Remembering the Steelers 1992 Win over the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium

When people think of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher‘s first season in Pittsburgh–1992–one of the first things that comes to mind is his initial game, a 29-24 come-from-behind victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston.

Yes, it was a great way to kick off a career that would certainly put The Chin in rarefied air is it pertained to Pittsburgh coaching legends–the decision to try a fake punt, down 14-0 early in the game was an indication to the old AFC Central Division that this Steelers team and this Steelers coach were here to win.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

And win the Steelers did in ’92, five of their first seven games, in fact, and were primed for a first place showdown with Houston, a rematch that would take place at Three Rivers Stadium on November 1, 1992.

With the help of an old LA Times post-game article, we know the Oilers jumped out to a 6-0 first half lead thanks to two Al Del Greco field goals–one from 29 yards away and the other from 19 yards out.

Pittsburgh took the lead later in first half on a one-yard run by Barry Foster, a running back who would go on to break the Steelers single-season rushing mark with 1,690 yards and tie an NFL record with 12 100-yard games.

Behind 7-6 early in the third quarter, the Oilers lost their star quarterback and Steelers nemesis, Warren Moon, after Moon was hit on the chin by cornerback Rod Woodson.

Speaking of nemeses, Cody Carlson, the unknown youngster who cost Pittsburgh a division title and playoff spot just two years earlier when he filled in for an injured Moon in the 1990 regular season finale and torched the Steelers defense for 60 minutes, entered the lineup and continued where he left off.

  • Carlson connected with receiver Webster Slaughter for an 11-yard score to make it 13-7.

That was bad enough, but just 1:03 later, Ray Childress scooped up a fumble by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell and raced eight yards for yet another touchdown, stunning the Three Rivers crowd and giving Houston a 13-point advantage.

But the Steelers were no strangers to overcoming such deficits against Houston in ’92: “We were down 20-7, but we’ve been there before,” Cowher would go on to say later.

  • The Steelers were there before, and they were about to do that again.

Early in the fourth quarter, Neil O’Donnell connected with tight end Adrian Cooper on a two-yard touchdown pass to pull Pittsburgh to within 20-14.

Midway through the final period, following a fumble recovery by legendary linebacker Greg Lloyd, the Steelers went ahead, 21-20, on a five-yard touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to the other and more decorated tight end, Eric Green.

It wasn’t over yet. The Oilers had one more chance. Cody Carlson had one more opportunity to stick a dagger in Pittsburgh’s heart–and if not end its season, at least capture sole possession of first place.

As Carlson methodically drove the Oilers’ offense down the turf at Three Rivers Stadium in the final moments, I could sense another heartbreaking loss coming on the horizon. As the seconds ticked off the clock, and Cowher kept the Steelers final timeout in his back pocket, I figured a turnover was all that could save the day.

And when Cody Carlson set up Del Greco at the 22 with seconds left, I kind of resigned myself to second place in the Central.

  • Little did I know that Bill Cowher had been responding to pleas from assistants to use with “Don’t worry, he’s going to miss the field goal.”

Bill Cowher’s instincts were on the mark. The day was actually saved by Del Greco, himself, who hooked the seemingly make-able field goal, giving the Steelers not only sole possession of first place, but an all-important sweep of Houston.

As the fans in attendance went nuts, some of whom were seen dancing and hugging on the top of the dugout, I felt the kind of magic that fans must have experienced two-decades earlier, when the 1972 edition came out of nowhere and captured the hearts of an entire region (for good).

Yes, it felt like the 70’s to a 20-year old who really didn’t know any better. The one thing I knew for sure:

  • The 1992 Steelers had put the rest of the NFL on notice.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Greg Lloyd, who never backed down from a fight and was certainly at the forefront of the team’s resurgence in the 1990’s:

“I’m sure (the Oilers) are going to say ‘What if, what if, what if?’ That’s a tough loss for them, but a great win for us.”

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Ed Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, an Iconic Tale of the Birth of Cowher Power

What is it like to witness the end of one era and the beginning of another? Every journalist  dreams of the opportunity.  Fate afforded the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette the chance to do just that in 1992 when Pittsburgh Steelers transitioned from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher.

  • Except there was a “catch.”

