Dwight Stone’s Steelers Career Deserves to be Remembered for More than Just “Hands of Stone”

My first memory of the Steelers Dwight Stone came late in the 1987 season–his rookie year.

The Steelers had just secured a hard-fought 13-9 victory over a very tough Seattle Seahawks‘ team at old Three Rivers Stadium, and Dwight Stone, an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, clasped hands with rookie running back Merril Hoge, a 10th-round pick out of Idaho State, as the two celebrated a win that kept their team’s playoff hopes alive.

I remember thinking that that scene of two youngsters and draft long-shots enjoying a victory was very endearing (although, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know the word endearing even existed as a 15-year old).

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Today, it’s pretty common to read about draft prospects with 4.2 speed, but back when Dwight Stone made his professional football debut as a running back, that kind of 40-yard burst was not nearly as common.

In fact, as per Dwight Stone’s official Wikipedia page, the late, great head coach Chuck Noll said Stone was “the fastest player I’ve ever coached over 40 years. He has BEEP BEEP speed.”

Chuck Noll was referring to the cartoon character, the Road Runner.

  • Unfortunately for the real life Dwight Stone, his first two years as an NFL running back didn’t produce much running, as he totaled a combined 262 rushing yards on 57 carries.

However, Dwight Stone did get a lot of work as a kick-returner during his first two seasons. In fact, in a memorable 37-34 last-second Monday Night Football victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston–a win that came at the tail-end of a very difficult 5-11 ’88 campaign–Stone returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.

In 1989, perhaps due to a crowded backfield that included Tim Worley, the Steelers first pick in 1989 NFL Draft, Warren Williams the 1988 Steelers rookie of the year and Merril Hoge, who posted 705 on the ground in ’88 earlier, Dwight Stone and his world-class speed switched positions, as he tried his hand (and feet) at wide receiver.

Despite his tantalizing speed, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career as a field stretching Mike Wallace type of wide out never really materialized.

And it wasn’t just because he wasn’t lucky enough to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball — On one infamous play in Denver in 1990, Dwight Stone stepped out of bounds during a 90-yard reception that actually would have gone for a score had he been able to keep track of the sideline.

ESPN’s Chris Berman, who loved to create nicknames for players, frequently referred to Stone as “Dwight and the Family Stone,” but in my house, he was often called Dwight “Hands of” Stone thanks to his habit of dropping passes.

Which isn’t to say that Stone didn’t make his share of impact plays. He did, including:

Dwight Stone’s best seasons as a Steeler came during a three-year stretch between 1991-1993, when he caught a combined 107 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns, to go along with a combined 241 yards on the ground.

Following the Steelers 1993 season, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe determined that neither Jeff Graham nor Dwight Stone were Super Bowl caliber wide receivers. Jeff Graham was allowed to leave as a free agent. The Steelers kept Stone on the roster with the hope of using him as a utility back, similar to roles that Eric Metcalf and Dave Meggett played in Cleveland and New York.

  • Unfortunately, for Stone, that role never emerged as the Steelers only threw 10 passes his way and limited his carries to two.

However, Dwight Stone will always hold the distinction the distinction of scoring the last touchdown of Chuck Noll’s coaching career, when he caught a pass from quarterback Bubby Brister and raced 56 yards–a score that would earn The Emperor his final victory, a win over Bill Belichick no less, in his final game after 23 seasons.

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

Following the 1994 campaign, the Steelers  left Dwight Stone unprotected in the 1995 expansion draft, and the Carolina Panthers took him (along with Gerald Williams and Tim McKyer, for those of you taking notes).

  • Stone would finish out the final six years of his career as mostly a special teams contributor for both the Panthers and Jets.

According to a story published on the Panthers official team website in January of 2017, following his retirement from football after the 2000 season, Stone embarked on a career in law enforcement and spent 13 years as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” said Stone courtesy of Panthers.com. “I always wanted to go into law enforcement or the military before I even considered football. It just happened that a country boy from Florala, Alabama, was able to move and accomplish things that God knows I never thought I would see in my life.”

