With Steelers Playoff Fate In Doubt, Mike Tomlin Faces Toughest Coaching Challenge Of His Career

This hasn’t been a good week for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin following his team’s 24-21 playoff-damaging loss to the 2-10 (now 3-10) Raiders last Sunday at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

In addition to coming under fire for yet another road loss to a heavy underdog (Pittsburgh was favored by 11.5 points), Mike Tomlin is feeling media, fan and even former player wrath for his coaching decisions in Oakland that included keeping his franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, stationed on the sidelines for the majority of the second half after he sustained bruised ribs late in the second quarter.

  • That’s one of the acute coaching symptoms that has the masses in an uproar this week.

A chronic symptom would be Mike Tomlin’s poor clock-management skills as evidenced by his failure to properly use his timeouts when the Raiders had a first and goal with less than two minutes remaining and were driving for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Then, of course, there’s Mike Tomlin’s inability to rebuild the defense as well as his team’s perceived lack of discipline and preparation.

  • Should Tomlin be fired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
  • Should he, at the very least, be placed firmly, and uncomfortably, on the hot seat?

If you’re a long-time detractor of Mike Tomlin, this week has probably been heavenly bliss, considering both questions have been asked ad nauseam. However, if you’re also a long-time supporter of the Steelers, you better hope Mike Tomlin can pull off perhaps his best coaching job over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Because, no matter what you may think of the man, his body of work speaks for itself, and he certainly didn’t amass such a lofty resume — one that includes 11-straight non-losing seasons, six AFC North titles, two AFC championships and a Lombardi trophy — by accident.

In other words, Mike Tomlin may be in a coaching slump these days, but he’s certainly more than capable of coaching his football teams out of funks, something he’s been able to do time and time again. The jury may still be out on 2018, but Tomlin  never lost a football team in the past, not after his franchise quarterback got suspended to start the 2010 season; not after his football team started 0-4 and 2-6 to begin the 2013 season.

  • And that brings me to the next two games, and the huge challenge Mike Tomlin and his charges face.

Losers of three-straight games, the Steelers (7-5-1) may still occupy first place in the AFC North by a half-a-game over the Ravens, but with match-ups against perennial juggernaut New England this week and 2018 buzz-saw New Orleans in Week 16 looming on the horizon, that lead seems tenuous and temporary.

But while Mike Tomlin’s reputation for having his team’s ill-prepared against huge underdogs is well-founded (since Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, road teams favored by nine points or more are 58-15, with Pittsburgh accounting for five of those losses), his reputation for having his guys ready to play against marquee opponents is also legit.

  • That goes back to never losing a locker room or your football team.

That’s all about knowing how to circle the wagons. That’s all about knowing how to come out swinging when your back is firmly against the wall. That’s all about never blinking in the face of adversity.

  • The Steelers face some serious adversity right now.

How will they respond? At the moment, very few people give Pittsburgh a chance to defeat  New England this week, which is unfortunate since the 2018 version seems vastly inferior to many Patriots teams of yesterday.

The Patriots mystique is a strong one: “Oh no, the Patriots are going to be fighting mad after losing to the Dolphins!” However, the 2018 Patriots are more myth than they are reality. They’re definitely ripe for the picking, and if the Steelers were rolling the way they were in 2017, no doubt you’d have to like their chances.

But with the exception of last season, when they came into the match-up riding an eight-game winning-streak, the Steelers never seem to play New England at the right time. Three years ago, it was as the dreaded road team in the Thursday night regular season kickoff in Week 1.

A year later, the match-up with the Patriots came one week after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in a game against the Dolphins, thrusting Landry Jones into the starting lineup. And, obviously, this season, the match-up takes place when the Steelers seem to be in an irreversible death spiral.

  • Can the Steelers stop their slide in time and do so by knocking off legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the process?

If they do, this will likely lead to a playoff spot. And if it leads to a playoff spot, Mike Tomlin might finally be worthy of your praise. Will you give it to him?

It doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is whether or not Mike Tomlin can pull off a coaching performance befitting his coaching resume.

The Steelers 2018 season depends on it.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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Mike Tomlin Should Call Le’Veon Bell and Ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

This time tomorrow, mercifully, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera will be over. But before then, there’s one more move that should be made:

  • Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell and ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

That’s a simple question, and one that carries a “Yes” answer for anyone who ever laid their hands on a Nerf football as a kid, barked out a bogus snap count, and faded back in search of connection on one of those “2 completions for a 1st down.”

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

This is a serious proposal. OK. Mike Tomlin’s eyes will never grace the pages of Steel Curtain Rising, let alone this article.

