Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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04 Steelers Defeat Redskins 16-7, Pittsburgh Gets 1st Win Over Joe Gibbs

[Editors Note:  Tony Defeo expands on Steelers history vs Washington Redskins ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2016 opener on Monday Night Football @ FedEx Field]

’04 Steelers defeat Redskins, Pittsburgh 16, Washington 7, November 28, 2004 @ Heinz Field 

Behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers entered Week 12 of the 2004 season sporting a 9-1 record. Washington, on the other hand, came to down with a 3-7 mark and was a 10-point dog.

  • By all accounts, it should have been an easy day for Pittsburgh…but looks can be deceiving.

Despite having one of the worst offenses, the Redskins had a dominant defense in ’04, one that would go on to finish third in total yards and fifth in points (16.6 per game).

  • The Steelers defense was even superior to Washington’s, finishing first in total yards.
steelers vs redskins, jerome bettis redskins,

Jerome Bettis rumbles over Redskins in Steelers 2004 win over Washington. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

With defense at the forefront, the game remained scoreless until kicker Jeff Reed connected on a 33-yard field goal late in the first quarter to give Pittsburgh a 3-0 advantage.

Early in the second quarter, receiver and return specialist Antwaan Randle El returned a punt 43 yards down to the Washington 39-yard line. Seven plays later, running back Jerome Bettis, filling in for an injured Duce Staley in one of the final starts of his career, plowed into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 10-0 lead.

Reed kicked another field goal late in the second quarter to increase the lead to 13 points at halftime.

While it wasn’t the dominant performance many fans had probably expected, the lead felt secure, what with Pittsburgh’s defense harassing Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey all day and sacking him five days. Of course, Roethlisberger was under siege most of the game, as well, and was taken to the turf four times, as he completed just nine of 20 passes for 131 yards and no touchdowns.

But while the defense was doing its job, there was one hiccup late in the third quarter, when Ramsey found tight end Chris Cooley for a two-yard touchdown pass to pull the visitors to within six points.

  • The Redskins would score no more.

Pittsburgh regained its two-score advantage, when Reed connected on his third field goal with less than 10 minutes left to make it 16-7. And with under five minutes remaining, cornerback Deshea Townsend picked off a Ramsey pass to seal the deal.

  • For the day, the two teams combined for a less than robust 363 total yards, with Pittsburgh holding the Redskins to a mere 156.

But while the Steelers offense mostly struggled to move the ball,  Bettis, in the kind of slobberknocker affair that epitomized his Hall of Fame career, carried the ball 31 times for 100 yards.

The Steelers improved to 10-1 and would go on to become the first AFC team to win 15 regular season games. The ’04 Steelers defeat of the Redskins also gave Bill Cowher something Chuck Noll never had  – a win over Joe Gibbs.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Washington Redskins

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Washington Redskins includes 77 contests played over the course of 83 years.

The record reflects that the Washington holds the advantage over Pittsburgh. Overall, the Steelers record vs. the Redskins is 33-43-4. However, the Steelers are 7-4 vs. the Redskins since Chuck Noll’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 1969. The Steelers 2016 season opener on Monday Night Football at FedEx Field will mark the 78 installment of this series.

Art Rooney Sr. was the polar opposite to both George Preston Marshall and Jack Kent Cooke. And about the only similarity between Daniel Rooney and Daniel Snyder is the their first name.

Even if the rest of Steelers Nation isn’t ready to get the pitchforks out for the Redskins, the Steelers history vs. the Washington Redskins has provided a lot of memorable games – for both franchises. With the help of Tony Defeo we recount them here.

Scroll down or click on the link below.

LaMarr Woodley sacks Jason Campbell in Steelers 2008 win over Redskins. Photo Credit: Evan Vucci, Associated Press

LaMarr Woodley sacks Jason Campbell in Steelers 2008 win over Redskins. Photo Credit: Evan Vucci, Associated Press

1979 – Super Steelers Peak Against Redskins

November 4, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 38, Washington 7

Terry Bradshaw had his best day passing, to that point in his career. Both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth caught for over 100 yards, for only the second time in their careers. Chuck Noll’s offense totaled 545 yards – his best effort to that point. The Steelers scored 38 points against a Redskins team that entered the game as the stingiest defense in points allowed. It was the worst Redskins loss since 1970… And did we mention that Bradshaw missed most of the second half with a concussion?

  • If the Super Steelers of the 70’s had a single peak moment, the 1979 Redskins victory would be a candidate.

Joe Theismann describes the Redskins effort as “Embarrassing.” John Riggins conceded to John Clayton, then of the Pittsburgh Press:

They’re the defending Super Bowl Champs, and they’re playing at the top of their game now. You expect them to when November rolls around. That’s when the giants tart to wake from their slumber. They were awake today.

Indeed, in addition to the touchdown John Stallworth’s two touchdowns, Terry Bradshaw threw scores to Bennie Cunningham and Randy Grossman, while Rick Moser (who?) scored the Steelers final touchdown. Donnie Shell and Mel Blount both recorded interceptions.

The win over Washington marked the third straight week the 1979 Steelers demolished a playoff contender, with victories over Denver and Dallas preceding it, followed by another win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Key Takeaway from Steelers vs Washington Redskins History: 2 weeks later the 1979 Steelers fell 35-7, suffering their worst defeat in San Diego at the hands of Don Coryell, whose offense was coached by a then-obscure offensive coordinator named Joe Gibbs….

1985 – Redskins “Officially” Send Steelers into 80’s Mediocrity Era

November 24, 1985 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Washington 30, Pittsburgh 23

The 1984 Steelers had shocked the NFL by winning the AFC Central, upsetting John Elway at Mile High in the Divisional Playoff game and knocking on heaven’s door by reaching the AFC Championship. 1985 started with the bang of Mark Malone’s 5 touchdown game vs. the Colts. But that win was led to a 3-5 record at midseason, when a Malone injury led to David Woodley getting the starting nod, who led Pittsburgh to 3 straight wins.

