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, Johnny 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, Steelers vs Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns, Le'Veon Bell contract, Le'Veon Bell salary cap

5 Cleveland Browns attempt to stop Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: ESPN via End Zone Score.com

Wither the Franchise Running Back?

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?

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Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. 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.

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

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

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 concede 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?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell breaks Steelers playoff rushing record, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers wild card win dolphins

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.

Jerome Bettis, Jerome Bettis AFC Championship, Jerome Bettis Broncos

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.

Walter Payton, Walter Payton Steelers, Le'Veon Bell Walter Payton

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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How Kirk Cousins “How Do You Like Me Now?” Callout Vindicates Dan Rooney’s Contract Negotiation Stance

One of the peculiarities of being a Steelers fan first and a football fan second is that it becomes easy to forget just how differently the rest of the NFL operates sometimes. In fact, when I read that a team has extended a contract during the season, my first reaction is often “…But wait a minute, players don’t get signed during the season.

  • But of course they do – It just doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Reading Andrew Brandt’s column in MMQB on the Kirk Cousin’sHow do you like me now?”call out to Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, brought home just how wise Dan Rooney was to install the Steelers regular season contract negotiation blackout policy in 1993.

  • Can you imagine something like the Kirk Cousin’s incident happening in Pittsburgh?

No, neither can I. That’s not to say that the Steelers are immune to contract malaise. Alan Faneca was not happy about not getting his extension in 2007, and he grumbled about it loudly in the off season, but that ended when the games started.

Dan Rooney, Steelers contrat negotiation policy

Dan Rooney following the 2010 AFC Championship victory. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images via BTSC

Jeff Reed likewise was unhappy that the Steelers didn’t extend his contract in 2010, and that unhappiness perhaps contributed to Mike Tomlin’s decision to cut him.

  • But by and large, you don’t see these types of contract-based stories popping up in Pittsburgh during the regular season.

Reporters certainly ask players in their contract years if they want to come back, as they did with Lawrence Timmons after the Steelers win over the Giants, but answers usually run along the lines of “I’d like to stay, but we’ll see what happens in March.”

It wasn’t always that way, however….

Free Agency Comes to Pittsburgh….

1993 was the first season that the NFL experienced free agency, thanks to the Freeman-McNeil verdict. The new era saw the Steelers say good by to long-time stalwarts like Tunch Ilkin, but allowed them to bring in veterans like Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

  • At the time, most fans thought that Dan Rooney was cheap, but the Steelers also pioneered success in the salary cap era by resigning their own players.

During that 1993 off season, the Steelers came to terms with Neil O’Donnell, Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson a year before their contracts expired (O’Donnell had been a RFA). They also wanted to reach similar deals with Rod Woodson and Barry Foster, but couldn’t get them done in the summer. So negotiations continued, as the 1993 Steelers got off to a 0-2 start.

Patricia Rooney is the only one who knows if her husband Dan watched ESPN PrimeTime that night, but Chris Berman’s lead on the Steelers game talked about the Woodson and Foster contracts, and showed in image of a guy handing out money….

…If Dan Rooney did see that ESPN, he could not have been pleased.

1993 the Year of the Locker Room Lawyer

While the Steelers had locked up their best defensive player and, at the time, best offensive player the rest of the locker room was not happy, particuarly because after inking Woodson and Foster, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe decided to cut off further negotiations until season’s end.

Tight end Adrian Cooper went as far as to tell Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If everyone’s contract would be done, I think we’d be 4-0 instead of 2-2. It has something to do with it. We’re unbeaten since they signed the two big guys.”

Big things had been expected of Adrian Cooper, so much that the Steelers openly discussed trading Eric Green. Cooper’s breakout season failed to materialized, and after the season he explained to reporters, “I feel neglected. As a result, my performance was a reflection of how they treated me.”

  • As soon as Tom Donahoe heard that, Cooper was on the next bus out of town, heading to Minnesota via trade.

But even Merril Hoge, a man whose ethics are beyond question, confided, “When we went 0-2, I think they thought players were more concerned about their contracts. That may have been true.”

After the season Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe all agreed that contract issues had been a distraction for the Steelers in 1993. Their solution was to use the regular season to focus on winning, not negotiating.

