Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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Let the Competition Begin! Steelers to Sign Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both ESPN and the NFL Network are reporting this, while Wilson himself indicated this in a tweet.

Russell Wilson, Devin Bush Jr., Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Seahawks

Russell Wilson at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Dawgs by Nature

The conventional wisdom as recently as the NFL Combine was that the Steelers were not interested in bringing any of the big name quarterbacks available to Pittsburgh to provide competition for Kenny Pickett. However, late last week Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Russell Wilson was visiting with the Steelers and that the interest was mutual.

Unlike the various social media “experts” who claimed that Kirk Cousins or Justin Fields to the Steelers was “a done deal” no one rushed to debunk this rumor. Wilson showed up in Pittsburgh as advertised, had a long meeting but left without signing. Even then, other commentators (including this one) floated the possibility that Omar Khan was entertaining Wilson in Pittsburgh to pressure Mason Rudolph into signing.

Then on Sunday night Russell Wilson issued this tweet:

Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl Championship in 2013 in just his second season in the league. Seattle returned the following year, but lost in part due to a goal line interception that Wilson threw scuttling a comeback effort.

Since then Wilson had been a consistent winner in Seattle, but as the 2000 teens came to an end, there were rumblings that he was not happy. Wilson and the team said all of the right things and Wilson had a reasonably strong season in 2021, but the Seahawks traded him to the Broncos.

  • This first season in Denver was a disaster, leading to the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Under Sean Peyton Wilson’s play improved, but he did play a few very bad games. Peyton benched him late in the the season opening speculation that Wilson would leave by trade or release. The Broncos plan to release Wilson when the league year begins on Wednesday March 11th. The Broncos are on the hook for 38 million to Wilson this season, so conceivably the Steelers could sign him for as little as 1.2 million.

No Risk? + No Rudolph?

On one level this deal is a no brainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed their confidence in Kenny Pickett, each man has also said the Steelers would bring him competition.

December and January of last season revealed two things about the Steelers:

1. This team is still a ways away with playing on the level of any of the teams in the conference championships
2. However, competent quarterback play brings them is much closer than anyone would have thought possible on say, December 20th 2023.

So, if the Steelers can land a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the veteran minimum that would almost be a no-brainer. Almost. At age 36 Russell Wilson may “still have something left in the tank,” but he also doesn’t have much “upside.”

That means if neither Pickett nor Wilson pans out in 2024 then the frachise will be starting from zero at quarterback in 2024 because the Steelers signing Wilson almost certainly ends Mason Rudolph’s time in Pittsburgh.

Even before Wilson’s arrival it was clear that Rudolph would return as QB No. 2 with nothing more than a promise that he’d have a shot at moving up the depth chart. Given limitations on training camp practices and the current 3 schedule of 3 preseason games holding a 3-way competition for the starting quarterback slot simply isn’t realistic.

While bringing Wilson to Pittsburgh carries little “risk” conventional risk for the Steelers, the opportunity this presents could also be smaller than meets the eye.

Mike Tomlin’s flirtation with aging athletes in the twilight of their careers – think Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway and perhaps even Patrick Peterson hasn’t yielded much fruit. And if Tommy Maddox did deliver one year of “Tommy Gun” in 2002, previous franchise quarterback reclamation projects with David Woodley, Todd Blackledge and Kent Graham failed.

  • But none of those men wore Super Bowl rings.

Russell Wilson does. Welcome Steelers Nation.

 

 

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Time for a Clean Slate: Steelers QB Mason Rudolph Reaches Free Agency

Who is the most popular player on the Steelers roster? Well, for 20 years the answer never changed – it was always the backup quarterback. Whether it was David Woodley, Jim Miller or Pete Gonzalez, Steelers fans were always convinced themselves that QB Number 2 was the next Terry Bradshaw.

Mason Rudolph never enjoyed such a honeymoon. Now that he’s about to hit free agency, it is time to take a look at whether he should or will stay in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the pick they obtained from trading Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders. The decision was described as a “compromise pick” as we learned that the front office had put a “first round grade” on Rudolph.

That was all academic for a year as Mason Rudolph held the third string QB’s clipboard during all of 2018. In 2019 Josh Dobbs departed and Mason ascended to the backup role where everyone figured he’d stay, after all it had been 2 years since Ben Roethlisberger missed a full game right?

Wrong. Six quarters into the season against the Seattle Seahawks, Roethlisberger left the game with a season ending elbow injury, and Mason Rudolph’s roller coaster ride began.

To the naked eye, Rudolph played well enough in losses to the Seahawks and 49ers, but perhaps its telling that coaches had to install a Wild Cat offense for his first home start and win against the Bengals. A week later without the Wild Cat, Rudolph was authoring his best game ever against the Ravens when Earl Thomas knocked him from the game with a concussion.