  • Unfortunately, stomach flu would sideline Woodley, forcing Scott Campbell into his first NFL action.

Change was also the watch word in Washington. A week before Lawrence Taylor had sacked Joe Theismann, knocking out of the game and ending his career. Jay Schroeder responded by rallying the Redskins to victory, and started his first game against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.

Scott Campbell played a respectable first half, connecting with Louis Lipps and Rich Erenberg to tie the score at the half. However, the Redskins owned the second half, with the Steelers only managing two Gary Anderson field goals as John Riggins ran for a touchdown, while Mark Mosley knocked in two more.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: The 1985 loss to the Redskins dropped the Steelers record to 6-6, signaling 7-9 finish and introducing an era of Pittsburgh would find itself mired in mediocrity.

1988 – Young Steelers Suffer Serious Growing Pains vs. Redskins

September 11, 1988 @ RFK Stadium
Washington 30, Pittsburgh 29

Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers won the franchise’s first game without Art Rooney Sr. a week earlier against Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys. Could this young Steelers team upset the Super Bowl champions?

  • For 3 and 3/4 quarters, the 1988 Steelers teased that they could.

Bubby Brister showcased his rocket like arm and his mobility. First hitting Louis Lipps on an 80 pass were Lipps burned future Hall of Famer Darrell Green. Brister then scrabbled for a touchdown, although mistake that proved costly, Harry Newsome bobbled the snap, and the Steelers missed the extra point.

The Redskins pulled a point ahead as the fourth quarter began, but Brister hit Dwight Stone over the middle, Stone zinged past Wilber Marshall and ran 70 yards untouched for a touchdown. Gary Anderson knocked in his 3rd field goal of the game. Midway through the 4th quarter, the Steelers had a nine point lead…

…Yet, in what would be a recurring theme during the 1988 season, Tony Dungy’s defense failed to defend a 4th quarter lead. The Redskins scored quickly on a 74 yard drive, and then Darrell Green returned a punt 13 yards to the Steelers 44, setting up an easy field goal drive.

Just how bad was the Steelers defense? After the game Doug Williams confided in Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I played terrible in the first half. The offensive line gave me time, and I wasn’t doing my job.” For the record, Williams had what was then a second best passing day for a Redskins quarterback completing 30 of 52 passes for 430 yards.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: The 1988 Steelers would lose several close games like this. But the great individual efforts that powered those “almost wins” revealed that these Steelers had real potential, something that the 1989 Steelers would realize. None of that was apparent as Pittsburgh finished 1988 at 5-11.

1991 – Redskins Render Steelers as Road Kill on Ride to Super Bowl XXVI

November 17th, 1991 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Washington 41, Pittsburgh 14

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins both entered the 1991 season with something to prove. In 1990, the Redskins had gone fallen in the NFC Divisional Playoffs a 49ers team that many assumed were en route to their 5th Super Bowl.

  • The loss carried extra sting in Washington, because only a few years before, it was the Redskins, and not the 49ers who’d been dubbed “The team of the 80’s.”

Although 80’s were over, another Super Bowl would put Redskins back in the conversation.

In contrast, the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers had shocked the world, overcoming a disastrous start and a regular season that saw them shut out 3 times, only to see them make the playoffs and upset the Oilers in the Astrodome. In 1990 however, the Steelers limped to a 9-7 record, as inconsistency and an inability to win divisional games cost them a playoff game. Steelers Digest Bob Labriola editor remarked that 1990 marked the year the Steelers had either learned to win or to lose games.

  • The Steelers entered 1991 hoping to prove that learned to win.

Sadly, by the time the Redskins arrived at Three Rivers Stadium in week 11, Washington already had an 11-0 record, while Steelers held a 4-6 record, which wasn’t nearly as good as it looked.

The Redskins trashed the Steelers that day, as a Mark Rypien to Art Monk 63 yard hookup led to a 1 yard Gerald Riggs touchdown just four plays into the game. By half time the Redskins led 17-0. After three quarters the Redskins led 27-0.

  • Then the Steelers did what those 1990 and 1991 Chuck Noll teams did all too well – the teased.

Neil O’Donnell hooked up with Adrian Cooper and then Dwight Stone early in the 4th quarter to cut the
Redskin’s lead to 13. Suddenly, it seemed like the Steelers had a chance. Of course they didn’t. Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark hooked up with Rypein from 49 and 40 yards to reestablish the Redskin’s 27 point margin.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Chuck Noll may hold a 2-1 advantage over Bill Walsh, but the Emperor was 0-3 vs. Joe Gibbs, a statistic that reveals just how great of a coach Joe Gibbs was – and that comes from someone who grew up actively rooting against Gibbs’ Redskins.

1997 – 3 Scappy Steelers Interceptions Seal the Deal

September 7, 1997 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 14, Washington 13

Just like in 1988, Pittsburgh opened the season with back-to-back games against Dallas and Washington. And like 1988, the Steelers were facing a Cowboys Super Bowl coach who would ultimately be heading into his final campaign. But unlike 1988, the Dallas Cowboys had come into Three Rivers Stadium, trashing the Steelers to the tune of 37-7.

  • So the Redskins arrived in Pittsburgh facing a Steelers team looking for a comeback to defuse the “Free Agency is ruining the Steelers” stories that were a stable of 1990’s.

The Steelers got their comeback win, but the outcome was in doubt until the final gun. For the record, Kordell Stewart rushed for one touchdown, to open the scoring and Jerome Bettis closed it with another touchdown. But the Steelers defense wrote the real story of the game.

