Sight of Ryan Shazier Standing with Ben Roethlisberger Offers a Lesson for Steelers Nation

Even if we admit that Steelers Nation is spoiled (we are) the fact is Steelers fans have had a rough 61 days. But yesterday the news out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave every Black and Gold bleeding Steelers fan something to smile about.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so:

Ryan Shazier, Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier Roethlisberger UPMC, Ryan Shazier UPMC

Ryan Shazier with Ben Roethlisberger at UPMC. Photo Credit: Ryan Shazier Instragram, via the Tribune Review

The sight of Ryan Shazier standing alongside Ben Roethlisberger is a sight for sore eyes. It was just 61 days ago that we watched Ryan Shazier made a seemingly routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals only to roll over pointing at his back.

  • Word was, even a few days afterward that Shazier would walk again.

Yet, the inside linebacker has been in a wheelchair in every image relased since then. Until now. Shazier has some sort of brace on his leg, it looks like he’s holding onto something for balance with his right hand and his wheel chair, which he used to leave the hospital, is visible in the background.

  • But Ryan Shazier is standing on his own and you have to stand before you can walk.

And, the image of Ryan Shazier standing upright offers an important lesson for everyone in Steelers Nation:

Complain about Jesse James touchdown/non-touchdown vs the Patriots. Gripe about the spectacle of the Steelers cutting James Harrison, then watching James Harrison sign with the Patriots and help them get to the Super Bowl. Moan about Le’Veon Bell‘s contract talk and his tardiness. Whine about Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance against the Jaguars. Ridicule Randy Fichtner’s reverses to Antonio Brown in the Pro Bowl….

Steelers fans might think they’ve had to “endure” a lot, they might argue that taking Mike Tomlin to task without insisting that Art Rooney II fire him amounts to hollow criticism, but let’s be honest folks, no one in Steelers Nation has had a tougher stretch in these last 61 days than Ryan Shazier. And its not even close.

  • Ryan Shazier standing next to Ben Roethlisberger signals he’s turned an important corner in his recovery.

Perhaps it should also signal to both the franchise and fan base that its time to put a disappointing end to the 2017 season in the past and firmly focus on 2018.

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Everyone “Wishes Him Well.” But Is It Actually OK To Hope Ryan Shazier Plays Football Again?

In the nearly two months since Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost for the rest of the 2017 season with a spinal injury in a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 4, the well-wishes and prayers for his recovery have been coming his way non-stop.

  • That’s understandable and as hit should be.

The spinal injury Tyan Shazier suffered didn’t just put him in a precarious spot from a football perspective, as so many spinal/neck injuries do, it left him paralyzed from the waist down, a condition that’s persisted to this day and one that, hopefully, is temporary.

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

However, amid all the well-wishes and prayers for Ryan Shazier to soon leave his wheelchair behind, the one thing people are almost afraid to hope for is his ability to play football again.

Just try and have a conversation with anyone about Ryan Shazier’s health, and if you even mention how much you’d love to see him back in a Steelers uniform, the predictable response you get from the other person is, “I just hope he can walk again, that’s the most important thing.”

It was apparently even taboo for football experts, such as MMQB’s Peter King, perhaps the most prominent NFL writer around, to talk about the football ramifications of Ryan Shazier’s absence from the Steelers defense down the stretch of the 2017 campaign, as he seemed almost apologetic when discussing it during his local radio appearances or in one of his columns.

  • Did Peter King need to be apologetic?

Ryan Shazier meant a lot to the Steelers 2017 defense, so much so, in-fact, the chances of them finding another player who will possess his rare combination of speed and explosiveness seem pretty slim–at least in the immediate future.

  • And that’s one of the reasons I’m rooting for Ryan Shazier to play football again for the Steelers and to do so at the highest level possible.
  • “That’s selfish and insensitive!” you might shout at me rather self-righteously.

Really?

Let me ask you this–and I don’t mean for this to sound flippant in any way–but if Ryan Shazier plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers again, wouldn’t that pretty much take care of the walking part of the equation?

I ask that rhetorically, because it obviously would.

  • So what’s the big deal about wanting Ryan Shazier to play football again?

Does that really make me seem selfish? Maybe it does, but selfish for good reasons. Why wouldn’t I want Ryan Shazier to recover to such an extent he’s an All-Pro caliber inside linebacker again?

  • Wouldn’t that just be the greatest feel-good story in the history of sports?I can’t think of a better one, that’s for sure.

