Are the Steelers Hiding the Next Yancey Thigpen on their 2024 Roster?

What is the Steelers plan at wide receiver for 2024?

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asked that question late last week. A day later, Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review cautioned readers that the Steelers lack of depth at wide out can’t be “rationalized away.”

  • Both writers make valid points.

The Steelers opened the off season by trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina Donte Jackson. Everyone expected Omar Khan to follow with another splash personnel move. But since then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” Steelers Nation has spent the off season “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”

Outside of George Pickens the Steelers cupboard at wide receiver is pretty bare. And with the draft over and free agent options dwindling the answers to Wexell’s question appear to be:

1. Omar Khan still has another “Khan Artist” like move up his sleeve.
2. Arthur Smith and Mike Tomlin are all in on a “Damn the receivers! Pound the rock!” offense.

Those two possibility have been widely bandied about on blogs and social media. But there’s a third one that no one is entertaining:

3. The Steelers are hiding the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

The likely response of those who either remember or at least know about Thigpen’s playing days is, “…Yeah, Right. Someone’s been drinking too much Argentine wine.” Well, I do send too much of my money to the Salentein family, but the idea is not alcohol induced. Read on….

None of the Steelers New Veteran WRs Look Like Thigpen

Instead of bringing in a blue chip wide out, Omar Khan has scoured the NFL’s free agent bargain bin. Since saying goodbye to Diontae, the Steelers have Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins and most recently Scott Miller. (They also signed Denzel Mims in late January. Drafted Roman Wilson and still have Calvin Austin.)

Van Jefferson had 20 catches last year with the Falcons and Rams, Watkins logged 15 for the Eagles and Miller grabbed 11 at Atlanta. (Mims was out of football, but had 11 catches for the Jets in 22.)

Even if you agree (and I’m not sure that I do) that you can substitute quantity for quality at wide receiver in the NFL, the trio collectively still falls short of Diontae Johnson’s 51 catches.

So no, none of them projects to be the next Thigpen. Not even close. At first glance the easy response is, “…Pal, keep drinking Salentein, but stick to Portillo. Stay away from the expensive stuff.”

But Thigpen Didn’t Look Like Thigpen. Until He Did.

The Steelers new wide outs have good speed, but outside of that nothing inspires. Yancey Thigpen didn’t inspire anyone either. Until he did.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

Yancey Thingpen played four games in 1991 for the San Diego Chargers and recorded zero stats as a wideout. During the middle of the Steeler 1992 season Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher picked him up off of the waiver wire.

Thigpen played special teams in 1992, recording one catch on four targets. In 1993 he had nine grabs on 12 targets. By the end of ‘93 it was clear that the Steelers lacked a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps. So they parted ways with their number 1 wide receiver Jeff Graham, and tried to convert other starter, Dwight Stone into a utility back.

Yet going into the 1994 season, the arrow was pointed out at wide receiver in Pittsburgh.

Andre Hastings looked primed to make the proverbial “Second year leap” and the franchise had just picked Charles Johnson with their first pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.

Yet neither man was the Steelers best receiver when the 1994 campaign ended, because Thigpen had earned that distinction. Yes, Johnson had one more catch, but Thigpen was the one who delivered down the stretch and in the playoffs.

A year later Thigpen was breaking John Stallworth’s single-season reception record en route to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXX. Injures sabotaged his 1996 season, yet a year later, Thigpen became Kordell Stewart’s go-to man in the 1997 season that ended in the AFC Championship.

By the time Thigpen left as a free agent in 1998, he’d earned the right to be considered alongside Louis Lipps as one of the franchise’s best receivers behind Swann and Stallworth. In contrast, Hastings and Johnson were disappointments.

Does that mean that Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins Scott Miller or Denzel Mims will prove himself to be the next Yancey Thigpen in 2024?

I wouldn’t be on it. But then again, no one was betting on Yancey Thipgen in May of 1994….

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Hidden Risk? Do Art Rooney’s “Time to Get Some Playoff Wins” Comments Set the Bar Too Low?

