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

What is the Steelers plan at wide receiver for 2024?

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

  • Both writers make valid points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of the Steelers New Veteran WRs Look Like Thigpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for Meltdown vs Colts: Who DIDN’T Get an F Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is in no mood for mercy here is the Steelers Report Card for the meltdown loss to the Colts.

Mol Alie Cox, Mark Robinson, Steelers vs Colts

Mol Alie-Cox burns Mark Robinson for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Mitchell Trubisky was 16 of 23 for 169 yards with one touchdown and 2 interceptions. His first interception shifted the momentum to the Colts. His second one basically killed any chance the Steelers had of a comeback. How terrible was Tribusky? Mason Rudolph went 2 for 3 for 3 yards and a sack in mop up duty and he’s starting next week. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers totaled 74 yards on the ground with Jaylen Warren getting 40 of those while Najee Harris was held to 33. Harris’ fumble knocked the bottom out of the game for the Steelers. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for sixteen yards as the tight ends were inconsequential. Grade: F

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 62 yards to lead the team. George Pickens had 3 for 47 yards. Allen Robinson had 3 for 19. While those number read more like the type of stat line you’d expect from Louis Lipps, Dwight Stone and Drew Hill the real crime here was Pickens non-block on what should have been a Jaylen Warren touchdown. That’s part of the malaise that infects this offense. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Colts registered 4 sacks and 9 QB hits. And Indianapolis, known for their terrible rushing defense, stoned Steelers running backs at regular intervals. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi had a nice sack to wreck a drive early, but the Colts ran on the Steelers at will when it counted – indeed a pair of practice squad running backs made it look like Marshall Faulk AND Eggrein James were both still playing in Indianapolis. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had two sacks, but Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson both go burned for touchdowns. Grade: F

Secondary
Damontae Kazee’s ejection and ultimate disqualification might be a little harsh, but it cost the Steelers dearly. As did Joey Porter’s pass interference call with 35 seconds left in the first half that gave the Colts the ball on Pittsburgh’s 14. Grade: F

Special Teams
Between Chris Boswell missing an extra point, Pressley Harvin erratic punting and leaky punt return coverage, the Steelers special teams weren’t very special. Grade: D

Coaching
So Matt Canada has been gone for over a month and the Steelers offense not only hasn’t gotten better, it has regressed. This is disappointing but not surprising.

The Steelers lack talent on offense. They lack coordination on offense. They lack motivation and leadership on offense.

  • The Steelers defense IS deeply depleted.

But what’s damning about their performance isn’t the 3 touchdown passes that they gave up, but rather than the Colts were one play shy of running the ball 13 straight times – and the Steelers defense lacked the ability, or worse the willpower to stop them.

Steelers vs Colts, Nick Herbig, Connor Heyward, blocked punt

Connor Heyward blocks a punt! Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

In the past, even through the earlier parts of this season, Mike Tomlin excelled at coaxing the most the talent he has at hand and getting his players to respond when their backs were to the wall.

This year the opposite is happening. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
They teamed up on what should have been a game-turning, blocked punt and recovery for the Steelers and for that Connor Heyward and Nick Herbig win Unsung Hero Award honors from the Steelers meltdown at Indianapolis.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Finishing Touches: Steelers Announce 2022 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Mere minutes after announcing Chris Oladokun as their 2nd 7th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to terms with their 2022 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class. This will be Kevin Colbert’s final undrafted rookie free agent class, and as noted here before, he’s had an uncanny ability to pluck gems from players whose phones remained quite on draft day.

The Steelers 2022 undrafted rookie free agent class includes:

Jake Dixon, Offensive Tackle, Duquesne
Jordan Tucker, Offensive Tackle, North Carolina
Mataeo Durant, Running Back, Duke
Jaylen Warren, Running Back, Oklahoma State
Donovan Jeter, Defensive Lineman, Michigan
Tyree Johnson, Outside Linebacker, Texas A&M
T.D. Moultry, Outside Linebacker, Auburn
Chris Owens, Guard, Alabama
Chris Steele, Cornerback, Southern California
Bryce Watts, Cornerback, UMass

As expected, the group targets positions which the Steelers did not address in the draft, namely running back, offensive tackle and cornerback, although the inclusion of 2 outside linebackers is interesting.