Twice in the first half Gus Frerotte led the Washington deep into the Red Zone, and twice Pittsburgh’s defense picked off his pass in the end zone, with Darren Perry and Levon Kirkland splitting the honors. Following Bettis’ touchdown, Frerotte ripped off a perfect pass to Michael Westbrook, only to have Randy Fuller, he of 1995 AFC Championship fame, deflected the pass.

The Redskins had one final chance following the 2 minute warning and threatened to reach field goal range when Jason Gildon tipped a pass that Chris Oldham picked off, ending the game.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: This game established the 1997 Steelers as a scrappy, team that could rally to beat just about anyone during the regular season.

2000 – Steelers Scalp Redskins to Close Three Rivers Stadium

December 16, 2000 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Washington 3

If ever there was a case study in contrast to who Daniel Rooney and Daniel Snyder run their franchises, the Steelers 2000 victory over the Redskins offers the perfect example.

The 2000 off season marked Daniel Snyder’s first full year as Redskins owner, and he made no bones about breaking from the past. Upon assuming control of the team, Snyder summarily fired dozens of Redskins first office workers, many secretaries and administrative staff, some who’d had decades of service to the team.

  • That meant less to Snyder than showing everyone a new chief was in charge.

The offseason also saw Snyder the first of many off season Lombardi Trophies by signing any and every big name free agent the Redskins could fit under their salary cap. Washingtonians drank the Kool-Aid. Deion Sanders signing earned a front page story in the Washington Post and 2 and a quarter full pages from the sports section. Fans called into radio shows predicting an undefeated season.

Prior to the season opener, an owner at the Wheaton Athletic Club remarked to a patron, “…I’m tired of hearing about Tampa’s injured players. A win is going to be a win.” The client’s response, “Yeah. And a Super Bowl is gonna be a Super Bowl.”

  • Given that the Steelers were coming off a 6-10 season, Redskins fans figured the final game at Three Rivers Stadium would be a road sign route to Lombardi number 4. If they thought of it at all.

By reality unfolds at its own pace. The 2000 Steelers started 0-3, but rallied with 5 straight wins and held a 7-7 record heading into their matchup against Washington. Meanwhile, at 7-6 but on a two game losing streak, Snyder fired Norv Turner. Before the Steelers game, interim coach Terry Robiskie was forced to admit that he’d need to clear any quarterback changes with Snyder.

  • The game itself was a work of beauty. A better send off for Three Rivers Stadium could not be had.

Jerome Bettis rumbled for 104 yards, and Deion Sanders pulled back rather than try to tackle. Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington intercepted Jeff George, Snyder’s anointed starter, two times while future Super Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson watched from the bench.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: When Daniel Snyder objects to Myron Cope’s “Wash Redfaces” nickname for the Redskins, Cope mocks Snyder on the air declaring: “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he can take his head and stick it in a bucket of paint.”

2004 – Jerome Bettis Ties Franco Harris Record for 100 Yard Games

November 28th, 2004 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 16, Washington 10

Joe Gibbs return from retirement heading into the 2004 season was one of the biggest stories, as one of the most underrated coaches (nationally) would seek to revive the fortunes of a once proud fantasy. The Pittsburgh Steelers, following their 6-10 2003 campaign, were supposed to be in “Rebuilding” mode, as rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was to get an apprentice year behind Tommy Maddox.

  • But of course things seldom workout as planned.

The Steelers entered their week 12 matchup vs. Washington with a 9-1 record, while Gibbs Redskins had a 3-7 mark. But again, what looked to be a mismatch on paper, turned out to be something very different in reality.

The 2004 Redskins defense was deceptively good, holding the Steelers to a 13-0 lead at half time, thanks to two Jeff Reed Field goal and a Jerome Bettis touchdown (set up by a Antwaan Randle El punt return.) In the third quarter the Redskins made it look like they’d give Pittsburgh a run for their money, as Patrick Ramsey hooked up with Chris Cooley to make the score 13-7.

But another Jeff Reed Field goal, followed by a Deshea Townsend put the game out of reach as on a day where Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and Aaron Smith teamed to sack Patrick Ramsey 5 times.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: With his 4ths straight 100 yard game, Jerome Bettis tied Franco Harris’ franchise record for 100 yard games. Not bad for a player supposedly getting a “scholarship” year.

2008 – Steelers Nation Anexxes over Fed ExField

November 3, 2008 @ FedEx Field
Pittsburgh 23, Washington 6

For a Steelers fan who grew up in Metro Washington DC subjected to an endless stream of “Are you a Redskins fan?” “No,” “Then you’re a Cowboy in Redskins territory….” The Steelers 2008 Monday night win at FedEx Field was a portrait of glory.

Fans forget in hindsight that this game did not start out well for the Steelers. Bob Ligashesky’s special teams botched a surprise on-sides kick to open the game, followed by another Steelers turnover deep in their own territory. Redskins fans at FedEx Field were fired up, as Washington led for the first 29:28 of the first half until Ben Roethlisberger put the Steelers ahead with a rushing touchdown.

  • With Byron Leftwich taking over for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers defense took over.

James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Nick Eason, Aaron Smith, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, who saw his first extended action – at outside linebacker, combined for 7 sacks, and Tyrone Carter end a Jason Campbell streak of 271 passes without an interception.

Best of all, before it was all over, Steelers fans had taken over FedEx Field to the point where the Redskins were forced to use a silent count.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Jim Zorn’s Redskins were 5-2 heading into the game, looking to make “statement.” Instead, the Steelers made a statement that they were serious Super Bowl contenders.

2012 – Dick LeBeau Schools RGIII

October 12, 2012 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, Washington 12

In 2012 Robert Griffith III, or RG3 was a rookie sensation that was shaking the NFL. After just 7 games pundit were already saying that RG3 was doing what Doug Flutie, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb had promised to do in earlier generations – prove that you could win big with a non-pocket passer.