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gave his annual end-of-the year press conference this and there was one quote that landed as music in the ears of many citizens of Steelers Nation.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake, James Harrison 2nd retirement

Art Rooney II & James Harrison shake after the Steelers 2017 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When asked about the Steelers historic playoff drought, Rooney bluntly declared:

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency. I think everybody, myself, Mike, guys that have been on the team for a while, T.J., Cam, everybody, we’ve had enough of this. It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.

Art Rooney II seldom speaks to the press. When he does he says very little. But those words carry a tremendous impact – after all, after the 2004 season ended in another AFC Championship loss it was Rooney who declared it was time for a Super Bowl. And the 2005 Steelers brought the Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.

The response on social media was swift and decisive. Here’s one example:

And this is understandable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since Chris Boswell kicked them out of Kansas City and into the AFC Championship in January 2017. That’s a long time. To put that in context, even after the Super Steelers faded, Chuck Noll never went more than four years without a playoff win during the 1980s.

  • Yet here’s Mike Tomlin looking at 7 years and counting since his last playoff win.

So while it is good that the Steelers brass embraces the elephant in the room, there is a flaw in Rooney’s response. Notice that Rooney simply said, “It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.”

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

In 1992 when Bill Cowher returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Steelers, he offered a change of pace and he did so immediately by declaring that his goal for his rookie season was to win the Super Bowl.

Chuck Noll had started the 1990 and 1991 seasons saying similar things, talking about having “Championship caliber talent” with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Merril Hoge in mind. But Cowher delivered his remarks with a difference – he really believed it.

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

Yet Cowher’s 1992 Steelers took the league by storm and entered the playoffs as the AFC’s first seed. Those Steelers of course didn’t win the Super Bowl, and Bill Cowher faced a long road litter with AFC Championship losses to get to Super Bowl XL.

  • But his goal remained constant.

And setting winning the Super Bowl as the standard for success paid dividends in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger arrived. Injuries to Tommy Maddox forced Ben Roethlisberger into the line up in week 2 and the franchise never looked back.

  • When the playoffs arrived, the Super Bowl was the goal and the expectation.

That left no room for a “We’re just glad to have won 14 straight games with a rookie quarterback and be in the AFC Championship” mentality. Winning a Super Bowl was the only success metric.

I’m sure if you asked Rooney a follow up question, he’d affirm that winning the Super Bowl is his goal and he was simply acknowledging that wining playoff games is a perquisite to a Lombardi.

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

But Rooney and everyone else must be mindful that comments like “its time get some [playoff] wins” can carry unintended consequences.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Pittsburgh: Steelers Hire Arthur Smith as Offensive Coordinator

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is set to hire Arthur Smith as his 5th offensive coordinator. In making the move, Tomlin may not have quite turned over all possible loose stones, but he did make good on his promise to look outside the organization.

Smith is most recently served as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and prior to that he worked for two years as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He will be the first Steelers offensive coordinator in the 21st that neither has ties to the team nor the city of Pittsburgh.

Ironically however, a quick look at Smith’s track record suggests he could help the franchise remain true to its roots.

Mike Tomlin, Arthur Smith, Steelers vs Falcons

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Of Running, Ryan and Combos

In his season-ending press conference, Mike Tomlin clarified that he wanted his next offensive coordinator to have experience and that he wanted someone who can foster Kenny Pickett’s development.

  • Arthur Smith checks both boxes.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft he started 88 games for them over 6 seasons. Tannehill’s numbers were OK, but never delivered what you’d need and expect an 8th overall pick to deliver. He never started a playoff game although the 2016 Dolphins did make it to the playoffs, Tannehill did not play as they got crushed by the Steelers.

The Dolphins moved on after 2018 and Tannehill headed to Tennessee where he joined Smith, who’d just been promoted to offensive coordinator. The difference was eye popping. Tannehill’s average passer rating at Tennessee was 91.2. In his two seasons with Smith that soared to 117.5 and 106.5

That pickup caught the attention of NFL owners, undoubtedly helping Smith land the head coaching job in Atlanta. And what’s telling here is that without Smith Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to Miami-like levels.

