In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.
I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”
I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.
Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground
I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.
Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.
Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.
Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).
I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.
Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.
Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire
So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.
Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.
It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.
The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.
The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.
I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have to deal with the four linebackers on the field.
While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.
As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.
With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.
The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.
I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.
They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.
Wew! What a nail biter. The Pittsburgh Steelers held on to beat the Detroit Lions to the tune of 20 to 15 in a hard fought road match up that went down to the wire. As we always do here after Steelers wins, we invite you the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote Game Ball Winners.
Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster burns Quandre Diggs in his 97 yard tochdown scamper. Photo Credit: Duane Burleson
The esteemed Steelers rookie was easily the star of the night for Pittsburgh catching 7 passes for 193 yards including the game sealing touchdown. Right behind him however, we’re giving a nod to the entire Steelers Goal Line defense.
Keith Butler’s boys couldn’t do much right outside the 20, but they were impeccable at the goal.
After that, we’re giving Ben Roethlisberger a ballot nod. Ben didn’t have the best of nights, but he also had 2 sure touchdowns dropped. Le’Veon Bell gets a nod. Bell, who fumbled the ball, didn’t have one of his better nights either, but he ran hard and helped burn up clock late in the game. Antonio Brown also gets a nod after a quiet night that nonetheless saw him a few critical catches. Jesse James gets a ballot slot due to his 40 yard catch.
Burns led the team in tackles, and recovered a fumble late in the game. Followed by Burns, we have Vince Williams, who was spectaular at the goal line. Ryan Shazier also had a strong game including breaking up at the goal line. Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu, who both had sacks and both excelled at the goal line also get nods.
Rounding out the defensive nominees are Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave. Davis came up big at the goal line and was 5th on the team in tackles, while Javon Hargrave simply ate Dwayne Washington alive at the goal line.
Remember, you, the citizens of Steelers Nation are not limited to these choices. If you think someone else deserves a game ball, write their name in. Or better yet, write their name in and leave a comment stating your case as to why you think they deserve one.
The Steelers win over the Lions ended at 12:30 am here in Buenos Aires and the work day looms tomorrow. But please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest victory.
Memorial Day weekend has arrived, and with it the unofficial beginning of summer. Neighborhood pools are opening, kids are looking towards the end of school, backyard barbecues are getting fired up and…
…The NFL’s true off season is about to begin.
While the Steelers still have a few more weeks of OTA’s and minicamp, we’re rapidly approaching the one time of the year when there really is no real football news to be had. Once upon a time that was the norm, form February to March, with the exception of the NFL Draft. But the world’s changed, and Steelers Nation now demands its dose of Steelers news on a daily basis.
That’s dosage will be hard to get pretty soon.
Every off season since this sites founding, yours truly has thought fill the void with reviews of the books we’ve read on the Steelers. Well, that hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t happen this year. But this year we thought we’d take a mini-step in that direction by publishing our Steelers Summer Reading Poll, with capsule summaries of each of the books in our library.
Image via Pittsburgh Magazine
Take a look at the list below and vote for your favorites:
Dan Rooney’s self-titled autobiography is a must read for any serious Steelers fan and includes all kinds of insights, including the revelation that Dan, haunted by missing out on Dan Marino, push to draft Ben Roethlisberger.
Ruanaidh has been described as a giant love letter by Art Rooney Jr. to his father. That’s accurate. Another excellent “Fly on the Wall” read from a man who helped architect the Pittsburgh Steelers rise from NFL doormat, to the best football team the league has or ever will see.
Their Life’s Work by Gary Pomerantz isn’t as good as all the hype the book got when it was published in 2013 – it is far better.
Pomerantz give a detailed look at the Life and Times of Joe Greene, Mike Webster, Franco Harris and the rest of the Super Steelers. While Pomerantz clearly holds deep admiration for his subjects, the author pulls no punches with frank discussions of the toll that steroids and head trauma took and continue to take on Pittsburgh’s heroes.