  • Worse yet, the Steelers 2012 defense had been shaky, having failed to protect 4th quarter leads on 3 separate occasions.

Dick LeBeau answered by unleashing his defensive backs on the Redskins wide receivers, and the Steelers corners and safeties hit hard. This led to numerous drops on the part of the Redskins’ receivers. On offense, Todd Haley did his best Ron Ernhart impression, as the Steelers fed the ball to Jonathan Dwyer and dominated time of possession, keeping the ball for over 33 minutes as the Steelers beat the Redskins 27-12.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Dick LeBeau improves his record to 15-1 against rookie quarterbacks. For the Record RGIII finished the day 16-34-177, 1 touchdown and 8 yards rushing. Need we say more?

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Was Misleading

Admit it Steelers Nation – the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece vs. New Orleans was satisfying, even if the results don’t count. And so it should. The Steelers offense, both with Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones were in mid-season form.

Often times, preseason does provide fans with a lot of valuable insight into the direction a team is headed. Not that the insight is always pleasant as a previous post 5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles reminds.

  • Yet there are times when preseason offers Steelers fans false flags.

The Steelers preseason history offers plenty of false flags, times when the action on the field in preseason failed completely to foreshadow what was to come in the regular season. Scroll down or click below for 5 Steelers preseason false flags.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers Giants preseason 2013,

Jarvis Jones recovers a fumble as Marshall McFadden looks on in the Steelers 2013 preseason. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

1. 2000 – Plaxico Burress Plays Lights Out in Preseason Debut

Going into the 2000 NFL Draft, many if not most expected Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert to make Chad Pennington their first draft pick. The Steelers opted for Plaxico Burress instead, even though they’d taken Troy Edwards a year before.

In his preseason debut Burress played like a stud, as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounted:

Burress made a smashing NFL debut, leading Steelers receivers with four catches for 60 yards, all in the first half.

He jump-started the Steelers’ offense with three big plays on their second series, one a leaping catch over the back of a 6-foot cornerback. He also caught a looping, ally-oop like touchdown pass from Kent Graham just before halftime, as the Steelers crushed the Dallas Cowboys 38-10 at Texas Stadium.

Burress wasn’t the only receiver to impress. Malcolm Johnson, the Steelers 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft, started opposite Burress. One writer, (perhaps Mike Prisuta) whose article is lost to digital oblivion went so far as to argue that Burress and Johnson were fighting to which would be the alpha-male of the Steelers wide receiving corps.

  • There’s no doubt that both men played well, and the strong overall offensive performance gave hope after the dark days of 1998 and 1999.

However, Plaxico Burress most memorable rookie play was spiking the ball after making a catch, but before he’d been ruled down, which was an immediate turnover. Overall, Burres never aught more than 4 passes as a rookie, and his catch percentage was woeful 33.8%.

As for Malcolm Johnson? He didn’t even make the 2000 Steelers final roster team.

2. 2005 – Ben Roethlisberger Struggles Mightly in Preseason

If there was ever a quarterback who made an immediate impact as a rookie, that rookie was Ben Roethlisberger. But NFL history is littered with rookie one-year wonders (think Kendrell Bell).

And so it was that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers first string offense failed to produce a touchdown in the first four preseason games. After it took Charlie Batch to rally the Steelers to victory in their final preseason game, Bill Cowher remarked: “I like this group of guys, but we’re no where near where we need to be.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2005 preseason statistics seemed to vindicate Bill Cowher’s pessimism.

Over four games, Roethlisberger completed just 16 of 36 passes, for no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 32.8. Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette quipped that the Steelers starters looked more like a team set to go 1-15 instead of the previous year’s 15-1. Indeed, it seemed like an inglorious preview to a team with Super Bowl hopes….

  • …That is, until the game started counting.

In the season opener, Ben Roethlisberger went 9-11 for 218 yards, throwing touchdowns to Antwaan Randle El and a rookie named Heath Miller. A week later he went 14 of 21 throwing a pair of TD’s to Hines Ward.

The Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL the next February proved that, if there was ever a exhibition effort that should have been written off with “Its only preseason” it was the Steelers 2005 preseason.

3. 2009 – Joystick Video Game Like Preseason Kick Return Statistics

For a defending Super Bowl Champion, the 2009 Steelers training camp and preseason would mid-wife future Steelers Nation house hold names like Isaac Redman, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky (hey, Legursky started a Super Bowl so he counts).

  • But perhaps none captivated the imagination of Steelers fans the way Stefan Logan did.

In his first preseason outing, Logan averaged 39 yards on four kick returns in a preseason loss to the Redskins. The next week in the Steelers shutout over the Bills, Logan returned four punts for 63 yards, including a 27 yarder. The following week Stefan Logan returned a punt 82 yards as the Steelers defeated the Panthers.

  • It seems like the Steelers had their first legit return threat since Antwaan Randle El had departed following Super Bowl XL.

It would be both unfair incorrect to declare Stefan Logan return efforts in 2009 as a failure.

In 2009, Stefan Logan averaged 26.7 yards per kick return, and 9.3 yards per punt return. Stefan Logan had an 83 yard kick return in the ’09 Steelers ugly loss to Oakland, and he also managed returns of 56, 51, an 49 yards in other games.

But Stefan Logan neither took a kick return nor a punt return to the house, and he was never the type of weapon as a return man who could give the Steelers offense a jolt in a season where the team cried out for one. Mike Tomlin once chided Logan when he critiqued blocking of the Steelers return teams, and often times on deep punts Tomlin had deployed Mewelde Moore’s sure hands in favor of Logan.

4. 2013 – Jarvis Jones’s Stud-Like Presason Campaign

It might seem hard to believe now, but in 2013, Jarvis Jones was the toast of the Steelers preseason. Dick LeBeau declared that Jones “Had ‘it,’” after Jones preseason debut where he recovered a fumble. Jones forced another fumble with a heads up behind the line of scrimmage play in the Steelers second game vs. the Redskins. He recorded an interception in the Steelers third preseason game vs. the Chiefs. Then Behind the Steel Curtain editor declared, “Jarvis Jones is simply making plays.”