  • And there’s no real secret to Smith’s success with Tannehill – he leaned into the running game.

Under Smith’s guidance, the Titan’s rushing offense ranked 2nd and 3rd in rushing in the NFL. That’s welcome news for Steelers Smash Mouth Football purists who’ve longed for the team to get back to its roots.

  • It also may signal that Mike Tomlin’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If anyone ever doubted that, look no further than Josh Allen’s role in defeating the Steelers during the playoffs. But you can build a Super Bowl team around a solid running game and a strong defense as the 2015 Denver Broncos demonstrated (please spare me the “but they had Peyton Manning” replies, Manning was a glorified game-manager at that point in his career.)

With the Smith hire, it seems that Tomlin is acknowledging that the Steelers don’t have a super star quarterback and is acting accordingly.

The other encouraging sign in Smith’s resume is his background as a tight ends coach. Working as with tight ends gives a coach a unique perspective on the dynamics that drive both the running and passing games. I can’t speak for the rest of the league, but both Bill Cowher promoted both Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, and the Steelers offense flourished under both.

With that said, if during the Steelers 2022 win over the Falcons, Atlanta didn’t lean into its running game when it should have and they lost because of it, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Of Precedents and Pedigrees

The Steelers tendency to keep things in the family when it comes to finding offensive coordinators is nothing new. Tom Moore, Chan Gailey, Mularkey, Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians, Randy Fitchner and Matt Canada were all in-house hires. Both Joe Walton and Todd Haley had ties to the city and/or the team.

So Smith is now just the 4th “virgin” Steelers offensive coordinator hire, with Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride being the first three.

Looking at his track record, Arthur Smith looks a lot more like Ron Erhardt than a Sherman or a Gilbride. That’s a good thing.

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Mike Tomlin’s Press Conference Walkout Follows Noll & Cowher’s Footsteps

Chuck Noll did it. Bill Cowher sort of did it. And now Mike Tomlin has followed suit.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In case you’re a Steelers fan sitting under a rock or something, following the loss to the Bills in the 2023 AFC Wildcard game, Mike Tomlin abruptly ended his news conference when asked if he’d be back with the team next year.

It was ESPN’s Brooke Pryor who asked the question. Here’s Tomlin’s response:

There’s a temptation to label this as unprecedented, but in fact it has a rich precedent.

During the depths of the Steelers 5-11 1988 season, a reporter, most likely from the Pittsburgh Press asked Noll “What would determine whether or not you should come back, would it be something so bad…”

As you can see, Noll says with a smile, “I don’t even answer that…” but leaves the conference with the slight hint of a glare as he turns away. The move was reported nationally at the time, and thanks to Steel City Star we have video.

  • Bill Cowher also did something similar.

Speculation abounded about Bill Cowher’s future with the Steelers after the dismal 1999 season.

Eleven days after the Steelers 1999 finale, Bill Cowher met for 75 minutes with both Dan and Art Rooney II. While he wasn’t schedule to speak to the press he abruptly walked past reporters with what the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik described as a scow on his face.

Another reporter in an article that’s been lost to the internet’s oblivion, described him as a coach who looked like he’d just been fired. When asked if he had indeed lost his job, Cowher declined to answer simply stating that “Ron has the release.” (Ed Bouchette’s article doesn’t provide that depth of detail but confirms the basics.)

Those were big stories at the time. And had social media existed at the time, you’d undoubtedly be seeing memes of them now.

  • But what happened with the dust settled?

Dan Rooney extended Chuck Noll’s contract after the 1988 season and essentially guaranteed him life time employment when he decided to step down from coaching (the Steelers listed Noll as “Administration Advisor” until his death in 2014.)

And just minutes after Cowher’s abrupt hallway encounter with reporters, the Steelers issued a press release where Dan Rooney not only clarified that Cowher would be back, but so would his assistants.

  • Speculation about Mike Tomlin’s future has been a hot topic.

