Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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Will Ben Roethlisberger Rebound? A Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd Half of Season Performance

The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

  • And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.

That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 2017

Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com

Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.

Looking beyond the numbers, there’s no arguing that Roethlisberger has been helped by having an the best receiver in the NFL in the form of Antonio Brown and the best running back in form of Le’Veon Bell. And while Martavis Bryant has disappointed, JuJu Smith-Schuster has impressed.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid it out succinctly this week:

Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.

Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.

Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season

Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season

First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.

  • And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.

Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.

That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.

A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.

When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats november, Ben Roethlisberger stats december

With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.

First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.

  • But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.

While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.

  • When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.

When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.

He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.

Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.

The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.

But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.

  • Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.

First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.

  • And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.

It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.

The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.

So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.

 

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Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix Has Put the “Full” Back in Fullback in Pittsburgh

About 10 years ago, when Dan Kreider‘s best days were behind him, and Carey Davis took his place in the Steelers backfield, the fullback was seen as a dying breed in the NFL, a dinosaur on-par with the rotary phone.

  • Bruce Arians in fact, liked to insist that his offense “didn’t have a fullback.”

True enough, while Davis did actually play the fullback position, he was known more as a receiver out of the backfield and a special teams ace, than as a true chauffeur for Fast Willie Parker, the team’s top tailback in the late-2000’s. One get the feeling that Arians designating Cary Davis as a “fullback” was more of a way of humoring factions within the Steelers organization that favored the fullback.

Cary Davis was gone by 2010, and the keys to the fullback position, when they weren’t collecting dust in some drawer on the South Side, were often handed off to tight end David Johnson, who certainly needed to find a way to make himself more useful while third on the depth chart behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

  • When the situation demanded a blocker out of the backfield, Doug Legursky would also do double-duty as a fullback.

But more often than not, one-back sets were the norm on most plays, especially after all-world running back Le’Veon Bell became a star and the team’s workhorse in 2014.

  • Besides, with passing becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL, why would anyone really need a fullback anymore?

But if you’ve been following the Steelers in 2017, while Antonio Brown shows no signs of slowing, the Ben Roethlisberger of today certainly isn’t the Ben Roethlisberger of 2014. As for Martavis Bryant? Well, there’s a reason why Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant.

  • All of this translates into a reliance on Le’Veon Bell, as well as utilizing him more as a true tailback, and not as a tailback who wants to be paid like a wide-receiver.

This leads us to Roosevelt Nix, one of the Steelers 2014 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents out of Kent State, who played defensive line in college, tried to switch to linebacker in the pros, only to switch sides of the ball and become a fullback in-order to make his NFL dreams come true.

Roosevelt Nix, Rosie Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Bengals, Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix

Steelers Fulleback Roosevelt Nix paves the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rosie Nix made the Steelers in 2015; in two-plus years in Pittsburgh, he doesn’t have a  single carry to his name, with his only offensive contributions coming on a combined four receptions.

  • But Roosevelt Nix, who is also a special teams demon, seems to be relishing his role as a blocking fullback.

And he’s already started two games this season, as Pittsburgh is now opening up in more run-oriented alignments.

Obviously, one-back sets and hand-offs to Le’Veon Bell out of the shotgun formation are still very-much en-vogue in Todd Haley’s offense, but the sight of No. 45 acting as the chauffeur or bodyguard for No. 26 is becoming more and more familiar.

And, as I said before, Nix doesn’t seem to care about his number of carries or any other offensive stats, than the ones that belong to Bell and the other tailbacks he seems to love escorting on long runs downfield.

Roosevelt Nix, Rosie Nix, Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix

Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix leading the way. Photo Credit: MSN Sports

Take last Sunday’s Steelers win against the Bengals, for example, and how Rosie Nix seemed to make it his personal mission to protect Bell from the very dangerous and factually dirty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who began the game by kicking Nix in the facemask, but ended it with just four tackles and certainly didn’t do much to slow Bell down on his way to 134 yards rushing.

Unlike some previous match-ups against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bell ended the day healthy and ready to do battle again. With Ben Roethlisberger slowly taking a backseat to Le’Veon Bell as the main cog in the Steelers offensive attack, the latter’s health is of the utmost importance.

  • The Steelers offense may go only as  far as Le’Veon Bell can take it in 2017.

