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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Sending a Message: Tony Dungy Names Donnie Shell Hall of Famer Presenter

Make no mistake about it Steelers Nation: Tony Dungy is making a statement by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Dungy, Donnie Shell, Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Steelers, Training camp 1982

Tony Dungy coaches his former mentor Donnie Shell at St. Vincents in July 1982; Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest individual honor a football player can attain. To date, only 303 players, coaches, or builders have secured induction into Canton. The site Pro Football Reference lists 3,860 defensive backs alone, highlighting just how elite the men wearing the gold blazers are.

  • Hall of Famers, in turn, have the chance to bestow their own honor by choosing their presenter.

The choice of a Hall of Famer presenter is a highly personal one. Hall of Famers sometimes disappoint when they fail to choose a teammate or coach and instead tap a family member, college or high school coach or even a life-long friend. But this choice belongs to the Hall of Famer, and he has the right to ask whomever he wishes.

  • But Hall of Famer’s choice sends a strong signal about who that Hall of Famer is and what he stands for.

Dan Rooney asked Joe Greene to present him to confirm unequivocally that Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh shifted the Steelers fortunes. In contrast, Steelers Nation took Terry Bradshaw’s choice of Verne Lunquist as his presenter as a slap in the face and a snub of Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney and the rest the Super Steelers.

John Stallworth chose his son, which must rank as one of the all-time father and son honors. Mike Webster gave Terry Bradshaw his final chance to put his hand under his butt. Franco Harris chose Lynn Swann to boost his Hall of Fame chances, and Lynn Swann returned the favor for Stallworth.

And so it is with Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell.

Tony Dungy’s Special Relationship with Donnie Shell

Tony Dungy’s play for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back and later contributions as defensive coordinator did not earn him his spot in Canton. He’s getting elected for his accomplishments as Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach and for being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

  • It says here that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

But Dungy’s decision to name Donnie Shell as his Hall of Famer presenter represents an implicit acknowledgement of his roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell forged their relationship on the fields of St. Vincents Latrobe.

  • Like Donnie Shell, Tony Dungy came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent.
tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

Dungy made the Steelers final roster as a after his rookie training camp, and recorded 3 interceptions and even pulled double duty as an emergency quarterback in a road game against the Houston Oilers. According to Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp during his sophomore season because of mononucleosis and feared he’d get cut because of it. Shell, his roommate and mentor challenged him to put his faith ahead of football.

  • Dungy did so and led the Steelers in interceptions that Super Bowl season.

Donnie Shell, along with Greene, Franco Harris traveled to Tampa to comfort Dungy when his 18 year old son James tragically took his own life in 2005. As Pomerantz notes, Shell felt like he and Dungy were still teammates.

And now Dungy is doing his part to boost the Hall of Fame chances of his teammate.

Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Shell

Of all of the greats from the Steel Curtain defense, Donnie Shell might be the most overlooked and most forgotten. He shouldn’t be.

Shell joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in summer of 1974 along with the Steelers legendary 1974 Draft Class. Shell found himself behind Pro Bowler Glen Edwards, but the Steelers traded Edwards, in part, to get Shell into the line up.

Stats compiled by the Dallas Morning News’s  Rick Gosselin show how wise of a decision that was. Between 1974 and 1987, Donnie Shell played in 201 games and started 162. During those games Shell:

  • Intercepted 51 passes
  • Recovered 19 fumbles
  • Earned 4 Super Bowl rings
  • Made 5 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to 3 All Pro teams
  • Won Steelers MVP honors in 1980 on a team with 8 Hall of Famers starting

Shell’s 51 interceptions tie him for 32nd on the all time interceptions list, and if that sounds pedestrian, over a dozen Hall of Famer’s on Pro Football Reference’s list of interception leaders have less (although to be fair, not all of those are defensive backs.) As Dungy himself told Gosselin:

Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.

Yes, Donnie Shell could do it all that’s a Troy Polamaluesque resume. Make no mistake about it, by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Dungy is giving his former teammate and lifelong friend a platform that highlight’s Shell’s own Hall of Fame credentials.

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Celebrating the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays

Super Bowl 52 is almost here. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing Super Bowl 52, but  Steelers Nation can take pride because the Black and Gold still own more Lombardi Trophies than any other franchise.

With that in mind, Steel Curtain Rising gives you the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays.