And while you’re busy feeling guilty or calling me selfish, you should probably know that Ryan Shazier, himself, is also dreaming of more than just being able to walk again.

  • Think about it: We’re talking about a guy that spent most of his life playing a sport he loved with all of his heart and soul.

Before games, it was common for Ryan Shazier to warm up shirtless–regardless of the temperature, which was often quite cold. If that wasn’t an indication of absolute passion, I don’t know what is.

The way Ryan Shazier roamed from sideline to sideline with such zest and zeal on just about every play, you don’t do that if you’re not living your dream, your calling in life.

At this point what’s the most likely scenario that sees Ryan Shazier setting foot on a football field again? Suiting up and running through the tunnel wearing number 50? Or coming out for some special tribute to his far-too short career with the Steelers? Sadly, that latter scenario is the one we’ll most likely see.

  • But that doesn’t mean Ryan Shazier playing football again it’s not something worth hoping and praying for.

Do I want this because it will make the Pittsburgh Steelers a better football team? Absolutely.

But I also want it for Ryan Shazier, because I know he’s hoping and praying for the same thing.

 

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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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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.

This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com

Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?

By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.

  • So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?

Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.

  • Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.

While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.

  • Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.

Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.

  • If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.

Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.

  • For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.

Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.

  • Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.

  • First, football is a results driven business.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?

  • The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.

Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.

  • If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
  • Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.

Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would  tip the scales. Time will tell.

But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.

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Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record (Because You Just HAD to Know….)

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will soon coach his first Pro Bowl and little does he know (or care) he’s got a tradition to up hold. While the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their Super Bowls, having won 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches, Steelers coaches have also led the AFC Pro Bowl squads to six wins.

  • Wow, you didn’t know that, did you?

No, you probably didn’t. Ah, but story gets better yet as the plot thickens. Pittsburgh Steelers coaches have won more Pro Bowls than Super Bowls and boast a 7-1 record in the Pro Bowl for a .875 winning percentage, or 10 points better than Steelers cumulative .750 Super Bowl winning percentage.

  • Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher coached 3 Pro Bowls a piece, and the AFC never suffered a loss under their guidance.

The lone Pro Bowl coaching black sheep for the Steelers is Buddy Parker, who coached the NFL Eastern division to a 26-7 loss in 1957 (actually, the 1957 Pro Bowl was played on January 12, 1958 in the Los Angeles Coliseum – keep that in mind if you ever reach Final Jeopardy and the category is “Pro Bowls” but by all means remember to phrase your response in the form of a question!)

"Mike

All of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Pro Bowl appearances came by virtue of their AFC title losses, because for much of the game’s history, the coaching staff of the losing team in the conference championship went to Hawaii.

  • Now of course the honor falls to the losing coaching staff from the divisional round that has the highest regular season record.

There’s not a whole lot to discuss in terms of past Pro Bowls, because, well no one really cares about them when they’re being played, much less after their over. I mean, Pro Football Reference lists the games results, the Pro Bowl Rosters, but doesn’t keep a record of the Box Scores. Wikipedia does have a page on each Pro Bowl game with a few notes, but again no box scores.

  • That puts the triviality of the Pro Bowl in perspective. You can find Louis Lipps passing stats on Pro Football Reference, but you can see how many Pro Bowl passes he caught.

So while we know O.J. Simpson was the MVP of the 1972 Pro Bowl, we have no (easy) way of knowing whether Chuck Noll favored Simpson over Franco Harris in terms of workload, or whether The Juice simply out performed Harris. Mel Blount however, won the 1976 Pro Bowl MVP award, for those taking notes.

  • However, we do know that Chuck Noll out witted Tom Landry, Chuck Knox and Mike Ditka in his 3 Pro Bowl appearances.
  • For his part, Bill Cowher vanquished Barry Switzer, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Jim L. Mora in his Pro Bowl coaching appearances.

So, it looks Mike Tomlin arrives at his Pro Bowl coaching gig with a standard to uphold. At least he has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and Cam Heyward to help him….

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

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Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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Steel Curtain Rising Celebrates 10 Years on the Web and Says “Thank You”

While we’re missing the actual date by a little, today Steel Curtain Rising celebrates 10 years on the web! And, in a curious case of life imitating “art”, events have brought this site full circle. How?

Well, on January 6th, 2008 Steel Curtain Rising’s first article read: “Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars.” Ten years and nine days later we’d be forced to observe: “Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field.”

  • Home playoff losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the preferred way to bookend 10 years of Steelers blog, but it could actually be a good omen (see below).