The results speak for themselves. Although he may have wanted his contract extension sooner than he got it, Ben Roethlisberger certainly never considered walking off of Heinz Field and screaming “How do you like me now?” at Kevin Colbert, because the focus in Pittsburgh during the season stays where it should, on winning.

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6 Improbable Steelers Backup Quarterback Upset Wins

Raise your hand if you’re Steelers fan excited to see Landry Jones start against the New England Patriots. OK. Didn’t think we’d get too many takers. Fair enough. With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from knee surgery and Cameron Heyward also the odds makers have been rather generous in installing the Patriots as 7 points favorites.

  • Still, should Steelers Nation abandon all hope?

Perhaps, but Steelers backup quarterbacks have a history of delivering some surprising results under duress. Here are six notable Steelers backup quarterback upset wins dating from 1988 to 2012 (no disrespect to Steelers 1976 rookie Mike Kruczek, just not old enough to remember him.)

Charlie Batch, Steelers upset Ravens 2012, Charlie Batch final game, Charlie Batch Ravens

Charlie Batch won his final start as 2012 Steelers upset Ravens on the road. Photo Credit: Chris Knight, The Patriot-News

1. 1988 – Todd Blackledge Leads Steelers to 39-21 win over Denver Broncos

It had been a bad week for Chuck Noll that began with a 34-14 drubbing in the Astrodome at the hands of arch nemesis Jerry Glanville. Noll cut short his weekly press conference when reporters asked him what it would take for him to step down. Terry Bradshaw called for Noll’s dismissal su

ggesting he was too old for the job. Bubby Brister was injured, and back up Todd Blackledge was struggling even to get snaps from Mike Webster.

In short, no one expected the explosion that was coming, led by Rodney Carter who took it 64 yards to the house on the game’s third play. Carter rushed for 105 yards, caught a touchdown and completed a pass, as Noll employed uncharacteristic trickery. Merril Hoge ran for another 94 yards, and Rod Woodson set up another score with a 29 yard interception and Gary Anderson kicked 6 field goals.

Todd Blackledge was only 9 of 17 for 129 yards on the day, but that was good enough to give Pittsburgh the win.

2. 1991 – Neil O’Donnell Authors 26-15 Upset of the Houston Oilers

1991 had been a tough year for Chuck Noll, and his Steelers had just been humiliated at home by the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins. Scalping dished out by the Redskins the week before at Three Rivers Stadium had given the Steelers a 4-7 record, and 4-8 seemed certain against the 9-2 Oilers.

It is also true that perhaps Neil O’Donnell should be considered a backup, having started since relieved Brister 5 weeks earlier against the Giants, but Noll had been coy about designating a “starter.”

The Steelers ability to shut down the “Run ‘N Shoot” offense is one of the reasons why that never “stuck” in the NFL, but that was far from apparent in 1991. Games like this began to change the tune, as Bryan Hinkle, Thomas Everett, and Shawn Vincent picked off Warren Moon 5 times.

Those turnovers set up 3 Gary Anderson field goals, a 43 yard pass from Neil O’Donnell to Dwight Stone, and a Warren Williams touchdown. For the record, Neil O’Donnell went 12 for 29 for 155 yards one touchdown and 1 interception.

3. 1994 – Mike Tomczak Out Guns Dan Marino, Steelers Beat Dolphins 16-13

Perhaps the lead up to this game would have been different in the age of social media, but news that Mike Tomczak got the starting nod over Neal O’Donnell came as a surprise when game day arrived.

  • Imagine getting to the sports bar to learn that Mike Tomczak would square off against Dan Marino.

But got toe-to-toe Tomczak did, and how! In 1994, 300 yard passing games were relatively rare in the NFL but both quarterbacks broke the 300 yard mark, with Tomczak topping Marino’s yardage total. But for all of that passing, the game represented more of a defensive chess match. Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Joel Steed team to sack Marino 4 times, with Levon Kirkland intercepting him once.

  • The Steelers held the lead until the Dolphins tied it a 48 yard field goal as time expired.

The Steelers won the toss, but could not score. The Dolphins took over at their 40, but the vaunted Steelers 1994 Blitzburgh defense stopped him cold at Pittsburgh’s 47. Mike Tomzcak excelled in overtime, scrambling twice and completed passes of 27 yards to Barry Foster and 23 yards to John L. Williams to set up Gary Anderson’s game winner.

