Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Houston Texans Fire Dave Culley, Another “Sour Apple’ on the Bill Cowher Coaching Tree? Not Quite

Scratch one more from the “Bill Cowher Coaching Tree.” After a 4-12 inaugural campaign the Houston Texans have fired head coach David Culley. Cully’s roots to Pennsylvania run deep but they are decidedly shallow on the Pittsburgh side.

Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher coaching tree

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Jamie Mullen, Getty Images, via BTSC

After Super Bowl XXX, Bill Cowher fired Ron Erhardt as his offensive coordinator, promoting wide receivers coach Chan Gailey to take his place. The Chin then hired David Culley to take Chan Gailey’s place as Steelers wide receivers coach.

David Culley served in that capacity from 1996 to 1998, and this was hardly the golden age of Steelers wide receivers. Yes, Yancey Thigpen flourished during the Steelers 1997 season, but his tenure is more notable for the failed development of Charles Johnson, Will Blackwell and to a lesser extent Jahine Arnold.

  • Takeaway Number 1:  These disappointments say more about the deterioration of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s relationship than Culley’s coaching ability.

Charles Johnson was a first round pick, Will Blackwell a second and Arnold a 4th. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe put together some good drafts early on, but as communication broke down between the two, the Steelers misfires on draft day became more severe — these three flameouts at wide receiver aren’t even the most egregious example.

After leaving Pittsburgh, Culley hopped on the Turnpike to Philadelphia, where he spent several years on the staff of Andy Reid, before following Reid to Kansas City, and then going on Buffalo and Baltimore. A year ago the Houston Texans hired him, and today he is without a job.

  • Takeaway Number 2: This highlights how “Coaching Trees” are overrated.

I don’t follow the Houston Texans so I can’t comment on Culley’s performance, but pulling the plug on a coach after one season seems a bit harsh. But fair or not, it makes Culley the latest former assistant of Bill Cowher to fail as a head coach.

Dom Capers was Cowher’s first assistant to get a head coaching job, and was followed by Chan Gailey, Jim Haslett, Dick LeBeau (indirectly), Mike Mularkey, Marv Lewis, and Ken Whisenhunt. All of them had their moments with Whisenhunt coaching against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, but none of them could sustain success.

And while critics might seek to use that as ammunition against Bill Cowher, they should not. While the “Bill Walsh” coaching tree is successful (although not as successful as it is made out to be), that does not make him a better coach. Indeed, Joe Gibbs won the same number of Super Bowls in the same era, with lesser talent.

No, the fact that this latest and perhaps last apple from the Bill Cowher coaching tree had a sour experience as a head coach says more about impatient, irrational owners and underlines how difficult it is to succeed in the NFL.

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Outtakes: Remembering Steelers 1st MNF Win @ Heinz, Plaxico’s Break Out Game 20 Years Later

Editor’s Note: Today is the 20th anniversary of the first Monday Night Football game at Heinz Field. It also marks the first Steelers game yours truly watched from Buenos Aires. So here is Steel Curtain Rising’s “Outtake,” taken from post-game email written after the game. Aside from minor edits, text appears as written in 2001! Thanks to @PGH_Sports_Date for the reminder!

Steelers vs Titans, 1st MNF Heinz Field, Plaxico Burress, Plaxico Burress 1st 100 yard game,First Monday Night Football Heinz Field, Daryl Porter, Perry Phoenix

Two firsts. Plaxico Burress first 100 yard game & the first MNF game @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI, via UPI.com

The commentary was in Spanish. The game was broadcast at 1:00 am here in Buenos Aires. I was drinking Quilmes (an Argentine beer) and Brahma (a Brazilian beer) instead of my beloved Iron City. And, I was alone, without my usual buddies from the Goose [that’s Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon.]

  • But you know what? It was still great.

I was quite impressed with the Steelers effort against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. The new stadium looked great (first time I’d seen it on TV), the fans seemed to be louder (heard that was an issue before) and the Black and Gold was kicking some ass!