  • But this is still and idea worth executing idea.

As Jim Wexell suggested, Le’Veon Bell likely feels backed into a corner. Although he did threaten a hold out, he also indicated numerous times that he’d be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Yet he’s missed milestone after milestone, and quite possibly feels like sitting out is his only face-saving option.

  • And, there’s the business side of this equation to consider too.

Le’Veon Bell has already forfeited 8 million dollars in change, and “only” stands to make about 6.5 million if he signs his franchise tender. 6.5 million dollars for less than a half a season is a lot of money even by NFL standards, but it pales by comparison to what Bell things and probably can make next spring as a free agent.

  • All it takes is a torn ACL or blown Achilles and Le’Veon Bell’s 2019 signing bonus drops exponentially.

And that’s why Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell, and ask, “Hey Le’V, we want to win a world championship? Do you want to help?”

Because that’s one bargaining chip the Steelers still have, because money can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a Lombardi Trophy or Super Bowl ring as Daniel Snyder and Neil O’Donnell can attest.

It is true that if James Conner continues to play at this level and remains healthy, the Steelers strictly speaking don’t need Le’Veon Bell.

  • The operative phrase above is “If James Conner stays healthy.”

As mentioned here last week, James Conner’s bruising running style carries costs. Moreover, while Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are not bad backups, but at this point I’d still rather have the 2010 or 2011 edition of Isaac Redman as my number two. Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until the wheels fell off, and as noted here in August, during the Tomlin era the Steelers have struggled to keep RB 1 and RB2 healthy until season’s end.

  • Viewed this way, Le’Veon Bell signing his franchise tender even at this late date is a win-win for both sides.

The Steelers get an immediate upgrade to the depth behind James Conner. Le’Veon Bell pockets 6.5 dollars, or more than his entire rookie contract. He has the luxury of getting into shape, and the security that Mike Tomlin no longer has a need to ride him into the ground.

And, he makes a legitimate AFC Championship contender even stronger.

Is there a Precedent for This Sort of Thing…?

Word is of course, that Le’Veon Bell has already decided to sit. Who knows where that is coming from, but the report surfaced on ESPN and now everyone and his brother is reprinting it like Gospel.

That’s a same, because having James Conner and Le’Veon Bell would give the Steelers their strongest, deepest backfield since 2004 when Bill Cowher had Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at his disposal.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Perhaps the better analogy would be 2005, when Duce Staley played little, save for a start against Green Bay that helped ensure a win. A win the Steelers needed to make into the playoffs en route to victory in Super Bowl XL.

  • Sometimes stories yield their own symmetry.

The last time the Steelers played and defeated the Carolina Panthers was in 2014. The game cost the Steelers the services of Jarvis Jones, then seen as an up and comer. It didn’t take long for the Steelers to hit the Red Phone to James Harrison.

But it wasn’t only Mike Tomlin that picked up the phone. If reports are correct, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel called Harrison and encouraged him to come out of retirement.

Mike Tomlin should not only call Le’Veon Bell, but get Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and perhaps Ramon Foster to follow suit. A chorus of “Hey Le’Veon, do you want to win a Super Bowl” just might do the trick.

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Defeo Demands and T.J. Watt Delivers – Add to Defeoman’s Wish List

One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in football to know that the Steelers defense needed someone to step up in a big way heading into their 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Several Steelers defenders did indeed step up, and perhaps we have Tony Defeo to thank for the defender who made the biggest bang.

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Writing on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo made a simple statement, but one strong enough to merit a game day Retweet:

And just like that, T.J. Watt delivered, leading the Steelers in tackles, tackling 5 players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Matt Ryan 4 times, and sacking him 3 times, including a forced fumble which L.J. Fort recovered in the end zone for a game clinching touchdown.

Articles like that remind me of the days back at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, where I’d jaw with buddies Mike and Todd.

Bill Cowher needs to use Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala to give Jerome Bettis a breather, and while he’s at it, they need to throw more to Mark Bruener, especially when they’re in the Red Zone….”

Then one of us would quip “Yep, and we’ll tell him you said that the next time we see him!”

  • Of course now that the blogesphere exists, it is a lot easier to fool one’s self into thinking an average fan can exert such influence.

We can’t . But it’s nonetheless a little uncanny that our beloved Defeoman would see such a demand transformed into reality in such dramatic fashion. In the event that Tony’s DOES have some sort of mystical connection allows such wishes to be granted, here are a few to add to his bucket:

This list is just for starters. Feel free to add yours, although be judicious because Tony must wield his power wisely….

