Steelers Report Card for Bears Loss: Piss Poor Grades for a Piss Poor Performance

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who what he thought was an Advanced Placement class that nonetheless seems to be regressing towards the mediocre mean here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Steelers report card bears, Steelers vs bears, Antonio Brown, Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper swats away the ball from Antonio Brown in the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Are the arms on Big Ben’s clock ticking towards “Life’s Work” faster than anticipated? Ben Roethlisberger’s stat sheet doesn’t quite seem to indicate that as 22 of 39 for one touchdown and no interceptions is respectable, if hardly spectacular. But Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sharp all season, and he hasn’t been able to establish a rapport with any wide out not named Antonio Brown and even then, Brown is making Ben a better quarterback on some of those throws. Big Ben is far from the only thing that ails the Steelers offense, but he need to improve. Grade: C-

Running Backs
This was to be the week that Le’Veon Bell got back on track, wasn’t it? Truth be told, his rushing average was up, but Bell is still very, very far away from the type of dominating performances that were a Sunday afternoon staples for the 2016 Steelers offense. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two of the four passes thrown his way and had to leave the field with an injury. James was the only tight end targeted this this game. While the type of film analysis needed to offer a definitive critique of the Steelers run blocking woes goes far beyond the scope of this column. So while it might not be fair to label the tight ends a problem area, they clearly haven’t shown they can be part of the solution. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Martavis Bryant dropped a bomb on the game’s opening play that he should have caught, and could have been a difference maker. As it was it set the tone for the day, as both he and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a combined 14 targets for 4 catches. Again, some of those passes would have required herculean efforts to catch, but it takes two to tango. Antonio Brown, in contrast, had 10 catches for 110 yards on 11 targets, which brings the group grade up. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit 5 times. On the surface that doesn’t seem like too bad of a day for the Steelers pass blocking, but the first sack resulted in a turnover, the second forced a punt and the third came against a 3 man rush at the end of regulation. And for the third straight week, the road grading effort from the Steelers offensive line was missing. Grade: D

Defensive Line
For the season’s first two weeks, the Steelers defensive line could do no wrong. And to be sure, Javon Hargrave came up with a sack at just the opportune time. But with that said, the Bears averaged over 6 yards a carry rushing. All of that success certainly didn’t come at the expense of Cameron Heyward’s crew, but responsibility for stopping the run starts with them. Grade: F

Linebackers
Anthony Chickillo added another sack, and seemingly reminded everyone of why he was keeping James Harrison on the bench…. Until the Bears moved 74 yards on the ground for a touchdown in 4 plays during overtime. That’s not all Chickillo’s fault, as both Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams missed tackles with alarming regularity during the game, as did Bud Dupree. When the Bear’s “Yards After Contact” numbers are calculated they’ll put the Steelers to shame. What’s worse is that a good chunk of those came on 3rd or 4th efforts. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble & recover y raises this unit’s grade. Grade: D

Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers Report Card Bears loss, Ryan Shazier, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Howard

Ryan Shazier forces then recovers a fumble during the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
The Steelers secondary came up with an interception, limited the Bears wide receivers to one reception and kept them to 4-12 on third downs, or worse than the Steelers. So clearly the Steelers defensive backs were doing a lot of things right against the Bears. But that doesn’t mean that Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden get off scott free. It’s not the fault of the Secondary that the Bears running backs broke out to the second half, but it is their job to stop them when they do. The Steelers secondary didn’t, especially when the game was on the line. Grade: D

Special Teams
After the Steelers defense forced a 3 and out, Eli Rogers muffed punt gave the Bears the ball on Pittsburgh’s 29 and set Chicago up for their first touchdown. For an encore, prior to the second half, the Steelers field goal unit allowed a Chris Boswell attempt to be blocked that set off a chaotic chain of events concluded with a 6 point swing in Chicago’s favor.

The Steelers kick coverage was strong, and Rogers actually had a nice 12 yard return, but those hardly make up for the first half special teams disasters. Grade: F

Coaching
It’s hard to finger coaches for poor execution at times, but when things go wrong on so many levels as they did against the Bears, the coaches bear the ultimate responsibility.

  • Chicago ran the ball well in the first half, making their first rushing touchdown look frighteningly easy.

Credit Keith Butler for making some adjustments, adjustments which held until the overtime disaster. A week ago outsiders were speculating as to whether the Steelers had the makings of a number one defense. The Bears show that Butler’s boys are very, very far from earning that status.

  • Todd Haley has been a lighting rod for fan criticism since he arrived in Pittsburgh, and most of that (save for early 2014) has been unjustified.

The same cannot be said 3 games into 2017. On paper, the Steelers have the potential to have one of the most lethal offenses in recent NFL memory. This was the team that was supposed to put up 30 points without breaking a sweat. Instead, they’re struggling to break the 20 point mark without Chris Boswell’s help.