The roller coaster ride began anew. Rudolph shifted from shaky to stable in his return against Miami, steady against Indy, strong against the Rams – and then Myles Garrett assaulted him with his own helmet in the infamous Body Bag Game.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

The incident shook Rudolph, whose play was shaky prompting Mike Tomlin to bench him for Devlin Hodges week later. Rudolph did look better coming off the bench against the Jets, but got injured and was done for the year. Rudolph started the season finale in 2020 and lost while looking good, and looked “OK” in starting in the overtime tie to the Lions.

In 2022 Mason Rudolph entered training camp as the back up to Mitch Trubisky, but got beat out by Kenny Pickett and outside of Carolina Panthers game, Mason Rudolph spent last season the way he spent his first – holding a clipboard in street clothes.

After 5 years in Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph appeared in 17 games, holds a 5-4-1 record as a starter, threw 384 passes for 2,366 yards with a 61.5% completion rate and 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Every championship team needs a strong backup quarterback.

Just look at how Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch stepped in in 2005 and 2008. Mason Rudolph’s body of work isn’t that extensive. While he hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of a starter’s slot, he does project as a competent backup.

He knows the Steelers culture and system. He was never embraced or mentored or seemingly even befriended by Ben Roethlisberger. He was benched for a guy name “Duck.” He didn’t get his fair share of reps in the summer that was to be his one real shot at the starting job.

Yet, through all of it, Mason Rudolph has never complained. He’s been a loyal teammate and a positive force in the locker room – just what you’d want in a backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Steelers had a “first round grade” on Rudolph, yet picked him with an extra third round choice in a decision that was termed a “compromise.”

Consider these names:

Those are all quarterbacks that the Steelers brought to Pittsburgh after seeing Mason Rudolph’s 10 game audition in 2019. Now stir in the fact that in the summer of 2022, Rudolph neither got a fair shot at the starting job nor did he get a shot at QB No. 2.

That should tell you that Mike Tomlin was never sold on drafting Mason Rudolph and Rudolph hasn’t changes his opinion since arriving in Pittsburgh. The Steelers already have Trubisky under contract for 2023, has Mason given them any reason to tear that contract up, eat the dead money and offer him a deal to stay?

No. He has not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

has said the Steelers have left the door open for Rudolph’s return, which is the smart move. But let’s close this conversation by turning it on its head: Is there any reason why Mason Rudolph would want to stay in Pittsburgh?

The fans never gave him a chance, even if his numbers, arguably, were better than Pickett’s. His head coach clearly doesn’t see him as starter material and didn’t even give him a shot as a backup. No NFL team is going to throw starter money at Mason Rudolph.

But Rudolph has done enough to earn both a competitive backup deal and something else more highly prized: A clean slate.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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A 4 Point Roadmap Steelers Should Follow to Return to The Super Bowl

Super Bowl LVI is today. And again, the Pittsburgh Steelers will watch from home. Worse, the franchise hasn’t been farther away from a Super Bowl since their God-awful 1999 season.

  • This reality is generating untold angst within Steelers Nation.

Social media is full of solutions for returning the Steelers the Big Dance. First, there are the “Make Buddy Parker Proud” plans that involve trading a pirate’s ransom of draft picks to get Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.

On the flip side, there are demands to trade T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward because, “We’re never going to contend during their careers, so why not?” In between, you see calls for sticking with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins — but not to explore their potential — but because they’re Pittsburgh’s best shot at a top 5 draft pick.

No, nothing is easy, is it? Now you understand why Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin agreed to take a final, longest of long shots with Ben Roethlisberger.

If the Steelers road to Lombardi Number 7 certainly isn’t easy, the map they need to follow isn’t complicated because it involves focusing on the fundamentals that got the franchise their first 6 Super Bowls. Here is a four point roadmap.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers first 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1. Embrace the Suck

Jim Wexell quoted Tammy Duckworth’s “Embrace the suck” mantra following Martavis Bryant’s second substance abuse suspension. Duckworth of course lost both her legs in Iraq rebounded to become a US Senator.

In this context, the Steelers “Embracing the suck” means accepting that they are neither a quarterback nor a handful of key players away from contending again. A big part of this site’s Steelers 2021 season review hinged on who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft and who actually made (or stayed) on the field in the early fall.

  • That perspective was useful for reviewing 2021, but is irrelevant for 2022.

Take Tyson Alualu. The Steelers run defense certainly would have been better with Alualu. Alualu can probably help in 2022. But Alualu will be 35 and has only played in 17 of a potential 33 games over the last two seasons. He’s not a long-term answer. The Steelers need long term answers.