  • Perhaps in today’s day and age, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career might have been more prolific in a league that employs more players with his kind of skill-set.

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course, but not many undrafted free agents out of schools like Middle Tennessee State last 14 years in the NFL. For that and for what he accomplished after his playing days, Dwight Stone should feel very proud.

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Back in Block! 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey is Perfect if Bittersweet Choice for Generation X

The 2018 Steelers throwback jersey choice to revive the 1978-1978 jersey with block numbers has electrified Steelers Nation. After all, who could argue?

Those two championships don’t simply mark milestones in franchise accomplishment, they represent milestones in football excellence.

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

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

The 1978 Steelers win over the Dallas Cowboys made Pittsburgh the first team to win three Super Bowls, and gave the Black and Gold its SECOND win over a fellow multiple Super Bowl winner. Victory in Super Bowl XIV over the Los Angeles Rams made the Steelers the first team to win four Super Bowls and the only team to win four Championships in six years.

  • It took ten years for another franchise to tie the Steelers 4 Super Bowl mark, and no one, not even the Patriots have matched Pittsburgh’s record of winning four Super Bowls in 6 years.

The Steelers changed the block numbering after the 1996 season much to the chagrin of some fans. Honestly, I’m old enough to remember Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart modeling the rounded number jerseys and thinking, “That just doesn’t look right.” Some fans still argue that the franchise has never been the same since.

Still, conjuring images of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward decked out in block letters just as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert did before them is the perfect recipe for raising the hair on the back of your neck just a little.

And yet, the Steelers 2018 throwback jersey choice efficiently serves another, if less pleasant, purpose….

Why 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey Choice is Bittersweet for Generation X

…The Steelers 2018 throwback uniforms are also the perfect remedy for making us Generation Xer’s feel old. Yep. If you’re a Fortysomething Steelers fan admit it, when you saw the announcement about going back to block letters, you probably thought, “Gee, that’s not much of a throwback.”

  • Well, yeah, it’s been 20 years since the Steelers last wore the block jerseys.

IT can really be that long can it, you demand? Yes, it can. The last time Pittsburgh wore the block jerseys was Fog Bowl II, the 1996 playoff loss to the Patriots, which was Rod Woodson’s final game as a Steeler.

Fans from Generation X have earned a special niche in Steelers history.

Lynn Swann, Mark Washington, Super Bowl X, 8 greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays, Super Bowl 10, Lynn Swann Super Bowl X, Lynn Swann Super Bowl 10

Lynn Swann Super Bowl X catch. Credit: AP, via NY Daily News

Our first memories of the Black and Gold are wrapped in Super Bowl glory. The Immaculate Reception was  established history by the time we were able to fully grasp its spectacular nature. Those of us growing up outside of Pittsburgh enjoyed our grandparents sending down Steelers t-shirts, jackets, hats and gloves which drew envy from everyone else on the playground, because we were the champions!

  • Be honest fellow fortysomething fans. Raise your hand if as a kid you really thought that the Steelers had inspired Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Our parents had to explain to us, and it took a long time for us believe them, that the Steelers had been terrible when they were our age. Then, just as we were taking the Steelers excellence for granted, the 1980’s arrived, and with it came mediocrity.

Yet we remained faithful. Always feeling, often times feelings fueled by little more than naiveté, that Chuck Noll’s really wasn’t that far from making the Steel Curtain Rise again. The 1987 tease at a playoff run and late season surges in 1986 and even in 1988 seem to legitimatize our optimism.

  • And of course the 1989 Steelers improbable playoff run steeled our passion for the Black and Gold in a way that fans from both earlier and later generations struggle to understand.