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Can the Steelers “Band of Brothers” Spirit Weather Le’Veon Bell’s Disruptive Antics?

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2018 season today at Cleveland against the Browns. Like all other seasons, a Lombardi Trophy will define success or failure. Earlier this week this site laid out 4 key questions the Steelers needed to answer affirmatively to bring up a 7th Super Bowl.

Now, thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s hold out has added a 5th question:

  • Can the Steelers maintain the “Band of Brothers” mentality in the locker room?

Building a coheshive locker room is critical to winning championships. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reflected on Hines Ward’s 2005 holdout by saying he felt the team had the closeness that is necessary for championships.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Concerned that contract squabbles could jeopardize this closeness Dan Rooney had Jerome Bettis bring Hines Ward to the Latrobe airport for a one-on-one. The results was that Hines Ward reported to camp, got a new contract, and the Steelers season ended with victory in Super Bowl XL.

Except it wasn’t that simple. The 2005 Steelers faced more than their share of ups and downs, and injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch and inconsistency on the part of Tommy Maddox led Bill Cowher to start 3 quarterbacks that fall.

  • The Steelers overcame those difficulties, in no small part, because they remained united, and focused.

Fast forward to 2018. Everyone knows that Le’Veon Bell has refused to sign his franchise tender and is not part of the 2018 Steelers. Until this point, the rest of the Steelers locker room had been neutral, if not supportive of Bell,

But when Bell failed to show up for practice on Wednesday the gloves came off. One by one, from David DeCastro, to NFLPA Rep Ramon Foster to center Maurkice Pouncey criticized Bell.

Pittsburgh 247 writer Jim Wexell made what might have been the defining analytical quote of the 2018 season when he observed: “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

That’s a pretty dramatic statement, but if there is any reporter who has an accurate pulse of the Steelers locker room, it is Jim Wexell. Right now the Steelers locker room is united, but what happens when Le’Veon Bell returns?

The Buffalo Bills easily had the most talent roster in the AFC in the early 1990’s, making for straight Super Bowl appearances. They lost each one of them. While the ’91 Redskins and the ’92 and ’93 Cowboys held clear talent edges, Buffalo didn’t help themselves by creating an atmosphere that led them to be labeled as the “Bickering Bills.

Antonio Brown has extended an olive branch, assuring that Bell will be welcomed as family when he returns. While fans may not be so welcoming, locker room divisions serve no one.

As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler confided to Jim Wexell, “The good thing we’ve got, I think, is our locker room. Probably our strongest suit is our locker room. That’s going to always be the case here.”

Le’Veon Bell’s eventual return promises to put the later part of Butler’s statement to the test.

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How Mike Tomlin Strengthens His Locker Room Credibility by Keeping Joshua Dobbs Over Landry Jones

With the dust settling on the Steelers 2018 roster it has become apparent Pittsburgh has permanently parted ways with Landry Jones.

But now that Joshua Dobbs is officially the Steelers new QB Number 2 behind Ben Roethlisberger that doesn’t seem likely to happen. As someone who both advocated for keeping Joshua Dobbs AND who’s a little nervous about the Steelers cutting Landry Jones, one thing is immediately clear about this choice:

  • Mike Tomlin has strengthened his locker room credibility in with his decision.
Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“The best 22 players will start. The best 53 men will earn roster spots. The next best 10 will join the practice squad. Everyone else had best prepare for ‘Life’s Work.'” All NFL coaches say it, all of the time. And most of them really do want to mean it.

  • But the realities of the modern NFL often make it hard for coaches to truly put their money where their mouths are.

Sometimes salary cap realities dictate that a player who otherwise might be cut stay on the roster. The reverse is also true, hence the term “salary cap casualty.” Other times it is draft status. The last time the Steelers cut a rookie 4th round draft pick, Bill Clinton was President (no, sorry Doran Grant in 2015 doesn’t count.)

A coach can preach his “Keep the best 53” sermon without losing credibility because NFL players understand all of the above.

  • Sometimes NFL coaches keep a player because cutting him falls a little too far outside his comfort zone.

Those are the choices that lead to coaches causing trouble for themselves. Most outsiders thought that Chuck Noll was as unsentimental as Bill Belichick when it came to parting ways with old players. He wasn’t.

Keeping an aging Dwight White over Dwaine Board serves as the best example, but if you sat down with someone like Dick Hoak, Dick Haley or even Art Rooney Jr. they’d probably supply a good half dozen similar examples without breaking a sweat. Moving to more modern times, Bill Cowher’s decision to keep Duce Staley on the 2006 roster provides another example.