His confidant Jay Glazer has suggested that Tomlin may wish to seek other opportunities. Both Ed Bouchette and Vic Ketchman speculated on a recent Steel City Insider podcast that this would be Tomlin’s final year. The Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, the Pittsburgh reporter with access to some of the best sources in the Steelers organization, didn’t do anything to dissuade people of this notion, tweeting:

And Ed Thompson also pointed out on X that, unlike in past years, the Steelers had not schedule one final, season ending press conference with Mike Tomlin.

However, if reports are correct, Mike Tomlin will also mimic his predecessors, by returning to the Steelers after cutting off the press when asked if that was what he would do.

At 5:44 Eastern NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo’ reported that Mike Tomlin had told players he would return. ESPN’s Broke Pryor made a similar report and Gerry Dulac chimed in with this about 2 hours later:

Mike Tomlin has one year remaining on his contract. If the news of his return is indeed correct, expect him to sign an extension during the off season.

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Progress @ Paycor? Steelers Beat Bengals 16-10 as Pickett Plays Complete Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paycor Stadium in a scene that was eerily similar to the one they faced last week:

  • They were in Ohio.
  • They were playing in the AFC North.
  • They were playing against a rookie quarterback starting only because of injury.
  • Their own quarterback, Kenny Pickett was gaining more doubters with each passing week.

Yet for all of those similarities going into the game, the key difference coming out was that Steelers left the Buckeye state with a 16-10 victory. And while Mike Tomlin would be the first to remind us that “style points don’t count” it was the way the Steelers won that offered real hope for the future.

Kenny Picket, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers vs Bengals 2023 Paycor

Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

A Fitting Venue and Time for Pittsburgh to Pivot?

IN case you’ve been under a rock, prior to today’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have held a dubious distinction:

  • Cumulatively they had been outscored this season and their opponents had outgained them in each game.

Yet the Steelers defied statistical history and continued to win games, going into last week’s contest with Cleveland at 6-3. But their loss against Cleveland was particularly ugly. It felt like the offense had a moment similar to the Wile E. Coyote, who after walking on air without falling, looked down and crashed.

Mike Tomlin reached a similar conclusion and reacted by doing something the franchise hasn’t done since 1941:  firing a coach in season as he relived Matt Canada of his duties.

24 years ago Bill Cowher found himself at a similar crossroads at this same point in the season in a game against the Bengals no less. Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. The move the pleased fans but failed to alter the trajectory of either the game or the 1999 season.

Mike Tomlin’s decision also came going into a game against the Bengals, and one at Paycor Stadium a place the recent Steelers teams have defined their trajectories.

In 2020, at then Paul Brown Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger struggled so badly, I asked out loud if we had just witnessed the Steelers football equivalent of the 1980 Ali-Holmes Las Vegas fight.

In 2021, the Bengals and Joe Burrow’s domination of the Steelers confirmed that the AFC North had a new pecking order.

And even if the Steelers opened 2022 with a win at Paycor, the takeaway there was that the Steelers would need exceptional play on defense and special teams AND an injury to Joe Burrow to eke out wins against this Bengals team.

So the question as the Steelers arrived in Cincinnati was simple: Would Kenny Pickett respond positively to change?

Pickett Makes Progress

We can be certain that neither new Offensive Coordinator Eddie Faulkner nor Play Caller Mike Sullivan were aware of these Steelers-Bengals geographic or historical symmetries. But the duo clearly looked to make a statement by opening the game with a 24 yard strike down the middle of the field to Pat Freiermuth.

  • Kenny Pickett has avoided the middle of the field all season long like the plague.

Here he was taking chunk out of the middle of the field to start the game. Sure, two plays later that failed bubble screen looked to be vintage Canada, but had George Pickens not missed his block Diontae Johnson probably gets a first down.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bengals

Najee Harris stiff arms his way to more yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Pickett continued his aggressive ways on the next drive, hitting Pat Freiermuth for 29 yard yards down the middle again. Pickett should have had a touchdown pass on that, and a fumble ended that drive two plays later.

Yet on Pittsburgh’s next possession, Pickett hit Diontae Johnson deep for 39 yards in a drive that got the Steelers on the board for 3.