The devastating 1992 pressman and drivers’ strike that shut down the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette left Ed Bouchette without a paper to print his stories. Fortunately, the Post-Gazette kept Ed Bouchette employed as part of their skeleton staff, and Sagamore Publishing approached him about chronicling both the end of Chuck Noll’s tenure and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s.

  • The result was Dawn of a New Steel Age, a 214 page volume published in 1993.
Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

In a market awash with books on the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll find some that are excellent (think Their Life’s Work and/or His Life’s Work), some that are good (think The Ones that Hit the Hardest), others that are average (think the Greatest 50 Plays in Pittsburgh Steelers Football History) and some that are downright awful (think Jack Lambert: Tough As Steel.)

  • Then there are the iconic books, ones that serve as a touchstone for their respective generations.

Think Roy Blount’s Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Truthfully, people don’t discuss Dawn of a New Steel Age in such reverential tones as they do with Three Bricks.  Perhaps they should, because Bouchette’s book really is that good.

Dawn Deftly Weaves Steelers Present with Steelers Past

I remember reading Steelers Digest’s profile of Dawn in 1993, but in those pre-Amazon days getting a copy outside of Pittsburgh was hard. However, I spied a copy at Station Square just before the Steeler ’96 home game against the Bengals, and it has served as a reference book ever since.

Bouchette divides his book neatly into 20 chapters, seamlessly weaving a tale where each chapter tells an independent story that contributes its unique elements to a unified narrative.

One critique of journalistic prose is that it too often sacrifices historical context for immediacy In contrast, too many history books offer dry recitations of fact that fail to convey a sense of present, or the flavor of the moments they’re recounting.

  • Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel  Age does the opposite.

A reader who picks up the book today can follow the progression of the 1992 Steelers and gain what it was like to experience the birth of Cowher Power as it happened, while understanding just how those moments fit into the context of Steelers history.

Bill Cowher, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher in 1992. Photo Credit: thisisopus.com

That’s a more difficult feat that it may seem. Jim O’Brien’s books on the Steelers deliver excellent insights, yet they often read like collections of individual stories that don’t from a central narrative.

  • Read today, Bouchette’s approach provides a refreshing contrast to our Twitterized communication landscape.

Another writer charged with telling the same tale could have easy fallen back on “The game passed Noll by and Bill Cowher offered a breath of fresh air.” But Bouchette doesn’t do that, and because of that the Dawn of a New Steel Age succeeds in making  unique contributions to Steelers history.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Why DID the Steelers slip into mediocrity in the 1980s? Poor drafting is the answer, but Dawn of a New Steel Age delivers insights into WHY the Steelers drafting slipped so badly. Art Rooney Jr. touched on this a bit in his book Ruanaidh, as did Michael MacCambridge and Gary Pomerantz.

  • Bouchette arrived sooner, however, and in many ways still tells a more complete story than those who follow.

For his own part, Bouchette isn’t ready to describe that part of the book as “ground breaking,” but upon re-reading this chapter he asserts, “I will say that maybe some of Noll’s best coaching jobs were during the strike of 1987 and the 1989 season.”

While a Dawn of a New Steel Age offers the appropriate deference to what Noll accomplished with limited talent in the 1980’s, one thing stands out: the implicit criticisms made of Noll that many of Bouchette’s subjects offer.

And that’s another strength of the book. The breadth and depth Bouchette’s interviews are unparalleled.  Bouchette managed to talk to  the ball boys to lesser known Rooney brothers and everyone in between.

When asked if he would get similar access should he try to write a similar book today, Bouchette explains explaining, ‘No, I would not get nearly the access. We all had open access to all the assistant coaches and could sit down with them in their offices and chat. Same with guys like Tom Donahoe. Dan Rooney always was great.”

Bouchette continues, “Today, I might be limited to the players and a few interviews with Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, perhaps Kevin Colbert.”

Bill Cowher Arrives in Pittsburgh

As the title suggests, Dawn of a New Steel Age doesn’t focus on the 80’s, but rather on the birth of the Cowher-era. And the insights Bouchette delivers on the 1992 Steelers are just as rich as his reflections on the 80’s. To that end, Bouchette devotes full chapters to the 1992’s key actors:  Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Neil O’Donnell, and Barry Foster.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher & Dan Rooney, January 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Bouchette also offers one of the first profiles of Art Rooney II.

Art Rooney II is now of course the face of the Rooney family, a role he’s occupied since Dan Rooney left to serve as ambassador to Ireland in 2009. But in 1992 Art Rooney II had only recently assumed the title of Vice President of the Steelers and still maintained an active law practice.

