How Ladarius Green Highlights Steelers Tight End History of Boom-Bust “Splash Personnel Moves”

As expected, the Steelers release of Ladarius Green has sparked a lot of finger pointing and recriminations in Steelers Nation. A headline accompanying Ed Bouchette’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Ladarius Green’s acquisition as “’Worst signing ever.’”

  • That’s a pretty harsh claim, but one which will hold some truth if Bouchette’s reporting is accurate.

But if you cast aside some of the sound and fury surrounding what clearly is one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s major personnel failures, you’ll find that it unfortunately fits the Steelers boom-bust history with splash personnel moves at tight end.

Heath Miller, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller catches a pass in the Steelers 2012 loss to the Cowboys @ “Jerry’s World.” Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS Sports

Steelers Boom-Bust History of “Splash Personnel Moves” @ Tight End

Larry Brown and Randy Grossman held down the tight end duties as the Super Steelers were cutting their teeth. Two Super Bowls into their run, Noll realized that Larry Brown was an even better tackle and made the move. Noll would later say that Larry Brown’s play at right tackle merits Hall of Fame consideration.

Drafting tight end Bennie Cunningham in the 1st round of the 1976 NFL Draft was one of the things that allowed Noll to make that move. While Cunningham split the starting duties with Grossman, by any measure Bennie Cunningham was an extremely solid player, giving Terry Bradshaw a reliable alternative to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • Count picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round as the Steelers first successful “Splash Personnel Move” at tight end.

As the Steelers championships of the 70’s faded into the mediocrity of the 1980’s, the tight end disappeared from Chuck Noll’s offense. As Noll once explained, “When people ask ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun’ they’re really asking ‘Why don’t you win?’”

Well, People asked “Why don’t you throw to the tight end? a lot in the mid-1980’s, and in 1989 the Steelers decided to rectify that via Plan B Free Agency when they signed Mike Mularkey from the Minnesota Vikings.

  • Mularkey had an explosive season as the Steelers starting tight end, bringing down 22 passes and scoring a touchdown.

No, that’s not a typo. 22 receptions is a partly by 2017 standards, but remember:

  • The NFL was less pass happy then, and even by the era’s standards, the Steelers were “a running team”
  • Mularkey’s predecessor Preston Gothard combined passing total for 1987 and 1988 was 22 passes
  • Louis Lipps was the 1989 Steelers leading receiver with 50 catches.

So count the Plan B Free Agency signging of Mike Mularkey as second successful “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end.

Since the 1989 signing of Mularkey worked out so well (OK, its really because Joe Walton was now the offensive coordinator), the Steelers decided to make another in 1990 by taking Eric Green in the 1st round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

Eric Green, Steelers tight end history

Eric Green in the Steelers 1994 season opening-loss to the Cowboys. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Eric Green of course held out for all of training camp, missed the first month of the season, then exploded as “Green’s second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs for touchdowns.

Although the 1990 Steelers would struggle and ultimately self-destruct under Joe Walton’s offense, one positive from that otherwise deeply disappointing season was that Pittsburgh looked to have found a transformational player. And to be honest, it would be grossly unfair to label Eric Green as a bust.

And Eric Green’s performance on the field never came close to approaching that level thanks to injuries, drug suspensions and flat out want-to. And then there was Green’s infamous “Super Bowl Rap Video” prior to the 1994 AFC Championship game.

  • Count Eric Green as one failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Mark Bruener, Jerome Bettis, Steelers tight end history

Mark Bruener prepares to block for Jerome Bettis @ Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers replaced Eric Green by taking Mark Bruener with their first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Although Mark Bruener never caught more than 26 passes in a season, it says here that Burner was an excellent pick by the Steelers. Had Steel Curtain Rising existed in the 1990’s it would have argued (possibley incorrectly) that Mark Bruener catch rate and Percentage passes for touchdowns would have indicated he should have been targeted more often.

But even if Mark Bruener couldn’t have been a more of a receiving threat, he provided the Steelers with consistency at tight end for almost a decade.

  • Count Mark Bruener as a third successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox

The emergence of Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2002 tempted Bill Cowher to open up the passing game and the Steelers went out and signed Jay Riemersma to give Tommy Gun another target. When the Steelers won their 2003 opener over the Ravens, Bill Cowher cited Jay Riemersma’s presence over the middle as one of the reasons for their success.

  • Unfortunately, the rest of Jay Riemersma’s Pittsburgh Steelers career would consist of 22 games and 15 catches.
  • Count Jay Riemersma’s as a second failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.

The Steelers responded to the Jay Riemersma failure by drafting Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Heath Miller’s resume needs to review here. Over the course of 11 seasons, Heath Miller established himself as the best tight end in Steelers history, and Heath Miller’s legendary dependability made gave Ben Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as is practically possible.