It is hard to identify any one or two critical breakdowns on Steelers offense because three games into the season, the only thing that is working is Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. (The awful Steelers offenses of the late 80’s could at least rely on Merril Hoge in the days when Bubby Brister to Louis Lipps set the tempo.)

  • Todd Haley’s job is to find a way to make it work, and he’s failing mightily in that respect.

And that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Steel Curtain Rising has never jumped on the “Fire Tomlin” bandwagon before and won’t now.

  • But that doesn’t mean the Steelers head coach doesn’t deserve some harsh criticism, because he most certainly does.

Trap games have always been tricky for Tomlin teams, dating back to his rookie season as head coach. And whether you want to focus on his 5-9 “early season road games” since 2014 or his 5-13 road record against losing teams, this has become a chronic weakness of Tomlin teams.

Last season, either after the losses to Philadelphia or Miami, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola assured a fan that neither the Steelers nor Tomlin had eased up on their preparation in the weeks prior to those ugly losses. The Steelers and Tomlin haven’t changed a thing, Labriola assured.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, because the impact of the Steelers September stumbles have echoed on well into December and January during the past three seasons. This cannot continue. Grade: F

Vance McDonald, Marcus Cooper, Vance McDonald forced fumble, Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers report card bears loss

Vance McDonald strips the ball from Marcus Cooper after the Bears block a Chris Boswell field goal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Unsung Hero Award
Finding an Unsung Hero after a game where nearly every area on the Steelers depth chart can be either be fingered for a critical failure or otherwise remained mired in mediocrity is a challenge.

As the Steelers stood poised to bring the score within 4 to close the first half disaster struck in the form of a blocked field goal. Not only did the Bears deny the Steelers 3 points, but the ball bounced right into the hands of Marcus Cooper who looked to transform the disaster into a 10 point swing for Chicago.

But Cooper got a little too cocky on the way, and that allowed Vance McDonald, who hustled the entire play to force a fumble and prevent a touchdown and for that Vance McDonald wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Bears.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Chicago Bears

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Chicago Bears is long and rather tortured for Pittsburgh, dating back to 1934, with the Steel City suffering a 7-21-1 record against Windy City. The founders of both franchises, Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the lopsidedness of the Steelers history vs. the Bears might be due to Pittsburgh’s ineptness during the pre-Chuck Noll era, Pittsburgh’s record in Chicago remains a woeful 1-12.

This chronicle of Steelers history vs the Bears only goes back 31 years that have seen Pittsburgh square off against Chicago 8 times. Indeed, a see-saw dynamic characterizes recent Steelers-Bears history, with the Steelers seem to celebrate glorious victories or agonizing defeats, with very little in between.

Either scroll down or click on the links below to relive key moments in the Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Chicago Bears:

Steelers history vs bears, Steelers vs. bears, Antonio Brown, Charles Tillman

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Charles Tillman of the Bears. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

1986 – Ditka Takes the Wind over the Ball in OT

November 30, 1986 @ Solider Field
Chicago 13, Pittsburgh 10

The 4-8 Steelers gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears a run for their money, even though they did not score an offensive touchdown. But that was good enough to force overtime when…

Iron Mike elected to kickoff, trusting in the wind and his defense. The Bear’s defense vindicated their coach, forcing a punt and setting up Kevin Butler’s winning kick.

  • Fun Fact: The Steelers only touchdown came in the third quarter on a fake field goal from Harry Newsome to tight end Preston Gothard.

1989 – Steelers Suffer Third Shut Out of Season

November 11, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Chicago 20, Pittsburgh 0

Aliquippa native Mike Dikta gave himself a hell of a home coming during the only game he coached at Three Rivers Stadium. His Bears netted 6 turnovers, wracked up 203 rushing yards, and held Pittsburgh to 54 rushing yards during their 20-0 shut out.

1992 – Cowher’s Achilles Heel or Mike Singletary’s Final Game in Chicago?

December 13, 1992 @ Solider Field
Chicago 30, Pittsburgh 6

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher‘s 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had taken the NFL by storm. They traveled to Chicago with a 10-3 record and a chance to clinch their first AFC Central Title since 1984. Cowher Power had rejuvenated the Steelers.

  • The sky was the limit. Or was it?

The Cowher’s Steelers fell flat on their faces. And then the Bears stomped all over them, to the tune of 30-6. Barry Foster ran 12 times for 25 yards. The Bears sacked Bubby Brister 5 times and picked him off twice. Worst of all, Pittsburgh looked lethargic and unfocused.

NBC commentator Bill Parcells attributed the result to the emotional surge occasioned by Mike Singletary’s final game in Chicago, sharing something to the effect, “I was in the Bear’s locker room prior to the game, and this was a team clearly ready to play.”