Bouchette also had the presence of mind to foreshadow the 2008 Steelers ownership restructuring. As he explains, “I also wanted to look into the crystal ball to see what might become of the Steelers franchise because Dan Rooney and I had talked about it previously.”

Even in the early 1990’s, the Rooney brothers “… did not want to see ownership splinter among all their kids and grandkids.” To that end, Bouchette got Pat Rooney on the record predicting, “’Art’s going to have to buy out the partners,’ and I wrote that sources said Dan is preparing to do just that. So, I would say I came damn close to predicting what would happen 15 years later.”

Bill Cowher, Perhaps as Steelers Nation has Never Seen Him

Bill Cowher is of course the protagonist in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. And Cowher’s presence and influence on the momentous events of the Steelers 1992 season are evident on every page of Bouchette’s book.

  • Bouchette quotes Cowher liberally, and fans who remember the rest of the 90’s or the 00’s will find a more affable Cowher in the pages of Dawn.
Bill Cowher, Three Rivers Stadium

Bill Cowher at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: NFL via WTAE.com

When asked if 1992 represented a sort of honeymoon between the press and Bill Cowher, Bouchette agrees, detailing, “… The newspaper strike helped, as Cowher so often points out. We had our moments, especially in 1993. Bill was an interesting coach to cover. He had a range of emotions and did not hide them.”

In his autobiography Dan Rooney observed hiring a new coach almost forces a franchise to start from zero.  He would know. Dan Rooney watched in agony has as Art Rooney Sr. cycled through 11 head coaches while failing to win a playoff game in 4 decades.

  • Dan followed by winning 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches in 4 decades.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers surprised the NFL. Many pre-season publications ranked them in the mid-20’s in an era when the league only had 28 teams. Bouchette was surprised however, submitting that “The Steelers of 1990 and 1991 were not terrible and I believe we all recognized the disconnect between the coaching staff and players during that period.”

  • Bill Cowher may not have reset the franchise to zero, but he did author a new era for Steelers football.

A Dawn of a New Steel Age captures that process in real time. Bill Cowher’s arrival spurred changes from top to bottom in the Steelers organization, including their approach to the draft, the way they practiced, even how players conditioned. Bouchette documents it all.

When asked what a Steelers fan can gain by reading Dawn of a New Steel Age in 2018, Bouchette suggests “A perspective because it is now a history book. I thought I detailed pretty well the end of Noll’s coaching career and why it came to an end, the start of Cowher’s career as a head coach, the culture of the Steelers and how they were to survive into the future.”

  • That’s an accurate self-assessment, but perhaps one that does not go quite far enough.

After the 1992 Steelers upset road win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola declared, “Something special is happening to this team and this city.” He was right. 1992 was a special time to be a Steelers fan.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is a special book because its pages capture and preserve the energy that awoke Steelers Nation in 1992 for all who read it.

Editor’s note, as of this posting, copies of Dawn of a New Steel Age appear to be available on Amazon.

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

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

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

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

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

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

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

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

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

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

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

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

  • First, football is a results driven business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Chicago Bears

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Chicago Bears is long and rather tortured for Pittsburgh, dating back to 1934, with the Steel City suffering a 7-21-1 record against Windy City. The founders of both franchises, Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the lopsidedness of the Steelers history vs. the Bears might be due to Pittsburgh’s ineptness during the pre-Chuck Noll era, Pittsburgh’s record in Chicago remains a woeful 1-12.

This chronicle of Steelers history vs the Bears only goes back 31 years that have seen Pittsburgh square off against Chicago 8 times. Indeed, a see-saw dynamic characterizes recent Steelers-Bears history, with the Steelers seem to celebrate glorious victories or agonizing defeats, with very little in between.

Either scroll down or click on the links below to relive key moments in the Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Chicago Bears:

Steelers history vs bears, Steelers vs. bears, Antonio Brown, Charles Tillman

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Charles Tillman of the Bears. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

1986 – Ditka Takes the Wind over the Ball in OT

November 30, 1986 @ Solider Field
Chicago 13, Pittsburgh 10

The 4-8 Steelers gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears a run for their money, even though they did not score an offensive touchdown. But that was good enough to force overtime when…

Iron Mike elected to kickoff, trusting in the wind and his defense. The Bear’s defense vindicated their coach, forcing a punt and setting up Kevin Butler’s winning kick.