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’s belief-defying Super Bowl X catch over Dalllas Mark Washington. Photo Credit: AP, via NY Daily News

Super Bowl IX – Dwight White Spearheads Defensive Dominance

Sometimes plays symbolize an era, other times it is a player. When the two converge , something special happens. It is fitting then that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would author the first score in their first Super Bowl.

  • That only tells half the story.

Steel Curtain lineman Dwight White got pneumonia the week before Super Bowl IX. He’d lost 18 pounds in the hospital. Chuck Noll and George Perless told Steve Furness to get ready to play. The morning of the Super Bowl, White called Ralph Berlin, the Steelers head trainer, and begged him to pick him up, as White was determined to be introduced.

After talking with Steelers Dr. John Best, they relented, and when they saw White struggling to even put on his jersey, they figured he’d pass out in warm ups and let him play.

White started, and the Minnesota Vikings attacked him immediately. They handed off to Dave Osborn on three straight plays, and Osborn ran directly to White. The results:

  • A loss, no gain, and a one-yard gain.

The game remained scoreless in the second quarter when the Vikings found themselves backed up against their own end zone. A bad snap left Fran Tarkenton scrambling for the ball. It rolled in the end zone. Tarkenton fell on it. Dwight White landed on him.

A safety might only be 2 points, but scoring one sends a message that a defense is imposing its will. The message of Dwight White’s safety in Super Bowl IX was loud and clear: The Steel Curtain had risen.

Super Bowl X – Lynn Swann Shines

Super Bowl X provides the perfect example of how numbers might not lie, but they often fail to paint an accurate picture. Compared to some of the receiving feats of the 1980’s, let alone to the numbers NFL wide receivers put up today, Lynn Swann’s receiving numbers appear rather pedestrian.

  • Lynn Swann never caught more than 60 passes in a season and retired with 336 catches to his name

For years, naysayers like Peter King used those statics to block his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Super Bowl X reveals why the likes of King were so sorely mistaken. Lynn Swann’s stat line from Super Bowl X reads 4-161 and one TD. Not bad, but it suggests nothing spectacular. (Tweet w/ embedded video available as of 2/6/16):

But it was the quality of the catches that Swann made that earned him the Super Bowl MVP Award. His acrobatic catches were works of sheer beauty and displayed such grace that decades after he retired fans who weren’t even born when Swann was playing were still saying, “That was a Lynn Swann Catch.”

Super Bowl XIII – Rocky Bleier Overcomes the Odds

Wounded while serving his country, in Vietnam Rocky Bleier wasn’t even supposed to walk again, let alone play football. Yet Bleier defied the odds, not only making the game, but earning a starting spot.
Even then, Rocky was low man on the totem pole of a Super Bowl offense that featured no fewer than 5 Hall of Famers.

26 seconds remained in the first half with the score tied at 14. Franco Harris had given the Steelers a 3rd and 1 at the Dallas Cowboys 7. Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass and this is what happened (available as of 2/5/16 – watch it now before Roger Goodell’s YouTube police have it taken down):

Rocky Bleier would not be denied the touchdown, and added 7 points to the Steelers tally in a game they would ultimately win by 4….

Super Bowl XIV – Bradshaw, Stallworth & 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go

History tends to paint the Super Steelers as an unstoppable juggernaut that authored an unbroken string of super-human plays en route to four Super Bowls in six years. The Steelers of the 70’s were good, but what made them great wasn’t their ability to blow everyone out of the water, but rather their ability to make plays when the game was on the line.

  • No Super Bowl showcases that ability better than Super Bowl XIV vs. the LA Rams

The 4th quarter had begun, and the Steelers trailed the Los Angeles Rams 19-17. Lynn Swann was out of the game, as was Theo Bell, the Steelers 3rd receiver. Everyone on the Rams staff, most of all former Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson, knew Terry Bradshaw would try to get the ball to John Stallworth. And on third and 8 at the Pittsburgh 27, Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to do that.

The play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go” and the Steelers had failed miserably executing the play in practice, and neither Bradshaw nor Stallworth thought the play would work. Chuck Noll knew better. (Available as of 2/4/16):

As Art Rooney Jr. observed in his book Ruanadh, this is the result when you when you pair a Hall of Fame quarterback, with a Hall of Fame Wide Receiver and a Hall of Fame Coach.

Super Bowl XXX – Steelers Surprise Onsides Kick

The Steelers opened the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXX down 7-10. Nine plays into the game’s final period, a Norm Johnson field goal narrowed the Steelers deficit to 10. On the side lines, special teams coach Bobby April came up to Bill Cowher, next NFL Films captured Bill Cowher into his head set, “Chan? Chan, I’m going with the surprise on sides. I’m not leaving anything in the bag.”