  • Cowher’s Admission: During Cowher’s early tenure, over confidence was his Steeler’s chronic Achilles heel. Cowher would perhaps dispute this general observation, but a number of years later he admitted that the 1992 game against the Bears was one of the few times the team had not been mentally prepared to play.
Greg Lloyd, Rashan Salaam, Pittsburgh Steelers history vs Chicago Bears, Steelers vs Bears

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

1995 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. I – Super Bowl XXX

November 5th, 1995
Pittsburgh 37, Chicago 34

The 1995 Steelers started 3-4, and looked ugly doing it. After a particularly egregious loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Cowher declared it was now a “9 game season.” Having beaten the Jaguars in week 8, they traveled to Chicago to take on the 6-2 Bears.

  • This was one of the most exciting games the Steelers have every played.

The lead changed 5 times and the score was tied 3 times as the Steelers and Bears fought back and forth in this titanic struggle.

Hope faded for the Steelers when Barry Minter returned an interception to put the Bears up 34 to 27 late in the fourth. But Neil O’Donnell rebounded, taking the Steelers the length of the field capping off the drive with a 11 yard strike to Ernie Mills to tie it up just inside the two minute warning.

Cowher seemed ready to gamble it all when he sent in the 2 point conversion unit, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. The Steelers kicked the extra point instead, and Willie Williams picked off Eric Kramer in OT, to set up Norm Johnson’s game winning field goal.

  • Cowher’s Quote: When asked if such a dramatic victory might have been a character building exercise for his recently struggling Steelers, Cowher’s response was concise and correct – “Games like this do not build character, they display it.”

That character carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XXX

1998 – Steelers Start season 2-0, But…

September 13, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Bears 12

The 1997 Steelers had finished 11-5 and only two Kordell Stewart goal line interceptions away from the Super Bowl. They’d beaten the Ravens 20-13 the week before, but had not looked good doing it.

The Steelers defeated the Bears 17-12 on the strength of Jerome Bettis 131 years rushing.

  • Cause for concern: Kordell Stewart went 17-30-1-1. Not bad numbers, but he only threw for 137 yards and was only 4-4 rushing. Whether it was because Ray Sherman didn’t know what he was doing, or a lack confidence, but this was the beginning of a tentative and timid Stewart, as opposed to the swashbuckling Slash that Steelers fans had seen before.

2005 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. II Super Bowl XL

December 11, 2005 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 21, Chicago 9

The Bears were coming off an 8 game winning streak. Despite their 7-5 record, the Steelers were coming off a 3 game losing streak, and looking at the possibility of needing to run the table to make the playoffs. The Steelers were up to the task, as the Bus led the march that ended with One for the Thumb in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

The Steelers totally dominated the Bears in the snow at Heinz Field. Jerome Bettis ripped off 101 yards as he plowed through Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense. Willie Parker was close behind him with 68 yards. Ben Roethlisberger hit seven different receivers, as the Steelers out gained the Bears by almost 100 yards, and dominated time of possession to the tune of 37:19 to 22:41

  • Bettis Final 100 Yard Game: This was Bettis’ 50th 100 yard game with the Steelers, a team record. It was also to be the Bus’ final 100 yard effort, and he gained all but one of them in the second half. He also scored 2 TD’s for the 16th time in his career, which brought him to 4th on the Steelers all-time scoring list.

2009 – Super Bowl Champion Steelers Slip, Signal Things to Come…

September 20th, 2009 @ Solider Field
Chicago 17, Pittsburgh 14

The defending Super Bowl Champions had won their opener doing what they had done during the previous season – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But this trip to Solider Field showed that things would not be so easy for the 2009 Steelers.

The Steelers got on the board quickly with a clockwork like opening drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw an interception and he was off after that, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers and throwing balls that were either too low or two high. Ben Roethlisberger had help however,

Despite that, the Steelers hung in and appeared to be set to repeat history – pull out a win at the last moment.

Unfortunately Jeff Reed missed a long field goal, giving Chicago a victory. Unlike their ’08 brethren, this was to be the first of many last minute losses for the ’09 Steelers….

2013 – Bears Pass Rush Overwhelms Steelers en Route to 0-3 Start

September 22, 2013 @ Heinz Field
Chicago 40, Bears 23

Sometimes single tweet says it all. That’s the case with this Dale Lolley gem that still resonates long after the Steelers 2013 loss to Chicago:

  • That might seem like a harsh exaggeration, but rest assured my fellow citizens of Steelers Nation, it is not.

The 2013 Steelers entered the game at 0-2, yet both of those games had some extenuating circumstances (such as losing 3 starters in their opener to the Tennessee Titans.) But this was the height of the Mike Adams experiment on offensive line and, truth be told, the jury was still very much out on Marcus Gilbert at that point.

Ben Roethlisberger barley had time to breath, let along throw that night, as the Steelers signal’s turnovers directly led to two Bear’s touchdowns. Chicago jumped to a 27-3 lead, until a Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown hookup evened the score to 27-10 at the half.

  • The Steelers opened the 2nd half by 13 unanswered points to bring it to 27-23 by the beginning of the 4th quarter.

Alas, a Jay Cutler scramble on 3rd and 10 gave Chicago new life, and set up a score. The Steelers tired to match, but a Roethlsiberger fumble was returned to Pittsburgh’s six yard line and the Steelers started 2013 0-3.