  • Fun Fact: The Steelers only touchdown came in the third quarter on a fake field goal from Harry Newsome to tight end Preston Gothard.

1989 – Steelers Suffer Third Shut Out of Season

November 11, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Chicago 20, Pittsburgh 0

Aliquippa native Mike Dikta gave himself a hell of a home coming during the only game he coached at Three Rivers Stadium. His Bears netted 6 turnovers, wracked up 203 rushing yards, and held Pittsburgh to 54 rushing yards during their 20-0 shut out.

1992 – Cowher’s Achilles Heel or Mike Singletary’s Final Game in Chicago?

December 13, 1992 @ Solider Field
Chicago 30, Pittsburgh 6

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher‘s 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had taken the NFL by storm. They traveled to Chicago with a 10-3 record and a chance to clinch their first AFC Central Title since 1984. Cowher Power had rejuvenated the Steelers.

  • The sky was the limit. Or was it?

The Cowher’s Steelers fell flat on their faces. And then the Bears stomped all over them, to the tune of 30-6. Barry Foster ran 12 times for 25 yards. The Bears sacked Bubby Brister 5 times and picked him off twice. Worst of all, Pittsburgh looked lethargic and unfocused.

NBC commentator Bill Parcells attributed the result to the emotional surge occasioned by Mike Singletary’s final game in Chicago, sharing something to the effect, “I was in the Bear’s locker room prior to the game, and this was a team clearly ready to play.”

  • Cowher’s Admission: During Cowher’s early tenure, over confidence was his Steeler’s chronic Achilles heel. Cowher would perhaps dispute this general observation, but a number of years later he admitted that the 1992 game against the Bears was one of the few times the team had not been mentally prepared to play.
Greg Lloyd, Rashan Salaam, Pittsburgh Steelers history vs Chicago Bears, Steelers vs Bears

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

1995 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. I – Super Bowl XXX

November 5th, 1995
Pittsburgh 37, Chicago 34

The 1995 Steelers started 3-4, and looked ugly doing it. After a particularly egregious loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Cowher declared it was now a “9 game season.” Having beaten the Jaguars in week 8, they traveled to Chicago to take on the 6-2 Bears.

  • This was one of the most exciting games the Steelers have every played.

The lead changed 5 times and the score was tied 3 times as the Steelers and Bears fought back and forth in this titanic struggle.

Hope faded for the Steelers when Barry Minter returned an interception to put the Bears up 34 to 27 late in the fourth. But Neil O’Donnell rebounded, taking the Steelers the length of the field capping off the drive with a 11 yard strike to Ernie Mills to tie it up just inside the two minute warning.

Cowher seemed ready to gamble it all when he sent in the 2 point conversion unit, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. The Steelers kicked the extra point instead, and Willie Williams picked off Eric Kramer in OT, to set up Norm Johnson’s game winning field goal.

  • Cowher’s Quote: When asked if such a dramatic victory might have been a character building exercise for his recently struggling Steelers, Cowher’s response was concise and correct – “Games like this do not build character, they display it.”

That character carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XXX

1998 – Steelers Start season 2-0, But…

September 13, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Bears 12

The 1997 Steelers had finished 11-5 and only two Kordell Stewart goal line interceptions away from the Super Bowl. They’d beaten the Ravens 20-13 the week before, but had not looked good doing it.

The Steelers defeated the Bears 17-12 on the strength of Jerome Bettis 131 years rushing.

  • Cause for concern: Kordell Stewart went 17-30-1-1. Not bad numbers, but he only threw for 137 yards and was only 4-4 rushing. Whether it was because Ray Sherman didn’t know what he was doing, or a lack confidence, but this was the beginning of a tentative and timid Stewart, as opposed to the swashbuckling Slash that Steelers fans had seen before.