Fans can fantasize all they want, but it is important that Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert and his successor are honest with each other and with the men in the mirror about where this team stands.

2. Prioritize Winning Big Over Winning Fast

After Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in 1969, Chuck Noll told him that he could win quickly by beefing up the roster with a few trades. But Noll and Rooney agreed on winning big instead of winning fast.

  • In this light, the idea of trading away 3 or 4 premium draft picks for a blue chip quarterback is pure folly.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, the Steelers are in a much better place today than in 1969. In Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Dan Moore and a few others the Steelers have foundational players.

  • But they need to find more foundational pieces, and they need to take them where they can find them.

Outside of perhaps safety and running back, there’s not a spot on the Steelers depth chart that should be off of the board on Days 1 and 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has argued repeatedly, good things happen when your best player is your hardest worker (and if possible) is the biggest guy in your locker room.

If ever there was a year for the Steelers to deprioritize need in favor of talent in the draft, it is 2022. That could leave some painful holes in the 2022 roster but will deliver long-term dividends.

3. Don’t Try to Force Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Finding a franchise quarterback requires 3 things:

1. Luck
2. Patience
3. Instincts

The importance of luck should be obvious, but it’s not. To understand luck’s role, think of how the Steelers found their first franchise quarterback. Despite drafting Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 NFL Draft, Chuck Noll went 1-13 that season.

The Steelers tied the Bears for the worst record, and they tossed a coin for the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.

  • Pittsburgh won the toss and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The rest is history.

Patience is just as critical as luck. The Steelers whiffed in 1983, drafting Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino. Fans and press pundits panned the team for trying to get by with Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister – didn’t Rooney and Noll know how important the quarterback position was?

They did.

And they also knew that franchise quarterbacks few and far between. Outside of Steve Young in the 1984 Supplemental draft and Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL Draft the Steelers didn’t have a shot at a true franchise quarterback until they passed on Drew Brees in 2001. (Ok, they should have taken Tom Brady instead of Tee Martin in 2000. 29 other NFL teams should have too.)

Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert

Bill Cowher sits beside Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: The Toledo Blade

Reaching for a quarterback and missing is more costly than it is at any other position. Just ask the people who picked Andre Ware, Cabe McNown and JaMarcus Russell. That’s why Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were wise to resist any temptation to draft Chad Pennington in 2000.

  • The Steelers must exercise the same prudence today.

And that’s where instincts come in. Dan Rooney lived through the mistake of passing on Marino and ensured that history didn’t repeat. So if and when the Steelers brain trust really does think they’ve found a franchise quarterback, they must take him.

4. Strive to Be Great, But Build to Win with Good

I took a lot of grief in high school, college and later sports bars defending Bubby, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. After all, the Steelers continued to make playoff runs while teams like the Bengals wasted first round picks on busts like David Klingler and Akili Smith.

  • And besides, you didn’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, you only needed a good one.

Then I saw Ben Roethlisberger go 9 of 12 while throwing laser like touchdown strikes to Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller to open the 2005 AFC Divisional win over the Colts. That’s when I understood why teams threw first round picks at quarterbacks. Neither Bubby, nor Neil nor Kordell could have done what Roethlisberger did that day.

  • The game has changed a lot since 2005 and much more since the 1990s.

Today conventional wisdom holds: You can’t win with a “Good” quarterback anymore, you can only win with a Great one. If you look at the names of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the 21st century, it is hard to argue against that.

Hard, but not impossible.

There’s no doubt that without a franchise quarterback, a team must be virtually error-free in the draft, have depth everywhere, and reach the playoffs in excellent health. But non-franchise quarterback do lead their teams to Super Bowls.

Nick Foles did it in 2017. In 2015 the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with excellent defense, a strong running game and a Peyton Manning who was a glorified game manager at that point in his career. Many would put the Joe Flacco-led Ravens Super Bowl in 2012 into that same boat.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

The Steelers of course tried to win a Super Bowl with a good quarterback in the 1990’s and the early ‘00’s, only to come up short with losses in Super Bowl XXX and 3 AFC Championship games.

But because they were built to win with good while seeking to be great, when luck, patience and instinct combined to start the Ben Roethlisberger Era in 2004 the Steelers as an organization were ready. And 3 Super Bowl appearances and victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII followed in the next 7 years.

Today, Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin must follow the same formula.

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Steelers 2020 Quarterback Draft Needs: Once Again, Pittsburgh To Stand Pat

Quarterback is every NFL team’s most important position. This has always been true, but it is more true today than it was even just two decades ago.