 

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Steelers Summer Reading Poll: Michael MacCambridge Finds Lots of Love; Jim O’Brien? Not So Much

As the Steelers approach the mid-point in their 2017 preseason campaign, its time to check in on the results of our Steelers Summer Reading Poll.

We launched the poll back in June, with the aim of serving a precursor to a series of full-length book reviews a good chunk of the books mentioned in the poll. The idea was to fill the Dead Zone in Steelers coverage with in depth discussion of some of the better books written about the franchise we all love.

Alas, the individual book reviews never came, but you can read capsule profiles of most of the books listed in our poll.

Chucky Noll biography, Art Rooney Sr. Biography, Steelers books, Steelers summer reading

Biographies of Chucky Noll and Art Rooney Sr. bookend our Steelers Summe Reading Poll

A quick look at the results thus far reveals two observations – There’s a lot of love for Michael MacCambridge’s authorized biography of Chuck Noll; not so much for the work of Jim O’Brien.

Since first posting the poll, yours truly has had a chance to read MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work cover-to-cover, and this is one book that has truly earned every word of praise that has been heaped upon it. Was there ever a football coach less interested in promoting himself than Chuck Noll? Probably not. That didn’t make MacCambridge easy, but he tackled it with the effectiveness of Joe Greene participating in his first training camp Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincent’s.

While we’re at it, let’s add in a good word for Jim O’Brien. It’s true that his books aren’t as well known, and perhaps come across as collections of individual essays or profiles, but O’Brien clearly understand the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and culture, and he conveys that in his writing. And his books contain valuable insights into Rod Woodson’s departure from the team, Dan Rooney’s relationship with Al Davis, and much, much more.

Their Life’s Work, Gary Pomerantz is also finding a lot of love, not unsurprisingly, as are the books authored by Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Jr., as is Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which was a write in entry.

After that, it is a mixed bag, as you can see for yourself (scroll down, and click on view results):

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 05-28-2017 01:04:27
end_date 09-05-2017 09:22:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers book(s) do you recommend for 2017 summer reading (multiple votes encouraged)

Myron Cope’s Double Yoi, Jim Wexell’s Steeler Nation, and Steelers Take Aways, another write in, are showing respectably, but after that pickings get pretty slim.

To that end, we’ll had add a quick clarification. Our recap of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel read like this:

Men of Steel by Jim Wexell contains capsule profiles of Pittsburgh Steelers from the Mike Tomlin era all the way back to portraits of men who played for the likes of Jock Sutherland and Walt Kiesling. While the book’s overall quality does take a hit due to some surprising factual errors, its individual portraits form veritable mosaic that depicts franchise as a whole.

Men of Steel by Jim WexellWhen Jim Wexell read this, he inquired as to what the errors were, which led to some back and forth with the author. While I’ll stand by my initial assessment of the book, I will also emphasize that the book’s strength’s certainly outweigh any weaknesses, as any book that pieces together a cohesive narrative encompassing the likes of Lynn Chandnois, Jack Butler, Dick Hoak, Jack Lambert (yes, Wexell scored a rare interview with Lambert), Dwayne Woodruff, Bubby Brister, Kevin Greene, Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger (among others) would.

Which isn’t to say that these are the only books worth investing the time to read. From Dawn of a New Steel Age, to the Ones that Hit the Hardest, to the other books mention, there’s something their for Steelers fans of any era to enjoy.

So take time out and vote for your favorites and do it quickly as we’ll be closing the poll before the sun sets on the summer, hopefully making way for a fall and winter that sees the Steel Curtain Rise once again!

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Steve Bono’s Steelers Career: From Striker Replacement Stud to Proverbial “What If?”

You’ll have to forgive me, but the only memory I have of former quarterback Steve Bono’s Steelers career is from my aunt through marriage.

We were watching some game in 1988 (since the Steelers finished 5-11 that year, it was no doubt a loss), and Steve Bono was standing next to starting quarterback Bubby Brister, when my aunt said, “Those guys are good looking.”

Steve Bono, Steve Bono's Steelers career, steelers strike replacement quarterback, steelers 1987 players strike, 1987 players strike

Steve Bono quaterbacks the Steelers to a win over Atlanta during the 1987 players strike. Photo Credit Spokeo via Plant Steelers

That’s it, that’s the only memory I have of the one-time scab, who once went 2-1 for the Steelers during the 1987 NFL players strike, before eventually departing for the 49ers and a few other NFL organizations during his 14-year NFL career that included stints with seven different organizations.

  • But since this is a Steelers site, you probably want to know about Bono’s time in Pittsburgh.

It was brief.

Bono was a sixth round pick of the Vikings in the 1985 NFL Draft, but did little of not in Minnesota before arriving in Pittsburgh as a free-agent signing in 1987.