They’ve been a lot of ups and a lot of downs along the way including, but not limited to Super Bowl XLII and, God willing, Ben Roethlisberger will play well enough and long enough to give the Steelers another shot at the Stairway to Seven.

Until then, let’s take stock of the last 10 years, share some highlights and, most importantly, offer some needed thank you’s.

Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl XLIII trophy, Super Bowl 43, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

Ben Roethlisberger & Tone celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with Dan and Art Rooney

Steel Curtain Rising – Genesis

While Steel Curtain Rising has only existed for 10 years, its roots dig deep into the 1990’s. At the dawn of the Bill Cowher era, I began PC screen saver marquees with “The Steel Curtain Will Rise Again.”

  • Then, during the dark days 1999, I began writing post-game email rants, as an act of catharsis.

Later, during 2000 season, I continued the practice, but decided to focus on the writing and the analysis. Some of those actually made it on to the web via Tim McMillen’sMcMillen and Wife” site, although I’m not sure they’re still there.

In 2001 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for the first time in a decade, I was reduced to watching Steelers Monday night and Sunday Night games, often times on tape delay. I continued the post-game emails, driving my wife crazy.

  • And  she was right: it was a too much work for too little return.

Yet, on a trip home after Super Bowl XL, two people independently complemented me with: “Hey, I really like your post-game write ups. Keep them coming….” A year and a half would pass before I kicked off this site, but I probably never would have had it not been for their complements.

  • So if you’ve enjoyed this site, then my cousin Jim V. and my friend Tom L. both deserve credit.

So in January 2008, on the evening of Mike Tomlin’s playoff debut, Steel Curtain Rising launched with the aim of either saying things about the Steelers that others weren’t or say so same things a little differently.

Ten Years of Steelers Blogging Highlights

Independent blogging is tough, and its tougher now than it was 10 years ago thanks to the rise of “content aggregation sites” and the corporatization of the blogging world. So be it.

But until August 2009, Steel Curtain Rising benefitted from the Tribune-Review’s old “SteelersLive Site” which included a link sharing feature that, for a good article, could net you over a 1000 page views in a single shot.

  • Thanks to that site, the profile on Greg Lloyd was this site’s most viewed article for a long, long time.

As Archie Bunker sang, “Those were the days.”

In time, on the old blogger platform, the retrospective on Steelers-Patriots history would ellipse that thanks to the magic of Google, as would the landing page for our series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the most enjoyable pieces this site has put together.

While blogger provided an easy way to get to the web, things change in the digital world. And as time passed Google showed a clear preference for independently hosted pages. So we moved to WordPress.

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

On WordPress the most popular page by far is the history of the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys (thanks to the journalist who gave me a followable link, you have no idea of the favor you did.) After that comes the piece debunking “Your Team Cheats” from a Steelers perspective. Not too far below that comes our 2015 April Fools piece announcing the faux trade of Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins.

As noted, independent blogging is challenging, and often times you need an outside push to get your stuff read. So it’s no surprise that the articles contrasting the Steelers and Redskins salary cap negotiation polices and taking Colin Cowherd to task, both of which benefited from Retweets from high profile journalists, did so well. Thanks to both of you.

ICYMI – Sleeper Steelers Stories

While this site’s high-performing articles are pieces to be proud of, they only represent a small cross section of the best work produced here.

Our aforementioned 1989 Steelers series cleaned up on the blogger site, but hasn’t fared so well on WordPress. The Myron Cope obituary, the site’s 12th article, was the first breaking news event I wrote about, and remains a source of site pride, as is Dwight White’s obituary.

  • Writing profiles on Steelers legends, both living and for those who have passed, has been a pleasure.

Yet, those pieces don’t always get the traction that you’d think the would, but site tributes to the likes of Kordell Stewart, Rod Woodson, John Stallworth, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, and of course Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney are labors of love, and worth checking out.

If there’s any one surprise in terms of page views, it was a May 2010 piece on the 2000 Steelers road upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it didn’t “go viral” it did well when published kept drawing visitors long after this sort of #TBT type story should.

Thanks You – Part I

Success results team effort and this site is no exception.

To that, thanks go out to my wife and, yes, my mom who help with editing and proofreading when time allows. The articles that have benefitted from their extra pair of eyes should be easy to spot.

  • Thanks also go out to Osvaldo in Patagonia, who migrated me from blogger, and Raghav in India who has provided SEO advice from time-to-time.