  • Norm Johnson executed the surprise on-sides kick perfectly, and Deon Figures recovered.

Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field, and a Bam Morris touchdown made it 17-20 with the momentum decidedly in the Steelers favor… Of course, Steelers Nation would like to forget what happened after the Steelers defense forced a punt, but alas that too is part of history.

But so is Bill Cowher’s decision to call the surprise on sides. In terms of X’s and O’s, it may not have been the best play call in Steelers Super Bowl history, but it was certainly the boldest.

Super Bowl XL – Ike Taylor’s Interception

If Steelers Nation rightly remembers Bill Cowher’s first Super Bowl for its missed opportunities, it also must honor his final Super Bowl as the occasion where Cowher’s Steelers seized their own opportunities. The two scoring plays – Willie Parker’s 75 yard run and Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward stand out.

  • But those touchdowns bookended an even bigger play that ensured their relevance.

The Steelers were leading 14-3 in the middle of the third quarter when a Ben Roethlisberger interception gave the Seattle Seahawks new life. The Seahawks scored a touchdown. Seattle began the fourth quarter by marching down to the Steelers 19 where they threatened to take the lead. On 3rd and 18 Matt Hasselbeck got greedy and tried to hit Darrell Jackson deep.

The knock on Ike Taylor was that he couldn’t hold on to the interceptions. In his entire career, he picked off NFL quarterbacks 17 times. But three of those came in the post season, and none was more important than his interception of Matt Hasselbeck.

The play grounded the Seahawks rally, and set up the Steelers insurance touchdown that secured One for the Thumb with the Steelers win in Super Bowl XL.

Super Bowl XLIII – James Harrison’s Pick Six

Super Bowl XLIII will forever be remember for Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, the drive that preceded it, and Larry Fitzgerald’s touchdown that made such heroics necessary. Fair enough. Both Fitzgerald and Holmes touchdowns could easily make “Top 10 Super Bowl Touchdown lists.”

But it says here that James Harrison authored an even bigger touchdown (available as of 2/4/16):

Why does Steel Curtain Rising rank James Harrison’s touchdown higher than Holmes?

  • Simply math settles the question.

Aside from James Harrison running the length of the field, the Cardinals were at least going to score 3 points on that drive. Looked at in that light, Harrison’s touchdown amounted to a 10 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game the Steelers won by four.

The play also revealed Silverback’s incredible discipline, instincts and sheer will power.

Super Bowl XLV – Alejandra’s Return to Health

Steel Curtain Rising missed Super Bowl XLV because it wasn’t shown in Porto Galinhas, Brazil. But by game time that was a secondary consideration. You can read the full story of the tremendous generosity of the staff at the Tabapitanga here, but in a nutshell, my wife suffered a herniated disc, experienced intense pain, and could barely walk. The trip back to Buenos Aires was a harrowing affair, and was followed by three trips to the ER and two hospitalizations.

  • Fortunately, Alejandra made a complete recovery – or at least as close to a complete recovery as one can make from back injuries, and is doing extremely well.

I even forgot to record the game, and never saw Super Bowl XLV. Some things are not meant to be.

Sure, the Steelers loss disappointed, but my wife’s injury and recovery serves as a reminder that the outcome of a football game pales in comparison to what is really important in life, which is why it makes this list of the greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays.

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A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 Goal Line Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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Is Cause of Steelers Secondary Slump Simple Bad Luck?

Yesterday’s Watch Tower edition reviewed Ray Fittipaldo’s suggestion in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the Steelers current inability to find competent cornerback is rooted a failure by the front office and coaching staff to get on the same page.

  • It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.

Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:

Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:

  • Bad luck

Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.

Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought

The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.

By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.

  • You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.

But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:

  • Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.

That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.

The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.

The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.

In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.

The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.

Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck

What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

Dan Rooney realized that things weren’t working and removed his brother as head of the Steelers scouting department in October 1986. Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts.

Noll’s next four drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, John Jackson, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster. In a word, communication between scouting and coaching improved enough for Noll to draft the players who would fuel the Steelers early 1990’s resurgence under the Cowher Power banner.

  • But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.

  • The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.

The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.

But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.