  • Undrafted rookie free agents are kind of like the Rudy’s of the NFL.

They are mainly there to fill out training camp rosters, saving the wear and tear on the starters. That’s true around the NFL, but these young gentlemen are luck to have landed in Pittsburgh.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

As Mike Tomlin explained when asked about the pedigrees of several his draftees, “Arthur Maulet used to always make a joke last year during the season that he was a zero-star guy, and boy, you got respect for that, as well. I embraced the football justice component of it. It does not matter by what means you get here.”

The Steelers ended Chuck Noll’s policy of practicing without numbers so that coaches would evaluate all players objectively ended a long time ago. But the fundamental principle doesn’t change:

  • Once you make it to St. Vincents its not about where you came from, but what you can prove on the field.

Fans reared during the Ben Roethlisberger era will remember the Ramon Foster, Steve McLendon, Isaac Redman, Willie Parker and James Harrison all arrived at St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and used that as a launching pad to transform themselves into regular starters, cult heroes or Super Bowl record holders.

Dwight Stone arrived in Latrobe as an nobody from Middle Tenn. St. in the summer of 1987 and finished in the year 2000 after played 216 games over 14 years in the NFL. And of course Donnie Shell was just a nameless undrafted rookie free agent defensive back running drills with the likes of Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards and Mel Blount and now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Gentleman, rest assured, you face long odds, but if you deliver while at St. Vincents, the Steelers will give you a fair shake.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Were Fumbling Issues Why Steelers Could Sign Gunner Olszewski So Easily?

What price can you put on special teams ball security? I don’t have the answer. But the Pittsburgh Steelers decision to let Ray-Ray McCloud walk to San Francisco while replacing him with Gunner Olszewski will come to the difference between 0.25% and $6,200,000.

  • That might sound complicated, but it’s not.

Success in the salary cap era comes down to getting the biggest bang for your salary cap buck. Ray-Ray McCloud handled the Steelers return duties for the last two years. Ray-Ray did a good job, but he wasn’t going to remind Boomers and Generation Xers of the return men of yore.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Think of guys like Mel Gray, or to keep this Steelers centric, Rod Woodson or Dwight Stone. Actually, Stone’s return numbers with the Steelers weren’t that great, but as Tony Defeo reminded us, he deserves to be remembered for more than his “Hands of Stone.”

Actually, stony hands or lack thereof is what the Steelers decision between Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski comes down to.

  • If you look at their career kick and punting return averages, McCloud and Olszewski are pretty similar.

Ray-Ray McCloud has more reps in both categories, so his sample size is larger. McCloud has a 22.6 kickoff return average and a 9.5 yard punt return average. That ranks him well among his peers.

Gunner Olszewski, who began his career against the Steelers 2019 season-opening loss to the Patriots, has a 23.2 yard kick return average and an 12.6 yard punt return average. He also has more a punt returned for a touchdown, something McCloud hasn’t been able to do.

The San Francisco 49ers signed McCloud to a 2 year, 10.6-million dollar contract (good for you Ray-Ray, mange it wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life, even if you only play for one season.) The Steelers deal Olszewski with is also for 2 years, but for only 4.2 million dollars.

Taken at face value, Kevin Colbert appears to have gotten the same thing for 6.4 million less.

  • But there’s one number that just might make that 6.2 million worth it.

And that’s 0.25%. During his 2 years with the Steelers, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled 6 times on 130 returns. That gives him a fumble rate of 4.6%. In three years with the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball 5 times on 107 returns, giving him a 4.85% fumble rate.

So the Steelers calculation is that 0.25% greater chance of a fumble is worth the 6.4 million dollars in salary cap savings. (This ignores Ray-Ray McCloud’s serviceable skills as a backup wide out – something that Gunner Olszewski has yet to prove.)

  • For my money that’s a prudent calculation for Pittsburgh.

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Ssh. Diontae Johnson Just Had the Quietest 107-Catch Season In Steelers History

I was shocked when Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and rookie running back Najee Harris were named to the Pro Bowl in place of receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon, two Bengals players who, instead, will have the privilege of participating in Super Bowl XVI a week later.

What was I shocked by?