  • And that brings us to Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones.

During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have made personnel mistakes (see Shamarko Thomas), but they’ve rarely been guilty of hanging on to a player who is ready for “Life’s Work.” Perhaps keeping Aaron Smith into 2011 serves as one example, and certainly there are others but not many.

Nonetheless, the Steelers 2018 roster certainly has taken the franchise out of its comfort zone.

Tomlin Takes Steelers Out of Their Quarterback Depth Chart Comfort Zone

The last time the Steelers started a season without a veteran back up quarterback on its depth chart was in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger and Brian St. Pierre backed up Tommy Maddox.

  • And that situation only arose because Charlie Batch got injured in training camp.

To find a time when the Steelers voluntarily opted not to staff a veteran back up quarterback must go back to 1990 when Rick Strom and rookie Neil O’Donnell backed up Bubby Brister (although the picky purists in Pittsburgh will point out that Strom had thrown one incompletion in 1989 – keep that fact handy should you ever reach the Who Wants to be a Millionaire finals.)

In the Steelers preseason win over the Panthers, Joshua Dobbs didn’t simply “lean into the tape.” His play was exceptional enough to convince Mike Tomlin to disregard 28 years of franchise Quarterback depth chart policy.

So next time a player hears Mike Tomlin insist that “The best 53 will make it,” they’ll know he means it.

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Is Joshua Dobbs Destined to Be Cut? Afterall, Steelers Have Kept 4 Quarterbacks Twice Before…

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have a quarterback quandary. They created it, but that fact simplifies nothing. Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph give the Steelers a 4 quarterback preseason roster. Each offers assets to the team. But the Steelers can’t keep four quarterbacks on their roster, or can they?

  • After all, the Steelers have carried 4 quarterbacks on their roster twice, in 1995 and 1999.

Could they do it again? Should they do it again? Does the Steelers history with four quarterbacks serve as any sort of guide? Let’s find out….

Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers 4 quarterbacks

Can the Steelers keep 4 quarterbacks in 2018? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

A Youngster Learns about NFL Quarterback Depth Charts…

I’m old enough (barely, mind you) to have an big brother who explained to me the concept of “strings” using Terry Bradshaw as the Steelers first string quarterback, Cliff Stoudt as the 2nd string quarterback and Mark Malone as third string quarterback.

  • My brother also told me that NFL teams carried three quarterbacks, but sometimes kept four.

Sometimes, my brother assured me, teams kept four. But my first and only memory of that came in 1989 when the New England Patriots opened and closed season with four quarterbacks, Tony Eason, Steve Grogan, Doug Flutie and Marc Wilson. Each started a game, and the Patriots finished 5-11.

Keeping four quarterbacks was not a sign of strength for the ’89 Patriots, but it isn’t necessarily always the case.

1995 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

The Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. With Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Jim Miller Steelers looked set at quarterback.

But O’Donnell, in the final year of his contract, talked a good game about staying in Pittsburgh, but Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hedged their bets.

  • In preseason both Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart played well and remained healthy.

Although roster limits had grown between 1989 and 1995, the salary cap had forever altered NFL roster dynamics. Keeping four quarterbacks cut sharply against conventional wisdom. But Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola resolved the question with simple logic: The 1994 Steelers had played the entire season with Fred Foggie and Charles Davenport on their roster and finished just shy of the Super Bowl.

  • Bill Cowher made the right move by carrying 4 quarterbacks.

Each quarterback threw a pass during the season (yes, Jim Miller threw one) and the Kordell Stewart “Slash” phenomenon added an element of dynamism to the offense that carried the Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX.

Carry 4 quarterbacks in 1995 was sign of strength for the 1995 Steelers.

1999 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

The Steelers faced a very different quarterback depth chart quandary in 1999. Although Kordell Stewart had led the Steelers to the 1997 AFC Championship, in 1998 timidity and tentativeness replace Stewart’s swagger and the signal caller struggled mightily.

Mike Tomczak remained as a backup, former Pitt stand out Pete Gonzalez’s audible ability had impressed Bill Cowher during the 1998 preseason, and Anthony Wright, an undrafted rookie free agent possessed “one of the strongest arms” Bill Cowher had ever seen.

The Steelers carried four quarterbacks in 1999 (yes, yesterday’s Steelers.com article was wrong, don’t believe it? Click here), as Gonzalez saw mop up duty in the opener against Cleveland, Stewart got benched and moved to wide out while Mike Tomczak finished the season as the starter.

They’d been talk of Anthony Wright getting snaps in the meaningless season finale, but that never materialized, (…although Bobby Shaw did flash his Superman jersey after catching a garbage time touchdown.)