Of course the 9-7 and 7-9 finishes of the 1990 and 1991 Steelers amounted bit of a buzz kill, yet Bill Cowher’s 1992 return to Pittsburgh awoke the sleeping giant we now call Steelers Nation. Steelers fans from Generation X had expected One for the Thumb to come before we got out of elementary school. Now Cowher Power promised to deliver in the 1990’s. Yet, after teasing in Super Bowl XXX (thanks Neil), it came up short.

  • Instead, we had to wait until our 30’s for Lombardi’s 5 and 6 to arrive in Pittsburgh.

And now, with the window closing on bringing home Lombardi Number Seven during the Roethlisberger era, we now hope that a return, albeit for one game, to the block letters, will be the talisman the turns the trick.

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Recent Steelers Third String Quarterback History Shows Mason Rudolph CAN Help Pittsburgh in 2018

Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph have put the Steelers signal caller firmly into the news. Given where we are in the off season, its all that anyone in Steelers Nation is talking about.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick, Steelers third string quarterbacks

Think Mason Rudolph can’t help the Steelers in 2018? Guess again. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steel Curtain Rising has already taken Ben Roethlisberger to task for his implicit attitude behind his statements on Rudolph. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. But there’s another bone to pick with Big Ben’s comments, a bone that’s completely objective in it comes from one of the few seemingly uncontroversial things he said:

Nothing against Mason. I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. [Emphasis added]

OF all of Roethlisberger’s remarks on Rudolph, his assertion in bold is likeliest to elicit a “Well, he’s got a point there” nod from even his harshest critics. Because on the surface it’s hard to dispute his logic. After all, third string quarterbacks don’t do much, even in practice, right?

Third string quarterbacks rarely earn even footnotes in football history. For most of their history, the Steelers offer no exception. When was the last time you saw a parent-child combo strutting around Heinz Field sporting Rick Strom and Brian St. Pierre jerseys on throwback weekend?

  • But in this case, experience trumps logic, and Ben’s own history with the Steelers shows his claim about Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks is wrong.

Think back to the Steelers 2005 season that culminated with victory in Super Bowl XL. That Super Bowl season saw the Steelers start their third string quarterback twice, as Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch started four games that season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger after Jacksonville loss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • Its almost certainly as coincidental as it is ironic but Steelers third string quarterbacks have enjoyed their moment in the sun during the Roethlisberger era.

We covered much of this ground on the eve of the 2015 season when justifying Landry Jones roster spot in the face of fans who felt he should have been cast aside in favor of Mike Vick. Let’s spell it out in Black and Gold again:

  • In 2005, Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox both saw starts after holding the QB number 3 designation
  • In 2006, third string quarterback Dennis Dixon started against the Ravens
  • In 2010, Charlie Batch started games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore as the third stringer
  • In 2012, a Byron Leftwich injury again thrust Charlie Batch from 3rd to first as Batch started two games
  • In 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness of Mike Vick elevated Landry Jones from 3rd stringer to starter

Just looking at the math, during the Roethlisberger era about every third season has seen a Steelers third string quarterbacks suit up as a starter….

…And two full seasons have elapsed since that last occurred.

Past performance may not predict future results, but it would behoove Ben Roethlisberger to do what he can to get Mason Rudolph ready to play sooner rather than later.

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Former Steelers Tight End Bennie Cunningham Dies At 63

Former Steelers tight end Bennie Cunningham passed away from cancer on Monday.

Cunningham was Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of Clemson in the 1976 NFL Draft, and during a career that spanned 10 seasons, he caught 202 passes for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Cunningham was a member of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XIII and XIV teams, and if you’ve ever seen the NFL Films highlight show of that second game–a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, California–he is the guy walking off the field with his index finger raised high in the air (the universal symbol for “We’re No. 1!”).

Cunningham perhaps never had the career befitting a first round choice, but then again, in head coach Chuck Noll‘s conservative offense, averaging 20 receptions a season as a tight end was no small feat.

However, after catching just 10 passes combined during his final two seasons (a time when tight ends were rarely featured in Pittsburgh’s offense), Cunningham may have seen the handwriting on the wall and finally decided to call it a career following the ’85 campaign.