Kenny Pickett didn’t do it alone. He spread the ball out between 8 different receivers. More importantly, the Steelers committed to and succeeded in establishing the run game. Najee Harris had his best game of the season, running for 99 yards in a combination of short yardage grinds paired with double digit runs.

Jaylen Warren did his part with 49 yards on the ground and 13 more through the air.

Defense Makes Browning Look Like a Rookie

A week ago the story was that rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a 5th round pick no one had ever heard of, outplayed Kenny Pickett. Oh, Thompson-Robinson certainly looked like a rookie for most of the game, but he came up big down the stretch and put Cleveland in position to kick the game winner.

The Steelers made Bengals rookie Jake Browning look like a rookie, no asterisk required. To put that into perspective:

  • The Bengals lone touchdown drive came after a 49 yard kick return
  • When they reached the Red Zone next, Trenton Thompson picked off Browning
  • Nick Herbig broke off coverage to sack Browning on third down
  • T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward wrecked multiple drives with sacks
    [Note to Bengals: Maybe it is wise to block T.J. Watt on 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter.]
  • Led by Elandon Roberts, the Steelers run defense suffocated Joe Mixon

Credit Ja’Marr Chase for making two catches off of tipped passes. Where it not for those two heads up plays, it would have been a far longer afternoon for Browning.

Pickett Far from Perfect, Takes a Step Forward

Let’s be clear on something important: Kenny Pickett did not enjoy a “breakout” or a “statement” game at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers offense may have broken the 400 yard mark for the first time since week 2 of 2020, but it still only put 16 points on the board.

The fact that Steelers didn’t suffer a single three and out is a positive, but hardly cause for celebration. And if those deep and middle-of-the-field passes are legitimate positives, Pickett still stuck to short, safe passes.

But for the first time all season, the Steelers offense played as if it belonged in the NFL for an entire game. And for the first time all year, Kenny Pickett played kind of game we hoped to see coming out of preseason.

  • And that is an important step forward.

If Kenny Pickett can build off of that step, then hopefully we’ll look back and say that this time Paycor Stadium marked a positive pivot point for Pittsburgh.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

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Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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Bending Back with a Vengeance: Steelers Beat Packers 23-19 with Two 4th Quarter Interceptions

“Alright, that was easy,” proclaimed Mike Tomlin after the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

  • The Steelers standard bearer was of course being uncharacteristically sarcastic.

Of course this wasn’t easy. Which is actually appropriate. The Steelers and Packers are two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Many of their recent matchups have gone down to the wire, and this one lived up to the tradition.

While the caliber of football isn’t strong enough to earn this team any sort of legendary spot in NFL Films lore, it should be noted that Mike Tomlin’s team won because his offense returned to its roots and his defense delivered when the game was on the line. Again.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Najee Warren, Jaylen Harris Deliver 1-2 Punch on the Ground

There are some jobs in this world where 1 + 1 equals more than two. Think of making a queen-sized bed. Although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, ranking leaves is another, at least in my experience.

  • NFL rushing attacks are a bit harder to pin down.

For a generation, Chuck Noll’s offense dutifully divided carries between running backs. That changed when Bill Cowher arrived.

During the Steelers 1992 season reporters asked if Cowher might ease up on Barry Foster’s workload, Cowher quipped, “Not unless I see parts of his body falling off.” Mike Tomlin said something similar about Fast Willie Parker in 2007, and he’s stuck with his “bell cow” since.

The win over the Packers proves that the running back-by-committee trend has sustained itself. On the Steelers opening drive Najee Harris carried on four out of the Steelers 5 rushes. After Jaylen Warren ripped off a 12 yarder to reach the Red Zone, the Steelers went back to Harris, who found the end zone one the second of consecutive runs.

  • The next time Pittsburgh got the ball, Matt Canada and Eddie Faulkner flipped the script.

Warren saw most of the work, slogging out some and doing better on others, with Harris spelling him for a double-digit carry. Yet, the fact that Warren got dropped for a 1-yard loss after the Steelers reached the Red Zone didn’t prevent them from going back to him 2 plays later.

Warren rewarded the coaches’ faith, ripping off a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers touchdowns on their consecutive opening drives since… God knows when.