Words of appreciation are also due for Michael Bean and Neal Coolong, who gave me a chance to contribute to BTSC when it was a site on the rise, and who’ve done favors for this site large and small. Rebecca Rollett, Ivan, Homer, Clark, Bill and all of the contributors at Going Deep with the Steelers also get a well-earned “Thank You” nod here, for the same reason.

The first big Thank You goes out to Gustavo Vallegos, “El Dr. de Acero,” who started contributing articles in Spanish a few years ago and continues to do so on an occasional basis, as time allows. While dream of establishing a true, bi-lingual Steelers blog remains a way off, the truth is Gustavo’s analysis and writing is excellent, and this site is far strong for his contributions. Muchas Gracias, Gus!

  • We save the biggest shoutout for the man who’s done the most.

As a rule, big Steelers news has a knack of breaking when I’m away and/or unable to write. Tony Defeo stepped in and began helping by keeping the site updated in breaking news situations when I’m away. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

For close to two years now, Tony has been contributing to this site on a regular basis, raising the level of quality of this site across the board.

His profile on Calvin Sweeney a top-performer and must read. Likewise his piece on Larry Brown. And his work on Weegie Thompson stands as an example of blogging brilliance at its best. Thank You Tony!

Thanks to You the Readers

The biggest thank you goes you to you, the readers. For better and for worse, this site’s footprint in terms of comments and interaction has always been limited. That’s fine. But the Black and Gold faithful find this site, and if Google Analytics is any guide, visitors stay here after they arrive and they, or you, return.

It was also particularly gratifying, in the early days of 2008, before total life time visitors had even broken the 1,000 mark, to see “Steel Curtain Rising” hoping up in the referring keywords report.

  • Its been said that Google is the ultimate truth serum and that’s correct in a lot of ways.

The numbers of this site confirm it. While half of this site’s visitors come from Western Pennsylvania, the other half does not. And while the US, UK and Mexico send the lion’s share of visitors, this site has served visitors from nearly every country on the globe.

So thanks to whoever it was from Romania who kept visiting early on, thanks to whoever it was in Austria who visited this site day in and day out for several years. And thanks to the person in Nigeria who searched for Christian Okoye, found the page on the 1989 Steelers Chiefs game, and then went and viewed several dozen other pages.

In a word, thanks to each and every one of you for reading.

Jaguars Playoff Loss as a Good Omen?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are NOT in a good place right now. Instead of playing for the Super Bowl, they’re watching it at home as all sorts of negative stories permeate the press coming out of Pittsburgh.

But things didn’t seem too bright 10 years ago, after a promising season ended with the defense on the decline, and a controversial play call to the outside and a controversial special teams decision allowed the Jaguars to beat the Steelers at home twice in one season.

At that time, I made this observation, in the very first edition of the Watch Tower:

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.
But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Things didn’t feel quite as bleak in January 2008, but the arrow on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t seem to be pointing up. One year later the Steelers were Super Bowl Bound.

Yours truly is most certainly not predicting a Super Bowl next season. But then again, I wouldn’t have done so in January 2008 either….

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover and commentate on it all.

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Steelers Fans Have a Right to Be Angry about the Loss to the Jaguars

Last spring and summer were pretty annoying for me, a huge Steelers fan.

Why? Because I spent the majority of my time arguing with fellow fans about how unsatisfying the end of the 2016 season was, after Pittsburgh got trounced by the Patriots, 36-17, in the AFC Championship Game.

  • For my money, the 2016 campaign was the finishing touches of a masterful rebuild that begin in 2012, only included two playoff-less years and didn’t contain one single losing season.

As a matter of fact, I am of the opinion–perhaps naively–that had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not suffered a torn meniscus right before the regular season match-up against New England, and had star defensive end Cam Heyward not suffered a season ending torn pectoral muscle against the Cowboys in November, Pittsburgh would have finished with a much better record than 11-5 and, at the very least, reached the Super Bowl.

Yannick Ngakoue, Ben Roethlisberger, Ngakoue Roethlisberger sack, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Yannick Ngakoue sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

OK, so the Steelers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl last year, but, since returning to the postseason in 2014, their playoff trajectory had seen them lose in the wild-card round (2014), the divisional round (2015) and the AFC title game round (2016).

  • Given how superbly talented the 2017 Steelers seemed to be, it only seemed like the next logical step was the Super Bowl.
  • But not before having that AFC title rematch with those nasty Patriots.

And, as far as the rest of the country was concerned, the two AFC powerhouses appeared on a postseason collision course from the very moment the 2017 season kicked off on September 7.

