A Steelers Fan Looks at 50: If You’ve Watched the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben Play, You’re Old

I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.

Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.

Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.

What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.

Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.

While the second Super Bowl era officially ended in an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 regular season, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to overhaul its roster and become a bona fide contender again by the mid-10s.

Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

  • What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?

Man, I’m getting up there. I’ve seen both Joe Greene and Cam Heyward. I’ve been around for both Jack Ham and T.J. Watt.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Yancey Thigpen, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Pickens.

I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?

Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.

I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.

My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to

Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

 did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.

  • I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.

Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?

As the Steelers begin a new era with a new quarterback–it’s either going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett who gets the first crack at replacing Big Ben–I sure can’t wait to find out.

 

 

 

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Thank You JuJu. Smith-Schuster Signs with Chiefs, Ending Time with Steelers

And so it ends. A year ago JuJu Smith-Schuster shocked everyone by returning to the Steelers. Alas, history will not repeat itself, as he agreed to a one year 10.5 million dollar contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is certainly taking the high road on his way out of Pittsburgh, posting on Twitter:

To that we can only say, “Thank you JuJu.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster joined the Pittsburgh Steelers via the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Wide Receivers are a curious breed. There’s no question that the league’s popularity has grown hand-in-hand with the explosion of the passing game.

  • And wide receivers are usually the ones catching the passes on those highlight clips.

While that’s a good thing, receivers perhaps more than any other player have Diva tendencies. That is what it is, unless it interferes with the game.

  • With JuJu Smith-Schuster, that was never an issue.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster romps for 69 yards. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Yes, spare me the TikiToi video controversy. As Mike Tomlin would say, it was nothing more than “Pop Corn.” It might have generated some social media tension, but it never got in the way of the JuJu’s game.

And when it came to the way he play the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster was a Steeler from day one. He was a Steelers wide receiver in the mold of Hines Ward and, although he lacks their level of talent, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

That’s because JuJu always a physical, put the team first, make the play necessary to win wide receiver.

Think of his first big play with the Steelers. You know, the one that set up the Jesse James play. (Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t watch the video here):

That was a simple crossing route, one designed to give the Steelers some positive yards, get out of bounds and stop the clock. JuJu could have done that easily, but instead took the ball 69 yards and flipped the field.

And if you’ll remember, Antonio Brown wasn’t drawing double coverage because he’d left the game injured.

JuJu Smith-Schuster made this play as a rookie, doing it weeks after laying in the wood on Vontaze Burfict. Before that he took it to the house for over 90 yards against the Lions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

It took talent for JuJu to make these plays, but what they really reveal is something you touch but you can’t measure – his heart. JuJu Smith-Schuster left it all on the field for the Steelers.

There’s a reason why he led the Steelers wide outs in catch percentage during the offensive slogs that were the 2019 and 2020 seasons. On the play that he got injured on in 2021, JuJu Smith-Schuster was running the ball, at full speed.

  • Perhaps it is fitting that JuJu Smith-Schuster is landing in Kansas City.

During the week before the playoff game against the Chiefs, JuJu Smith-Schuster surprised everyone by showing up for practice. This wasn’t a work. He intended on playing and he suited up and played.

  • Never mind that he was exposing himself to further injury, and thereby risking millions on the free agent market.

JuJu Smith-Schuster wanted to play because he wanted to win.

Thank you JuJu Smith-Schuster for your time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Best of luck to you – except when you’re playing the Black and Gold.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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It’s OK If the Steelers (and Their Fans) Actually Accept Rebuilding

“I’m ready to move on, man, and I’m serious. I wouldn’t be upset if Ben decided to retire after this season and the team sunk to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.”

That was you for the past few years, and the “Ben” you were referring to was the ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger, the legendary quarterback of the Steelers for many years. Alas, Roethlisberger’s reign in Pittsburgh ended after 18 seasons, and he officially announced his retirement following a blow-out wildcard playoff loss to the Chiefs to close out the 2021 campaign.

Now you, the Steeler fan, get your wish.

  • The Steelers could, in fact, sink to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great, right?

Not according to the fans, at least the ones on social media who can’t seem to shut up about the Steelers and what big moves they’ll make with the new calendar year — along with unrestricted free agency — set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

Heck, the fans on social media can’t even handle all of the rumors swirling around without losing it and worrying about the Steelers falling behind every other team in the AFC North, including the Browns, who acquired receiver Amari Cooper from the Cowboys on Saturday.

Why weren’t the Steelers more aggressive in going after Cooper? After all, the haul that Dallas will get back for Cooper is just a couple of late-round picks. Good point, a very good point. Only problem with that logic is that it’s not something a rebuilding team does. No, a rebuilding franchise is the one who trades the player for the draft picks. (Full disclosure: The Cowboys aren’t in a rebuild; they just didn’t want to honor Cooper’s current contract.)