Although this was the first game I’d seen this year, I thought that the team put together an overall great effort. It wasn’t a perfect game, but whenever one area faulted, it seemed like another area picked up the slack.

  • On the offensive side of the ball I was a little concerned about the offensive line play.

After reading about how well the O-Line’s been playing, I was looking forward to seeing them manhandle the Tennessee Tuxedos front seven (BTW/ my friend Bill ., a devoted Ravens fan but great guy all around deserves credit for the “Tuxedos” moniker.) For the most part, that didn’t happen. Jerome Bettis got didn’t get the light to rush that I’d like – except when it counted. The blocking was phenomenal on the two Bettis runs, moreover, the Bus did grind out some yards in the 4th quarter, allowing us to put the Titans away.

  • In a sense however, the mild difficulties experienced by the running game were a positive.

I really thought the passing offense did a good job of coming together. Plaxico Burress had a hell of a game, especially on the long catch in the 3rd quarter, on a ball that would have been intercepted had the defensive back been concentrating. Hines Ward had a few drops, but really impressed me with the tough catch he made in the 2nd quarter and, as usual, he was their when we needed him on the TD drive.

Although it came in garbage time, I thought that Tommy Maddox did well in mop up time when playing from his own goal line, and the much maligned Troy Edwards (OK, he brought it on himself, no argument) made a great effort.

Steelers vs Titans, Kordell Stewart, 1st MNF game Heinz Field

Kordell going down? Nope. He escaped to hit Hines Ward for a TD. Photo Credit: AP via ESPN.com

Although he had a couple ugly throws, I thought Kordell Stewart did a good job of sticking in the pocket and finding his receiver and moving around, although Tennessee did a good job of spying the QB.

  • The defense was excellent. I was really impressed by the play of Kendrell Bell.

OK, he did get burned by Frank Wycheck on two plays, including the Tuxedo’s only TD. But he had good position on both plays, and remember, he’s only a rookie. A year from now those passes, I’ll wager, get broken up. Otherwise the D-line impressed me, as did the play of Chad Scott and Dwayne Washington.

  • I noticed improved play on special teams, and I was particularly impressed with the play of Mike Logan there.

Well, folks, I’d love to be able to offer more insight into how this game fits into the bigger picture, but seeing as how it’s the first game I’ve seen, I can’t. Nonetheless, the offense showed that can use weapons other than Bettis to get points on the board, if not win. (OK, the Tuxedo’s don’t exactly have Baltimore’s pass D, but we still looked good.)

The Steelers are off to a great start, but our next four games come against some tough division opponents, including Baltimore whom we’ve not beaten at home in two years. Cleveland looks to be much improved (how do they really look, some one let me know, please?) And Jacksonville could likely be playing with their backs to the wall.

In its final season, the AFC Central looks WIDE open. That means these are games you’ve got to win. Credit the Steelers for putting themselves in good position. Now its up to Bill Cowher and company to see that they take advantage of it.

So, as we say at the Goose,

Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit, spit, spit, if you ain’t a Steelers fan you ain’t shit! Go Steelers!

KT
President,
Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires

*(I had to go bed early and get up, then go to bed again to get up at 6 am, that really kicks your ass.)
** This was my first Steelers game away from the Goose since October of 1997!

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The Contrast of Two Steelers Coaches and Incorrect Rumors about College Jobs

In case you missed it, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn’t interested in the LSU head coaching job. Or the USC one, for that matter either.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

The dynamics of how this “story” evolved to dominate the internet for the span of a few hours on Tuesday afternoon are best left to the Watch Tower, but for now here are two quick take aways:

  • First, in contrast to his predecessor, Mike Tomlin delivered a clinic on denying a rumor
  • Second, as point number one suggests, the hypothetical isn’t all that unusual.

As we all know, former Steeler and Bills front office executive Doug Whaley went on Pittsburgh radio and suggested that Mike Tomlin might be a candidate for the vacancies at LSU and USC, suggesting that either school might outbid Art Rooney II.

  • Both Ryan Clark and Carlston Palmer took that rumor and ran with it.