  • For most of those two decades Steelers Nation has been blessed to have a franchise quarterback calling its signals.

That changed 6 quarters into the 2019 season. Suddenly, Steelers fans who were 30 something or below got a taste of what it was like when the likes of Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone and David Woodley stood under center.

But does that mean that the Steelers will or should look to quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger has been the Steelers franchise quarterback since 2004. In that time he’s led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and an appearance in Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers haven’t suffered a losing season since calling Ben Roethlisberger’s name in the 2004 NFL Draft and have only entered the season’s final week without the possibility of making the playoffs once in that time.

  • Ben Roethlisberger did not play well during the 6 quarters of football that comprised his 2019 season.

Was that his injured elbow? Was Roethlisberger rusty from lack of activity during the preseason? We don’t know and will never know. We do know that he is 38 and coming off of elbow surgery, and that his rehab is a bit ahead of schedule. We also know that he enter training camp and the season as the Steelers starting quarterback.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

Mason Rudolph stepped in when Roethlisberger injured his elbow against the Seahawks. How well Mason Rudolph played is open to debate.

  • Clearly, he lacks the instinctive, school yard instincts that make Ben Roethlisberger so special.

Mason Rudolph’s progress was marked in fits and starts. He seemed to be finding his footing when a concussion against Baltimore sidelined him. Rudolph was shaky on his return but found his self-confidence midway through the win over the Miami Dolphins. From there he seemed to make slow but steady progress until a disastrous outing against the Browns.

What they forget was how poorly he’d played up until that point. Perhaps that was a product of limited preparation on a short week. Regardless, he was tentative and timid the next week against the Bengals, leading to Devlin Hodges promotion to the starting role.

Devlin Hodges and Duckmania enjoyed quite a ride, engineering a comeback against the Bengals, followed by wins against the Browns and Cardinals. Steelers coaches took the training wheels off a bit against the Bills in the following week, and Devlin Hodges feel off the bike.

A week later a poor performance against the Jets led to Rudolph’s return, only to see Mason Rudolph injured. The Steelers also have former first round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster plus J.T. Barrett.

The Steelers 2020 Quarterback Draft Needs

The moment the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick the organization went “All In” on Roethlisberger’s recovery. The move cost them their first round pick. And it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Minkah Fitzpatrick’s presence bumped Pittsburgh’s win total by two or perhaps three games. Moreover, the Steelers restructures of Ben Roethlisberger basically tie the two together for two more years.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Could Mason Rudolph be Ben Roethlisberger’s long-term successor?

It is certainly possible, but his play in 2019 created as many questions as it answered. Delvin Hodges earned folk-hero status and did some nice things, but he has a weak arm and has only shown an ability to execute a very limited play selection.

  • Paxton Lynch and plus J.T. Barrett remain unknown quantities.

Lynch clearly has some talent and didn’t get much of a chance in Denver, but banking on his long-term future is foolish. Put that altogether, and in the abstract the Steelers 2020 draft need at quarterback really should be considered as High-Moderate.

But let’s repeat it, again: The Steelers are all in on Roethlisberger’s recovery. And there’s probably a better chance of finding coronavirus vaccine before the Steelers make their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft than there is of a legitimate franchise quarterback actually falling to pick 49.

The Steelers will not and should not draft a quarterback in 2020.

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.
Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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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.

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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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Mark Malone’s 5 Touchdown Game vs. the Colts in 1985

Three Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks have thrown for at least five touchdowns in a game. Terry Bradshaw is obviously one of them. Ben Roethlisberger is another (Big Ben in fact has done it four times). But who was the third?

Surely someone like the legendary Bobby Layne, right? And if it wasn’t him, certainly it was Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart or maybe even a gunslinger like Tommy Maddox, right? Nope.

Try Mark Malone.

mark malone, steelers, 5 touchdowns, former steelers quarterbacks

Former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone in 1986; Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

  • Yes, you read correctly, Mark Malone once threw 5 touchdown passes in game.

Mark Malone, who played for the Steelers for eight years in the 1980s and was the team’s primary starting quarterback from  mid-way through the ’84 campaign until the Steelers traded Malone to the Chargers (for an 8th round pick) following the ’87 season, was never a fan-favorite based the fact that he had to replace a future Hall of Famer and, obviously, his poor career stats.

Malone Not Alone in  Succeeding the Blond Bomber…

Malone was the Steelers first round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, just months after they won Super Bowl XIV, their 4th championship in six years behind the legendary Terry Bradshaw.  Was Malone, a magnificent athlete who passed for 3,388 yards and rushed for another 1,344 during his three years at Arizona State,  going to be groomed as the heir apparent to the Blond Bomber?