So, why would the Steelers go after a Cooper if they are now in full-rebuild mode following Roethlisberger’s retirement? Also, why would they give up the farm to acquire Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson?

Or, for that matter, why would they go after Carson Wentz or Jimmy Garoppolo to fill their quarterback void?

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Again, you wanted a rebuild, right? You said you were exhausted by all of those seasons that didn’t result in more Super Bowls–as fun as some of those years may have been with Big Ben and the other Killer B’s, including Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, pulling the wagon.

I don’t know how an observer of things can actually be exhausted, but you know who is probably really exhausted after 13 years of trying to reach Seventh Heaven? The Steelers. Seriously, they’re like that young doctor on Day 3 of no sleep. They’re downing caffeine. They’re splashing cold water on their face. They’re doing everything that can to stay sharp, but that knife is now pretty dull.

It’s time for a rest.

The Steelers now have more cap space than they normally know what to do with, and with free agency just on the horizon, I fully expect them to do things to build up their roster. They may even make a splash signing or two.

But would that signify a quick end to the rebuild? No, I think it’s just getting started. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to last forever. A few moves here, a few moves there, and suddenly you’re back to being a serious contender again, one full of fresh legs and quick-twitch muscle fibers.

In the meantime, the Steelers and their fans may have to sit back for a season or two and watch other teams “go for it.”

Will it suck? How can it not? Will it be frustrating to listen to all of those talking heads mock the Steelers for falling behind in the annual off-season Lombardi race? Sure.

  • But those talking heads never seem to grow tired.

Football teams sometimes do.

Let the Steelers get some sleep in 2022. They’ll be awake again to fight another day.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a Twitter fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Resist the Restructure: Steelers Should Start Post-Roethlisberger Era with Sound Salary Cap Management

The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.

  • And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.

A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.

  • Things are different this year.

Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

Of course. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.

  • That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?

No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.

Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”

NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.

  • For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.

This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.

The Steelers resigned essential stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. They brought in under the radar free agents like Kevin Greene, Ray Seals and John Williams.

  • But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.

  • The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.

That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.

  • These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”

But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.

The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.

  • It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.

  • The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?

No one knows.

But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.

 

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Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
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.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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Quiet Takeaway after 5 Games? Chris Boswell’s Steelers Career Keeps “Kicking Along” (pun intended)

The one thing that was annoying about the Steelers’ 27-19 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday was the vantage point during extra point and field goal attempts at one end of the stadium.

I don’t know if it was because the game was on Fox, which prevented me from enjoying an HD viewing experience, but whenever Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a kick and the kick was broadcast from a camera in the opposite end zone (or behind Boswell), I had a hard time finding the ball once it was launched toward the goalposts.

With each kick, I had to wait an extra second or two for the in-stadium crowd to react. If I heard cheers, I knew Boswell’s kick was true. If I heard nothing, I knew he had missed his mark.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Fortunately for me, I had already assumed I would hear cheers as soon as Boswell connected with foot to ball. Why? The man’s been money for most of his career as the kicker for the Steelers, that’s why.

  • He certainly was on Sunday, as he connected on every single kick.

Chris Boswell may never be placed in the same category as Gary Anderson or Jeff Reed as an all-time great Steelers kicker, but he actually is the best to have ever done it in a Steelers career that began during the 2015 campaign, when he was a midseason replacement for the struggling Josh Scobee, who was a training camp replacement Garrett Hartley who was himself an injury replacement for the injured Shaun Suisham.

Boswell connected on 29 of 32 field-goal attempts during his inaugural season with the Steelers and even made the game-winning kick in the final seconds of the wild wild-card win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

One year later, in the divisional round of the 2016 postseason, Boswell was the only scoring the Steelers could muster, as he kicked six field goals in an 18-16 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

  • The 2017 season may have been Boswell’s finest.

Even though receiver Antonio Brown won the award, you could make a case for Boswell as the Steelers MVP in 2017, as he connected on 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including several game-winners down the stretch to help Pittsburgh win 13 games and the AFC North crown.

Boswell earned a trip to his first Pro Bowl following the 2017 campaign and a new, multi-year contract right before the 2018 regular season was about to kick off.

Unfortunately for Boswell, 2018 would be the worst year of his career; in fact, things immediately started to fall apart in Week 1 with a missed field goal in overtime in a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 rain-soaked tie at Cleveland.