The storm of tweets, blog posts and Facebook likes followed. Hey, this was the bye week after all, so why not focus on something juicy instead of doing real reporting.

At his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin answered a score or so questions about the Steelers injury situation, usage of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Anthony McFarland all in the context the Steelers upcoming game against the Browns.

Then Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review asked Tomlin about the rumor.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Mike Tomlin left no room for ambiguity in his response:

Which is refreshing. Just before Christmas during the dark days of the Steelers 1999 season, Bill Cowher was asked about returning to North Carolina to coach college ball. Unlike the Whaley generated story, this one didn’t come out of thin air. Bill Cowher had been dogged by rumors since the end of the Steelers 1997 season that he wanted out.

  • The question had arisen earlier that year with multiple national stories.

Yet, when given a chance to refute the rumors, Bill Cowher, fumbled the opportunity so badly at his weekly press conference that, at the urging of his late wife Kay Cowher, called a second press conference were he delivered an unequivocal denial.

(Where was social media when you needed it? Today Cowher could have gotten it done in a Tweet.)

But if Tomlin’s denial was clear cut, his umbrage at the question itself is on shaker ground. Several commentators have taken his cause, namely ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith:

Smith makes a lot of excellent points.

But let’s everyone should be clear: The prospect of an NFL head coach leaving the pros to go to the NCAA isn’t that far-fetched. After the Patriots fired Pete Carroll following the 1999 season, he went to coach at – you guessed it – USC.

Ah, but Carroll had tried and failed twice as an NFL coach (not that he had much of a chance with Leon Hess owned Jets) you object? OK.

To that I say, Jim Harbaugh. After the 2014 season, two years removed from a NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance, “Capitan Comeback” left the NFL behind to coach for Michigan.

Smith is right. Mike Tomlin does get a unfair criticism heaped at him from all sorts of directions and for many different reasons. Some of those critics have nefarious motives. But we can likely chalk up fact that he was questioned about a rumor linking him to a college job to nothing other than the shoddy state of sports journalism here in 2021.

The Watch Tower will shine its lights on that angle of the story very soon. Stay tuned.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos: Offensive Line Stops Skipping Class Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who was just as truant as the offense during the season’s first month, here is the Report Card from the Steelers win over the Broncos.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 15-25 for 253 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions in what was easily is biggest day of the season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had 3 “almost interceptions” but he was right on the money with his two touchdown strikes as well as the deep balls that set up the rushing touchdown. But Ben put the ball on the ground, which brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught 2 passes for 20 more. Harris exploited holes and moved piles forward. Benny Snell dropped a pass early on and found himself on the bench, but ran hard when Harris had to leave with cramps. Kalen Ballage got several carries but had no yardage to show for it. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
All three tight ends got involved in the passing game as Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron caught two passes a piece while Zach Gentry caught another that set off a scoring drive. The run blocking was improved, the tight ends helped with. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool owned the Broncos, burning them for 130 yards on 5 catches and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson opened the scoring with a 50 yard scamper and had one other catch for 22 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had two carries for 3 yards and no catches before leaving the game with a season ending shoulder injury. Ray-Ray McCloud only had one catch, but made an interception saving hit. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
After spending a month mired in a morass of something worse that mediocrity the offensive line turned in a fine performance. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit on one other occasion. What’s more, he had time to throw all afternoon long. Najee Harris also had plenty of room to run. This unit must continue to improve, but if it does a lot of other good things can happen. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III might not be the NFL’s 2021 equivalent of Franco and Rocky, but they’re a solid duo. Williams torched the Steelers for a 49 yard game, but that was the lone highlight of the Denver rushing attack. That starts with the line who had a solid day including Henry Mondeaux who got his first sack.