2005 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. II Super Bowl XL

December 11, 2005 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 21, Chicago 9

The Bears were coming off an 8 game winning streak. Despite their 7-5 record, the Steelers were coming off a 3 game losing streak, and looking at the possibility of needing to run the table to make the playoffs. The Steelers were up to the task, as the Bus led the march that ended with One for the Thumb in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

The Steelers totally dominated the Bears in the snow at Heinz Field. Jerome Bettis ripped off 101 yards as he plowed through Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense. Willie Parker was close behind him with 68 yards. Ben Roethlisberger hit seven different receivers, as the Steelers out gained the Bears by almost 100 yards, and dominated time of possession to the tune of 37:19 to 22:41

  • Bettis Final 100 Yard Game: This was Bettis’ 50th 100 yard game with the Steelers, a team record. It was also to be the Bus’ final 100 yard effort, and he gained all but one of them in the second half. He also scored 2 TD’s for the 16th time in his career, which brought him to 4th on the Steelers all-time scoring list.

2009 – Super Bowl Champion Steelers Slip, Signal Things to Come…

September 20th, 2009 @ Solider Field
Chicago 17, Pittsburgh 14

The defending Super Bowl Champions had won their opener doing what they had done during the previous season – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But this trip to Solider Field showed that things would not be so easy for the 2009 Steelers.

The Steelers got on the board quickly with a clockwork like opening drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw an interception and he was off after that, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers and throwing balls that were either too low or two high. Ben Roethlisberger had help however,

Despite that, the Steelers hung in and appeared to be set to repeat history – pull out a win at the last moment.

Unfortunately Jeff Reed missed a long field goal, giving Chicago a victory. Unlike their ’08 brethren, this was to be the first of many last minute losses for the ’09 Steelers….

2013 – Bears Pass Rush Overwhelms Steelers en Route to 0-3 Start

September 22, 2013 @ Heinz Field
Chicago 40, Bears 23

Sometimes single tweet says it all. That’s the case with this Dale Lolley gem that still resonates long after the Steelers 2013 loss to Chicago:

  • That might seem like a harsh exaggeration, but rest assured my fellow citizens of Steelers Nation, it is not.

The 2013 Steelers entered the game at 0-2, yet both of those games had some extenuating circumstances (such as losing 3 starters in their opener to the Tennessee Titans.) But this was the height of the Mike Adams experiment on offensive line and, truth be told, the jury was still very much out on Marcus Gilbert at that point.

Ben Roethlisberger barley had time to breath, let along throw that night, as the Steelers signal’s turnovers directly led to two Bear’s touchdowns. Chicago jumped to a 27-3 lead, until a Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown hookup evened the score to 27-10 at the half.

  • The Steelers opened the 2nd half by 13 unanswered points to bring it to 27-23 by the beginning of the 4th quarter.

Alas, a Jay Cutler scramble on 3rd and 10 gave Chicago new life, and set up a score. The Steelers tired to match, but a Roethlsiberger fumble was returned to Pittsburgh’s six yard line and the Steelers started 2013 0-3.

 

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Steelers vs Le’Veon Bell: Franchise Running Back on the Right Team, Trapped in the Wrong Era

So  Le’Veon Bell has reported to the South Side and ended his holdout. Surprise, surprise. The Pittsburgh Steelers vs Le’Veon bell was never going to come down the the franchise running back opting to leave 12 million dollars in cash on the table to go while he worked Dairy Queen, was it? No, it wasn’t. Instead Le’Veon Bell signed his franchise tender and allows the Steelers to start the season with the foursome of Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Le’Veon Bell has of course become a lightning rod for fan criticism. Tony Defeo has already authored this site’s position on Bell’s holdout, Defeo doesn’t care and neither should you. Fair enough. But if I can’t get fired up one way or another about his holdout, Bell’s predicament is truly fascinating for what it tells us about the state of running backs in the modern NFL.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens, Franchise Running back

Does Le’Veon Bell have it in him to revive the concept of “Franchise Running back” in today’s NFL? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In today’s NFL, the Franchise running back is a quaint, if not outright antiquated concept.

Yet, long before he broke the Steelers regular season and playoff single game rushing records – something Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris, and Jerome Bettis never did – we suggested that Le’Veon Bell was one player who could potentially revive the franchise running back.

  • Suffice to say, the franchise running back’s resurrection has been put on hold, and the non-revolution was televised.

Per press accounts, the Steelers offered Le’Veon Bell a deal that averaged 12.2 million per year, which called for Bell to get about 30 million in his first two years. Not only would that have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, it was 50% more than the annual averages made by next two highest running backs Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, if Over the Cap is to be trusted.

  • 12.2 million dollars IS a lot of money, and making 50% more than the guy right below you marks you as the league’s unequivocal leader.