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Cameron Heyward – Reason for Steelers Nation to Give Thanks

Since Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969, defense has formed the backbone with the franchise’s legacy of excellence. Irnoically enough, the Steelers Nation cannot lay claim to the same sort of unbroken line of succession on the defensive line the way it does with its Linebacker Legacy.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers thanksgiving, Cameron Heyward fumble return, Steelers Browns 2013

Cameron Heyward retruns a fumble vs. the Browns in November 2013. Photo credit: David Richard, AP via Pittsburgh Courier

The original Steel Curtain, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Joe Green, and Dwight White set the gold-standard for excellence at the position. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton deserved mention alongside them. In between them the Steelers have started a spectrum of players from the very good Joel Steed, to the good such as Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Kevin Henry, to the “not so much” – Keith Gary, Aaron Jones, and Donald Evans.

As we do every year at Thanksgiving, Steel Curtain Rising stops to take stock and give thanks for something Steelers related.

At Thanksgiving 2014 Steel Curtain Rising stops to recognize the blossoming of a young defensive lineman who one day might be worth of mention with franchise greats.

When the Steelers picked Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it was a great day for the franchise. Heyward of course was the son of Pitt great Iron Head Craig Heyward. A player with deep ties to community of Pittsburgh was coming home.

Yet after two years, Heyward remained an enigma to Steelers Nation. Stuck behind Smith, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood, Heyward looked strong when he got playing time, but why didn’t he get more? It took an 0-4 start, but Steelers Nation got its wish as Mike Tomlin started Heyward over Hood.

  • And Heyward has been a one man wrecking crew since then.

3-4 defensive ends in Dick LeBeau’s system are not supposed to get gaudy statistics. Yet in 8 starts he’s registered 3 sacks. But that number, while impressive, does not measure his impact, his On the Field Presence. In a short time as a starter, Heyward is showing a knack for being around the ball at the right moment, and for making “timely plays in a timely manner.”

  • To wit, he’s already recovered two fumbles (yes, that is counting Jason Worild’s strip-sack vs. the Bills)
  • Although uncredited, Heyward clearly hit Matthew Stafford helping force a game-sealing interception vs. Detroit

Heyward still has a ways to go, and still must of course sustain the flashes he’s shown. But he certainly is one reason for Steelers Nation to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Football and the Steelers are of course only a small part of life. And fortunately, I have many, many non-football reasons to be thankful at this time of year. I sincerely hope you can say the same.

And with that, Steel Curtain Rising wishes everyone in Steelers Nation a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Steelers Nation Bids Farewell to L.C. Greenwood; The Steel Curtain Stands at Quarter Strength

Pittsburgh was never always synonymous with “Defense.” Chuck Noll began to changing that in 1969.

Noll inherited the 4th pick in the 1969 NFL draft thanks to Bill Austin’s “error” in not allowing him to pick O.J. Simpson. The Emperor picked Joe Greene instead in the first round.

  • Piece one of the Steel Curtain was in place
  • Nine rounds later he added piece two:  L.C. Greenwood

In 1971 he added Dwight White in the 4th round and then Ernie Holmes 4 rounds later.

And in an ironic twist of destiny, the good Lord has decided to take them back from us in reverse order.

Art Rooney Jr. Finds the Man with the Yellow Shoes

Chuck Noll employed many means in transforming the Pittsburgh Steelers from doormat to dominance. But one often overlooked aspect is his total colorblindness when it came to selecting players.

  • Noll didn’t care if you were black, white, yellow, or purple, he only cared if you could play.

With Noll’s attitude and Bill Nunn’s connections in the HBC network the Steelers uncovered gem after gem in the drafts of early 70’s while many other teams handicapped themselves with color quotas.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the Steelers scouting department, fully embraced this philosophy, having fought Noll’s predecessors who refused to pick African American players simply because they had already taken two of “them.”

And so it was that Art Rooney Jr. found himself on the campus of Arkansas A&M in late 1968. He was down there to check out some halfback whose name history has forgotten. He was also interested in looking at a defensive end named Clarence Washington.

But while he was watching tape of Washington, some other kid caught his attention. The kid was 6’6”. Rooney had noted that the kid was too tall for his position. Defensive ends that tall aren’t supposed to have leverage.

  • But this kid had leverage, and nothing stopped him in getting to the quarterback.

The Kid’s name was LC Greenwood, and he became the second most recognizable name on famed Steel Curtain Defense.

Unlike Greene, Greenwood didn’t start immediately, but when he did break the Steelers starting lineup in 1971 he made noise, quickly. Greenwood:

When Greenwood was cut by the Steelers in 1982 he had 73.5 sacks, then a franchise high and still the number two mark.