In a “Where Are They Now?” article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002, it stated Cunningham spent a decade as a counselor/consultant at West-Oak High School in Westminster, South Carolina, and that he was about to coach the school’s golf team that year.

Speaking of golf, Cunningham was one of the few close friends of enigmatic quarterback Terry Bradshaw during his time with the Steelers, and he said the Blond Bomber would often try to get the big tight end to play a  few rounds after a hot day of practice at training camp in Latrobe, Pa.:

“We’d work out in the morning, and Terry and a couple of guys would take off to play golf before we had to go out again later that afternoon,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t understand how those guys could do that. I don’t know where they got the energy.”

Cunningham may never be known as one of the Steelers all-time greats (or even the greatest tight end in team history), but he was named to the Steelers 75th Anniversary Team in 2007.

Bennie Cunningham was 63 years old.

 

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What I Did The Day The Steelers Drafted Ben Roethlisberger

Just like Chad Pennington a few years earlier, I started hearing quarterback Ben Roethlisbergers name linked to the the Steelers as a potential first-round pick, long before the 2004 NFL Draft.

In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the fall of 2003 and hearing some random national sports talk show host discussing the prospects of Roethlisberger being Pittsburgh’s first first-round quarterback since Mark Malone in the spring of 1980.

Ben Roethlisberger

The day the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger was a momentous one for the franchise. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Of course, at that time, with the Steelers still in the throes of their ’03 campaign, the last thing I cared about was who they’d draft about six months down the road.

  • But if you remember that 2003 season, it was one you may want to forget.

Instead of remaining in the ring of Super Bowl contenders, a ring they occupied  the previous two seasons, the Steelers started the year 2-6, before finishing with a 6-10 record.

The downside was the 6-10 record. The upside was a rare flirtation with a top-10 selection, as Pittsburgh would pick 11th in that spring’s annual NFL Draft.

Despite Roethlisberger’s name being linked to the Steelers for quite some time, the Miami of Ohio superstar quarterback took a backseat to NC State’s Philip Rivers, who was climbing up the draft boards fast and, thanks in-part to playing his college ball at the same school as head coach Bill Cowher, seemed the likely choice, if he were available, and the team was serious about finding its next great franchise passer.

But by the eve of the draft, River’s stock had risen so high, if he wasn’t selected first overall by the Chargers, he would be taken fourth by the Giants.

Rivers ultimately became a Charger, after initially being drafted by New York, who then made a rather bizarre draft-day trade with San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning, the most coveted quarterback prospect in the draft.

That left Roethlisberger as the only quarterback remaining of the “Big Three” prospects believed to have that truly elite talent, talent that could quickly change the fortunes of a franchise.

But there were still six teams drafting before the Steelers and, besides, other players who represented perhaps more urgent needs such as South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson and Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews were also linked to Pittsburgh by many in the know.

  • The first round was held on Saturday back then, and like most Saturdays, I had to work.

I listened to pick after pick on the radio, and I was kind of giddy when I heard that Robinson was drafted by the Texans just one pick before Pittsburgh.

  • Who would the Steelers select with the 11th pick?

Would it be Roethlisberger or would the often conservative Bill Cowher go with a safer bet, such as an Andrews?

Before I could hear Pittsburgh’s decision, I was called away for something (the life of a retail manager is one where you’re lucky to enjoy one song on the radio without someone bothering you, let alone an entire draft).

When I returned moments later, I round out Roethlisberger was indeed the pick, and this excitement came over me that I don’t think I had ever experienced following a Steelers draft choice.

  • Even at the time, I didn’t know why I was so giddy.

After all, Tommy Maddox had established himself as the team’s starting quarterback not even two seasons earlier, and even after the drafting of Roethlisberger, it was mostly understood that Maddox would remain in that role for at least the ’04 campaign (and be backed up by veteran Charlie Batch), while the rookie watched and learned from the sideline.