Is the fact that the Steelers affirmed their commitment to a two running back system and scored touchdowns on their first two drives for the first time in recent just a coincidence? You decide.

Defense Breaks, Early

The win against the Packers will not and should not be remembered as one of the great defensive performances of the post-Roethlisberger era, let alone anything larger. Jordan Love’s Green Bay Packers are not of the same pedigree as Brett Favre’s or Aaron Rodgers’.

  • Yet, Jordan Love and his offense hung 2 touchdowns on the Steelers defense in the first half.

Worse yet, they made it look easy. And for a time, in the first half, it looked like this game might turn into a score-for-score affair if not a shoot-out similar to the 2009 match up.

The game evolved differently. After breaking early, the Steelers got a second chance.

The Myth of the “Irrelevant Play” on Display

The extra point and the kickoff return are two of the most mundane plays in the modern NFL. A few years ago serious commentators even suggested eliminating the extra point. And the NFL is all but trying to legislate the kick return out of the game.

  • One might be tempted to conclude that both plays are irrelevant.

The win over the Packers gave Steelers fans a double edged reminder that there are no irrelevant plays in the NFL.

  • Patrick Peterson blocked the Packer’s extra point after their second touchdown.
  • Keisean Nixon set up two Green Bay scores with kick returns of 49 and 36 yards
  • Anthony McFarland set up the Steelers penultimate field goal with his own 36 yard kick return

Chuck Noll preached that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh leaned in on this last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers leaned in a little further.

Steelers Defense Bends Back – with a Vengeance

Kenny Pickett started the game with a completion to George Pickens right out of the gate. While the Steelers running game deserves credit for the first two touchdown drives, Pickett was sharp on both.

Keanu Neal, Keanu Neal interception end zone, Steelers vs Packers

Keanu Neal with the Steelers 1st 4th quarter interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Had Pickett remained similarly sharp or had Diontae Johnson made a few clutch catches the defense’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • But necessary they were.

The first came with little more than three minutes remaining, immediately after the Steelers had retaken the lead. Green Bay drove the length of the field, reaching Pittsburgh’s 14. There Jordan Love fired a dart to Christian Watson in the end zone. Patrick Peterson tipped it, Keanu Neal intercepted and returned 39 yards.

The Steelers almost ran out the click, but Kenny Pickett was right on the money for a would be game-sealing pass to George Pickens that was negated by a (questionable) Calvin Austin pass interference penalty.

After six plays the Packers were back at Pittsburgh’s 16 – a field goal would do them no good thanks to Peterson’s blocked kick. Again Love targeted Watson:  This time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn to intercept the ball and return in 30 yards as time expired.

The Steelers defense may have broken early, but it bent back with a vengeance when the game was on the line. And that decided the game for Pittsburgh.

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4 Thoughts from the Steelers 24-17 Win Over the LA Rams

Steelers Beat Rams 24-17 in Los Angeles.” This headline makes it look so simple.

  • But was anything actually simple about this game?

The Steelers struggled — on both sides of the ball — for multiple quarters. They committed a series of boneheaded, drive scuttling penalties.

  • Yet, when it was all over, they came out on top.

The win gives the Steelers their first victory in Los Angles over the Rams since Super Bowl XIV. While no one should call this a Super Bowl team, perhaps that championship gives us a takeaway that applies to this team.

But there’s also a takeaway from their last win over the Rams in 2019 that applies. And that in turn takes us to the key to victory in this game: The ability to flip their once tried-and-true “throw to score, run to win” script.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Rams

Najee Harris takes off. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Leaning into the Words of John Facenda

NFL Films made the league into the behemoth it is today. In the age before cable TV, YouTube or social media Steve Sabol and company told stories about the National Football League in ways that transcended both time and culture — even Argentines who only discovered American football in the mid-1990s revere John Facenda as a legend.

  • NFL Films’ legacy remains vital to this day.

Our Twitterized (or Xized) communication infrastructure has reduced history to shorthand sprinkled with emojis. Viewed through that lense, the Super Steelers four Super Bowls in six years look inevitable.