  • However, with the veteran Mark Malone entrenched as the starter and

Bubby Brister, the team’s third round pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, as Mark Malone’s backup and starter-in-waiting, there wasn’t much for Steve Bono to be for the Steelers other than their third-string quarterback, which he was during the first two games of the 1987 campaign.

  • However, the NFLPA elected to go on strike after two games, just like the union had done five years earlier.

But, unlike  the 1982 strike that resulted in a loss of nine regular season games, NFL owners decided to use replacement players to offset the ’87 work stoppage.

While Steve Bono wasn’t exactly “scab,” having been around for two years without a real career break, he crossed the picket line and wound up starting all three games for the the Steelers strike replacement quarterback during the duration of the ’87 strike.

  • Pittsburgh went 2-1 during the three-week replacement player era, and Steve Bono completed 34-74 passes for 438 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Decent enough numbers, considering most of his replacement teammates were guys who were and would be (say it with me) bagging groceries once the strike ended, which it did after those three games. (OK, Hall of Famer’s John Stallworth and Mike Webster crossed the picket line too.)

Bono didn’t appear in any other games after the regulars returned in ’87 and only made two appearances for that infamous 5-11 ’88 squad, completing 10 of 35 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as Todd Blackledge ultimately edged him out at backup quarterback.

Rick Strom,

Rick Strom during the Steelers 1992 season. Photo Credit: FinalShot

Perhaps mercifully (for him, not Pittsburgh), Steve Bono was allowed to walk after the ’88 season as the Steelers opted to hand their third string quarterbacking clipboard to Rick Strom. Bono did well for himself, as he signed a deal with the 49ers to be their third-string quarterback behind Joe Montana and Steve Young.

  • History tells us that was a thankless and impossible task if one wanted playing time.

But, in addition to earning two Super Bowl rings as an apprentice in both 1988 and 1989, Bono found his way into the starting lineup in 1991, thanks to back issues for Montana and multiple injuries suffered by Young.

  • Steve Bono started six games in ’91 for the 49ers, and won five games, while completing 141 of 237 passes for 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.

In his book, My Life Behind the Spiral, Young, a future Hall of Famer, talks about the frustrations of dealing with injuries, as he watched Bono lead an admittedly talented 49ers team to many victories in his absence. The fact that some of the more 49er fans claimed that Bono should be starting over Young undoubtedly contributed to his frustration.

Steve Young ultimately reclaimed his starting job, and Steve Bono resumed his role as backup QB and remained in San Francisco through the 1993 season before signing with the Chiefs for the 1994 campaign.

In Kansas City, Bono started 31 games in three seasons (Montana was with KC by then and was the Chiefs starter through ’94) and won 21 of them–including 13 in 1995–while passing for 6,489 yards, 37 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Steelers quarterbacks 1990's

Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart

Unfortunately for Bono, he could never quite get his Chiefs over the hump and played out his career as a journeyman backup for the Packers, Rams and Panthers, before leaving the game following the 1999 season.

  • True, Bono was never anything special, but could he have bested the likes of Brister and, ultimately, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh?

It’s hard to say.

After all, Steve Bono had the benefit of playing behind legends the caliber of Montana and Young while with the 49ers and absorbing their wisdom. And what about his coaches in San Francisco? In head coach Bill Walsh and quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, well, can you think of two better offensive minds?

It’s easy to say Bono may have beaten out passers such as Brister and O’Donnell in Pittsburgh, but the fact is, the Steelers didn’t have anywhere near the level of talent the 49ers had in the late-80’s and early-90’s.

Besides, Bubby Brister was pretty darn talented in his own right, and as for O’Donnell, well, it’s hard to top three division championships, two AFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance.

Perhaps it is safe to conclude that, Steve Bono was probably a safer “game manager” than either the Bubster or Slash, but he also lacked Brister’s rifle arm and Kordell’s big play potential. And Bono would have been an upgrade at backup quarterback over Mike Tomczak.

  • At the end of  the day, Steve Bono was just a foot-note in Steelers history.

Could he have been more than that?

Steelers Nation is left to wonder.

 

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to concede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

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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Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

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Chin Up Steelers Nation, There’s a Bright Side to the Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Talk. Seriously

As if the frustration of Pittsburgh’s 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots wasn’t enough, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger dropped another bomb two days after the game. In speaking with 93.7 FM’s “The Fan” Roethlisberger responded this way to a question about how much time he has left to play:

I don’t know. It’s one of those things, I was talking to my wife about it last night and I’ve been talking to my agent about it and coach about it. I’m going to take this offseason to evaluate it, to consider all options, to consider health, family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season — if there’s going to be a next season — all those things. At that point and age of my career, I think that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year.

Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that he’s had these types of conversations with Ben Roethlisberger in the past, and Dale Lolley has gotten confirmation from one of his teammates as well.

  • It says here that the Ben Roethlisberger retirement talk remains a bit premature and that he’ll be back for in 2017.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger retirement rumors

Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk actually has a bright side (for him). Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

He’s too much of a competitor and the Steelers are too close to securing Super Bowl Number 7 for Number 7 to simply walk away. Players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give the Steelers the fire power they need to win another Super Bowl. Ben knows that and he’s not going to walk away from it. Not just yet.