Linebackers
As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out, you didn’t hear Joe Schobert’s name much, although he did register 5 tackles, and that’s because he was doing his job in the middle of the field. Devin Bush had the lone sack of linebackers against a Denver time that was max protecting, while T.J. Watt did work in two pressures. A solid afternoon for the linebackers. Grade: B+

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 10 tackles and was disruptive all over the field. But the real hero of the group is James Pierre. Pierre stopped a would-be touchdown in the first half by coming from behind to tackle Javonte Williams. His interception saved another touchdown and sealed the game. Yes, he gave up a touchdown and a long gain before that, but the ability to bounce back is critical sign of a quality cornerback. Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds had passes defensed, quietly logging solid games. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made field goals of 48 and 43 yards and was 3-3 on PATs – that’s 9 points in an 8 point game for those of you at home. Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick returns were average at best and the Steelers kick coverage was sound. After getting called out by Tony Defeo, Pressley Harvin III responded with his best day punting, including a 63 yarder late in the game. Grade: B

Coaching
The Denver Broncos came into the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, yet Matt Canada managed to piece together a game plan that saw the Steelers score early and add to that lead all while controlling the clock.

One defense Keith Butler was missing Cam Sutton and rather than put the job of replacing him on one person, he managed to divide the load and do it effectively. The fact that the Steelers went 1-3 on fourth downs is a bit disturbing, but the unit delivered when the game was on the line.

Cam Heyward, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

Cam Heyward pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP

Three game losing streaks are ugly in their very essence in the NFL. And any the pressure to hit the “panic” button is tremendous, even if a coach denies it. Mike Tomlin refused to do that, and continued to trust in his men and his methodology and that trust paid off. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The stat sheet tells us that he might not have made any “Splash” plays. But 4 of the 5 figures on his stat line directly correlate to scuttled drives and for that Cam Heyward wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Broncos.

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Steelers Beat Broncos 27 to 19 with +100 Yards from Najee Harris & James Pierre Late Interception

The Denver Broncos opened the season with 3 straight wins, until losing last week to Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a win, and then lost their next 3 games.

  • Pittsburgh prevailed in the battle of 3-1 vs. 1-3 to the tune of 27 to 19.

And the irony of it is, the Steelers were successful because, for once, things went as they were scripted.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Broncos

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

How Things were “Supposed” to Work for the Steelers

In mid-August my wife asked what the Steelers prospects were for the coming season. I assured her that, despite a fairly strong showing in preseason, the Steelers still “Needed a lot of things to go right.”

So what were those things that had to go right?

  • Ben Roethlisberger needed to throw less than 40 passes a game, his ’20 average
  • Najee Harris needed to revive the Steelers rushing attack
  • The offensive line had to to improve
  • Gambles on players like James Pierre had to pay off
  • Players like Chase Claypool would need to make that “2nd year leap”

Almost nothing has gone according to plan for the Steelers in 2021.

The last three weeks saw Ben Roethlisberger thr0w 40, 58, and 40 passes. In week one Ben got it done with 32 passes. Funny how that one ended in a win. The offensive line struggled, and if it hadn’t been worse than it was in 2020, it wasn’t showing signs of getting better.

Injuries hobbled the defense and young players whom the Steelers were counting on performance spanned from, “He might be taking a step back” to “he’s improving, but only marginally.”

Tried and True Yields a Fresh Start

“Throw to score, run to win” was the credo of Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt. In today’s pass-happy, Fantasy Football driven NFL such thinking is passé.

  • Winning is never passé and relying on your running game remains a winning formula.

And so it was that the Steelers opened with two straight runs to Najee Harris. One 3rd and 1, with the defense forced to respect the threat of another Harris rush, Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for 23 yards. The Steelers followed with a Jet Sweep to JuJu Smith-Schuster and two plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson on a 50 yard touchdown.

  • Opening drive touchdowns have been spare for the Steelers for a long, long time.

So an early TD was welcome, but as the loss to the Packers proved, how you begin isn’t nearly as important as how you finish. But by sticking to a tried and true formula for “Steelers Football,” Pittsburgh had given itself a fresh start.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Broncos

Najee Harris hits the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Harris Grinds it Out

The next two drives saw the Steelers run 19 plays. The first drive ended in a fumble, the second one in a field goal. Pittsburgh rushed the ball on 11 of those 19 plays. While you’d like to see a little more from you offense, the Steelers were accomplishing something important:

  • They were establishing the run.