Johnson, and not because he was actually voted to the Pro Bowl. He’s a nice receiver and someone that I think could be headed for super-stardom, given the right role, quarterback and an ability to shed his reputation as a receiver with poor hands (other than being considered a diva, I can’t think of a worse reputation for a receiver – think of Dwight Hands of Stone.)

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

No, the thing that truly shocked me was Johnson’s 2021 stat line that included 1,161 receiving yards and, get this, 107 receptions! No, I couldn’t believe it, either.

I guess I was so surprised by Johnson’s numbers because of the lack of production of the Steelers offense in 2021, a season in which it finished 23rd in total yards, while the team (mostly, the offense) averaged just 20.2 points per game.

It was really one of the worst Steelers offenses I’ve seen in years (maybe decades), which may explain why Diontae Johnson had to wait until the Bengals reached the Super Bowl in order to get the call to play in the 2022 Pro Bowl. It probably also explains why lots of fans were/are ready to move on from Johnson, even as he was putting up career numbers.

  • But were those numbers really that sexy?
Ben Roethlisberger, Harrison Smith, Steelers vs Vikings

Harrison Smith sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

I mean, Diontae Johnson averaged just 10.9 yards per catch, which doesn’t exactly scream big-play receiver. It’s probably not Johnson’s fault that he hasn’t fully developed into a superstar player after three seasons. No, I blame the absence of an injured Ben Roethlisberger for most of 2019 as well as the absence of Roethlisberger’s great skills in 2020 and 2021. I blame a poor offensive line that “encouraged” Roethlisberger to get rid of the football at a faster clip than he ever had before.

As per Pro Football Reference, Johnson’s advanced stats show that Roethlisberger’s passes only traveled 5.9 yards before reaching the young receiver. I don’t know if you believe in advanced stats, but they do show that Johnson’s drop rate, well, dropped to just three percent in 2021, as he only dropped five passes all year.

Of course, reputations being what they are, Johnson will likely carry the reputation as someone with poor hands much longer than he deserves to. Also, it doesn’t help that a few of his drops occurred late in the season and even into playoffs where he dropped a couple of passes in the blowout loss to the Chiefs.

Still, though, 107 receptions used to be a big deal, but I guess it’s a sign of the times that we barely noticed Johnson’s production in 2021, even if it was inflated by many short passes and one extra regular-season game.

I still think Diontae Johnson has a bright future in the NFL, and if he can find the right combination of coaching, quarterbacking and scheming to help in his development as a receiver, there might be a day when we’re shocked when he doesn’t catch 107 passes.

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to begin its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.

Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

Thanks for reading. For the next article, “1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy ‘Two Interceptions Too Far,'” click here. For the full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation

“There’s a big opportunity to win here. I think the tradition, the stability, the credibility of the front office and the wealth of talent on this team is exciting to any football coach….” – Bill Cowher, on his first day as Steelers head coach.

“…And Mark Royals standing at his own 40, the rush – and he’s passing down field and he completes the pass pulled in by Warren Williams…” – Jack Fleming during the Steelers 1992 opening day victory vs. the Houston Oilers

Bold words backed by bold actions – Bill Cowher began his tenure as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach by defining a single success metric: winning the Super Bowl.

It may have taken 15 years for him to do that, but Bill Cowher’s confidence inspired the 1992 Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh, and the team’s nationwide legion of fans. Steel Curtain Rising’s look at the Bill Cowher years starts where it all began, with the Steelers 1992 season.

Bill Cowher, Rod Woodson

Bill Cowher and Rod Woodson cerca 1992

1992 Opener vs Oilers: Bold Words, Bolder Actions

Bill Cowher’s declaration shocked reporters, who rolled their eyes at Cowher’s contention that the Steelers had a “wealth of talent” and “no glaring weakness.” A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette preseason reprint from the book Cowher Power, argued that the 1992 Steelers would be lucky to post a winning season while assailing nearly every position on Pittsburgh’s roster.

  • Bill Cowher’s confidence stood on a solid foundation, but perhaps the press’ cynicism can be forgiven.

Just three years earlier the 1989 Steelers storybook season had ignited hope that the Steel Curtain was finally rising again. Chuck Noll openly spoke of “Championship talent.” The Emperor felt he could win big again. But the playoffless, 9-7 1990 Steelers season effort earned the Steelers an “Underachieving” label. By the time Noll retired after a 7-9, 1991 campaign, most NFL observers, inside and outside of Pittsburgh, wrote the Steelers roster off as mediocre at best.