But its sobering, if not surprising, nonetheless to start the Steelers 2017 off season hearing your franchise quarterback admit that he’s reached the point where his playing days are in the “year-by-year” phase.

The Bright Side to Ben Roethlisberger’s Retirement Talk

And if the news is a downer for Steelers Nation, there’s a decided bright side to the Ben Roethlisberger retirement talk for Big Ben himself. Unless injuries accelerate his timetable, Roethlisberger’s statement affirms that he’ll leave both the game and the Steelers on his terms and at a time of his own choosing.

  • Who was the last Steelers quarterback that walked away at a time and on terms of his own? Bobby Layne?

Sure, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart returned to Pittsburgh to “retire” as Steelers. In Iron Mike’s case the Steelers gave him access to their press room at Latrobe to make the announcement, but denied him a 1 dollar contract. Kordell Stewart’s “retirement” came in 2012, seven years after his final NFL game and 10 years after he left Pittsburgh.

  • Compared to their predecessors, those two men were relatively lucky.

Terry Bradshaw of course blew out his elbow and barely got more than a grunting acknowledgement from Chuck Noll. Cliff Stoudt bolted to the USFL, only to “Pittsburgh Maulers Fans” sellout Three Rivers Stadium to pelt him with ice balls when returned with the Birmingham Stallions.

Mark Malone started for four seasons in Pittsburgh, but performed so poorly in 1987 that the Steelers traded him for an 8th round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers. Bubby Brister spent his final year in Pittsburgh as a backup, then went on to play for the Eagles, Jets, Broncos and Vikings.

Neil O’Donnell famously boasted that he’d take less money to stay with the Steelers as opposed to going to a losing team. After Super Bowl XXX, O’Donnell went to the 3-13 New York Jets, who became the 1-15 Jets. O’Donnell faired a little better after Bill Parcells took over, but Tuna decided he wasn’t worth the money and cut him. He played for Cincinnati and Tennessee after that, but never started another playoff game.

Tommy Maddox reportedly got into shouting matches with Bill Cowher during his final year as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger, found himself demoted to third string behind Charlie Batch and burned his final bridge with the Steelers by no-showing at the team’s White House ceremony following Super Bowl XL.

Ben Roethlisberger Deserves to Leave on His Own Terms

Steelers fans have been blessed. Terry Bradshaw played for 14 seasons and, although he wasn’t an instant winner, he developed into one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. Ben Roethlisberger will return for a 14th season and perhaps one or two more after that.

  • But the day when Roethlisberger hangs it up isn’t too far off on the horizon.

Hopefully Ben Roethlisberger will add a Lombardi Trophy (or two?) before he calls it a career. But even if he doesn’t, he’s earned the right to step down on his terms. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement will mark a sad day in Steelers Nation, but it the fact that Big Ben will decide should make us appreciate the moment much more.

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6 Improbable Steelers Backup Quarterback Upset Wins

Raise your hand if you’re Steelers fan excited to see Landry Jones start against the New England Patriots. OK. Didn’t think we’d get too many takers. Fair enough. With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from knee surgery and Cameron Heyward also the odds makers have been rather generous in installing the Patriots as 7 points favorites.

  • Still, should Steelers Nation abandon all hope?

Perhaps, but Steelers backup quarterbacks have a history of delivering some surprising results under duress. Here are six notable Steelers backup quarterback upset wins dating from 1988 to 2012 (no disrespect to Steelers 1976 rookie Mike Kruczek, just not old enough to remember him.)

Charlie Batch, Steelers upset Ravens 2012, Charlie Batch final game, Charlie Batch Ravens

Charlie Batch won his final start as 2012 Steelers upset Ravens on the road. Photo Credit: Chris Knight, The Patriot-News

1. 1988 – Todd Blackledge Leads Steelers to 39-21 win over Denver Broncos

It had been a bad week for Chuck Noll that began with a 34-14 drubbing in the Astrodome at the hands of arch nemesis Jerry Glanville. Noll cut short his weekly press conference when reporters asked him what it would take for him to step down. Terry Bradshaw called for Noll’s dismissal su

ggesting he was too old for the job. Bubby Brister was injured, and back up Todd Blackledge was struggling even to get snaps from Mike Webster.

In short, no one expected the explosion that was coming, led by Rodney Carter who took it 64 yards to the house on the game’s third play. Carter rushed for 105 yards, caught a touchdown and completed a pass, as Noll employed uncharacteristic trickery. Merril Hoge ran for another 94 yards, and Rod Woodson set up another score with a 29 yard interception and Gary Anderson kicked 6 field goals.

Todd Blackledge was only 9 of 17 for 129 yards on the day, but that was good enough to give Pittsburgh the win.