His Life’s Work is one I’ve only thumbed through, but Michael MacCambridge’s work is the first and certainly to be the only authorized biography of Chuck Noll. One only needs to glance through this historic book to see that MacCambridge has unearthed unparalleled insights into the man known as the Emperor while unearthing a trove of facts about his time with the Steelers.
Steeler Nation documents the road trip Jim Wexell took in 2007 in a quest to understand the phenomenon that is Steelers Nation and is truly a work of art. His interview with legendary Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd is worth the purchase price alone.
In The Ones Who Hit the HardestChad Millman and Shawn Coyne prove that sports books can go a level deeper, as they detail the Steelers and Cowboys rivalries by comparing the two team’s on the field rivalry with the social and economic transformations that both communities were experiencing in the 1970’s. Click here for a full review by Behind the Steel Curtain founder Michael Bean.
Cowher Power is a compilation of articles published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1992 to 2005, published by the newspaper following the Steelers victory on Super Bowl XL. A nice table book which unfortunately contains more than a few factual errors which really weaken its quality.
From Black to Gold is the only book on this list to get a full review here. Written by Tim Gleason, aka Mary Rose from the Golden Age of Behind the Steel Curtain, From Black to Gold is an excellent book that succeeds in covering ground that professional writers have missed.
Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell. Photo via SteelersUK.com
Andy Russell’s A Steeler Odyssey balances tales of the Pittsburgh Steelers transformation under Chuck Noll, with stories about Russell’s travels around the world with Ray Mansfield, Lynn Swann, and Mel Blount as well as Russell’s stories about his attempts to build his business. Another book that is a worthy investment of your time and money.
Dawn of a New Steel Age is the book Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette wrote during the crippling 1992 Pittsburgh newspaper strike which describes the end of the Chuck Noll era and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s reign, including profiles on players such as Hardy Nickerson, Rod Woodson, and Neil O’Donnell. In the late 1990’s I saw a review of this book that described it as “The best insider book ever.” The observation is probably more correct today than it was then.
Men of Steelby Jim Wexell contains capsule profiles of Pittsburgh Steelers from the Mike Tomlin era all the way back to portraits of men who played for the likes of Jock Sutherland and Walt Kiesling. While the book’s overall quality does take a hit due to some surprising factual errors, its individual portraits form veritable mosaic that depicts franchise as a whole.
Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit AP Gene Puskar
Dare to Dream and Keep the Faith were penned in 1996 and 1997 by Jim O’Brien and contain stories both about the Steelers from the Cowher-Donahoe era as well as stories about the Super Steelers. O’Brien’s book, The Chief, tells the story of Art Rooney Sr. though the words of those who he touched, and includes rare profiles of Tim, John and Patrick Rooney.
Just Watch the Game by John Steigerwald goes into detail about all three major Pittsburgh sports teams and its media landscape. Steigerwald pulls no punches and pointedly refuses to genuflect at the altar of political correctness. Even if you disagree with much of Steigerwald’s political world view, he offers valuable insights on the Steelers and he is an accomplished writer.
Matt Lode’s 100 Things that Every Steelers Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die’s title is self-explanatory. It also lists Steel Curtain Rising as one of the best Steelers blogs out there, so that alone makes it a great book!
Share Your Steelers Summer Reading Recommendations
There are obviously a lot of other books written about the Pittsburgh Steelers, some good, some bad and some in between. Please take a moment to share your Steelers summer reading recommendations either by writing your choices in the poll or leaving a comment.
In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.
But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.
Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com
Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career
Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.
Not that there was any pressure or anything.
As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:
Markus Wheaton is very fast, elusive in open field, good runner of reverses. Should be a playmaker right away
Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.
Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.
Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.
Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)
Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton
One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.
The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.
Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.
Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.
Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton
Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:
In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.
Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.
The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.
Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton
In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.
Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.
That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.
A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.
It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.
*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.
Perhaps it’s fitting that I put Brown last in the group, because of all the special contributors from that class, Larry Brown is the least discussed.
Even for citizens of Steelers Nation in who are 40 something, the words “Steelers” “Larry Brown” and “Super Bowl” conjure up images of Neil O’Donnell connecting directly with Cowboys cornerback twice in Super Bowl XXX.
Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com
But the record must reflect that there is in fact another Larry Brown who actually HELPED the Steelres win Super Bowls against the Cowboys. In-fact, of all the Steelers players who helped the team win four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s, Chuck Noll’s Larry Brown is probably the most unheralded and certainly the most underrated.
It is time to correct that and we do that now.
The Steelers drafted Brown with the first of four fifth round picks in ’71 as a tight end out of Kansas and he played tight end for the first six years of his career.
During his days as a tight end, Brown earned his place in Steelers lore when he pulled in a six-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw with 3:38 remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl IX to give Pittsburgh a 16-6 lead and all but clinch the franchise’s first NFL title.
But three seasons later, a knee injury would force Brown to turn in his No. 87 and switch to No. 79, as Noll wanted him to (at least temporarily) learn how to play tackle while he was still on the mend.
As Brown told Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin in an interview from November of 2012, the move wasn’t so temporary, after all, but he credits it with extending his career:
In hindsight, it worked out well–it extended my career. The year I switched I had a knee injury I was still recovering from. I wasn’t able to do the running and cutting you needed to do to play tight end. That was anticipated by Chuck. We met in his office and he told me that because I couldn’t run due to the injury he was going to have me learn the tackle position. That once I got healthy he’d move me back to tight end. In the meantime, before that, they drafted Bennie Cunningham [in the first round of the 1976 NFL Draft] and signed Randy Grossman. They saw themselves as being in a good position at tight end and had great need at tackle at the same time, so they never moved me back. Then they traded away tackle Gordon Gravelle, so I stayed at the position for eight years and won two more Super Bowls!
Brown started 13 games at right tackle in 1977 and a total of 85 over his final years in Pittsburgh–including 52 of a possible 57 from 1979-1982.
Brown’s peers finally rewarded him with his first and only Pro Bowl honor in 1982 and he played another two seasons before calling it a career following the Steelers 1984 campaign.
Nine Hall of Famers came out of those ’70s Steelers teams, and if the late, great Chuck Noll had a vote for number 10, Brown would have been his choice.
Chuck Noll once was asked this question: Of all the great players who contributed to those four Super Bowl championships during the 1970s, who among those not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame most deserves to be? Noll’s response was instant. Larry Brown.
That was quite the endorsement from a legendary coach who certainly knew great football players when he saw them.
As per his Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin interview from 2012, Brown began a business partnership with former Steelers defensive back J.T. Thomas in the 1980s and the two have owned, among other things, multiple Applebees restaurants.
When Larry Brown makes appearances at his various restaurant franchises, I wonder if patrons know how much he meant to those Super Bowl teams of the 1970s?
Regardless of his notoriety, not many players can say their careers were even close to Hall of Fame-worthy.
Larry Brown can, and that’s certainly something to be proud of.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are an organization that thinks long term. The last time the Steelers fired a coach, Richard Nixon was known as “President-elect.” So when the Steelers don’t or are unable to offer a draft pick a second contract something has not gone according to plan.
Sometimes a player hasn’t panned out (think Ziggy Hood)
Other times rival NFL teams are going to grossly overpay (think Mike Wallace)
In some cases, circumstances such as the salary cap, simply don’t allow it (think Keenan Lewis)
In other words, when the Steelers don’t try to offer a draft pick a second contract, you can chalk it up as a tacit admission of a mistake…. Then there’s the case of inside linebacker Sean Spence.
The Steelers kept Spence on the roster, but heged their bets by drafting Vince Williams in the 6th round that year.
Spence spent training camp and the beginning of the season on the PUP list. The Steelers moved to activate him, but Spence got injured in practice. Early in the 2014 off season Kevin Colbert said the Steelers saw something, even in that limited capacity, that justified keeping Spence on the payroll.
They’d also seen Terence Garvin grow from a guy who earned an invite to rookie minicamp on a tryout basis to someone who began pushing for playing time on third down by the end of the season. Skeptics can be forgiven for wondering if Kevin Colbert’s praise of Spence wasn’t “Just being nice.”