  • But NFL Films threaded the needle of combining legend-making with context.

How many people remember that the 1979 Steelers began the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV trailing? Well, they did.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV

But they won anyway because, as John Facenda explained, “Great teams don’t have be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” This was his lead into Terry Bradshaw’s 73 yard go ahead bomb to John Stallworth.

  • Something similar seems to be true about these 2023 Steelers.

Are they a “great team?” Hardly. But they have some great players who have repeatedly proven that they can step up when the team needs them to.

T.J. Watt’s interception is the obvious example — the Rams had scored just before halftime and, could have iced the game by opening the second half with a touchdown.

But Watt intercepted Matthew Stafford’s first pass and, 3 plays later, Kenny Pickett and Chris Boswell  put the Steelers ahead 10-9.

  • What offers the best example, but he’s hardly the only example.

The Rams running backs Royce Freeman and Darrell Henderson Jr. ran frighteningly well at times. Both ripped off, multiple, double digit runs. Yet, at other times they got stuffed for little or no gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick helped turn that tide by coming up and making several plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Puka Nacua entered the third quarter with more yards receiving than the entire Steelers offense, yet Joey Porter Jr. played a huge role in shutting him down when it counted.

2. A Welcome Similarity from 2019 – to a Point

The Steelers last played the Rams in on November 2019 at Heinz Field. There are also several similarities to that game.

People likely remember that game for plays like Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 43 yard fumble return for a touchdown, a rhythm changer similar to Watt’s interception.

My lasting memory of that game is of Mason Rudolph. Statistically speaking, his best game that season was at home against the Ravens where he suffered a concussion. But against the Rams he really stepped up and, for the first time, really took charge of the offense.

Hopefully, that part of history won’t repeat itself, because against the Rams, Kenny Pickett made progress. Not only did he improve as the game moved on as he did against the Ravens, but he carried himself like someone in command in a way that he hadn’t done before.

And nowhere was that command more apparent than when it counted the most.

3. Flipping the “Throw to score, run to win” Script

When Bill Cowher interviewed Ron Erhardt for the 1992 offensive coordinator position, the ex-Parcells lieutenant described his offensive philosophy as “Throw to score, run to win.” Earnhart meant that while you might throw the ball to put points on the board, you beat the other team by running ball successfully, thereby keeping the other team from scoring.

And for a long time, that’s been the Steelers core offensive philosophy even if one could quibble that the Steelers went astray during the Roethlisberger Era.

And that’s the philosophy that Matt Canada used to right the ship during the 2nd half of 2022 following the bye week.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Rams

George Pickens catches one on Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

But ironically, the Steelers employed the opposite approach in coming back to beat the Rams. During the second half, Kenny Pickett 11-12 for 152 yards with zero touchdowns or interceptions.

Pickett hit George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Connor Heyward for hook ups of 39, 18, 21, 11 and 11 yards on the Steelers two touchdown drives.

Yet, as they did after Watt’s interception, as soon as the Steelers reached the Red Zone, they muscled it in. First Jaylen Warren exploded for a 13 yard touchdown.

Next time, was Najee Harris who forced is way for a 3 yard touchdown, two plays after ripping of 10 and 5 yard runs.

4. Who Are the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

OK. Let’s agree that invoking John Facenda and Super Bowl XIV is a bit grandiose. After all, the Steelers started the 4th quarter with barely 100 yards of offense. But the win still reveals a few important things about this team:

  • This a defense doesn’t simply help its offense with splash plays, it adjusts as the game progresses
  • This is an offense takes advantage of opportunities that defense and special teams provide it
  • Kenny Pickett continues to clutch

Clearly the Steelers have to stop giving up so many yards so early in games and the offense needs to start scoring touchdowns before the second half. But the fact that they’re continuing to make in-game improvements suggests that they’re capable of doing it as the season goes on.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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Steelers 27-0 Shutout of the Atlanta Falcons Puts “Its Only Preseason” to the Test

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out their 2023 preseason with a 27-0 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on the road. I tuned in at the tail end of the 1st quarter just in time to see the 17-0 as the fade to a commercial began.