2. 1991 – Neil O’Donnell Authors 26-15 Upset of the Houston Oilers

1991 had been a tough year for Chuck Noll, and his Steelers had just been humiliated at home by the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins. Scalping dished out by the Redskins the week before at Three Rivers Stadium had given the Steelers a 4-7 record, and 4-8 seemed certain against the 9-2 Oilers.

It is also true that perhaps Neil O’Donnell should be considered a backup, having started since relieved Brister 5 weeks earlier against the Giants, but Noll had been coy about designating a “starter.”

The Steelers ability to shut down the “Run ‘N Shoot” offense is one of the reasons why that never “stuck” in the NFL, but that was far from apparent in 1991. Games like this began to change the tune, as Bryan Hinkle, Thomas Everett, and Shawn Vincent picked off Warren Moon 5 times.

Those turnovers set up 3 Gary Anderson field goals, a 43 yard pass from Neil O’Donnell to Dwight Stone, and a Warren Williams touchdown. For the record, Neil O’Donnell went 12 for 29 for 155 yards one touchdown and 1 interception.

3. 1994 – Mike Tomczak Out Guns Dan Marino, Steelers Beat Dolphins 16-13

Perhaps the lead up to this game would have been different in the age of social media, but news that Mike Tomczak got the starting nod over Neal O’Donnell came as a surprise when game day arrived.

  • Imagine getting to the sports bar to learn that Mike Tomczak would square off against Dan Marino.

But got toe-to-toe Tomczak did, and how! In 1994, 300 yard passing games were relatively rare in the NFL but both quarterbacks broke the 300 yard mark, with Tomczak topping Marino’s yardage total. But for all of that passing, the game represented more of a defensive chess match. Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Joel Steed team to sack Marino 4 times, with Levon Kirkland intercepting him once.

  • The Steelers held the lead until the Dolphins tied it a 48 yard field goal as time expired.

The Steelers won the toss, but could not score. The Dolphins took over at their 40, but the vaunted Steelers 1994 Blitzburgh defense stopped him cold at Pittsburgh’s 47. Mike Tomzcak excelled in overtime, scrambling twice and completed passes of 27 yards to Barry Foster and 23 yards to John L. Williams to set up Gary Anderson’s game winner.

As this site has previously observed, Tomzack’s ’94 wins against the Dolphins and the Raiders marked the shift of the focal point of the Steelers passing attack away from Eric Green and to Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings and Charles Johnson.

4. 2002 – Kordell Stewart Rebounds to Lead Steelers over Bengals 29-13

Time to fess up. Just as Neil O’Donnell wasn’t really the “Steelers backup quarterback” in the 1991 Astrodome upset of the Oilers, the Steelers win over the 1-10 Bengals can hardly fall into the category of an “upset.”

But its author, Kordell Stewart, most certainly was a backup. Less than one year removed from winning the team MVP award, Kordell Stewart found himself on the bench in favor of Tommy Maddox. Raul Alegre of ESPNDeportes had revealed 5 weeks eailer during the Steelers Monday night game vs. the Colts, Bill Cowher had confided in him that he hadn’t wanted to bench Kordell, but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the Steelers locker room.

  • Expectations don’t get much lower than that.

Nonetheless, Kordell Stewart fearlessly took the reigns after Tommy Maddox’s injury the week before in Tennessee. The Steelers raced to a 17 point lead on a Jerome Bettis touchdown run, a 64 yard bomb from Stewart to Hines Ward, and a Jeff Reed field goal. But the Bengals fought back, scoring 14 points in the second half. The Steelers tacked on another 3 in the third quarter, but midway through the 4th the Bengals took the lead.

  • Kordell Stewart rallied the Steelers, first bringing Reed into range to boot a field goal, and then rifling a 27 yarder to Hines Ward which set up a 24 yard rumble by Bettis.

Kordell Stewart was flawless that day, going 22 for 26, one touchdown and zero picks.

5. 2005 – Charlie Batch off Bench @ Lambeau as Steelers beat Packers 20-10

2005 was a rough year for Green Bay, who entered the game at 1-10. On the face of it, that might make it difficult to categorize this win as “an upset” but if you’re playing at Lambeau Field, who do you want to be your quarterback Brett Favre or Charlie Batch, a man who hadn’t thrown a non-mop up time pass since 2001.

  • And did we mention that Jerome Bettis was out and that injuries limited Willie Parker to 5 carries?

The Steelers struggled in this one, as did Batch, but he played well enough to win, as did Duce Staley who saw his last real NFL action, and helped the Steelers win with 76 yards rushing and a touchdown.

6. 2012 – Charlie Batch Wins Finals Start, Steelers Upset Ravens 23-20

This Steelers 2012 game against the Ravens at M&T Stadium was one for the ages. The Steeler were reeling, having suffered back-to-back divisional losses, including an 8 turnover game to the Cleveland Browns. Charlie Batch had quarterbacked that game, and committed 3 of the turnovers, all interceptions.