While that was news, as Mike Tomlin was breaking form big time, the other news was that Sean Spence was participating fully – and looking good.
Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and went into the season as the Steelers top backup behind Shazier and it wasn’t long before his number was called as Ryan Shazier was injured in the third game of the season, all told, Sean Spence started 8 games for the Steelers in 2014 where he:
Spence, splitting time with Vince Williams, kept Ryan Shazier on the bench when he returned to health, although Shazier would reclaim his starting spot in 2015. Spence, however remained the “next man up” and started 4 games while Shazier was injured.
The Case for Steelers Keeping Sean Spence
In pure football terms, there is no reason why you wouldn’t want to keep Sean Spence. Indeed, had the injury never occurred, there is every reason to think that he would be soon signing a four or five year deal that would cement him as the long term starter in the mold of Lawrence Timmons.
Sean Spence has provided valuable depth to the Steelers at a key position, and is starter capable. In that sense, he would fit the mold of a young Larry Foote, who left Pittsburgh as a starter, but returned after one year in Detroit to willingly serve as a backup to Farrior and Timmons.
The case against keeping Spence is one of salary cap dollars and salary cap sense. In pure football terms, you WANT a guy like Sean Spence on your team.
And, had he been drafted in the 1970’s, he’d have been a figure like John Banazack or Steve Furness, who were starter capable but spent the early portions of their careers backing up Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.
But this isn’t the 70’s anymore.
And if Dan Rooney was no fan of bringing free agency into the NFL, even he admitted that players who were backups and deserved a shot as starters should get the chance via free agency. Sean Spence is the perfect example. He’s shown he can start in the NFL, and deserves the chance to do so, but unfortunately there’s no space for him to do this inside Pittsburgh.
Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Sean Spence
Winning in the salary cap era comes down to getting the most bang for your buck out of a player. Given the Steelers still have Vince Williams under contract for a year and presumably will have restricted free agent Terence Garvin back, its hard to justify the Steelers paying Sean Spence what they would have to pay him to keep him in Pittsburgh, even if Spence did give the Steelers a generous home town discount.
Now should Spence fail to get offers from the rest of the NFL then the Steelers can talk about bringing him back at a bargain rate.
There’s also one X-Factor in play: Lawrence Timmons. Timmons is turning 30 and he has a very large salary cap number.
The Steelers will not cut Timmons due to the dead money hit they’d owe because of him, but there’s no certainly he’s in their long-term plans. If the Steelers do make a serious, multi-year offer to Sean Spence, then expect 2016 to be Timmons final year in Pittsburgh.
But the more likely scenario will be for the Steelers to extend Timmons’ contract, gain salary cap space, and allow Sean Spence to find his starting spot elsewhere.
It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.
Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:
Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:
Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.
Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought
The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.
By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.
You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.
But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:
Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.
That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.
The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.
The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.
In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.
The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.
Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck
What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.
But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.
Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.
The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.
The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.
But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.
Who said preseason was boring? Just days ago the story on Steelers quarterbacks centered on Landry Jones’ development and Bruce Gradkowski’s PUP activation. Now Gradkowski is on injured reserve and the Steelers have signed Michael Vick…
In a word the Steelers Michael Vick signing is controversial. And this is understandable. Michael Vick is a convicted felon and who spent 21 months in federal prison for his role in running a dog fighting ring. There’s no sugar coating what Vick did. He mangled dogs, he drowned them, he electrocuted them.
Such crimes are as heinous as they are inhumane.
The Steelers nonetheless have signed Michael Vick and welcomed him into their locker room, sending much of Steelers Nation up in arms. Defending the Steelers Michael Vick signing might not be popular, but the move is consistent with the franchise’s values, it is morally justifiable and finally it makes football sense. Now let’s proceed to these three points in order.
Steelers Michael Vick Signing is Consistent with Franchise Values
Steelers fans and Steelers bloggers, including this site at times, like to wrap a halo around the Steelers and the Rooney’s as the NFL’s good citizens. The fact is that the while the Pittsburgh Steelers generally run one of the cleaner shops in the NFL, they don’t deserve any halos.
