only help this football team.

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Artie Burns Added to Injury List as Patrick Mahomes Looks to Test Steelers Secondary

Artie Burns appearance on the Steelers injury report prior to their 2018 home opener promises to put Pittsburgh’s secondary depth to the test.

There’s a certain symmetry about these things, as just Thursday this site suggested that the Steelers might have turned a corner at cornerback. The thinking was, that with Joe Haden out with a hamstring injury, the Steelers were in good hands with Cam Sutton starting in his place. Such is the life of a blogger.

  • Contrast that the panic that ensued when Joe Haden broke his leg last year.

And that panic was justified. Coty Senasbaugh started in Haden’s place, and the Steelers sieve like secondary started giving up 50 yard plus touchdown passes roughly once a half. All of that wasn’t Coty Sensabaugh’s fault, but he certainly marked a step down from Joe Haden.

Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers injury report chiefs game

Joe Haden & Artie Burns at Steelers practice. Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

With the Steelers potentially sitting their number one and number two corners, it is not hard to image Andy Reid licking his chops at having Patrick Mahomes send Tyreek Hill.

Tyreek Hill specializes in long touchdowns, although per Gerry Dulac’s research in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steelers defense has done a good job of containing him. In three games against the Steelers, Hill has just 14 catches for 85 yards and 5 rushes for just seven yards.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily in their secondary this off season, in part with an eye towards eliminating those big gains.

Sean Davis has moved to from strong to free safety, while Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds are splitting the strong safety duties. The Kansas City Chiefs figure to put Keith Butler’s new dime, quarter, and dollar alignments to the test.

Other Steelers vs Chiefs Injury News – Big Ben Back, DeCastro Out

Ben Roethlisberger missed the first several days of practice leading to speculation that Joshua Dobbs might get his first NFL start against the Chiefs.

  • However, Big Ben practiced on Friday and will start against the Chiefs.

David DeCastro, who broke his hand in the 21-21 tie against the Browns, however will miss the name. The Steelers will start B.J. Finney in his place. The Steelers also got some good news on the injury front as Vance McDonald practiced for the first time since the beginning of training camp, although it is unclear whether McDonald or Jesse James will start.

Mike Tomlin holds a 4-2 record over Andy Reid, and the Steelers overall record vs the Chiefs is 23-11, with Pittsburgh holding a 11-7 edge at home. The Steelers have won the last three meetings, and Kansas City has not won in Pittsburgh since 1986…

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Steelers Tarping Practice Field? Why Not Follow Chuck Noll’s Lead and Practice without Numbers?

Change happens fast. Only two weeks ago the Steelers decision to erect a tarp to block the view from the Southern End of their practice field was the “big news” out of Pittsburgh.

Now everyone is focusing Joshua Dobbs’ promotion to QB Number 2 at Landry Jones expense, Terrell Edmunds possibly starting for Morgan Burnett and, in case you missed it, Le’Veon Bell holding out.

  • Excellent. Football news should focus on what happens between the lines, not around them.

But this is a new and a strange development as Mike Tomlin explains:

You know how it is. This is an interesting time, drones and so forth, you know? We’ll do what we have to do to prepare and be ready to play. Play on a level of fair competitive playing field

Fair enough. But if Mike Tomlin is worried about the Bill Belichick’s of the NFL spying on him, wouldn’t he be wiser to combat today’s technological threat by snatching a page from Steelers history?

Chuck Noll (may have) had the same concerns. No, he did have to worry about drones, but given his love of both flying and cameras, he almost certainly could have predicted the problem. Regardless, The Emperor had a solution:

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Your eyes tell no lie. Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers practiced with no numbers.

I first learned of this in the 80’s when a TV news story on cheating in pro sports, concluded with shot from Steelers practice and a reporter observing “…Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, still practice with no numbers.”

The offense wore Gold and the defense work Black, and that was that. Chuck Noll’s motives were less clear. On a summer trip to Pittsburgh in the late 80’s or early 1990’s I remember reading in the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette that Noll practiced with no numbers because he wanted coaches to treat all players equally.

If a cornerback was out of position, he wanted to coaches to correct him, whether he was Rod Woodson as a rookie or a veteran like Dwayne Woodruff. If an undrafted rookie free agent like Dwight Stone made a head turning play he wanted him to earn the same praise that Louis Lipps or John Stallworth would.

  • That is highly plausible, given Chuck Noll’s focus on teaching.

Stories of Noll of spending valuable practice time correcting a rookie’s mistake, only to cut him days later, are legendary. Likewise, Noll never hesitated to correct a veteran, as he did with Andy Russell, the only Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette believes that Noll’s goal was to confuse any unwanted on-lookers.