In fact, in subsequent days, there were stories of Maddox being very upset about the Roethlisberger pick (“I thought  they were going to get me a tackle,” is a quote from Maddox I remember reading during that time).

Anyway, it was a surreal feeling, this joy over a first-round quarterback who, as far as anyone knew at the time, could have turned out to be a major bust (that is if he could even unseat the very determined Maddox).

I had no idea why I was so happy, and for reasons that had to do with my limited VHS options (this was a full year or so before I owned my first DVD player), I popped in Tough Guys, an NFL Films production released in 1989 and hosted by legendary head coach Mike Ditka.

This feature chronicled the careers of some of the toughest guys in NFL history–including Jack Lambert, Jim Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Conrad Dobler and Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.

That’s right, Fouts was actually included in this group–his story was the last one, in fact–and that was the main reason for popping this tape into my VCR.

  • I was just so happy the Steelers drafted a quarterback, I needed to watch highlights of quarterbacks.

In case you don’t know much about Fouts, in addition  to being one of the most prolific passers of his day, he was also one of the toughest, as he stood in the pocket and took hit after hit, while delivering pass after pass.

Fouts played with many injuries during his career–including a broken nose suffered right in the middle of a game.

It was ironic that Fouts was my main inspiration for watching this  tape that day, because Roethlisberger would go on to build a Hall of Fame career of his own complete with a reputation for physical toughness perhaps unmatched by any quarterback throughout NFL history.

You obviously know the story of Ben Roethlisberger–one that will hopefully continue for a few more seasons (that’s not what this article is about)–and why I was so excited about the drafting of a quarterback by a team that seemingly already had a starting quarterback in place.

There’s just no substitute for that truly elite, franchise quarterback.

As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter where you rank the truly great quarterbacks of the present, because if your team is lucky enough to have one of them, your team is so far ahead of the game in terms of contending for Super Bowls.

  • The Steelers have accomplished so much since the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger 14 years ago.

The 2004 NFL Draft is one that will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the genesis of so many great memories yet to come.

 

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Easter Sunday Suprise – Steelers To Put Logo On Both Sides of Helmet in 2018

Starting in 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers fans can expect to both get a new look on the field from the franchise they love while at the same time seeing more of the same.

  • How’s that you ask?

In a rare holiday weekend press release, the Steelers announce that starting in 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers logos on appear on both sides of the helmet. Here is the official statement:

For the first time since adopting the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) in 1962, the Pittsburgh Steelers logo will adorn both sides of the Steelers helmet starting in Opening Day 2018. During its 56 years of use by the Steelers, the hypocycloid logo has come to symbolize excellence on the football field. Displaying the logo on both sides the helmet will highlight that legacy of excellence while generating increased exposure for the City of Pittsburgh.

The move of course won’t impact the Steelers fortunes on the field. That will continue to be determined by the performance of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and their supporting casts.

But digital marketing expert Marco James from Crespo Marketing suggests the move could pay dividends, explaining: “We live in a Twitterized world where the space you have to present your brand is limited, and attention spans are short. This ‘win-win’ move effectively doubles the exposure the Steelers logo gets when the attention level of their target audience is at its highest.”

Starting in 2018, the Steelers hypocycloid logo will appear on both sides of the helmet. Photo Credit: Ed Reinke, AP, via USA Today For the Win

A Brief History of the Steelers Hypocycloid Logo

The Pittsburgh Steelers logo draws its roots from the US steel industry. The yellow hypocycloid represents coal, the orange one for iron and the blue one scrap metal, the 3 ingredients in steel.

  • Accounts of how the Steelers came to use the hypocycloid differ.

Republic Steel of Cleveland  takes credit for making the suggestion in 1962, but in his book Ruanaidh, Art Rooney Jr. suggests that John Reger, a former Pitt linebacker who was a walk on with the Steelers, first proposed the Steelers adopt the AISI logo.

  • Cutting through the red tape needed to adopt the AISI logo took time, and it also resulted in another change.