Yet, in Le’Veon Bell’s eyes, it wasn’t enough. Bell pointed to his pass catching numbers, and asked to be paid as a receiver. He’s got a strong argument there, but truthfully if Le’Veon Bell really wanted to be paid what he is worth, he should have asked for a time machine to take him back 20 years or so….

Franchise Running Backs in the Salary Cap Era

So what is a franchise running back? A franchise running back is a running back so talented that a team can build a Super Bowl contender around him. Sound silly? Perhaps it does in 2017, but for most of the NFL’s existence the opposite was true. Everyone remembers Jim Brown and OJ Simpson, but does anyone remember their quarterbacks? Not so much.

In the 1990’s the NFL boasted a several legitimate franchise running backs. I can remember at the end of college, arguing that Barry Foster deserved to be considered as a franchise running back alongside Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk or this rookie in Los Angeles named Jerome Bettis.

Laugh at my love for Foster if you will, (I’ll still argue he had the talent, but lacked desire and durability) but no one would argue with the other four, who own six Super Bowl rings between them.

The 1990’s didn’t just give us four undisputable franchise running backs; it also gave us the salary cap. While making meaningful apples-to apples-comparisons between players from different eras is as fun as it is impossible, the salary cap let us see how much those players respective teams valued their services.

franchise running backs, franchise running backs contracts, franchise running backs salary

A note about methodology to fellow arm-chair NFL salary capologists. Gathering consistent contract numbers isn’t easy. It was actually easier to get salary numbers on players from the early 1990’s than it was to get numbers on LaDainian Tomlinson (until we discovered his was listed on over the cap.)

Let’s also agree that the total contract value numbers along with average annual salaries are terribly relevant to a lot of conversations about player salaries, because even in the 1990’s the last several years of a contract frequently had base salaries that both the team and the agent knew would never find their way into the player’s pocket.

Fair enough. But the average salary figure does give us a decent measure to gauge how much of its precious salary cap resources a team is willing to devote to one player.

  • And these numbers reveal just how dramatically differently the NFL values its running backs today, and just how quickly things have changed.

Barry Sanders got the largest chuck of the pie available to him, with the Lions giving him almost 14% of their cap in 1997. Emmitt Smith wasn’t too far behind, getting almost 12% of the Cowboys cap. The difference there is perhaps explained by the fact that Barry Sanders was the Lone Star on his team, while Smith had to share his Den with two other Hall of Fame bound triplets (pun intended).

Two years later Marshall Faulk got 11% of the Rams cap. Five years later LaDainian Tomlinson was able to get almost 10% of the Chargers cap, and even as late as 2011, the Vikings were still willing to give Adrian Peterson 11% of their cap.

Jerome Bettis’ salary cap percentages seem rather pedestrian by comparison, and that leads me to wonder if the numbers out there are in fact accurate (although Bettis did take less money to stay in Pittsburgh in 1997 and perhaps in 2001 as well.) Still, even in 2001, at age 29, the Steelers were still willing to devote a slightly larger portion of their salary cap towards keeping the Bus parked in Pittsburgh, than they are (or were) to keeping Le’Veon Bell in the Steel City.

Indeed, in this salary cap percentage comparison, Le’Veon Bell barely comes out ahead of Barry Foster (who for the record, was only included this table for comparison’s sake.)

Mitigating Circumstances on Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Situation

While Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation clearly shows how little the NFL values running backs in 2017, there are mitigating circumstances. Clearly, Le’Veon Bell has talent that makes him truly special, but in each and every season he’s missed games either to injury or suspension.

  • If Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, that’s one reason why the Steelers offer wasn’t more generous.

If press reports are correct and the first two years of Le’Veon Bell’s deal would have paid him 30 million dollars, then he’s left 6 million dollars on the table, assuming the Steelers franchise him again in 2018 (which could be complicated, the capologist assure us), in search of a larger pay day come 2019.

That’s a fairly a large risk, but it’s a gamble Le’Veon Bell has the right to make on himself. If Le’Veon Bell can continue his Hall of Fame level production through 2017 and 2018 while avoiding injury and suspension, more power to him.

But even then, when he’s 27 years old, Le’Veon Bell’s unlikely to find a team willing to offer him a contract that commands the kind of cap space that the Sanders, Smiths and Petersons once commanded.