  • Steelers Digest described Greenwood as “Cool. Confident. Smooth.”

How confident?

Shortly before the 1974 AFC Championship game, Greenwood sat in the hallway outside the lock room in the Oakland Coliseum watching the Vikings and the Rams duke it out for the NFL crown. Gene Upshaw walked by and asked, “Whatta watchin LC?”

  • Greenwood deadpanned:  “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Greenwood was also a leader both on and off the field, and one of the first Super Steelers to find commercial success. His Miller Light commercials were legendary.

But like so many of the Super Steelers, Greenwood’s off the field success was not simply a bi-product of his on the field fame. Chuck Noll wanted self-starters and hard workers on his team, and those traits carried the Super Steelers to success off it.

Greenwood was no exception, founding Greenwood Enterprises, which operated out of West Main Street in Carnegie and worked in engineering, coal, natural gas and highway operations. After that he led Greenwood-McDonald Supply Co., Inc., which supplied of electrical equipment to retail outlets and manufacturers.

The Steel Curtain a Band of Brothers

The quartet of Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes started out as teammates. They grew to be friends and ultimately brothers, sticking close together long after their playing days ended.

Dwight White’s wife recalled Joe Greene being so upset he could not even speak when he learned of “Mad Dog’s” death. And the first two people at White’s funeral were Greene and Greenwood.

White of course had gone into the hospital for back surgery, and ended up dying of a lung clot. As reported by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the normally upbeat Greenwood told Joe Greene he was apprehensive about his own back surgery due to what had happened to White.

But Greenwood, hobbled by a back injury, in pain and walking around on a walker and needed the surgery. Midway through the Steelers embarssing 0-4 loss in London to the Vikings, Greene got a call from Mel Blount informing him that Greenwood had died of kidney failure.

Now only Joe Greene remains, and the Steel Curtain permanently stands at quarter strength.

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Steelers Draft Needs: Longing for More of the Linebacker Legacy

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise which yields nothing to anyone with it comes to its Linebacker Legacy. While the original Steel Curtain provided the heart of the Super Steelers defense, linebackers Andy Russell, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert provided the unit’s mind and soul.

  • Russell and Ham knew enough to shut down opponents plays before the snap count started. Lambert simply brought attitude.

And the tradition has been handed down from generation to generation. From Greg Lloyd and Levon Kirkland to Joey Porter and James Farrior to James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons.

If the Steelers are to continue linebacker legacy they must do so in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Steelers will begin 2013 with:

  • One outside linebacker whose last two seasons have been ruined by injury (LaMarr Woodley)
  • Another outside linebacker who is a big question mark (Jason Worilds)
  • An aging inside linebacker who still has something left, but whose time is fading (Larry Foote)
  • Another inside linebacker who can’t seem to string to strong seasons together (Timmons)

Worse yet, the Steelers have Adrian Robinson and Chris Carter behind them and neither of whom has proven anything and Stevenson Sylvester whom the Steelers did not think enough of to protect in Restricted Free Agency. (Marshall McFadden is also in the mix, for whatever that is worth.)

Linebacker Needs have “Got the Steelers Inside and Out” 

Clearly the Steelers have needs at linebacker to fill in the 2013 NFL Draft. But if forced to make a decision, as they likely will, which position takes priority, inside or outside?

  • There is no easy answer here, but in this case a simple methodology based on math might help.

For the purposes of evaluating draft-day needs, the Steelers must assume a worst case scenario for 2012’s third round pick Sean Spence.

But even if you assume that Sean Spence’s NFL career is over before it started, the Steelers still have Stevenson Sylvester. At this point Sylvester isn’t likely to be anything more than a back up, but he has played well on special teams and has three season’s in Dick LeBeau’s defense under his belt.

Add to that fact that Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote are both under contract, although Foote’s career has clearly entered the “take it year-by-year” phase.

In contrast on the outside, Jason Worilds is a free agent, and even if Robinson and Carter have more of an upside that Sylvester, they both have less experience.

  • Er go, outside linebacker is a higher draft priority than inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2013 NFL Draft.

But the Steelers would do well to beef up at both positions.

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2008 Death of Dwight White, Steelers Legend, Dropped Steel Curtain to Half Strength

2008 was not a kind year to the Steel Curtain. In January, Ernie Holmes died in a car accident, and then Myron Cope passed away, silencing Steelers Nation’s definitive voice. Sadly, in June of 2008 Dwight White joined them.

  • Nature sometimes has a way with working its ironies.