Yet even if one accepts that, there are other who charge that the Steelers Michael Vick signing contradicts the values the franchise has long stood for. One such Tweet from Dominic DiTolla illustrates this:
It surprises me that some people were under an impression that a #SteelerWay ever existed at all.
I’ve only interacted with Dominic DiTolla a few times on Twitter, and do not claim to know him well, although I was a fan of his work at the old NicePickCowher site. His overall commentary on Twitter regarding the Vick signing is reasonable and balanced, but yours truly disagrees and argues that there is a “Steelers Way” (albeit one that falls far short of being saintly) and the Vick signing does not contradict that.
Wait! How can you say that knowing what Vick did?
Consider this scenario:
A player going through a divorce needs money. Dan Rooney offers to help and asks him to come to Pittsburgh. The player drives from Texas. He arrives in Pittsburgh too late and the Steelers offices are closed. So the player drives west through Ohio….
The player, who has a 9 millimeter and a shot gun with him, feels that trucks are trying to run him off the road and starts shooting at their tires. The police begin a high speed chase. The player drives off the highway, breaks an axel, loses a tire and abandons his car, at which point he fires at a police helicopter and wounds an officer in the leg. The player tries shooting at another officer on foot but his gun jams. He doesn’t stop until police literally put a gun to his head.
Such a player would certainly have played his last down for the Pittsburgh Steelers, right?
The Steelers gave Ernie Holmes a second chance. And while Holmes was always a handful, he never remotely did anything approaching the highway incident in Ohio again. If Holmes deserved a second chance, so does Michael Vick.
But Wait! Holmes Had Psychological Problems, Vick’s was Premeditated Crime
Yes, unlike Vick, Ernie Holmes had diagnosed psychological problems. Vick’s was a cold blooded premeditated crime pure and simple. All true. But Michael Vick has gone to prison for his crimes. He has been punished, he has repented, he has kept a clean record since then, and he has worked to make amends with animal rights groups.
Fans forget, but former Pittsburgh Steelers player and assistant coach Tony Dungy has personally counseled Vick since his release. There are few men in the NFL with more integrity than Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy is Mike Tomlin’s mentor. He knows the Rooneys well. Mike Tomlin mentioned doing due diligence before signing Vick. You can bet that part of that involved a call to Tony Dungy.
The Steelers do have a history of getting rid of bad apples (see Bam Morris to name one).
But the Steelers also have a history of giving players second chances. Two of them are named James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger. In short, Michael Vick committed his crime, paid his debt to society, stayed clean and has earned a second chance.
The Steelers Signing Michael Vick is (Plausibly) the Right Football Move
The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will not and should not enter the season considered Super Bowl favorites. But they are Super Bowl contenders. The same thing could be said in 2008. Unfortunately, early in training camp that summer Charlie Batch broke his collar bone.
Mike Tomlin wanted a backup quarterback capable of leading the team should Roethlisberger go down.
Within a day Byron Leftwich and Duante Culpepper were in Latrobe, working out for the Steelers. Both former first round draft picks looked strong, but Leftwich was comfortable with his backup role. The Steelers signed Leftwich. Fortunately they didn’t need him much, but when Ben Roethlisberger went down vs. the Redskins in Washington, Leftwich stepped in and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.
Anyone argue that the Steelers dominate that second half the way they did if Dennis Dixon were to have played?
Tomlin himself explained the Steelers decision to sign Vick by going back to that summer of 2008. Landry Jones might have improved, but he clearly isn’t ready to play for the Steelers should Roethlisberger go down even for a short stretch.
Is Michael Vick ready? That’s an open question, as Dominic DiTolla’s tweet indicates:
44.2, 54.9, 50.0, 56.4, 55.3, 52.6, 46.2, 62.6, 59.8, 58.1, 54.6, 52.9
Completion %s for Mike Vick in each of his NFL seasons.