  • Count Heath Miller as a fourth successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end
Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger

When Heath Miller retired, the Steelers acted boldly, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin traveled to Florida to convince Ladarius Green to sign with them on the first day of free agency in 2016. We know how that move turned out. Even if Ladarius Green did give the Steelers “field flipping” capability that helped secure wins against the Colts, Giants and Bengals, his signing was a mistake.

  • Count Ladarius Green as a third failed Steelers “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end

Although both men were successful, it’s hard to label the acquisitions of Larry Brown or Randy Grossman as a “Splash Personnel Move” as one arrived to the Steelers as a 5th round pick and the other an undrafted rookie free agent.

But since their arrival, the Steelers have invested 4 first round draft picks and 3 major free agent signings in trying to acquire a marquee tight end and their record is 4-3. Take this for what it is, but the odds indicate that whether move the Steelers make at tight end in the 2018 off season, it will be a success.

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

Terry Bradshaw, Steelers Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers playoff history vs Miami Dolphins

Terry Bradshaw scrambles in Steelers 1972 AFC Championship loss to the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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RIP Buddy Ryan: Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers Shows Pittsburgh Struggling vs. 46 Defense

NFL defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan passed away this week as the league mourned one of its most create, colorful and cantankerous personalities in a generation. The Pittsburgh Steelers only stood on opposite side lines to Buddy Ryan five times and perhaps Steelers Nation should give thanks for that..

  • Buddy Ryan’s record vs. the Steelers tells tale of one-sided domination.

This site prefers to celebrate and commemorate Steelers successes, but Buddy Ryan simply had the Pittsburgh Steelers number. Sure, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Bennie Cunningham and Jim Smith might have hung 38 points on Ryan when he was defensive coordinator of the 1980 Chicago Bears. But the Steelers were 4 time Super Bowl Champions and the Bears were 4 years away from a winning record.

  • Make no mistake about it, Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense owned Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Steelers.

When Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers took their 2-8 record down the Turnpike to face Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan showed no mercy as his defenders sacked Bubby Brister 4 times and intercepted him another for good measure. The Steelers did hold a narrow lead going into the 4th quarter but the Eagles won 24 to 23.

Buddy Ryan Breifly Revives Steelers-Oilers Rivalry

Pittsburgh paid little mind when Houston Oiler’s named Buddy Ryan defensive coordinator early in’93 off season. They should have because Buddy Ryan was about to reignight a revival of the Steelers-Oilers rivalry that was as intense as it was brief.

buddy ryan, buddy ryan vs. steelers, 86 defense, 1993 steelers

Buddy Ryan and Michael Barrow during Ryan’s stint as Houston Oilers defensive coordinator; Photo Credit: John Makely, Houston Chronicle

In the late 80’s the Giants, Redskin and Eagles vied for supremacy in NFC East and interesting divisional dynamic emerged. Bill Parcell’s Giants had an edge on the Redskins, the Redskins had an edge on the Eagles, and the Eagles edge on the Giants. In other words, Buddy Ryan knew how to defend against Ron Erhardt, and Ron Erhardt was Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator.

  • The first matchup came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1993 on Sunday Night Football.

The Steelers and Oilers were going toe-to-toe for AFC Central supremacy, and it wasn’t even close. Oiler’s “only” won 23 to 3, but that doesn’t even begin to detail their domination, as the Oilers sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times and Mike Tomczak two more times. Houston limited Steelers running backs Leroy Thompson and Merril Hoge gained 38 yards on the ground.

  • The Steelers in fact pulled O’Donnell, put him back in the game, then pulled him again.

Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, and Dwight Stone dropped multiple passes including one in the end zone that saw Jeff Graham have the ball hit him in the hands, bounce off his face mask, and then slip again through is hands. Late in the game a Houston defender removed Mike Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him.

  • The Steelers rallied behind, “We play them again.”

Play them they did. Perhaps their best effort of the game was Gary Anderson’s deep kickoff. The 26 to 17 final score makes it look like the Steelers were competitive. Those 17 points were pure garbage time glory. The Oilers schooled the Steelers in every sense of the word.

Again Oilers defenders dropped O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow that one-season wonder.

After the game, Buddy Ryan boasted, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Few Can Match Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers

Steelers fans hoped in vain for a third shot at Buddy Ryan in the 1993 playoffs, but the Steelers would tangle with Buddy Ryan one final time in 1994 season on Ryan’s final NFL stop as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Dan Rooney has stated that the Steelers trip to Arizona in 1994 was the first time he noticed an unusual number of Steelers fan in an opposing stadium. At the time however, the game was known for several bizarre plays. One was failed fake field goal that saw Gary Anderson gain his only 3 yards rushing in 23 NFL seasons. Another was Eric Green running out of bounds with a clear shot at the end zone simply because he ran out of gas.