Bill Cowher saw things very differently, and early on, he refused to flinch when challenged to prove it.

Cowher Power Takes the NFL by Storm

And so it was, that the 1992 Steelers began the Bill Cowher era in Houston, taking on the division rival Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers had looked “OK” in preseason, but preseason means nothing.

Lore has it that, rather than discuss the challenge presented by the 11-point underdog Steelers, the Houston Chronicle focused most of its Sunday morning opening day coverage how it was imperative that the Oilers secure home field advantage during the playoffs.

  • Early events appeared to vindicate the wisdom of the Houston Chronicle editors

The Steelers fumbled away their first two possessions, in effect spotting the Oilers 14 easy points to start the first quarter. But then, on 4th and 15 at the Oilers’ 45, Bill Cowher ordered punter Mark Royals – who’d never thrown an NFL pass before, to go for it. Warren Williams caught Royals’ pass and scampered 44 yards, setting up a Barry Foster touchdown.

  • From that point on, the Steelers and Oilers fought tooth and nail.

Larry Griffin, rookie Darren Perry and Rod Woodson picked off Warren Moon 5 times, and in the process ended two would-be game-willing drives by the Oilers. Dwight Stone ran reverses twice, including one on third and long. When it ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers stood as 29-24 victors in a game no one gave them a chance of contesting, let alone winning.

  • NFL history proves that opening day upsets aren’t difficult, sustaining momentum from them is.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers sustained their momentum, with a home opening win over the New York Jets that saw Barry Foster run for 190 yards, followed by a road victory of the San Diego Chargers. In the blink of an eye, the Pittsburgh Steelers had shot from afterthought to the talk of the NFL. The Steelers fell in their next game to Brett Favre’s debut and lost the following week to Cleveland, setting up a critical mid-season stretch.

Something Special Happening with the Steelers

The 1992 Steelers snapped their 2 game losing streak with an impressive shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, giving them a 4-2 record heading into a critical 3 game stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Oilers, and the Buffalo Bills.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola observed at the time, a win over any of these teams would still be considered “an upset.”

These three game stretch would define the 1992 Steelers as contenders or pretenders. The Steelers traveled to Arrowhead Stadium, then considered an extremely difficult place to play, and blindsided the Chiefs to the tune of 27 to 3. In the process, Bill Cowher not only bettered his mentor Marty Schottenheimer, but also managed to keep Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith off of Neil O’Donnell, while the Steelers defense racked up 3 interceptions and Greg Lloyd added two sacks.

  • Following the win, Bob Labriola proclaimed that the Steelers could be counted on to defeat any NFL team at any time.

No, this wasn’t the “On any given Sunday credo,” but rather a reflection of the reality that 1992 Steelers had proven they were for real. Although it’s been almost a quarter century since I read the words in Steelers Digest, the memory of Labriola’s words still raises the hair on my arm. I’ll paraphrase that passage here:

Something very special is happening to this team and this city. A win next week over the Houston Oilers will give the Steelers sole possession of the AFC Central; energize the city and galvanize their nationwide legion of fans. The possibility of playoff games at Three Rivers Stadium will become a reality for the first time in a decade.

Rod Woodson, Warren Moon

Rod Woodson after sacking Warren Moon.

The Houston Oilers refused to go gently into the good night, as they held a 20 to 7 lead going into the 4th quarter.

But the Steelers fought back, and twin touchdown passes from Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper put Pittsburgh into the lead. Houston made one final stab at victory, racing to midfield with the clock ticking. Assistant coaches implored Bill Cowher to use the Steelers time outs. Cowher balked, saying, “He’s going to miss the field goal.”

Walking into the locker room, Rod Woodson proclaimed, “We OWN the division baby!” He was right. The 1992 Steelers took possession of the AFC Central lead that day never looked back, winning their first AFC Central title since 1984.

The Playoffs Return to Three Rivers Stadium

The 1992 Steelers won five of their next eight games to finish 11-5. Nationwide, fans took notice. As Ed Bouchette reports in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when the Steelers would arrive at their hotels for road games, they were suddenly greeted by thongs of fans cheering “Here We Go Steelers! Here We Go!” Veterans like Tunch Ilkin had seen a little of this in 1980 but never since.