The Steelers had used gold helmets since 1955, but the logo did not stand out well against gold, so the Steelers switched them to black. Reportedly the Steelers made the switch in time for the franchise’s first post-season game ever, their 17-10 loss suffered against the Detroit Lions in Miami Beach in January 1963.

  • Stories also differ on why the logo was only put on one side.

Some say it was because the team didn’t know how well it would work. Others have said it was because there was a shortage of stickers. Art Rooney Jr. however insists that Steelers equipment manager Jack Hart simply wanted cut his work load in half.

Rooney on the Steelers Logo Change

Because the announcement came on Easter Sunday, no Steelers employees were available to answer questions in an official capacity. However, freelance reporter Ridley Rupert caught up with a member of the Rooney family at St. Peters on Pittsburgh’s North Side as he was leaving Easter Sunday mass. When questioned why the team chose today to announce this move, Rooney responded:

Easter is a time of renewal. And this year Easter Sunday falls on April 1st, so I can’t think of a better day to announce we’re putting the logo on both sides of the helmet.

With that, the esteemed member of Pittsburgh’s first family flashed a mischievous grin, got into his car and drove way……

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Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but John Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving John Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked John Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

John Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, John Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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In Defense of “The Steelers Way”

The Steelers Way” is under attack, and it is time to defend it. No defense should be necessary. But if social media offers any guide, it is. Site scribe Tony Defeo has already offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin, but the implicit criticism the Steelers are weathering from a good portion of their fan base goes beyond Tomlin.

Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the issue perfectly. In responding to a fan asking about why some regard Mike Tomlin as irreplaceable, Zeise remarks:

Tomlin supporters demand to know who the Steelers could get that is better, and I always say, “How about the next Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher?” In other words, when those two coaches were hired, nobody really knew who they were. And both won a Super Bowl. The Rams hired an excellent young coach who was an unknown. There are a lot of great coaches out there. You could end up worse off, but you could also be Tampa, Baltimore or Denver who all replaced highly successful coaches with coaches who took the team to Super Bowl titles. There is no law that reads “The next coach will be worse” than the successful coach you fire.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Denver and Tampa were on the precipice of a Super Bowl and coaching changes yielded instant Lombardi Trophies. To listen to Zeise , its almost as easy as snapping your fingers, isn’t it?

Except it’s not.

And rather than bemoan Art Rooney II’s steady hand, Steelers fans should give thanks for the fact that Art Rooney II, like his father before him, is guided by the Rooney rule. No, we’re not talking about the NFL’s Rooney Rule, but rather the one that has guided the franchise since 1969 and his best enunciated by Mike Silverstein, aka “Homer J” from Going Deep with the Steelers:

  • You find the best guy you can to coach the team, and you stick with him as long as you can.

Since the wanning days of the Lyndon Johnson administration, just 3 men, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have carried the title of “Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers.” That’s a record of not even remotely matched not only in the NFL, but in all of North American major league sports.

  • It’s also not a coincidence that the Pittsburgh Steelers are also the only team to own 6 Lombardi Trophies.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Coaching a team to a Super Bowl victory is not easy. Doug Peterson deserves every bit of credit heaped upon him for leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but no one should be fooled into thinking that finding the next Doug Peterson should be easy.

Consider this, from Chuck Noll’s first post-Super Bowl era losing season in 1985 to his retirement, precisely one Super Bowl was one by a coach who was hired during that time span. And that was George Siefert, who inherited a Super Bowl champion (to be fair, Jimmy Johnson got hired in 1989 and won a Super Bowl in 1992, a year after Noll’s retirement.) There wasn’t as much coaching turnover in the 80’s as there was today, but the number of new coaches hired during that 7 year period could easily approach 2 dozen.

From Bill Cowher’s first losing season in 1998 until his victory in Super Bowl XL only two NFL head coaches were hired who won Super Bowls during that time span, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden.