  • And of course, the German-Irish Catholic in me resisted: “This is too good to be true.”

But it wasn’t. 17-0 turned to 24-0 before the half. At that point my attention shifted to dinner but by the time I checked the score again before bedtime the Steelers had authored their first preseason shut out since 2009.

Yes, the Steelers were near perfect against the Falcons and its not too much of a stretch to apply this characterization to the rest of their 2023 preseason.

But, if it is, “Only Preseason” what does it mean?

George Pickens, Steelers vs Falcons 2023 preseason

George Pickens makes a Lynn Swann worthy catch. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Understanding Preseason Perfection Means Focusing on Form Rather than Deed

Perfection is something you seldom associate with pro football. Things rarely go as planned. Particularly in the preseason. My first live Steelers game came in August 1990 at RFK Stadium in Washington during the preseason. That night Joe Walton’s offense was in such disarray that my father, a complete football neophyte, remarked “Those guys didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

33 years later their successors couldn’t have offered a starker contrast.

Several figures from the stat sheet paint a picture of perfection:

  • Kenny Pickett went 4-4 in the process of leading 2 touchdown drives
  • The Steelers didn’t throw an incomplete pass until Mitch Trubisky failed to connect at 1:54
  • Each of the top three running backs scored a touchdown
  • Five players from the Steelers defense recorded sacks
  • On the Falcon’s lone trip into the Red Zone, the Steelers forced and recovered a fumble

Impressive indeed.

Impressive enough to remind me of Kevin Greene’s remarks following a dominating win over the San Diego Chargers during his first year in Pittsburgh when he exclaimed, “This is like the WWF, or something.” (The WWE was known as the WWF back then.)

Yes, Greene’s comment does apply to the Steelers 2023 preseason performances, and that’s a bit of a double edged sword. That win over the Chargers marked one of several moments where Bill Cowher’s squad flashed that it could be something special. Yet, when it was all said and done, harsh reality was that 1993 Steelers were not ready for prime time.

But based on what we’ve seen in preseason, for however else the ’23 Steelers season ends, we won’t saying about this team. And it’s not because of the numbers that the Steelers put up against the Falcons – Mike Tomlin was playing his starters while Atlanta rested theirs.

Pittsburgh was supposed to dominate this preseason contest. And they did. But once again it was the way that they did it.

To understand, look no further than T.J. Watt’s sack:

Watt not only gets through 2, maybe 3 people to reach Taylor Heinicke, but he wraps him, twists him and slams him to the turf with the intensity that you’d expect to see in the 4th quarter of a playoff game.

Strange as it may seem, that may not have been the best play on the drive. One snap before that Elandon Roberts set the tone:

To paraphrase my friend and colleague Neal Coolong, when the defense opens a game authoring plays like this, they’re establishing who is the _____ in this relationship.

This translation of desire into domination wasn’t limited to the defense. The offense made its contribution:

  • George Pickens stepped up and made a Lynn Swann worthy catch
  • Najee Harris’ touchdown was nice, but his 12 yard run that set up the score was all about 2nd effort
  • Not to be outdone, but Jaylen Warren imposed his will on his 8 yard touchdown
  • Ditto Anthony McFarland. His 31 yard run was nice, but he scored his touchdown with grit

At the end of the day this was “only preseason.” And preseason can be misleading.

Last year the Steelers were undefeated in the preseason and then started 2-6. The 2016 Steelers went 1-3 in preseason and reached the AFC Championship. Looking further back, the 1988 Steelers started 3-1 in preseason and then finished 5-11, which was and remains the franchise’s worst record since the Immaculate Reception.

So here is what to make of this:

1. The Steelers have spent the 2023 excelling when they’re supposed to excel, i.e. against backups
2. They’ve also looked strong against the Bills’ starters
3. They’re backups have responded to fast starts with strong finishes
4. Throughout the Steelers have played with determination and sound execution of the fundamentals

So yes, if you’re a serious Steelers fans you should continue to say to yourself, “Its Only Preseason.” But it’s OK to do it with a smile on your face.

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