And here the Steelers were, traveling to the home of their arch rival, with their 3rd string quarterback, 3rd string wide out, 2nd string outside linebacker. During the game, they would also lose their starting guard.

  • This was as hard fought game as you get.

The lead changed 5 times. Twice in the second half, Steelers turnovers gave the Ravens a chance to put Pittsburgh away, and twice Pittsburgh clawed back. James Harrison led the Steelers final rally, with one of his patended strip-sacks which came shortly after the Steelers had turned over the ball. Charlie Batch fired a missle to Heath Miller, who then willed himself into the end zone.

  • The Steelers defense held on the next drive.

Charlie Batch then took over at Pittsburgh 15 and with 6:14 remaining, led the Steelers on 13 play drive where Batch completed 7 straight passes, as Pittsburgh reached the Ravens 24 yard line. Shaun Suisham booted in a 42 yard field goal, and the Steelers had won.

Is Landry the Steelers Next “Legendary” Back Up Quarterback?

So, could Landry Jones author a game worth of inclusion of on this list above? With Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Gilbert and DeAngelo Williams out the odds are against him. But the odds were also once against Todd Blackladge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzcak, Kordell Stewart and Charlie Batch and they proved everyone else wrong.

Let’s hope Landry Jones follows in their footsteps.

 

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Like It Or Not: Steelers Will Live and Die with Landry Jones Until Ben Roethlisberger Returns

Pittsburgh Steelers fans had better get used to the sight of Landry Jones with his hands under Maurkice Pouncey’s but, as they’ll see it  week vs. New England and, if reports are correct, perhaps beyond that.

Not that concern isn’t warranted. This was a Steelers team that came close to upsetting the New England Patriots team in the 2015 season opener and has been itching for a rematch faster than you can say “HeadsetGate.”

steelers backup quarterbacks, landry jones

Like or not, Steelers Nation must get used to seeing Landry Jones under center

So fans’ desire for Ben Roethlisberger rise from the trainers bench, al la the Karate Kid, are well founded:

But if the longing for John Norwig to morph into Mr. Miyagi is understandable, the calls to start Zach Mettenberger or even more outlandish suggestions that the Steelers trade for Mark Sanchez, are not. For better and for worse, the Steelers will live and die with Landry Jones as their signal caller for as long as it takes for Ben Roethlisberger’s knee to heal.

There are lots of reasons for this, but everyone overlooks the biggest one….

Steelers Nation Keeps Up with the Changing Times

Bob Labriola and other members of Steelers Nation’s “4th Estate” have derided the outcry to immediately purge Landry Jones form the roster. And they’ve got the right reaction, unless you really think that Peyton Manning, Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow would do better.

But if the sarcasim of the Labriola’s of the world is justified, then you also must credit these Steelers fans for being smart about one thing: They know a franchise quarterback when they see one.

Seriously.

From 1984 to 2004 the most popular player on the Steelers roster was whoever was backing up Mark Malone, Bubby Brister or Kordell Stewart. Neil O’Donnell won a bit of a respite, but even he heard calls to start Mike Tomczak in mid-1994. (Tommy Maddox was around long enough.) But between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger’s time, if the backup quarterback wasn’t the most popular player in Pittsburgh, he certainly earned an honorable mention.

That’s has changed, and as well as it should, but “Landry Jones Anxiety” also reflects another more recent change.

Steelers Nation Appreciates What It Had When Its Gone

Since the beginning of the Bill Cowher Era the composition of the Steelers quarterback has remained pretty predictable: A designated starter, an experienced backup, and an up and comer.

The Steelers coaching staff and front office, whether it’s been headed by Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert, believe in experienced backups but have repeatedly tried to staff the 3rd string quarterback position with a player they can nurture into a backup. During the 1990’s they tried, unsuccessfully, with Mike Quinn, Pete Gonzalez and Anthony Wright. In the 00’s the Steelers tried it with Brian St. Pierre and a slew of 5th round draft picks.

  • The closest they got was with Dennis Dixon, who started 3 games for the Steelers, but he never matured into a stable backup.

Landry Jones is the first to achieve that status, and he’s unlikely to lose it save for an injury or a meltdown.

Mike Tomlin Stands By His Quarterbacks

Fans hoping to see Landry Jones on a short, or even medium leash can hold their breath for one simple reason: Rightly or wrongly, Mike Tomlin stands behind his quarterbacks. Going into his 10th year as head coach, Mike Tomlin has never pulled or benched a starting quarterback because of performance. Tomlin is loyal, sometimes to a fault, to his quarterbacks.

In both 2011 and 2012, Mike Tomlin had an experienced, healthy Charlie Batch standing on the sideline as his starter struggled, noticeably limited by injury, but Tomlin kept Roethlisberger and Leftwich in.

  • Given that precedent, it is hardly likely that Tomlin will turn over his offense to newly arrived Zack Mettenberger, who has yet to throw a pass for the Steelers in preseason.

Love it or hate it, the Steelers will live and die with Landry Jones until Ben gets back.

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