It’s nice to know he’ll have his own personal bodyguard in Roosevelt Nix protecting him on his and the team’s journey.

 

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Watch Tower: Steelers Antonio Brown Draft Story Revealed, Optimizing OTA Coverage & More

The Watch Tower’s lights haven’t lit since mid-February but the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the scribes that cover them, have logged a busy off season. So as the NFL’s true down period begins, the Watch Tower turns its attention to Steelers draft coverage, getting the most out of OTAs, bumping into an old friend, and much more.

Antonio Brown, Steelers Draft Antonio Brown,

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler penned draft room story on the Steelers drafting Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Jeremy Fowler Delivers Story Behind Steelers Drafting Antonio Brown

Two years ago the Watch Tower noted the chronic lack of Steelers draft war room stories and called on the credentialed press to change things. Last year, Jim Wexell supplied a nugget, revealing that Steelers almost drafted Jevon Kearse instead of Troy Edwards in the 1999 NFL Draft. Alas, while that morsel represented a succulent sample of Wexell’s work, it was only that, a nugget.

This year ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler delivered with a fantastic, 2,300 plus word feature on how the Steelers came to draft Antonio Brown in the 2010 NFL Draft.

  • It seems like Jeremy Fowler has heeded the Watch Tower’s call.

Actually, it is probably a safe bet that Jeremy Fowler has never set eyes on this site, let alone the Watch Tower, but that doesn’t dampen the Watch Tower’s enthusiasm for a truly phenomenal story detailing how the Steelers made greatest 6th round steal this side of Tom Brady.

Included in “The Brown 21,” one rule for each of the 21 receivers picked before Brown, are insights from Brown’s coach at Central Michigan Butch Jones, Phil Savage, Bruce Arians, Scottie Montgomery, Charlie Batch, and Drew Rosenhaus.

  • Note, none of the above names above currently work for the Steelers.

While Jeremy Fowler did quote Mike Tomlin, he didn’t get anyone from the current Steelers scouting or coaching staff to speak on the record about how Pittsburgh came to draft Antonio Brown. No surprise there.

But that didn’t Jeremy Fowler from hustling to tell a good story on the Steelers most important draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era. And for that Jeremy Fowler wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Lolley Calls Steelers 4th Round Pick 2 Months in Advance

The Steelers shocked (and angered) much of the fan base when the pick Tennessee Quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Count the Watch Tower among those who weren’t expecting this.

  • But, as pointed out on here before, Dale Lolley’s readers shouldn’t have been caught off guard.

Based Art Rooney II postseason press conference, Dale Lolley told his readers “The Steelers will likely take a shot at a quarterback in the middle rounds of this year’s draft, much like they did with Jones a few years ago.”

Josuha Dobbs, Steelers OTAs

4th Round Pick Joshua Dobbs at Steelers OTA. Photo Credit: AP via wpxi.com

Just as they’d done with Landry Jones in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted Dobbs in the 4th round. Perhaps Lolley had inside information, perhaps reporter’s intuition guided him, or maybe it was a mix of both.

It doesn’t matter. One thing is certain, Dale Lolley had the story two and a half months before the draft. Next time he speaks up like this, the Watch Tower will take note.

It’s Not Easy Being Green II

The saga of Ladarius Green, and analysis of the press coverage he generated during his short stay in Pittsburgh could easily provide material for several dozen Watch Tower columns.

  • Fear not, we won’t attempt to do that here, but we’ll again focus on the work done by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Ladarius Green, Ed Bouchette Ladarius Green, Steelers Thanksgiving Colts, Edwin Jackson

Ladarius Green catches a pass in the Steelers 2017 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Jeff Brown, Icon Sportswire

Last summer when Ladarius Green couldn’t get off the PUP list, Ed Bouchette got ahead of the story, going as far as to compare the Green signing to Chuck Noll’s badly botched Frank Lewis for Paul Seymor trade. At the time the Watch Tower wondered if that was idle speculation, or if Bouchette was signaling he knew a deeper back story he couldn’t yet report.

As soon as Green hit the wavier wire, Bouchette labeled the move as Pittsburgh’s worst free agent signing ever, and justified has argument by revealing that the Steelers failed to fully investigate his concussion history.