  • Is there an up and coming coach out there who could come into Pittsburgh and do a better job than Mike Tomlin?

Yes, possibly there is, just as it’s possible that Bill Cowher could have been replaced by someone better after the dark days of the ’98 and ’99 seasons. But the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t operate that way. They don’t abandon a coach who is a proven winner in favor of a quest for perfect coach.

The Steelers worst finish since 1970 came in 1988 when the team went 5-11; no other NFL franchise has avoided dipping below 5 wins during that time span.

  • That fallout from 1988 campaign illustrates how the Steelers Way works.

Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t the only legendary franchise to suffer hard times in 1988. Tom Landry and the Cowboys finished 3-13 (in fact, one of Noll’s wins came and Landry’s expense). Bum Bright responded by selling the team to Jerry Jones, who hired Jimmy Johnson as coach even before he had the decency to fire Tom Landry.

Dan Rooney responded differently. He pressured Noll to make changes, Noll resisted and almost resigned. But Noll returned, had another blaze of glory with the 1989 Steelers and retired two years later.

  • That gives you a good contrast between “The Steelers Way” and the rest of the NFL’s way.

And let’s be clear about something: since that fateful juncture, the Dallas Cowboys actually have won 3 Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2, including a win over Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX.

But the Steelers have also made it to the Big Dance 4 times, have been to more conference championships, had more playoff wins, have only suffered 4 losing seasons, and have overall been a more consistent winner.

That’s “Steelers Way,” in action and I’ll take that over any other NFL team’s operating philosophies.

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Mike Tomlin Leads AFC to 24-23 Pro Bowl Win over NFC, Raises Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record to 8-1

Mike Tomlin once assured reporters, “As long as they keep score, I’m trying to win.” The Pro Bowl may have “evolved” to a point where it is only a step more intense than contact flag football, but Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff can sleep soundly at night knowing they led the AFC to a 24-23 victory over NFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

And there were plenty of Black and Gold helmets in the huddle at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell represented the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • If, Roethlisberger to Brown in Pittsburgh proved to be one of the league’s most potent combinations, that magic didn’t translate to Orlando.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl 2018

Ben Roethlisberger @ 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: Yahoo.com.ca

Ben Roethlisberger went 7 of 13 for 50 yards and one pick, while Antonio Brown had one catch for 3 yards. Le’Veon Bell only had two carries, or the same as Roosevelt Nix, and together the two men gained 7 yards. That’s not much of a surprise, given that contact with a defender more or less equates to forward progress dulling the impact of a running game.

  • That’s a far cry from the 1995 Pro Bowl were, under Bill Cowher’s direction, Marshall Faulk ran for 180 yards with Chris Warren adding 127.

So be it. This was the first time Steelers Nation got to see a Randy Fichtner coordinated offense in action. And in  the eyes of NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman things did not go well:

It was especially sad to watch Randy Fichtner ring in his first game as Steelers offensive coordinator in the Pro Bowl, calling double reverses for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and simple routes for Ben Roethlisberger to underthrow.
It’s fair to wonder how much will change next season in the Steel City. Will Bell leave in free agency? Will Roethlisberger hint at retirement again? Will Fichtner force Big Ben to run a sneak? On Sunday, we got an answer to at least one of these quandaries. On third-and-1 from the NFC 39 with Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner called … a dive to Roosevelt Nix. Some things don’t change.

Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come or whether Fichtner was just having fun.

While Cam Heyward was the lone Steelers defender on the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad (Ryan Shazier was voted in, but obviously could not play) he did come up with a big play:

With the 24 to 23 victory in hand, Mike Tomlin improves the overall record of Steelers coaches in the Pro Bowl to 8-1 and his “undefeated in the Pro Bowl streak” elevates him alongside Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll who were also undefeated in the Pro Bowl.

And by beating Sean Payton, the Steelers head coaches in the Pro Bowl now have another win over Super Bowl winning opponents, with Chuck Noll defeating Tom Landry and Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher defeating Barry Switzer.

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