And Noll’s gambit worked.

In the ‘80s the Steelers and Redskins held annual training camp scrimmages which Washington’s WTTG Channel 5 broadcast. Years later, on WCXR’sHarris in the MorningSteve Buckhantz recounted how one summer Chuck Noll decided that the Steelers would scrimmage without numbers.

Buckhantz explained to Paul Harris and “Dave the Predictor” that “I had Franco Harris running for touchdowns, yet didn’t know it was him” as Steelers PR staffer would sit behind him in the broadcast booth try to determine who the player was based on his body type.

At the end of the day, its doubtful that Mike Tomlin would follow Chuck Noll’s example, although numberless jersey’s would  be cheaper than tarping off the south end of the practice field, and wouldn’t practicing without numbers eliminate the problem of drones flying directly above the field instead of just close to it?

Just say’n….

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Is Joshua Dobbs Destined to Be Cut? Afterall, Steelers Have Kept 4 Quarterbacks Twice Before…

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have a quarterback quandary. They created it, but that fact simplifies nothing. Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph give the Steelers a 4 quarterback preseason roster. Each offers assets to the team. But the Steelers can’t keep four quarterbacks on their roster, or can they?

  • After all, the Steelers have carried 4 quarterbacks on their roster twice, in 1995 and 1999.

Could they do it again? Should they do it again? Does the Steelers history with four quarterbacks serve as any sort of guide? Let’s find out….

Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers 4 quarterbacks

Can the Steelers keep 4 quarterbacks in 2018? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

A Youngster Learns about NFL Quarterback Depth Charts…

I’m old enough (barely, mind you) to have an big brother who explained to me the concept of “strings” using Terry Bradshaw as the Steelers first string quarterback, Cliff Stoudt as the 2nd string quarterback and Mark Malone as third string quarterback.

  • My brother also told me that NFL teams carried three quarterbacks, but sometimes kept four.

Sometimes, my brother assured me, teams kept four. But my first and only memory of that came in 1989 when the New England Patriots opened and closed season with four quarterbacks, Tony Eason, Steve Grogan, Doug Flutie and Marc Wilson. Each started a game, and the Patriots finished 5-11.

Keeping four quarterbacks was not a sign of strength for the ’89 Patriots, but it isn’t necessarily always the case.

1995 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

The Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. With Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Jim Miller Steelers looked set at quarterback.

But O’Donnell, in the final year of his contract, talked a good game about staying in Pittsburgh, but Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hedged their bets.

  • In preseason both Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart played well and remained healthy.

Although roster limits had grown between 1989 and 1995, the salary cap had forever altered NFL roster dynamics. Keeping four quarterbacks cut sharply against conventional wisdom. But Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola resolved the question with simple logic: The 1994 Steelers had played the entire season with Fred Foggie and Charles Davenport on their roster and finished just shy of the Super Bowl.

  • Bill Cowher made the right move by carrying 4 quarterbacks.

Each quarterback threw a pass during the season (yes, Jim Miller threw one) and the Kordell Stewart “Slash” phenomenon added an element of dynamism to the offense that carried the Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX.

Carry 4 quarterbacks in 1995 was sign of strength for the 1995 Steelers.

1999 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

The Steelers faced a very different quarterback depth chart quandary in 1999. Although Kordell Stewart had led the Steelers to the 1997 AFC Championship, in 1998 timidity and tentativeness replace Stewart’s swagger and the signal caller struggled mightily.

Mike Tomczak remained as a backup, former Pitt stand out Pete Gonzalez’s audible ability had impressed Bill Cowher during the 1998 preseason, and Anthony Wright, an undrafted rookie free agent possessed “one of the strongest arms” Bill Cowher had ever seen.

The Steelers carried four quarterbacks in 1999 (yes, yesterday’s Steelers.com article was wrong, don’t believe it? Click here), as Gonzalez saw mop up duty in the opener against Cleveland, Stewart got benched and moved to wide out while Mike Tomczak finished the season as the starter.

They’d been talk of Anthony Wright getting snaps in the meaningless season finale, but that never materialized, (…although Bobby Shaw did flash his Superman jersey after catching a garbage time touchdown.)

In 1999, the 6-10 Steelers revealed their weakness by keeping four quarterbacks.

The 2018 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones are staying put, barring a ridiculous trade offer for Landry Jones. The Steelers aren’t cutting Mason Rudolph. That leaves Joshua Dobbs as the odd man out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

Mike Tomlin is starting him in the preseason finale and Joshua Dobbs has had a strong summer. He works hard and is probably the better option at this point should the Steelers need to play a 3rd quarterback. And Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks have seen a lot of non-mop up action under Mike Tomlin.