In 1999, the 6-10 Steelers revealed their weakness by keeping four quarterbacks.

The 2018 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart

Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones are staying put, barring a ridiculous trade offer for Landry Jones. The Steelers aren’t cutting Mason Rudolph. That leaves Joshua Dobbs as the odd man out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Mike Tomlin is starting him in the preseason finale and Joshua Dobbs has had a strong summer. He works hard and is probably the better option at this point should the Steelers need to play a 3rd quarterback. And Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks have seen a lot of non-mop up action under Mike Tomlin.

  • Landry Jones will be a free agent next spring, and the Steelers could gain salary cap relief by with two quarterbacks playing on their first contracts as backups.

The flipside to the argument is that many NFL teams only keep two quarterbacks, not three, and the Steelers need the roster spots at linebacker, tight end, defensive back and perhaps running back.

  • What would a fourth string quarterback do in 2018, anyway?

In 1995, Bob Labirola argued for keeping four by suggesting that there must be some sort of “busy work” for an NFL 4th string quarterback. There was of a sort, but “busy work” entailed Kordell Stewart playing wide out in practice.

  • In 1999, Bill Cowher conceded that Anthony Wright would make a good free safety in practice.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would find a way to keep Joshua Dobbs in Pittsburgh. Like 1995 and unlike 1999, carrying 4 quaterbacks would signal the strength of the Steelers 2018 roster.

But the Steelers Super Bowl window is closing, but Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert need to keep the 53 men most likely to help land Lombardi Number 7 in Pittsburgh, and that 53rd man is unlikely to be a 4th string quarterback.

So, unless injury intervenes, Joshua Dobbs’ start against Carolina tomorrow night will likely be his last for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however unfortunate that may be.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Art Rooney II Says Steelers Play Too Many Night Games. Fans Living East of US Eastern Time Agree

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II made a rather head turning statement to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The thing that concerns me about our attendance is more related to our schedule — I would rather not have as many night games.”

Steelers fans who live outside of the United States, and specifically those of us who are ahead of Eastern Time wholeheartedly agree.

  • Both sentiments might strike you as counter-intuitive and for good reason.

After all, going into the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 46-24 on Monday Night Football and 26-5 at home. When playing under the lights on Sunday Night Football the Steelers record isn’t quite as strong, but is still 28-20 overall and 14-7 at home.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Indeed, the greatest game in Heinz Field history, the 2008 AFC Championship win over the Ravens that featured Troy Polamalu’s belief-defying pick six, came in Prime Time on Sunday night. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg:

And that’s only counting the Mike Tomlin era. Bill Cowher started 6-0 on Monday Night. With breakout performances like these, you’d expect Art Rooney II to petition Roger Goodell to schedule all the Steelers games in Prime Time, wouldn’t you?

  • Except he’s not, and he has a good reason.

As Rooney explains to Bouchette, “Last year we had three home night games almost in a row. I just don’t think our fans want to do that anymore.” The NFL is facing an issue with declining attendance, and while the Steelers still have a 20 year season ticket waiting list, they were not immune to the decline.

The problem as Rooney sees it, is asking fans to brave the cold and the commute home at night for three straight games. That’s sound business sense, but fans who live ahead of US Eastern time have a more selfish reason for agreeing:

  • Night games are pure hell, even when you’re watching on TV.

Early in the season, before the US switches its clocks to fall back, games start at 9:30 pm instead of 8:30 here in Buenos Aires. That projects to a 12:30 am finish which is manageable. But after the US switches clocks, we’re two hours behind. An 8:30 game starts at 10:30 and doesn’t end until 1:30 am at the earliest.

  • By the time you clean up, take the contact lenses out, perhaps pop up a poll and you’re lucky to have your head hitting the pillow by 2:30 am.

And if it’s a close game, featuring a lot of Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown heroics or a critical Cam Heyward sack or stop, you’ve got the adrenaline flowing and, lets face it, you’re not falling asleep right away.

  • Which means you’ve got to get up for work and start the week in sleep deprivation mode.

Night games also wreak havoc with bloggers. Traffic peaks the morning after a game, and there’s no chance to get anything but a stub up between a night game’s finish and starting work the next morning.

  • If you’re really efficient and suffer no unexpected delays in your work day you might get something up for the early evening publishing window.

Playing in Prime Time is a sign of excellence and a point of pride for both players and fans. But when Art Rooney II says he wishes the Steelers played less on prime time, the only reaction that fans living to east of the Eastern Time Zone can possibly summon is a simple “We agree.”

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

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

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

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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