As this site has previously observed, Tomzack’s ’94 wins against the Dolphins and the Raiders marked the shift of the focal point of the Steelers passing attack away from Eric Green and to Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings and Charles Johnson.

4. 2002 – Kordell Stewart Rebounds to Lead Steelers over Bengals 29-13

Time to fess up. Just as Neil O’Donnell wasn’t really the “Steelers backup quarterback” in the 1991 Astrodome upset of the Oilers, the Steelers win over the 1-10 Bengals can hardly fall into the category of an “upset.”

But its author, Kordell Stewart, most certainly was a backup. Less than one year removed from winning the team MVP award, Kordell Stewart found himself on the bench in favor of Tommy Maddox. Raul Alegre of ESPNDeportes had revealed 5 weeks eailer during the Steelers Monday night game vs. the Colts, Bill Cowher had confided in him that he hadn’t wanted to bench Kordell, but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the Steelers locker room.

  • Expectations don’t get much lower than that.

Nonetheless, Kordell Stewart fearlessly took the reigns after Tommy Maddox’s injury the week before in Tennessee. The Steelers raced to a 17 point lead on a Jerome Bettis touchdown run, a 64 yard bomb from Stewart to Hines Ward, and a Jeff Reed field goal. But the Bengals fought back, scoring 14 points in the second half. The Steelers tacked on another 3 in the third quarter, but midway through the 4th the Bengals took the lead.

  • Kordell Stewart rallied the Steelers, first bringing Reed into range to boot a field goal, and then rifling a 27 yarder to Hines Ward which set up a 24 yard rumble by Bettis.

Kordell Stewart was flawless that day, going 22 for 26, one touchdown and zero picks.

5. 2005 – Charlie Batch off Bench @ Lambeau as Steelers beat Packers 20-10

2005 was a rough year for Green Bay, who entered the game at 1-10. On the face of it, that might make it difficult to categorize this win as “an upset” but if you’re playing at Lambeau Field, who do you want to be your quarterback Brett Favre or Charlie Batch, a man who hadn’t thrown a non-mop up time pass since 2001.

  • And did we mention that Jerome Bettis was out and that injuries limited Willie Parker to 5 carries?

The Steelers struggled in this one, as did Batch, but he played well enough to win, as did Duce Staley who saw his last real NFL action, and helped the Steelers win with 76 yards rushing and a touchdown.

6. 2012 – Charlie Batch Wins Finals Start, Steelers Upset Ravens 23-20

This Steelers 2012 game against the Ravens at M&T Stadium was one for the ages. The Steeler were reeling, having suffered back-to-back divisional losses, including an 8 turnover game to the Cleveland Browns. Charlie Batch had quarterbacked that game, and committed 3 of the turnovers, all interceptions.

And here the Steelers were, traveling to the home of their arch rival, with their 3rd string quarterback, 3rd string wide out, 2nd string outside linebacker. During the game, they would also lose their starting guard.

  • This was as hard fought game as you get.

The lead changed 5 times. Twice in the second half, Steelers turnovers gave the Ravens a chance to put Pittsburgh away, and twice Pittsburgh clawed back. James Harrison led the Steelers final rally, with one of his patended strip-sacks which came shortly after the Steelers had turned over the ball. Charlie Batch fired a missle to Heath Miller, who then willed himself into the end zone.

  • The Steelers defense held on the next drive.

Charlie Batch then took over at Pittsburgh 15 and with 6:14 remaining, led the Steelers on 13 play drive where Batch completed 7 straight passes, as Pittsburgh reached the Ravens 24 yard line. Shaun Suisham booted in a 42 yard field goal, and the Steelers had won.

Is Landry the Steelers Next “Legendary” Back Up Quarterback?

So, could Landry Jones author a game worth of inclusion of on this list above? With Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Gilbert and DeAngelo Williams out the odds are against him. But the odds were also once against Todd Blackladge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzcak, Kordell Stewart and Charlie Batch and they proved everyone else wrong.

Let’s hope Landry Jones follows in their footsteps.

 

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What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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