In his 2002 autobiography, Double Yoi, Myron Cope dedicated an entire chapter, “Half of the Steel Curtain,” to Holmes and White. He argued that while Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood received their just accolades, Holmes and White were too often overlooked. Whether it be because of Divine will or a random act, all three were called away from Steelers Nation in a span of less than six months.

  • This author offers living proof of Cope’s contention.

Growing up in 70’s suburban Maryland in a household where sports held a low priority, I knew very little of Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Dwight White, Roger Staubach, Super Bowl X, Steelers vs Cowboys

Dwight White closes in on Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: Joe Caneva, AP via NFL.com

I of course knew about “Mean Joe Greene.” While the Steelers were busy winning their third and fourth Super Bowls, some of the other kids on Wendy Lane and I used to play “Super Steelers” pretending that the Steelers had super powers. If memory serves, Joe Greene could turn himself into a giant at will. (Lynn Swann had super speed. Franco could bust through walls. Terry Bradshaw threw exploding footballs and could hit anything he aimed for. Although I was yet to be acquainted with The X-Men at age six, Chuck Noll played a professor Xavier-like role.)

While L.C. Greenwood held no place in our Parthenon of Steelers Super Heroes, I distinctly remember a friend preparing to go into his Five Mississippi rush in a game of Nerf football saying, “I’m L.C., I’m L.C.” and knowing immediately he was talking about L.C. Greenwood of the Steelers.

Like Ernie Holmes, “D. White” was just a name and a face that I knew from Steelers 50 Seasons poster that hung on my wall for so many years. I didn’t learn just how distinguished a member of the Steel Curtain that Dwight White was until I was in college.

  • Dwight White was one of the top story tellers of the Super Steelers.

His comments on the NFL Flims tribute to Chuck Noll that appeared on the back end of the Steelers 1992 season in review are priceless.

Ray Mansfield sets the stage, recounting how John Madden capped the Raiders victory over the Miami Dolphins by proclaiming “the best two teams in football played to day, and it’s a shame that one of them had to lose….” Continuing, Mansfield explains that Noll came in the locker room the next day, with a determined look on his face, saying “They think the just won the God Damm Super Bowl… But let me tell you something, the best God-Dammed football team is sitting right here.”

White picks up the thread, remembering “At the time, that was pretty strong language for Chuck. Later on he developed the ability to rattle it off pretty well, but at the time that was pretty uncharacteristic.” White recounts how Noll’s words set the locker room on fire, reassuring that, “From that point on, we knew we were going to win…. I mean, it was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on somebody.”

The Steelers of course went on to upset the Oakland Raiders 24-13 in the AFC Championship, but the game that followed was perhaps White’s finest hour. As Myron Cope tells the story, White was stricken with phenomena the week of the Super Bowl IX. He’d lost 18 pounds and was so sick he was unable to lift his leg on the one day he tried to practice.

On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, White left the hospital, insisting that he be taken to the Sugar Bowl. Team Dr.’s let him warm up, figuring he would pass out. White didn’t, and insisted on starting the game.

The Vikings tested White immediately. They ran directly at White on their first three runs, and White stopped them each time, tackling Dave Osborn for a loss, no gain, and a one yard gain. Topping it all off, White scored the game’s first points, sacking Fran Tarkenton for a safety. White played the entire game, save for a few plays in the first quarter. Minnesota finished the day with 21 yards rushing on 17 attempts.

When asked about it years later by Cope, White told him’’ “‘You know what? It was kind of a blur’” He also offered “‘What I remember, though, was that our players kept asking me in the huddle, “How you feeling?” It was annoying’”

White followed up this effort by sacking Roger Starbauch three times in Super Bowl X, and registered 33.5 sacks between 1972 and 1975. Dwight White retired in 1980, and 27 years later he is still 7th on their all-time sack list.

Like many of the Super Steelers, Dwight White settled in Pittsburgh, excelling at what Chuck Noll calls “life’s work.” He worked as a stock broker, ultimately becoming the Senior Managing Director in Public Finance for Mesirow Financial. White was also active in numerous Pittsburgh charities.

Ray Mansfield was the first Super Steeler to pass away, followed by Steve Furness, Mike Webster, and Ernie Holmes. As haunting as that is, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture: According to ESPN, 38 former Steelers have died since 2000, and 17 of those were 59 or younger.

But nothing is quite is poignant as the realization that, with Dwight White’s passing, the Steel Curtain now permanently stands at half strength.

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