The offensive line might not have been engaging on road grading quality run blocking, but they were opening holes and Najee Harris was exploiting them. That allowed plays like Chase Claypool’s 59 yard hook up from Ben Roethlisberger, that got them into the Red Zone and paved the way for Najee Harris air mail express 1 yard touchdown leap.

The trend continued in the second half, as the Steelers set themselves up for success by creating manageable third downs and stitched together a 14 play 88 yard drive that consumed 7 minutes of the clock and ended with Chase Claypool going over the top to put the Steelers up 24-6 with 2:41 left to play in the 3rd quarter.

By that point, Najee Harris had logged his first 1 yard game and the Steelers first 100 yard rushing effort in 16 games.

But the game wasn’t over yet.

Defense Corrals Broncos Offense for 3 Quarters

The Steelers defense dominated the Broncos offense for 3 quarters. Their efforts early in the game were critical to victory. After an early Ben Roethlisberger fumble gave the Broncos the ball at Steeler 29 yard line.

  • It was early in the 1st quarter and a Broncos touchdown would tie the game and fundamentally alter its dynamic.

Vic Fangio called Javonte Williams number on 3 straight plays. And on three straight plays Minkah Fitzpatrick, Isiah Buggs, T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds ganged up to neutralize him. Denver was forced to settle for 3.

Two possession later, Javonte Williams torched the Steelers offense for 49 yards as James Pierre barley saved a touchdown. That set up Denver at the Steelers 5 yard line, but Devin Bush dropped Teddy Bridgewater for a 12 yard sack, effectively forcing them to settle for 3 again.

But as the third quarter ended the Broncos offense found their stride and gave the Steelers defense a run for its money.

Defense Finally Bends, Breaks but Bounces Back in a Big Way

When the Denver Broncos got the ball with 2:14 left in the 3rd quarter they were down 24 to 6 and things looked pretty hopeless. But they stitched together a 14 play, 76 yard touchdown drive that saw them convert 3 fourth downs.

While you never want to see something like that happen, the Steelers don’t have the shut down defense they had in 2019 or 2020 and such efforts are to be expected, if not accepted 2021 in the NFL.

  • But the Steelers had to punt on their next drive and worse yet, they lost Najee Harris.

This gave Denver the ball back with 7:40 left to play and it was in those seven minutes and 40 seconds that the Broncos would test one of the Steelers biggest gambles of the season to the limit.

First, Denver reached midfield by picking on James Pierre for a 15 yard completion. Two plays later Pierre bit a little too hard on the inside to Courtland Sutton as Sutton burned him for a 39 yard touchdown pass.

The Steelers defense nixed the 2 point conversion and the offense tacked on a field goal to keep it an 8 point game, but Denver got the ball back with 2 and a half minutes to play. As soon as he got in scoring range, Teddy Bridgewater wasted little time in picking on James Pierre. Pierre deflected it but could have ended things with an interception.

  • Two plays later he did hook up with Kendall Hinton to bring Denver to the 9 yard line.

Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds knocked away passes on 1st and 3rd downs with Joe Schobert tackling Melvin Gordon short of the goal line on second.

One 4th and 9 Bridgewater again tried to pick on Pierre. Here’s Pierre’s response:

The story of the first three quarters was that, for one game at least, the Steelers offense functioned the way it was “supposed to.”

The story of the fourth quarter was that, when the game was one the line, the gamble the Steelers made in James Pierre paid off in spades.

No NFL team wants to start the season at 2-3, but 2-3 beats the hell out of 1-4. As Mike Tomlin reflected: “Time will tell the story. We are appreciative of the efforts and the win we got today, but those type of perspectives and things of that nature will be revealed to us as we continue to play.”

Amen to that.