Once again, the Watch Tower says, “This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.”

Making the Most of Steelers OTA’s

May showers in June flowers mean one thing for football fans – OTAs. OTA’s are only football in shorts, don’t often provide much meaningful news yet they’re all the rage. Except they’re not, for the men and women who cover them. Two years ago, a credentialed member of the Steelers press corps confided in a private email exchange:

Have not gone to OTAs yet but probably will next week. They are kind of annoying, frankly. There is no locker room access and you can only talk to the players as they are coming off of the field so its typically a scrum, especially the first week and even more so with a bunch of bored media.

The internet has made this phenomenon a stable of sports coverage – you’re used to seeing 2 dozen or so reporters bunched together, twisting themselves into pretzels as they squirm and stretch to shove a microphone towards Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant’s mouth.

Mike Tomlin, St. Vincents, Steelers Training camp

Mike Tomlin addresses the media @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

Such frenzies have always struck the Watch Tower as a bit odd, given that the same interview will probably be live on Steelers.com well before the reporters can write, let alone file, their stories.

After explaining the pecking order for interviews during off season workouts, Wexell made a (perhaps not so) subtle dig at his competitors observing that they preferred to watch passing trains while he reported on the progress of players like John Maxley, Francis Kallon, Matt Galambos, Keith Kelsey and Phazahn Odom.

He also took time out to do a story on Ethan Cooper, an undrafted rookie free agent lineman out of IUP, getting his full-length feature out almost a month before the Tribune Review and Post-Gazette writers did theirs (although, to be fair Mike Prisuta published a feature on Cooper on Steelers.com before Wexell.)

Ethan Cooper, Steelers OTAs 2017

Steelers undrafted rookie free agent Ethan Cooper interviewed @ OTAs. Photo Credit: Scout

Devoting previous reporting time to stories on obscure roster bubble babies can carry a cost – Mike Tomlin is known to playfully taunt Penn Live’s Jacob Klingler as “Mr. Irrelevant” for doing just that. Fair enough. Some of those men Wexell profiled won’t make it to Latrobe, let alone the 1st preseason game.

Beyond that, the Watch Tower awards kudos to Jim Wexell for finding a way to be different in an age where “content” gets recycled ad nauseam to the point where major dailies appear to be doing knockoff stories based on interviews posted on Steelers.com.

And, lest anyone label Steel City Insider a “bottom feeder” site, at the close of minicamp Wexell published an exclusive one-on-one interview with Ben Roethlisberger.

Hello Stafford (and, BTW So Long Shamarko)

Former Tennessee safety Daimion Stafford arrived in Pittsburgh at the end of May, effectively ended Pittsburgh’s 2017 foray into free agency and ending Shamarko Thomas tortured tenure with the team.

  • Not that you’d know that from reading the major dailies, media sites and major fan sites that cover the Steelers.

The Steelers signed Stafford and day later, the New York Jet’s picked up Thomas. Yet, almost no one who writes about the Steelers connected the dots. The Watch Tower has taken the press to task for ignoring past late-spring departures of Mewelde Moore and Doug Legursky, but concedes that there’s probably less news value in Shamarko’s non-return.

  • But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a good story to tell.

Last year Art Rooney II acknowledged the Steelers had “made mistakes” with their secondary. It would seem like that quote might made a good lede about the mistakes the Steelers made and how they’ve changed their approach (or not) in hopes of avoiding them.

Shamarko Thomas, Carnell Lake, Steelers 2015 OTAs

Carnell Lake & Shamarko Thomas @ Steelers 2015 OTAs. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Or, a crafty writer could take Carnell Lake’s words about Shamarko Thomas and tie them to the Senquez Golson comeback story, given Lake’s draft day assertions that both players would be first rounders if they were two inches taller. That’s another enticing lede to another non-story with the potential to provide a lot of insight.

So be it. No one’s surprised that Shamarko won’t be at St. Vincents this summer. But we will share that this site’s free agent profile of Shamarko Thomas saw a spike in page view the day he signed with Jets. Just Say’in.

Running into an Old Friend – McMillen & Wife is Back

Sometimes its just nice to run into an old friend.