I don’t know if that missed kick against the Browns affected Boswell’s psyche, but he would go on to miss seven field goals and five extra points in 2018 and repeatedly failed to pull the Steelers out of the same close jams that he did one year earlier. Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason with a 9-6-1 record. Was Boswell dealing with some sort of injury all throughout the 2018 campaign? We do know he was placed on Injured Reserve prior to Week 17 after reportedly suffering a torn groin muscle in a game against the Saints.

After some talk of releasing Chris Boswell and his contract during the 2019 offseason, the now veteran thankfully returned to his old form and connected on 29 of 31 field-goal attempts during the regular season.

Boswell remained consistent in 2020, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts and even set a franchise mark with a 59-yard boot against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Speaking of records, Boswell kicked the longest field goal in Heinz Field history earlier this season when he made one from 56 yards in a Week 2 game against the Raiders on September 19.

  • That field goal was one of eight Boswell has made so far in 2021 with his only miss coming in Week 3.

Unlike in the days of Gary Anderson, it’s much harder for kickers to distinguish themselves these days, and most are expected to have an accuracy rate at or close to 90 percent.

Chris Boswell may not get talked about or celebrated in the same fashion as less-accurate Steelers kickers from the past, but he’s clearly the greatest one to ever boot balls for the organization.

That speaks volumes.

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News Flash Steelers Nation: Players Staying in Shape During Off Season Isn’t “News”

It appears we’ve reached the point of the Steelers offseason that I like to refer to as “Putting in the Work.”

The reason I say that is because of the endless amount of videos that pop up on social media in May, June and July of Steelers players hard at work at the gym and/or at some high school field. They’re squatting, lifting, sprinting, doing those cone drills, etc., etc.

  • The fans eat it up and post comments such as, “Get some!” “My man!” and, of course, “(Insert player here) is putting in the work!”

 

James Harrison, James Harrison workout, James Harrison weight room

Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Photo Credit: Stack.com

 

Just in the past few weeks or so, we’ve learned that second-year player, Alex Highsmith, has added a few pounds of muscle during the offseason in an effort to, among other things, rise to the occasion and capitalize on his great opportunity to win the starting job at outside linebacker, opposite T.J. Watt. Also, Marcus Allen, the former Penn State safety, has been hard at work at the gym, bulking up for his now seemingly permanent role as an inside linebacker.

I can go on and on with these examples; they’re endless and everywhere. Just about every player has some version of “Putting in the work” posted on some social media platform.

I could be wrong, but I believe Antonio Brown was one of the first well-known professional athletes to promote his workouts on social media.

Nobody seemed to be more dedicated to his craft than Brown, but maybe that was just the perception that we got thanks to him being such a tireless self-promoter. I obviously can’t speak on the dedication of all Steelers players, but I think it’s safe to assume that most have always been serious about “putting in the work.” Much like a lot of things in life, these days–including what your friends just had for dinner — we are more aware of the dedication of professional athletes thanks to the advent of social media.

Speaking of social media, the non-football activities of Steelers players often come under great scrutiny the moment they either screw up in a game or their team simply loses one. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a social media self-promoter if there ever was one, has come under fire in recent years for his “lack of focus and/or discipline” due to supposedly worrying more about furthering his brand and TikTok dancing than being dedicated to his craft. However, this was the same man who hired a trainer last offseason and put himself through hell, training twice a day for six days a week in preparation for the 2020 regular season.

  • Smith-Schuster transformed his body and looked more linebacker than receiver by the time the season started.

Yet, by the end of the year, the only thing people wanted to focus on was his logo dancing and TikTok videos, as if they were totally sapping his ability to concentrate on the football field.

Do you think anyone who can add about 10 pounds of muscle is going to let his off-the-field “playtime” distract him during a game? Furthermore, do you think his teammates, players who, like Smith-Schuster, dedicate hours to conditioning their bodies for the rigors of professional football, are going to allow themselves to be distracted by some tweet or a reporter’s question about said tweet?

  • That was a rhetorical question.

The NFL is a serious business (often too serious, in my opinion), and if a player isn’t “putting in the work” at the gym, the high school field or even the meeting room, it’s going to show up during a game. These are the elite of the elite. Even the guy sitting at the end of the bench must totally dedicate himself to his craft if he wants to keep earning a paycheck every week.

I don’t know when it became a thing that a player must focus on football 24/7/365 in order to succeed (certainly the days of Ray Mansfield taking a job as a substitute teacher to make ends meet in the off season are long gone), but that’s apparently what many fans and even a lot of media members think. It’s obviously impossible to commit yourself to your profession every second of every day, but you better believe the vast majority of athletes devote more than enough time to theirs.

Do a lot of them play video games and have fun on social media? Of course. Does it mean they’re not committed to what they do for a living? Of course not.

If you truly think that you can step on an NFL field without the proper amount of dedication and preparation, perhaps you should be committed…to an institution.

 

 

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