  • Those blunders, pared with some uncanny turnovers led to 20 to 17 Steelers over time loss.

Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense didn’t dominate the Steelers in that final match up as it had a season before, nonetheless, they did drop Neil O’Donnell to the turf 4 times. More importantly, they bettered Buddy Ryan’s lifetime record against the Steelers to 4-1.

  • There are not too many coaches who stood opposite Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher who can boast that kind of winning percentage, but Buddy Ryan can.

Buddy Ryan self-assuredness made Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick look humble by comparison. But when it came to confronting the Steelers, Buddy Ryan walked the walk, and talked the talk. May Buddy Ryan rest in peace as Steel Curtain Rising offers his sons Rob and Rex Ryan its sympathy and prayers.

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Larry Brown the Pittsburgh Steelers Former Tackle, Tight End & Should Be Hall of Famer

The Steelers 1971 draft class is perhaps a close second to the famed ’74 edition that produced four Hall of Famers. Jack Ham was the lone Hall of Fame player from ’71, but he was one of eight Super Bowl starters that came out of the class that also included Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, Gerry Mullins, Frank Lewis, and Larry Brown.

  • Perhaps it’s fitting that I put Brown last in the group, because of all the special contributors from that class, Larry Brown is the least discussed.

Even for citizens of Steelers Nation in who are 40 something,  the words “Steelers” “Larry Brown” and “Super Bowl” conjure up images of Neil O’Donnell connecting directly with Cowboys cornerback twice in Super Bowl XXX.

But the record must reflect that there is in fact another Larry Brown who actually HELPED  the Steelres win Super Bowls against the Cowboys. In-fact, of all the Steelers players who helped the team win four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s, Chuck Noll‘s Larry Brown is probably the most unheralded and certainly the most  underrated.

  • It is time to correct that and we do that now.

The Steelers drafted Brown with the first of four fifth round picks in ’71 as a tight end out of Kansas and he played tight end for the first six years of his career.

steelers, super steelers, steelers of the 70's, larry brown

1970’s TE/OT Steelers Larry Brown; Photo Credit, Pittsburgh Steelers & Pittsburgh Business Journal

In Chuck Noll’s conservative and run-first offense of the early-to-mid ’70s, Brown’s main role was as a blocker. In-terms of receptions, he pulled in just 48 for 636 yards and five touchdowns. 

During his days as a tight end, Brown earned his place in Steelers lore when he pulled in a six-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw with 3:38 remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl IX to give Pittsburgh a 16-6 lead and all but clinch the franchise’s first NFL title.

But three seasons later, a knee injury would force Brown to turn in his No. 87 and switch to No. 79, as Noll wanted him to (at least temporarily) learn how to play tackle while he was still on the mend.

As Brown told Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin in an interview from November of 2012, the move wasn’t so temporary, after all, but he credits it with extending his career:

In hindsight, it worked out well–it extended my career. The year I switched I had a knee injury I was still recovering from. I wasn’t able to do the running and cutting you needed to do to play tight end. That was anticipated by Chuck. We met in his office and he told me that because I couldn’t run due to the injury he was going to have me learn the tackle position. That once I got healthy he’d move me back to tight end. In the meantime, before that, they drafted Bennie Cunningham [in the first round of the 1976 NFL Draft] and signed Randy Grossman. They saw themselves as being in a good position at tight end and had great need at tackle at the same time, so they never moved me back. Then they traded away tackle Gordon Gravelle, so I stayed at the position for eight years and won two more Super Bowls!

Brown started 13 games at right  tackle in 1977 and a total of 85 over his final years in Pittsburgh–including 52 of a possible 57 from 1979-1982.

Brown’s peers finally rewarded him with his first and only Pro Bowl honor in 1982 and he played another two seasons before calling it a career following the 1984 campaign.

Nine Hall of Famers came out of those ’70s Steelers teams, and if the late, great Chuck Noll had a vote for number 10, Brown would have been his choice.

Here is a quote from an NFL.com article from three years ago that lists Brown as one of the Steelers’ all-time most underrated players:

Chuck Noll once was asked this question: Of all the great players who contributed to those four Super Bowl championships during the 1970s, who among those not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame most deserves to be? Noll’s response was instant. Larry Brown.

That was quite the endorsement from a legendary coach who certainly knew great football players when he saw them.

As per his Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin interview from 2012, Brown began a business partnership with former Steelers defensive back J.T. Thomas in the 1980s and the two have owned, among other things, multiple Applebees restaurants.

  • When Larry Brown makes appearances at his various restaurant franchises, I wonder if patrons know how much he meant to those Super Bowl teams of the 1970s?

Regardless of his notoriety, not many players can say their careers were even close to Hall of Fame-worthy.

Larry Brown can, and that’s certainly something to be proud of.

 

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