  • The Jarvis Jones of preseason 2013 teased he might make Steelers Nation forget James Harrison.

Alas, that was not to be. Jones did get the opening day starting nod, but he would relinquish his starting role before midseason. The fact that Jones’ play turned heads in the Steelers win over New Orleans shows that Steelers fans are still wanting for Jones to realize his potential as a first round draft choice.

5. 2015 – Preseason Death of Steelers Defense Greatly Exaggerated

In the 2015 preseason the Pittsburgh Steelers did something they hadn’t done since Alonzo Jackson was a rookie – fielded a defense coordinated by someone other than Dick LeBeau. All eyes were on Keith Butler to see if the long-time understudy could reverse the downward trend of Steelers defense.

  • The early returns disheartened even faithful scribes like Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola.

During the 2015 preseason the Steelers defense gave up scores of 14, 23, and 24 points, before giving up an alarming 43 points to a no-name Buffalo Bills trio of quarterbacks, who completed 90% of their passes. Likewise, opposing teams yards-per-catch grew as the preseason wore on.

It’s true that the Steelers defense did show signs of getting more pressure on the quarterback, and eventual starters Mike Mitchell and Will Allen didn’t play much.

While no one would confuse the Steelers 2015 defense with the 2008 Steelers defense, the Blitzbrugh defenses of the ‘90’s, let alone the Steel Curtain of the 1970’s, Keith Butler did turn the unit around.

No one would have predicted that based on what they saw in preseason.

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Did the Steelers Underutilize Matt Spaeth’s Pass Catching Skills? – No That’s Not a Trick Question Steelers Nation

If news of the Steelers releasing tight end Matt Spaeth surprised, the articles themselves were predictable: Each and every article, at some point, defined Matt Spaeth as a “blocking tight end.”

  • And the tape tells no lies: Matt Spaeth primarily played as a blocking tight end

But is it also fair to ask: Were Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills underutilized? No Steelers Nation, that’s not a rhetorical question, but rather a serious one.

Matt Spaeth, pass catch, touchdown, steelers vs. packers, lambeau field

Matt Spaeth catches a touchdown @ Lambeau Field in 2014. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6’7” 260 pound tight end promised to offer Ben Roethlisberger a tantalizingly tall target. And early on it looked like he would do just that. In his first four career games, Matt Spaeth caught four passes, and three of them were for touchdowns.

  • Despite his strong start, Spaeth’s role as a pass catcher never evolved, as the 6’7” tight end’s pass catching production peaked in 2008 at 17 catches on 26 targets.

Still, when Matt Spaeth was heading towards free agency in 2015, an analysis of his passing stats suggested the Steelers should call his number more:

matt spaeth, career receiving stats, spaeth pass catching, touchdown catches

Do numbers lie? Matt Spaeth caught most of the balls thrown his way.

  • Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley never got the memo.

During 2015, Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones only targeted Matt Spaeth three times. For the record, Spaeth caught 2 out of three of those passes for 10 yards, but honestly that doesn’t tell us much. Nor, honestly speaking, does his career target-to-catch ratio of 63.2% suggest much because the sample is so small.

Still, using analysis done to document Heath Miller’s dependability in the passing game, you can see how Matt Spaeth compares to other Steelers pass catchers since 2005:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

Spaeth’s dependability as a pass catcher is on par with Antwaan Randle El and just below Hines Ward, while better than Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant and Nate Washington.

Matt Spaeth “Just catches Touchdowns….”

While Spaeth’s pass catching production might fail to reach statistical relevance, it does tell us reveal something else:

  • Matt Spaeth excelled at catching touchdowns.

Matt Speath’s catch-to-touchdown ratio is 18.2%. In otherwords, almost one of ever five passes Matth Spaeth caught went for a touchdown. Only Martavis Bryant has been better and only three others have numbers in double digits. Yes, the small sample size perhaps distorts things a bit, but it does prove that when the ball got near Matt Spaeth when things were most important, he generally made a catch.

  • All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers target Matt Spaeth more in the passing game?

The easiest, and most likely correct answer, is that Spaeth dropped a lot of passes in practice. That idea is supported by the fact that Spaeth’s most prolific pass catching spell came during 2010, when he started several games for after Heath Miller suffered a devastating concussion vs. the Ravens. During that season, Speath only caught 9 of the 18 balls thrown his way, and didn’t score any touchdowns.

  • Still, if that is the case, why would the Steelers call Spaeth’s number so frequently in the Red Zone?

Steelers Nation will never know the answer for sure. But the numbers certainly suggest that Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills were underutilized during his time with the Steelers. Even if that is true, that fact would fail to alter one fundamental fact: Matt Spaeth blocked incredibly well.

Although Le’Veon Bell dazzled as a rookie, his performance as pure rusher remained in consistent, and deep into December, Bell had still failed to break the 100 yard rushing mark. That change just before Christmas at Lambeau Field when Bell romped for 124 yards, which was also Matt Spaeth’s 3rd game back from injured reserve.

That’s no coincidence, although if you’re wondering, that Green Bay game also saw Matt Spaeth’s 2nd and final target of the season – which he caught for a touchdown….

…Steel Curtain Rising thanks Matt Speath for his service in Pittsburgh, and wishes him well on his next NFL stop and/or retirement.

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Where to Rank Antwaan Randle El Among Steelers Wide Receivers?

Asked and Answered” is one of Steelers.com’s most popular features which sees Bob Labriola answer questions from Steelers Nation. The feature is the successor to “Overview” page of Steelers Digest, where Labriola would answer questions with equal parts wisdom and sarcasm.

Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth topped the list – no brainers there, followed by Antonio Brown and Hines Ward. Again, two more no brainers, even if it’s a little wired to have an active player on such a list. Then he offered a surprise “…and for the last spot I’m going to go with Louis Lipps over Santonio Holmes and/or Antwaan Randle El.”

Antwaan Randle El, steelers, falcons, steelers wide receiver rankings

Antwaan Randle El stretches for yard in Steelers 2010 season opener vs. Falcons; Photo credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

The choice of Louis Lipps earns the full-throated support of this site. Louis Lipps statistics might be pedestrian by 2016’s standards, but Lipps was an All-Pro Caliber receiver playing in a run-oriented offense and forced to catch most of his balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley as opposed to benefitting from having a Terry Bradshaw or a Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way.

  • Louis Lipps is also the Steelers 4th leading wide out in terms of yards and catches.

Throwing Santonio Holmes name into the conversation for the 5th slot makes sense, not on overall career production as a Steeler, but because he was the Steelers MVP in the 2008 playoffs, and well…

….even if he’d only made that one catch in Super Bowl XLIII, ‘Tone would belong in the discussion.

  • But does Antwaan Randle El belong in this conversation?

Steel Curtain Rising holds Antwaan Randle El in high esteem. Randle El arrived as part of the Steelers 2002 draft class, and made an immediate impact as a wide receiver and kick returner. His skill as a quarterback was Inspector Gadget aka Mike Mularkey’s dream. While most of his time was spent as a number three or slot receiver, when asked to take over the starting role, Randle El was up to it.

And no one in Steelers Nation need be reminded of how Ken Whisenhunt deployed Randle El versatility with lethal effectiveness in Super Bowl XL.

  • But does Randle El deserve consideration as the Steelers 5th, or even 6th best wide receiver of all time?

Respectfully, Steel Curtain Rising argues that there several Steelers wide receivers who should rank ahead of Antwaan Randle El. Who? The first two names that jump to mind are Plaxico Burress and Yancey Thigpen. Burress is 9th on the Steelers All-Time receiving list whereas Randle El is 23rd. Thigpen is 14th on the list and caught 3 times as many touchdowns.

What about Mike Wallace? Wallace career production is actually above ‘Tone’s, but for my money both Santonio Holmes playoff production and perhaps Antwaan Randle El puts them above Wallace.

Then there is one player who played before Chuck Noll’s time who also deserves consideration, Buddy Dial. Matthews.

Buddy Dial played in Pittsburgh from 1959 to 1963, playing 12 and 14 game seasons and in an age when a run first mentality dominated the entire league, yet he still ranks as the Steelers 8th leading receiver. Actually, Dial is sixth if you limit the list to wide receivers.

  • So where to rank Antwaan Randle El among Steelers wide receivers?

Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t honestly know. Numbers don’t like but sometime statistics deceive. Dwight Stone is ahead of Randle El on the Steelers all time receiving list, and if you were picking All-Time Draft Steelers draft, would you pick Stone over Randle El? Neither would I. Charles Johnson also ranks ahead of Randle El but I’d think twice about picking him over Randle El.

At the end of the day, I’m undecided about where Antwaan Randle El ranks among Steelers wide receivers, but I do know that I’d put at least put Plaxico Burress , Yancey Thigpen, Buddy Dial and perhaps Mike Wallace ahead of him.

Where do you think he belongs? Take a moment to leave a comment.

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Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Case Study in Dependability and Humility

Heath Miller’s surprising retirement prompted an out pouring of support from Steelers Nation. And so it should. Heath Miller was fundamental to the Steelers success during his 11 years in Pittsburgh, and he played a critical role in the Steelers championships in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Heath Miller’s career also reinforces and important lesson for Steelers Nation.

My first reaction when the Steelers drafted Miller in 2005 was “huh?” That’s not terribly surprising. I’m the polar opposite of a “draft nic” so the fact that Miller lacked a combine or pro day pedigree didn’t factor into my “huh?” Instead, my thoughts were much more pedestrian.

  • The 2004 Steelers had finished 15-1 and lost the AFC Championship essentially because Ben Roethlisberger had begun playing like a rookie.

It is quite common to say, “X Team is a quarterback/running back/edge rusher/shut down corner away from the Super Bowl.” No one ever says “We’re a tight end away from the Super Bowl,” (unless you have Rob Gronkowski on your team, and he’s injured.)

But I was OK with the pick. Pittsburgh’s depth chart at tight end featured Jerame Tuman, Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing, and Walter Rasby, and 1st round draft pick figured to be upgrade.

  • The 2005 Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff upset of the Colts highlighted just how wise Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher were to pick Heath Miller.

The Indianapolis Colts played 2005 as the “Team of Destiny” laying waste to everyone in their path, until Bill Polian ordered Tony Dungy to rest his starters late in the season. Then Tony Dungy’s son tragically took his own life. Anyone with even an ounce of human compassion was rooting for Dungy. On top of that, the Colts had spanked the Steelers on Monday Night Football during the regular season. No one gave the Steelers a chance.

Bill Cowher and the Steelers however, brought a decidedly different game plan when the returned to Indianapolis for the playoffs.

Instead of trying to pound the Colts into submission with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers would hook their hopes to Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Roethlisberger’s missed his first pass to Antwaan Randle El.

  • Roethlisberger completed his next pass to Heath Miller who took it 36 yards.
  • The next time he dropped back, he looked again to Miller for another 18 yards.

That took them to the Colt’s 28. 5 plays later the Steelers were up 7 points in a drive where they threw 7 times out of 10, and Heath Miller accounted for 54 of the team’s 84 yards.