That happened a short while back when yours truly was looking for an image of Neil O’Donnell and Google took me to McMillen and Wife. If you’re not familiar, McMillen and Wife was a pioneer Steelers fan site in the late 1990’s. In terms of offering innovation, giving fans a voice and delivering quality analysis, McMillen and Wife the same sort of trailblazer that Behind the Steel Curtain was early in the Tomlin era.

  • Indeed, as mentioned in our very first post, McMillen & Wife helped inspire this site’s launch.

Work and life complications kept site founder and editor Tim McMillen from doing much after the early 00’s and while a friend kept the it going for a while, the site went more or less dormant for the last decade.

  • But Tim McMillen is back with a vengeance.

McMillen doesn’t consider himself a blogger and is more passionate about design aspect of the site. When McMillen started very you could type in Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene or Franco Harris’ names into Yahoo! and find almost nothing. As McMillen explains, “At the time, the pictures I was posting were some of the ONLY classic Steelers pics on the net! Hard to believe, really, because we take it completely for granted that we can find just about anything we want nowadays.”

And while the Watch Tower won’t steal his thunder, it will say that McMillen has found an unorthodox way to offer something unique to fans. Check it out just make sure you visit the site when you have plenty of spare time….

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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4 Survival Tips for Steelers Nation for the Start of Free Agency

In just a few hours the NFL’s 2017 free agency period will start. We’ve seen this movie before of course, but commentators still insist on trying to spice things up with a dose of extra drama.

  • Steelers Nation is not exempt.

In the course the course of just a handful of days, we’re told that Ross Cockrell, Lawrence Timmons and most likely Markus Wheaton are on the verge of selling their homes in Pittsburgh, while the Steelres signing Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall and Dre Kirkpatrick is merely a formality.

  • Or something like that.

Its inevitable I guess, but at this time of year a certain segment of Steelers Nation seems to forget all history since 1993. So what is a good blogger to do? Offer Steelers Nation advice on surviving free agency.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2017 free agency

Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert during Steelers 2015 off season. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

1. Any Steelers Free Agent Splash Likely Involves a Name You’re Not Hearing

You don’t need a long memory for this one folks. Think back to the week before free agency started in 2014. Steelers Nation was abuzz with anticipation of the Mike Mitchell signing. Behind the Steel Curtain had a full 7 or 8 articles analyzing how Mitichell’s arrival would impact Shamarko Thomas’ development, Troy Polamalu’s retirement and the Steelers salary cap….

…Except it didn’t.

If memory serves, there was little – if any – connection made between Mike Mitchell and the Steelers until the Steelers surprised everyone by signing Mike Mitchell. Ditto last year’s signing of Ladarius Green.

Unlike other teams, the Steelers aren’t concerned about winning the off season Lombardi, they’re focused on winning a real Lombardi. They’ve never telegraphed their moves before. No one in Steelers Nation should expect them to start now.

2. Watch Confluence of Steelers Words & Actions

Might the Steelers lose Lawrence Timmons? You bet. Kevin Colbert has said a number of times that he thinks Lawrence Timmons might test the free agent market. The Steelers anticipated this over a year ago when they resigned Vince Williams.

  • The Steelers want Lawrence Timmons back, but Omar Khan isn’t cutting him a blank check.

Ditto Ross Cockrell. This site perhaps underestimated the Steelers desire to bring Cockrell back in our free agent profile of the restricted free agent corner. But the low tender, combined with Jim Wexell’s reporting that the Steelers are going target cornerback in free agency shows that their some fire behind that smoke.

The door swings both ways, as the case of Antonio Brown illustrates. The Steelers just resigned Antoino Brown agreeing to pay him an average of 17 million for the next five years. Do you relly think they’re going to plunk down 12 million a year for Terrelle Pryor?

If you do, you don’t understand how the Pittsburgh Steelers work.

3. Don’t Panic. The Brain Trust in Pittsburgh Won’t

This isn’t the first rodeo for Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, nor is it for 3 or 4 score of other people employed at the South Side. As an organization, the Steelers have the institutional wisdom to both know to expect the unexpected and that smart decisions in free agency are never made out of panic.

  • A little thought exercise brings this to light.

Who is the Steelers best free agent signing ever? The answer can only be Kevin Greene. No offense to Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark or James Farrior, but Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer. But the Steelers didn’t enter the 1993 off season targeting Kevin Greene.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought the Steelers outside linebacking tandem was set with Greg Lloyd and Jerrol Williams.