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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Steelers Fans Should Always Embrace History, Not Just When Players Make it to Canton

t was a magical weekend in Steeler Nation, as five former members of the Steelers organization–including players Donnie Shell, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, as well as head coach Bill Cowher and legendary scout, the late, great Bill Nunn–were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That’s right, in a rare instance of the COVID-19 virus bringing about something cool, Shell, Polamalu and Cowher–members of the 2020 class who had to wait a year because of the worldwide pandemic–joined Faneca–who, along with the deceased Nunn, was inducted in 2021–for a tremendous weekend of fun and celebration.

Memories were shared. Speeches were given. Tears were shed. Lots of tears were shed by Steelers fans, in fact, as they honored their heroes from the past and endlessly thanked them for serving their favorite football team well.

It was nice to see Steelers fans honor the past. It was cool to see them pay homage to people who created so many awesome moments in their lives.

  • In my opinion, fans just don’t do much of that, these days.

I’m not sure if they ever did, but they certainly don’t seem to appreciate the history of the NFL in 2021, not when the acquisition of a fourth-string tight end garners way more “clicks” and discussion than the passing of a legendary head coach, such as Don Shula, who died in 2020 at the age of 90. Few seemed to notice or take the time to honor a career that included two Super Bowls, an undefeated season and the most wins by a head coach in NFL history (347.)

Truthfully, it may be unfair to expect Steelers fans, especially those under the age of 40, to even know who Shula is, let alone honor his passing. Also, Shula coached the Colts and Dolphins, not the Steelers. Duh! I get that, but I have always had great respect for the history of the NFL, a history that includes more than just the black and gold, btw.

I grew up on NFL Films. I gained so much knowledge about the players, the rules, the history of the game, etc. Heck, just hearing John Facenda, the voice of so many NFL Films features before his sudden passing in 1984, still gives me chills. Same for the awesome NFL Films scores, such as The Autumn Wind. That score and accompanying Facenda narration honors the Raiders, an old rival of the Steelers. So, again, why should I expect the black-and-gold faithful to care about that? Fine, I’ll give you that.

However, fans should appreciate the past just a little more. And if they don’t want to appreciate and honor it, they should at least know it. I’ve often joked that newer Steelers fans sometimes refer to Chuck Noll, the team’s legendary former head coach who helped to transform the franchise into the NFL juggernaut it is today, as “Knoll” or even “Knox.”

  • Unfortunately, I’m not stretching the truth much when I make that joke.

I think it’s important to know the NFL’s/Steelers’ past. No, you don’t have to appreciate, respect or honor it — as an 11-year old, I certainly didn’t shed a tear when George Halas passed away in 1983.

But knowing the Steelers’ past allows you to gain a better perspective on things that are happening today. The world, the NFL and the Steelers existed before “now,” before social media. For example, did you know that Jack Lambert was the first training camp holdout in franchise history? That happened in 1977, the same year that Mel Blount also held out of camp and even threatened to sue Noll over Noll’s testimony in the “criminal element” lawsuit filed by Raiders’ defensive back, George Atkinson.

Steelers players got arrested in the past. They had pastimes outside of football. Terry Bradshaw recorded country albums and starred in movies. He even flirted with leaving football full time to focus on music (can you imagine a story like that in the age of social media?) Frenchy Fuqua used to show up to the stadium wearing funky and fly outfits, complete with shoes that had goldfish floating in the heels.

Mean Joe Greene once threatened to quit the Steelers over a perceived lack of commitment by the organization to win a championship.

Fans spent the vast majority of Bill Cowher’s career thinking he was merely an okay head coach that didn’t have what it took to win a title. The Chin would never “Win the Big One” fans insisted. 

Chuck Noll once walked out of a press conference when reporters asked him if he would ever consider stepping down as head coach of the Steelers.

Dan Rooney, the transformative team president, had to fire his brother, Art Jr., the chief scout and one of the architects of those legendary 1970s Super Bowl teams.

Oh well, that’s my lecture for the day. As the Steelers continue to prepare for their 2021 campaign, remember that they will face challenges during the season, but these challenges likely won’t be unique or original.

  • Knowing Steelers’ history doesn’t make you a better fan.

It does however make you a fan who’s perhaps capable of taking more things in stride.

 

 

 

 

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