Fairly or unfairly, Le’Veon Bell is and will likely remain a franchise running back trapped in the wrong era.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to c

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

oncede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

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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Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record – Now Pause & Think about What that Means….

For two straight off seasons, Steelers Nation has fretted and fidgeted while watching the Steelers asking the question “What IF.” The big “What IF” of course was “What if Le’Veon Bell had been playing?”

Going into the playoff loss to the Ravens in 2014 (2015, actually) Bell’s absence represented a loss of 34% of the Steelers total offense. It is harder to calculate the impact of Le’Veon Bell’s absence in the 2015 postseason because Bell missed the majority of the season injured or suspended.

But it is quite possible that Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary against the Bengals had Bell been available to kill the clock in the 4th.

In Pittsburgh’s wild card win against the Dolphins, Steelers Nation finaly got to see their “What IF” come true. So how did that work out?

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Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers playoff record breaking performance against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • Le’Veon Bell ran 29 times for 167 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single game post-season rushing record.

Let’s restate that: In his first post season appearance, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single-game playoff rushing record. Now consider what that really means. Had Le’Veon Bell broken this record, say, for the San Francisco 49ers, he wouldn’t have turned many heads, no disrespect to Roger Craig or Rickey Waters.

  • But Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff rushing record for a single game.

This is the same franchise that has sent Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson (you forgot about him, didn’t you?) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the team that gave Willie Parker, holder of the Super Bowl record for the longest run from scrimmage, his shot in the NFL.

What’s more amazing is the way in which Le’Veon Bell broke the record. As Peter King, who is no Steelers cheerleader, observed:

Watch the man. He’s got the oddest rushing style in football today. “The Great Hesitator,” Phil Simms called him on CBS, and that’s just about perfect. Usually, Bell lines up as the classic I-back, seven yards deep, and when he takes a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll take a couple of jab steps toward a hole and almost stop in his tracks. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, had a one-cut running style; the back was told to hit up in the hole immediately—that charging into the hole was the one cut. Most coaches decry what they call pussyfooting.

Peter King then backed up his argument with a statistic, that someone on his staff deserves a ton of credit for unearthing:

I find this amazing: Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king, gained 860 yards in his best seven-game stretch. That’s 142 yards less than Bell’s current seven-game run.

So in other words, in the space of just 8 games, Le’Veon Bell broken a record set by one Steelers Hall of Fame running back that another Steelers Hall of Fame Running back couldn’t touch, and rushed for 142 yards more than Emmitt Smith rushed for during his best seven-game stretch.

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Jerome Bettis in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via BTSC

A little bit of research reveals that it’s not unusual for a Steelers running back to break the century mark in his playoff debut.

  • Barry Foster ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the 1992 Steelers playoff loss to the Bills
  • Jerome Bettis ran for 102 yards in the Steelers 1996 playoff win against the Colts, although he injured himself
  • Merril Hoge rushed for 100 yards even in the 1989 Steelers New Year’s Eve upset of the Oilers

Rashard Mendenhall, Bam Morris, Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier also had 100 yard (or near 100 yard) performances early in their careers, but these came after their first post season game.

All impressive efforts, to be certain. But if you really want to appreciate what Le’Veon Bell accomplished, look no further than to the comments made by Ben Roethlisberger:

I’ll never forget when Charlie Batch was here, he used to always tell me about how he would hand off and just watch Barry Sanders. I am not trying to put Le’Veon with Barry Sanders yet, but it is fun to sit and watch and just see what he is going to do because he is incredibly talented.

So if you’re keeping track at home, in addition to outperforming 3 Steelers Hall of Fame running backs, Le’Veon Bell’s playoff performance against the Dolphins has now drawn comparisons to two other non-Steelers Hall of Fame running backs.

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Walter Peyton dives over the pile as the Steelers are powerless to stop him. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via NFL SpinZone

During Le’Veon Bell took a lot of heat during his rookie season with a lot of journalists both inside (see John Stiegerwald) and outside of Pittsburgh doubting his ability. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took the time to compare his game-by-game results to Walter Payton’s rookie campaign, despite getting needled about it on social media from some of his peers.

  • Three seasons, a couple of injuries, 2 suspensions, and 1 playoff game later, Bell is getting the last laugh.

As Ben Roethlisberger cautioned, it is still too early to categorize Bell alongside the Smiths, Harris, Sanders, and Paytons of NFL lore, but in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have a special running back.

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