Then San Diego came along and made Jerrol Williams a 1.7 million one year contract offer, in what was then an exorbitant amount for any player, let alone a 1 year contract. The Steelers really wanted to keep Williams in Pittsburgh, but there was no way they were going to pay that money.

  • So they went out and signed a future Hall of Famer instead.

During the 1997 off season, the Steelers saw their top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures all walk in free agency. When dust settled, two Kordell Stewart interceptions at the goal line in the AFC Championship where essentially all that separated the Steelers from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It doesn’t always work out so neatly, of course. After the 1997 trip to the AFC Championship, the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans grossly overpaid for the services of John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen. If the Pittsburgh was right to stick to its bottom lines, the Steelers most certainly suffered as the team struggled to find replacements for both players.

The Steelers understand that winning free agent bidding wars won’t doesn’t win Super Bowls.

4. Relax and Remember: Reality Unfolds at its Own Pace

Reading all of this “do or die” talk about free agents either coming or going reminds me of a conversation I had while in college the night before free agency began for the first time in 1993.

A friend of mine, I diehard Washington Redskins fan, called me and told me:

“Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am Reggie White’s agent is going to get a call with a big, fat contract from Redskins Park, and I predict by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be a Washington Redskin.”

To hear my friend tell it, Lombardi number 4 should already have been pressed, minted and shipped to Asburn, Virginia. To be fair, Reggie White hadn’t been happy in Philadelphia, and his name had been frequently tied to the Redskins. And Jake Kent Cooke and spent lavishly on players in the days before free agency.

  • But of course Reggie White never made it to Washington.

He got ticker tape parades and city keys at just about every team he visited. In the end the team that deliberately took a minimalist, football centric approach, the Green Bay Packers, landed Reggie White.

Could this afternoon bring news that the Steelers have made another day-one free agent signing? Yes it might? Could we see Lawrence Timmons announce his reunion with Dick LeBeau or Bruce Arians. Perhaps. Both are plausible possibilities.

Its also just as possible that Timmons shops his services around, makes a couple of visits, and decides to stay in Pittsburgh, just as Ryan Clark did in 2010. The Steelers could make a splash, but the could also let the initial frenzy pass, and then do that they’ve traditionally done best – bargain hunt.

At the end of the day, “Reality unfolds at its own pace,” if we’re allowed recycle a 40 year old quote from Jerry Brown.

And perhaps free agency is the best time to keep that in mind.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs. Patriots, DeAngelo Williams touchdown AFC Championship, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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5 Key Decisions that Fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 Wins as Steelers Head Coach

Ask Mike Tomlin about his 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and he’ll tersely explain “It means I’ve been here for a while.” Fair enough, but Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins didn’t come overnight, and certainly didn’t occur because he was in the right place at the right time.

  • No, Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins come because he’s one of the best head coaches in the NFL.

Any head coach’s record is a byproduct of a lot of hours of film study, staffing and personnel choices, strategy adoption and game-day decision making. It is hard for an outsider to pinpoint key moments that directly resulted in a coach’s success.

But we’re going to try. Here are 5 key decisions that fueled Mike Tomiln’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach.

mike tomlin, mike tomlin's 100 wins steelers head coach,

Quality coaching decisions fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. (Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post Gazette)

1. Adopting while reshaping Bill Cowher’s legacy

Can we please dispense with the “Mike Tomlin has only won with Bill Cowher’s players” nonsense?

Yes, Tomlin did inherit Ben Roethlisberger and a host of Super Bowl XL veterans, but if you think that getting handed the keys to a team that is a year or two removed from a Lombardi Trophy is an automatic key to success, please consult the coaching records of Richie Petitbon, Ray Handley or Phil Bengtson.

  • Mike Tomlin had a real challenge facing him when he took over in 2007.

Most if not all of his locker room expected and wanted either Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt to get the job. Alan Faneca wasn’t happy with his contract. Neither was Joey Porter.

Tomlin was not only smart enough to retain Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, but wise enough to sit back and learn from Coach Dad. He also retained several members of Bill Cowher’s staff, while integrating it with new faces he’d brought in with him.

  • Mike Tomlin didn’t shy away from tough choices. With his approval, the Steelers parted ways with Joey Porter.