  • It didn’t necessarily seem so at the time.

As Malone explained to New York Times in January of 1985 as he prepared to face Miami in the 1984 AFC Championship game, how could he ever replace Bradshaw, who was just 31 years old when the youngster was drafted?

When I was drafted by the Steelers, friends back home in San Diego asked, ‘How will you ever get a chance to play with Bradshaw there?

But, again, Malone was so physically gifted that when Lynn Swann was injured heading into a Week 10 match-up in Seattle during the ’81 season, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll asked him to play wide-receiver. While Malone only caught one pass, it went for a 90-yard touchdown (a franchise record that stood for years).

  • Unfortunately for Malone, he injured his knee in the game against the Seahawks that would require surgery in the offseason and force him to miss all of 1982.

Even after Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season and Cliff Stoudt departed for the USFL, the Steelers acquired David Woodley from the Dolphins prior to the 1984 campaign, and he ultimately beat-out Malone for the starting job.

But, David Woodley wasn’t up to the job, and Malone became the permanent starter in the second half of the season, as he led the ’84 Steelers to five victories, a 9-7 record and Chuck Noll’s last AFC Central Division title.

Among  those victories was an upset over the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in Week 7 (San Francisco’s only loss in ’84 and the 1st of two Noll/Malone wins over Walsh/Montana) and a 52-24 thrashing of the Chargers in Week 13 at old Three Rivers Stadium; in the blow-out win, Malone passed for 253 yards and four touchdowns and, according to his Wikipedia page, became the first quarterback in team history to complete over 80 percent of his passes in a game (18 of 22).

  • Other notable performances during the ’84 campaign occurred in the postseason.

Mark Malone helped the Steelers become the first road team to win a playoff game in Denver, after a 24-17 victory over the Broncos in the divisional round.  One week later, he threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, as Pittsburgh fell to the Dolphins, 45-28, in the AFC Championship game in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

1985 Steelers Appeared Poised for Greatness

While Mark Malone didn’t make anyone forget about Terry Bradshaw during the second half of the ’84 season, he certainly did enough to earn the starting nod moving forward, providing the perfect backdrop for Mark Malone’s shining moment.

  • To understand this, you’ve got to understand the context in which the Steelers started the 1985 season.

The 85 Steelers were a new team with a mostly revamped roster that included an exciting, young receiver named Louis Lipps, 1984’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.  And this retooled roster had renewed Pittsburgh’s enthusiasm with three-straight playoff-appearances and provided objective evidence that the Steel Curtain was poised to rise again.

  • Pittsburgh opened the ’85 campaign at home against the Colts on September 8.

Malone, coming off several impressive performances the year before, had the game of his life in-front of a sell-out crowd, completing 21 of 30 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns, as he tied Bradshaw’s single-game record just one year after he retired.

To add to Malone’s career-day, he also scored on a one-yard touchdown run giving him a hand in 6 touchdowns in a 45-3 blow-out victory.

  • According to the young quarterback, whom the Colts defenders failed to sack all day, it was a total team effort.

As Malone clarified to the UPI after the game:

I thought I had a good game. But as I’ve said in the past–and I think it’s extremely important–when two receivers run good routes and those guys in front are giving you time and you’re running the ball, well, you’re going to have good days.

Those two receivers Malone was referring to were Lipps, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and  three touchdowns, and the legendary John Stallworth, who also tallied a score. Chuck Noll’s Steelers had struggled in the early 80’s, but Malone’s 5 touchdown game on opening day vs. the Colts, Pittsburgh appeared poised to dominate the second half of the decade.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers finished 7-9 and suffered their first losing season since 1971; as for Malone, he only played in 10 games in ’85 due to an injury.

Malone started a combined 26 games over the next two seasons, but the playoff-less trend continued, as Pittsburgh failed to quality in 1986 and again in 1987. Whatever scorn the fans initially felt for the embattled quarterback intensified during these years, as he threw  just 21 touchdown passes to a whopping 37 interceptions.

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Those fans, and many reporters, who hardly criticized Mark Malone during his time in Pittsburgh certainly had Just Cause. In eight seasons with the Steelers, Malone had 60 touchdown passes to 81 interceptions and a passer-rating of 50.2.

  • In fact, in his final season as a starter, Malone had 46.4 passer rating (yes, that forty six point four)

Malone, who has had long-lasting success as a sportscaster and sports personality after retiring, never had a career even approaching that of a decent NFL quarterback.

But on opening day of the 1985 regular season Mark Malone authored in one of the most underrated quarterback performances in Pittsburgh Steelers history. For that he should be proud.

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