In my memory, probably like those of most Steelers fans, Pittsburgh went up 14-0 on its first two drives. But it didn’t happen that way. The Steelers defense forced a quick punt, but on the next drive, the Roethlisberger threw an interception. But Dick LeBeau’s defense forced another 3 and out. Then the Steelers offense struck again. A 45 yard pass to Hines Ward put the Steelers in the Red Zone at the Colt’s 8. Bettis ran for one.

  • Then Roethlisberger dropped back, and found Heath Miller in the end zone for another touchdown.

That’s three targets to Heath Miller and three completions to Heath Miller and a touchdown to put the Steelers up by 14 in a game no one gave them a chance for winning. As it turned out, the 2004 had been “A tight end away from the Super Bowl” because throwing the ball to Heath Miller was one of the best bets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had.

Heath Miller an Incredibly Reliable Pass Catcher

Just how much will Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and the rest of the Steelers offense miss Heath Miller? To answer that question, let’s look at just who Heath Miller has had to “compete” with to get Ben Roethlisberger to throw to him:

  • Hines Ward, a Super Bowl MVP and just 1 of 13 players to break the 1,000 reception barrier
  • Santonio Holmes, another Super Bowl MVP
  • Antonio Brown, who is easily the best wide receiver in the game today
  • Mike Wallace, one player who truly “could go all the way” on any given play
  • Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, two freakishly talent players

An those are just the “major receiving threats” during Heath Miller’s time in Pittsburgh. Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Antwaan Randle El, Nate Washington and even Willie Parker were more than capable of doing damage when the ball was thrown their way. So just how did Miller stack up?

The numbers paint a pretty impressive picture:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

In 11 years, Heath Miller proved to be an incredibly reliable receiving target.

Thanks to saber metrics, we now not only know how many times a player has caught the ball, but we can also track how many times the quarterback tried to get it to him. To be fair, the ratio of catches to targets can be a little miss leading – if Ben Roethlisberger overthrows or underthrows Martavis Bryant 35 yards down the field, that counts as a target. But it’s a fairly reliable metric, and with each receiver having over 100 targets, the sample is fairly representative.

  • Heath Miller weighs in a number 2.

It might be tempting to suggest because, as a tight end Miller’s ran shorter routes and was less likely to be overthrown, but his yards-per-catch number is only one less than Hines Ward and not much further behind Sanders and Randle El

In a word, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger an incredibly reliable target.

Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Study in Dependability & Humility

Those statistics create a pretty accurate picture of Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers offense, but mere numbers always fail to do Heath Miller justice. What made Heath Miller special was the effort, dedication, and concentration that it took to create the catches that those numbers represent.

Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire offered this video to explain why Miller is so beloved in Pittsburgh.

Miller made an incredibly difficult catch, knowing he was going to be KOed. He took a vicious hit that drew a penalty, and simply handed the ball to the official, without any jaw boning. Oh yeah, the catch also secured first down. If Lynn Swann set the standard in Super Bowl X for acrobatic “Lynn Swann” catches then perhaps tough, short-to-medium yardage receptions that convert third downs should be known as “Heath Miller catches.”

  • Even that, however, fails Heath Miller’s legacy.

Unlike the fullback, the tight end will not disappear from today’s game. However, “true tight ends,” ones that can both block like lineman and catch like backs or receivers are increasingly rare. Miller excelled at both.

  • It’s tempting to look at some of Miller’s lower-production games from 2015 and say, “Ah, see, he’s was losing a step.”

Heath Miller’s play was dropping off gradually, but Miller’s 3 catch game in the regular season vs. Denver and 2 catch effort in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati were more indicative of his primary role as a blocker in those games rather than as a receiver.

  • Blocking form the NFL’s invisible cadre, they generate no statistics to measure their accomplishments.

But as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminded Steelers Nation, it was Heath Miller who held off Ray Lewis in the 2008 AFC Championship game just long enough to allow Roethlisberger to connect with Holmes and then Miller blocked for Holmes as he reversed field and took it 65 yards to the house.

  • A video tape review of similar “Big Plays” during the second Super Bowl era will doubtlessly reveal similar anonymous blocking assists by Miller.

You’ve got to figure that Heath Miller would have been a perfect fit for Chuck Noll’s Super Steelers, because anonymous is exactly how Miller would want it. And that’s what made Heath Miller a perfect fit for Pittsburgh in any era: Heath Miller’s Steelers career was a study in quiet competencies of reliability, dedication, and humility.

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Celebrating the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays

Super Bowl 50 is almost here. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing Super Bowl 50, but as the great game reaches the half-century mark, Steelers Nation can take pride that regardless of whether Carolina or Denver triumphs, the Black and Gold own more Lombardi Trophies than any other franchise.

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

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

Lynn Swann makes and belief-defying catch in Super Bowl X over Dalllas’ Mark Washington. Photo Credit: AP, via NY Daily New

Super Bowl IX – Dwight White Spearheads Defensive Dominance

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

  • That only tells half the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl X – Lynn Swann Shines

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XIII – Rocky Bleier Overcomes the Odds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XXX – Steelers Surprise Onsides Kick

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XL – Ike Taylor’s Interception

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XLIII – James Harrison’s Pick Six

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

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

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

  • Simply math settles the question.

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

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

Super Bowl XLV – Alejandra’s Return to Health

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

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

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

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

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Miami Dolphins Sign Former Steelers WR/QB Tyler Murphy

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II has confirmed that the team will not look to find Ben Roethlisberger’s successor in the 2016 draft, but did admit that the slots below Roethlisberger on the depth chart do need to be settled. Mike Vick and Bruce Gradkowski are both free agents, while Landry Jones has one year remaining on his rookie deal.

The Miami Dolphins signed former Steelers WR/QB Tyler Murphy to a futures contract, effectively ending the Steelers “slash” experiment with Murphy, who was listed as a wide receiver, but got reps at quarterback during training camp and in practice during the 2015 season.