Part of his motivation no doubt lay in the conclusion that James Harrison needed to start, a move The Chin never made. Tomlin also smoothed over the Alan Faneca situation. Faneca wasn’t happy, but he never caused a disruption because of his contract.

It’s true that Dick LeBeau came “highly recommended” by the Rooneys, but Tomlin could have just as easily kept him and made wholesale changes with the rest of his for the sake of making a statement. Instead, Tomlin pulled off the delicate balance of embracing the legacy that Bill Cowher left him while making the team his own.

2. Going hard on defense in the 2007 NFL Draft

While Mike Tomlin shares drafting authority with Kevin Colbert, the duo didn’t hesitate to break rules by drafting two outside linebackers with their first two picks in the 2007 NFL Draft.

  • No, that’s not a misprint.

The Steelers drafted Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker, and he was listed behind James Harrison in the Steelers 2007 Media Guide’s training camp depth chart. After that they picked LaMarr Woodley. They of course moved Lawrence Timmons to the inside. He took a while to develop, but since 2010, he’s been the mainstay of the Steelers defense.

But as Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, LaMarr Woodley registered 44 sacks in 55 games, a pace that not even Hall of Famers like Joe Greene and Kevin Greene or legends such as L.C. Greenwood and Greg Lloyd could match. And of course, LaMarr Woodley’s strip sack of Kurt Warner sealed victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Tomlin and Colbert also picked William Gay during the 2007 NFL Draft.

The Steelers 2007 draft class was was far from perfect. Matt Spaeth was hardly a bust but never lived up to his 3rd round status. Neither did Daniel Sepulveda. And who can remember the other players the Steelers drafted then?

But 100 wins later, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s first draft picks are still paying dividends on the field.

3. Standing Up for Bruce Arians in 2009

Mike Tomlin’s first real adversity came during the Steelers 2009 five-game losing streak in a year where the franchise clearly seemed to suffer from a Super Bowl hangover. Fans, bloggers and the professional press were all calling for Bruce Arians’ head.

  • So were some people on the South Side whose opinion actually counts.

As Ed Bouchette reported at the time, “Tomlin is under pressure from the ‘front office’” over Arians. While Arians did do some boneheaded things in 2009 (see the pass happy, empty sets on third and short on a freezing night in Cleveland), the truth is he got unfairly scapegoated a lot too.

  • But Mike Tomlin believed in his offensive coordinator, and he fought for him.

Don’t think for a moment that players, coaches and other members of the Steelers organization weren’t watching Tomlin closely to see whether he would fold.

4. Hiring Todd Haley as his offensive coordinator

Wait a minute! How’s this? How can you pat Mike Tomlin on the back for sticking up for Arians, then in the next breath praise him for a hire that he had to make because Art Rooney II pulled rank on him by forcing Bruce Arians out?

  • Yes, I admit, it does seem like a bit of a contradiction. But it is not.

We know that Mike Tomlin wanted Bruce Arians back and that he was unable (or perhaps less than 100% willing) to convince Art Rooney II to agree. So be it. The ultimate success or failure of the move would lie in how the Steelers offense performed post-Arians.

  • That meant Mike Tomlin had to hire the right replacement.

Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley, a move that generated its share of controversy. Steelers author Tim Gleason praised the move, while Steelers writer Neal Coolong spoke out harshly against it as soon as Haley’s name surfaced. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t exactly hit it off either.

But before working with Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger was seen as a fine physical talent who excelled at school-yard football. Ben Roethlisberger has grown under Todd Haley. It’s true that Ben Roethlisberger’s road record under Haley remains a concern, but under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is both playing better football and taking far fewer sacks.

Todd Haley was able to accomplish what Bruce Arians was unwilling even to attempt: find a way to get Ben to release the ball sooner, without taking away what makes Ben, Ben.

5. Pulling out of 2013’s 2-6 Spiral

OK, number 5 doesn’t exactly count as a “decision.” But the turn around of the 2013 Steelers turn around certainly could not have happened without a lot of good decision making.

A lot of NFL teams that start 0-4 probably continue on to 2-6. Your “average 2-6 team” will finish 4-12 with your “above average 2-6 teams” ending somewhere in realm of 5-11 or 6-10. But it is fairly safe to say that a 2-5 team that finds its way to a 2-6 record thanks to a 55-33 loss generally projects to a 2-14 or 3-14 finish.