  • Landry Jones will be a free agent next spring, and the Steelers could gain salary cap relief by with two quarterbacks playing on their first contracts as backups.

The flipside to the argument is that many NFL teams only keep two quarterbacks, not three, and the Steelers need the roster spots at linebacker, tight end, defensive back and perhaps running back.

  • What would a fourth string quarterback do in 2018, anyway?

In 1995, Bob Labirola argued for keeping four by suggesting that there must be some sort of “busy work” for an NFL 4th string quarterback. There was of a sort, but “busy work” entailed Kordell Stewart playing wide out in practice.

  • In 1999, Bill Cowher conceded that Anthony Wright would make a good free safety in practice.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would find a way to keep Joshua Dobbs in Pittsburgh. Like 1995 and unlike 1999, carrying 4 quaterbacks would signal the strength of the Steelers 2018 roster.

But the Steelers Super Bowl window is closing, but Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert need to keep the 53 men most likely to help land Lombardi Number 7 in Pittsburgh, and that 53rd man is unlikely to be a 4th string quarterback.

So, unless injury intervenes, Joshua Dobbs’ start against Carolina tomorrow night will likely be his last for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however unfortunate that may be.

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Achilles Heel? Jesse James Healthy but Steelers Could be in Tight Spot @ Tight End

Ah, gotta watch those June Achilles tears. On the Jesse James return to practice following his injury in Pittsburgh’s preseason win over Tennessee, but tight end could be a tight spot for the Steelers this season, and if it is it will have all started with a June Achilles injury.

Jesse James, Steelers 2018 tight ends

Jesse James after catching a high Ben Roethlisberger pass vs. Titans. Photo credit: Yahoo! Sports

Pittsburgh’s problems at the position of began during spring practice, when reserve tight end Jake McGee torn his Achilles tendon during OTAs. The Steelers had carried McGee on their practice squad during 2018 and coaches expected McGee to push Xavier Grimble for a roster spot.

The Steelers situation at tight end grew more complicated arrived at St. Vincents when Vance McDonald injured his foot after after only one day of practice. Vance McDonald has not practiced since that fateful day in July, although Mike Tomlin has publicly listed McDonald as “Day-to-day.”

The Steelers of course acquired McDonald last season in a trade, only to see him sit on the sidelines injured, although he rebounded for strong game in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

That left Xavier Grimble and Jesse James, but Grimble injured his wrist/thumb on a blocking sled on August 18th and had to have surgery. Grimble has been characterized as “Week-to-week.” If McDonald’s absence is any guide, perhaps month-to-month would be for fitting for Grimble.

Let’s hope that not the case, but as good Reimagined Battlestar Galactica fans know, “All this has happened before and [hopefully] will [not] again.”

June Misfortunes Can Set the Tone for an Entire Season

The advent of the digital age has magnified everything. Trivial, bit-sized bites of Steelers news that once would have merited 2-3 inches of newspaper column wedged in somewhere deep in the back pages of the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette now serve as feature-length click generating stories (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.)

  • In that spirit, news from OTAs and minicamp often gets taken too seriously.
  • But sometimes what events from June can end up dictating the entire narrative of the season.

Take the case of Willie Colon. In 2010 Willie Colon, the Steelers starting right tackle, tore his Achilles tendon in late June. This came after Steelers 5th round draft pick Chris Scott had already broken his leg. Those two injuries initiated a torrent of offensive line injuries that lasted the entire year.

During the Steelers 2010 win over Tampa Bay, the Steelers were force to substitute so many offensive lineman that Mike Tomlin remarked jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) that coaches didn’t even know who was in and who was out of the game.

The Steelers lost Max Starks in week 7 against Cincinnati, and in the next week against New England, Ben Roethlisberger suffered 5 sacks as the Patriots collapsed the Steelers offensive line at will. Roethlisberger’s sack rate nearly doubled with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

  • Offensive line injuries continued literally through to the taild end of the season.

After the Steelers playoff win against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger lauded Flozell Adams for wanting to come off of a gurney to return to the game, and Pittsburgh of course was forced to start Doug Legursky at center in Super Bowl XLV due to injuries to Maurkice Pouncey.

Will the same thing happen to the 2018 Steelers at tight end? Hopefully not, but with less than two weeks to go before the regular season, tight end appears to be the Steelers Achilles heel.

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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.

Ola Adeniyi, Olasunkanmi, Adeniyi, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Ola Adeniyi 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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