Although they weathered some close calls and an injury to Neil O’Donnell combined with two subpar games from Bubby Brister, they qualified as only bumps in the road: The 1992 Steelers entered the playoffs as the AFC’s number one seed.

  • The cover of Steelers Digest said it all, “A Run for the Ring.”

There’s something electric about a home playoff game played in front of a fan base that believes in your team, and even on TV, it was evident that the fans at Three Rivers Stadium believed.

  • History shows that Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers weren’t quite cut out to be champions.

Cowher started Neil O’Donnell. O’Donnell wasn’t fully healthy and it is a decision Cowher now regrets. The Steelers crossed mid-field over a half dozen times, yet could only score 3 points. 4th string cornerback Richard Shelton infamously dropped an interception that had pick six written all over it.

But the fact that the Steelers Digest could even discuss a Super Bowl run revealed just how thoroughly Bill Cowher’s arrival had transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • The transformation went beyond the city of Pittsburgh.

And that’s the real achievement of Bill Cowher’s first season: The 1992 Steelers didn’t succeed in winning the Super Bowl, but Cowher Power had succeeded in awakening Steelers Nation.

Thanks for reading. For the next article in the series “1993 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time” click here. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Ola Adeniyi – Will “Mr. Preseason” Get an RFA Tender?

The digital era has changed the way the NFL presents its product. By in large, those changes have been for the better, bringing fans closer to the game they love. Preseason football has not aged well in the digital transition.

  • Once upon a time, preseason football was an oasis. 

Football starved fans who’d been suffering a long off season could finally get their fill of gridiron action. It was enough, even if it didn’t feature top talent (although starters did get a fair number of preseason snaps well into the 1990s). Today, YouTube, Twitter and Tiki Toki fill that void from February to August. Preseason football is now perceived as a painstaking rite to be endured, rather than a welcome appetizer that precedes the main course.

  • Yet preseason remains an invaluable experience for unknown players to prove themselves.

Yet names like Donnie Shell, Dwight Stone, Merril Hoge, Lee Flowers, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Isaac Redman and Ramon Foster might ring a bell for Steelers fans. That’s because these “training camp roster spot holders” parlayed preseason performances into careers with the Steelers.

Ola Adeniyi was another no pedigree preseason standout in 2018 and is now a restricted free agent. Has he done enough to earn him that coveted “second NFL contract?” Let’s find out!

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Ola Adeniyi, Steelers preseason

Ola Adeniyi closes in for one of his patented preseason sacks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Ola Adeniyi’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2018, Ola Adeniyi quickly made a name for himself when he recorded several sacks that preseason. While Adeniyi did make the Steelers roster during his rookie campaign, he was unable to capitalize on his preseason success thanks to an injury that forced him onto the Injured Reserve list for the majority of the season.

Adeniyi made the Steelers roster in 2019 and again in 2020, but the outside linebacker was afforded very few defensive snaps playing behind the dynamic pass-rushing duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Adeniyi’s primary role during his Steelers career has been on special teams.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

Adeniyi is a restricted free agent but one without much of a resume. It should be fairly easy and inexpensive to retain his rights for at least one more season. Besides, with Bud Dupree likely gone in free agency, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker will be a primary concern heading into 2021. It appears that the Steelers may have found themselves a suitable replacement for Dupree in one Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick in 2020. However, Adeniyi, 23, is still really young and perhaps has room to grow as a player. He knows the system and, again, is a major contributor on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

The Steelers coaches know more than we do. While Adeniyi’s rookie preseason was eye-opening, it did primarily come against players of his level. Perhaps the coaches realized this right away, which is why they really haven’t given Adeniyi much of a chance to be a major player on defense.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ola Adeniyi

Again, it should be fairly inexpensive to retain Ola Adeniyi’s services. I see no real problem in him remaining on the Steelers roster in 2021. If he does still have some upside, maybe someone like Highsmith won’t be able to block it as easily as Dupree did. 

With that said, Ola Adeniyi is a restricted free agent, and restricted free agent tenders will clock in at around 2.3 million dollars. The Steelers need every salary cap penny they can get, and could very well opt not to tender Adeniyi yet still bring him back at a veteran minimum.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.