Both teams did their parts, with matching 13-3 regular season records; when the postseason began, the Patriots had the top seed, and Pittsburgh had the second seed.

As you know, unfortunately, the Steelers won’t be joining New England this Sunday in the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium, not after getting their doors mostly blown off in the divisional round by an upstart Jaguars team.

In-fact, in their 45-42 victory that really wasn’t as close as the score appeared, the Jaguars did to the Steelers exactly what they did to them in Week 5, when they came into Heinz Field and had their way in a 30-9, 5 Roethlisberger interception beatdown.

Of course, not even the professional bettors, who quickly installed Pittsburgh as a 7.5 point home favorite, thought the Jaguars would be able to do what they did the first time, which was come up with key takeaways and run the ball at will.

But after coming up with five interceptions–including two that were returned for scores–and rushing for over 200 yards in the regular season contest, Jacksonville forced two turnovers on Sunday–one leading directly to a touchdown, and the other one setting up a touchdown–and pounded the ball for 164 yards.

In-fact, rookie running back Leonard Fournette eclipsed the 100-yard mark a second straight time against Pittsburgh this season, and scored three times, giving him a total of five touchdowns in two games at Heinz Field.

I’m not the first one to say it, but it needs to be repeated:

  • The Steelers knew exactly what the Jaguars were going to do, and they let them do it anyway.

Yes, you have to give Jacksonville credit, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be angry at the Steelers.

After anticipating a re-match with your biggest foe–the proverbial monkey that’s been sitting on your back since January of 2002, when it walked out of Heinz Field with the first of three AFC titles at your expense–you couldn’t even make it back to the party to see if, just once, you had it in you to shake that thing off.

So, yes, I’m still a little miffed about how the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season ended, and I don’t blame you if you’re feeling the same way.

 

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Its Official: Steelers Promote Randy Fichtner as Offensive Coordinator

Two days after firing Todd Haley, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved swiftly to promote quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator. The Steelers simply announced the new on their website, and did not make Fichtner available for questions. However, the Steelers new offensive coordinator did release this statement:

I want to thank Coach (Mike) Tomlin and Art Rooney II for giving me this opportunity to be the offensive coordinator for this organization. We have a tremendous roster, and it will be my charge to continue putting our offensive players in position to succeed and score points. We have the nucleus to be successful, and I am thrilled about the chance to lead the offense as we have already started preparing for the 2018 season.

Randy Fichtner joined the Steelers in 2007 as part of Mike Tomlin’s initial coaching staff, where he replaced Bruce Arians as wide receivers coach.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J. Puskar, via Yahoo.

Randy Fitchner Finally Gets “His Turn”

In 2009, where a Super Bowl hangover led to an inconsistent start and a 5 game losing streak, the Steelers front office pressured Mike Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians as offense coordinator. Tomlin resisted, yet he did move Randy Fitchner from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach.

  • At the time, commentators suggested that Tomlin was grooming Fitchner to replace Arians.

While Arians only lasted two more seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, Randy Fitchner didn’t replace him. In fact, if reports are true, he wasn’t even Mike Tomlin’s first choice, which would have been running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who was unable to take the job due to burns suffered in a fire.

Randy Fichtner kept a low profile as Steelers quarterbacks coach, working in the booth on game day and rarely making statements to the press, save for the 2013 NFL Draft when Fichtner spoke following the decision to draft Landry Jones.

However, in the middle of the 2017 season, new and strange face was seen talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines during games. That was Randy Fichtner, who if reports are correct, had been brought down from the booth to serve as a “buffer” between Roethlisberger and Haley.

Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers Coaches Needed

By promoting Randy Fichtner, Mike Tomlin has created another vacancy on his staff as he now need a new quarterbacks coach and new receivers coach. Both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have been mentioned as possible quarterbacks coaches, while Hines Ward and Daniel M. Rooney, the son of Art Rooney II, have been suggested as wide receiving coaching candidates.

Futures Contracts and Free Agent Signings

Earlier this week the Steelers announced that cornerback Mike Hilton tight end Xavier Grimble and long-snapper Kameron Canaday, all exclusive rights free agents, have signed one year contracts to return to the team.

The Steelers also signed “futures contracts” with defensive end Lavon Hooks, linebackers Farrington Huguenin, Matt Galambos and Keith Kelsey, wide receivers Justin Thomas and Marcus Tucker, cornerback Dashaun Philips, Safety Jordan Dangerfield and tight end Jake McGee.

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