  • Yet, that is exactly how the first 8 games of the Steelers 2013 season unfolded.

Things looked bleak after the Steelers London loss dropped them to 0-4. Mike Tomlin made changes, and suddenly 0-4 turned to 2-4. Then came disastrous trips to Oakland’s Black Hole and a trip to Gillette Stadium. But the 2013 Steelers fought on, and not only returned to respectability with an 8-8 finish, but they came one blown call away from a trip to the playoffs.

  • Only well-coached teams execute turn arounds like that.

Quitting on a coach is somewhat of an art form in the NFL. The 2013 Steelers always gave Mike Tomlin their best all season long. By the end of the season, their best delivered results.

  • Out of Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins, those 8 from 2013 might have been the hardest fought.

Mike Tomlin coaxed everything he could out of the talent on the 2013 Steelers who lacked depth at several key positions.

Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins are undoubtedly build on dozens of other decisions that the public doesn’t know about, but until those come to light, these are our 5 top choices.

 

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Bruce Arians Revenge? Past Steelers Practice Squad Raids Complicate Quest for Cameron Hewyard’s Replacement

Sometimes success simply comes down to timing. Nine games in to the 2016 season, that’s a reality that leaves Bruce Arians smiling and the Steelers struggling to find Cameron Heyward’s replacement….

…The summer of 2014 saw the Steelers take a bumper crop of young defensive lineman bristling with potential to training camp. Their promise was so strong that it took a contract offer from Bruce Arians and a Brett Keisel plane ride towards Pittsburgh West to motivate Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to bring him back.

Everyone remembers the week 7 Steelers victory over the Houston Texas as Martavis Bryant’s breakout game, but it was Brett Keisel’s stunning 16 yard pass deflection and interception that gave Pittsburgh a two score lead. Yes, the Beard was back in a big way, but alas, timing holds the key to this story.

bruce arians, mike tomlin, steelers practice squad, josh mauro,

Today, Bruce Arians’ poaching Josh Mauro of Pittsburgh’s practice squad in 2014 stings with the loss of Cameron Heyward. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Three weeks later on November 13th, few noticed when the Bruce Arians and Arizona Cardinals poached defensive end Josh Mauro off the Steelers practice squad. On the next Monday night, Brett Keisel defensed two passes and made critical stops to help the defense close out the win against the Tennessee Titans. Later that week, the Steelers practice squad got raided again, this time by Kansas City Chiefs who signed nose tackle Nicholas Williams.

  • This second practice squad raid in as many weeks aroused more interest, but few worried, because of how well Brett Keisel was playing.

Unfortunately, Brett Keisel’s tore his triceps in his very next, and ultimately last game against the Saints. Instead of promoting young defensive lineman they’d been grooming, Pittsburgh had to turn to Clifton Geathers….

…IF only Bruce Arians had held off two more weeks.

Ghosts of Steelers Practice Squad Poaching Return to Haunt

But Bruce Arians didn’t, and he made a smart move in signing Josh Mauro, who started two of five games in as a swing lineman Arizona in 2014, started four games in 2015, and 7 in 2016. In that time he’s registered a sack, defensed 3 passes, and forced two fumbles.

Not a bad resume.

To be fair, Ricardo Mathew’s performance in San Diego during the same time span was perhaps a little better, but Mauro is younger and on the rise, while Mathews is pushing 30 and is a career backup. For his part, Nicholas Williams has played less frequently in Kansas City, and his numbers look less impressive, but he’s still holding down a job in the NFL for a contender.

  • Either way, neither man can offer help to the Steelers when they need it.

Even with Cam Heyward at full heath, the Steelers defense was teetering on the edge of an abyss. Now, with Heyward out for the rest of 2016, the only question is how deep a decline will the Steelers defense suffer?

In addition to Mathews, the Steelers have L.T. Walton and can promote either Johnny Maxey and Caushaud Lyons. Those may not turn out to be bad options, but it appears ghosts of Steelers practice squad poaching have returned to haunt them….

…Although he certainly didn’t plan it that way, Bruce Arians may finally gotten his revenge on Art Rooney II.

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