The Steelers thought enough of Murphy’s potential as an emergency 3rd quarterback keep him on the active roster until early November, when they waived Murphy to make room for Doran Grant. They resigned Murphy to the practice squad but signaled their intentions regarding his future as a quarterback last week when the signed former Dallas Cowboys third string quarterback Dustin Vaughan to a futures contract.

  • On paper, at least, Murphy still had a shot at securing a slot on the Steelers wide receivers depth chart.

Heading into 2016, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and Sammie Coates have the first four slots locked up, but Darrius Heyward-Bey is a free agent who could draw interest.

But the Steelers apparently did not see Murphy is a viable option for their 5th wide receiver slot. For the record, Tyler Murphy had one catch on one target for 16 yards in the Steelers season opening loss to the New England Patriots.

Tyler Murphy played his college ball at Boston College, where he started at quarterback. But like Antwaan Randle El and so many before him, he will making it in the NFL means making the transition to wide receiver.

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Steelers vs Worst NFL Draft Classes in Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has ranked the 4 worst draft classes of the NFL’s last 25 years. If that sounds curious it should. Reineking actually claims to rank the NFL’s five worst draft classes, but he’s already included the 2013 NFL Draft, and 2 years is far too short a time to draw conclusions about any draft class.

  • Beyond that, the simple fact is that at this time of year pro football focused sites, including this one, become desperate for anything that generates them page views.

But let’s assume that Reineking’s methodology is sound and the analysis behind his rankings is solid. The question of interest to Steel Curtain Rising is “How did the Steelers fare vs the worst NFL draft classes in history?”  Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Steelers 1992 NFL Draft Class

For Reineking, the 1992 NFL Draft was the worst of the last 25 years and if he’s right, then this is all the much sweeter for Steelers nation, because the Steelers 1992 draft class was one of the best of the post-Chuck Noll era.

The 1992 NFL Draft was Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s first together, and their first three picks were Leon Searcy, Levon Kirkland, and Joel Steed. None of the three started in Cowher’s 1992 opening day upset of the Houston Oilers. That honor feel to Darren Perry who started all sixteen games and hauled in 6 interceptions.

  • Searcy, Kirkland, and Steed did start on opening day 1993, and were regular starters through Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers also grabbed long snapper Kendall Gammon in the 11th round of the 1992 NFL Draft who served as long snapper for 4 straight years. Searcy left after 1995, but Kirkland, Steed, and Perry all signed multiple contracts from the Steelers. Kirkland and Steed made 3 Pro Bowls between them.

The Steelers 1992 draft class did not produce superstars, but Pittsburgh did find four solid, long-term starters and critical special teams role player. That’s a very good effort for any draft, and all the more so for one that is rated as the worst overall draft in a quarter century.

Steelers 2013 NFL Draft Class

It is way, way too early to evaluate the Steelers 2013 draft class. Going into 2015, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas represent huge question marks and you don’t want to say that of your first and third round pick two years after the draft. Especially when the success or failure of your defense hinges closely on their development.

Yet, Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams, and Markus Wheaton have all shown “something” and that bodes well for the overall fate of the 2013 draft class.

Steelers 2009 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 2009 draft class has perhaps been one of the most misunderstood. By definition, it’s a disappointment when no members of your draft class get second contracts. And if Ziggy Hood was a disappointing 1st round pick, he was no bust, and as Steel Curtain Rising demonstrated last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers made good picks in 2009, the problem is that the rest of the NFL benefited from them.

If 2009 was the third worst draft of the last 25 years, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin sent a lot of the right names to the podium, even if it did Pittsburgh little good.

Steelers 1999 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 1999 draft class was Tom Donahoe’s last, and it was far from his best. The Steelers were picking 13th, and their first two picks were Troy Edwards and Scott Shields, both of whom were busts. 3rd round pick Kris Farris represented another waste of a premium pick.

  • But the 1999 draft was far from a total loss for Pittsburgh.

Round’s 3 and four included men by the names of Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, two men who own three Super Bowl rings between them. Amos Zereoue also arrived in that draft and, while Zereoue never reached his potential he was hardly a bust.

The Steelers laid a couple of eggs in the 1999 NFL Draft, but they also found 2 diamonds in the rough.

Steelers 2002 NFL Draft Class

The 2002 NFL Draft was Kevin Colbert’s third with the team, and it was easily its best in terms of finding overall value. Only one of the 8 players the Steelers drafted in 2002 failed to make the roster.

Injuries ruined Kendall Simmons career, but he stayed healthy enough to start in Super Bowl XL. Most people will never think of Antwaan Randle El as great, but his value to the Steelers offenses went far beyond his stat sheet (just ask Hines Ward). Ditto Larry Foote. The Steelers upgraded when they replaced Chris Hope with Ryan Clark, but Hope was good enough to start during the 2004 15-1 season and the Super Bowl that followed a year later.

Verron Haynes and Lee Mays weren’t household words in Steelers Nation even when they were playing, but Hayes was a serviceable back up, and Lee Mays a decent spot duty role player.

  • The final pick was of course Brett Keisel. What more do we need to say?

Kevin Colbert really did save the best for last here.

Keisel might not be a future Hall of Famer, he might have only earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Brett Keisel blossomed into a great player in every sense of the word.

The Steelers do Well in Picking from Weak NFL Draft Classes

Going into ever NFL draft, fans are wont to hear that “This it’s a great year to for teams that need to draft ______ [insert your position name(s)],” or “Unfortunately, there aren’t any viable franchise quarterbacks coming out this year.”

  • The funny thing is, you rarely hear draft classes collectively panned or praised after the fact.

Credit NFL.Com’s Jim Reineking for trying to change that.

Steel Curtain Rising offers no opinion either way of his choices, but if his rankings are right, then the Steelers have provided a case study proving the old adage that “Good players are available in every round waiting to be found,” it just takes a smart scouting organization to find them.

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