Those numbers are not encouraging in today’s NFL. Divisions within Steelers Nation over Vick’s viability as an NFL quarterback are almost as sharp as they are over the moral issues surrounding his signing.
At 35, Vick’s days as an NFL starting quarterback are over. Fortunately the Steelers are not bringing him into start. God willing, they won’t need him.
But the bottom line is that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin both believe in the dying art of staffing your backup quarterback position with an experienced veteran. While stats geeks like Bill Barnwell argue that this is salary cap folly, the success of players like Tommy Maddox, Leftwich and Batch speak vindicate Colbert and Tomlin’s approach.
In that light, Vick was the best backup veteran quarterback available.
Perhaps the Steelers could have picked up someone via the wavier wire but that’s involves a big roll of the dice on something that might not happen. Even then, the said newly unemployed veteran would not know the Steelers offense.
Does Michael Vick still have anything left in the tank, even as a backup? If all goes well, Steelers Nation never finds out.
As the franchise retires Number 75, it’s time to review just what Greene’s legacy with the Pittsburgh Steelers means.
From Dan Rooney down, commentators regularly single out Chuck Noll’s selection of Joe Greene as the pivotal moment in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Joe Greene’s arrival certainly did certainly signal a sea shift for the franchise. But Joe Greene’s Steelers legacy runs far deeper, and neatly divides into six key contributions. Click on the gold links below or scroll down.
Mean Joe Greene closes in on Roger Staubach in the Super Bowl. Photo Credit: Kickoff Coverage.com
Joe Greene Challenges a Culture of Losing
This story has been told before and it will be told again. And so it should be because for 40 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers had known nothing but losing. Nothing.
Joe Greene began changing that the moment he arrived at St. Vincent’s.
After the Steelers drafted him, Greene held out for more money. Draft picks holding out was unheard of before 1969. Joe did it anyway. He didn’t care. Dan Rooney agreed to his terms, and Greene reported to camp where Steelers veterans eagerly licked their chops for a shot at testing the upstart young rookie.
Ray Mansfield recounted, “To me, he’s just another big, fast-butted defensive tackle.” Mansfield winked at the other veterans as he took his spot in Noll’s famous Oklahoma Drill, which pitted an offensive lineman and a running back against a defender.
At the whistle, Greene tossed Mansfield aside like a rag doll with his left arm and pulverized the running back with his right.
Stunned, the veterans stared at each other in silence.
Joe Greene repeated the process with each offensive lineman who challenged him. Dick Hoak recalls overhearing Pittsburgh’s incumbent defensive tackles openly discussing packing their bags. No one had ever seen anything like it.
Andy Russell later told Dan Rooney that “everything changed” with that one drill.
No one here will question Russell’s wisdom. But if Greene’s arrival signaled a pivot in the Steeler’s direction, Pittsburgh still needed to make progress. And Joe Greene fashioned a place for himself at the center of it.
Establishing the Will to Win
Chuck Noll tolerated no nonsense. He didn’t bat an eye at trading the only offensive Pro Bowler he inherited, Roy Jefferson, when Jefferson tested him. Yet when Joe Greene began picking fights with Dick Butkus or grabbing a pair of scissors and heading for the Minnesota Vikings bench, Noll said nothing.
Years later, when the official refused to call holding on a pair of Philadelphia Eagles tackles despite repeated pleas from Greene, Mean Joe responded by lobbing the ball into the stands at Franklin Field.
Again, Noll said nothing.
The reason, many have speculated, is that Noll knew he had a truly gifted player in his hands, and one who refused to accept losing. Noll understood that the rest of his team must embrace Greene’s attitude, and The Emperor was wise enough not to tamper with that process.
There’s a difference, however, between rejecting losing, and actually winning.
Winning on the championship level at least, always requires something extra. The Immaculate Reception officially ushered the Pittsburgh Steelers into the era of winning. What made the play special wasn’t its improbability, but that, Franco Harris was in position to take advantage because “he hustled on every play.”
Watch the replay and you’ll see Joe Greene is one of the first person on the field to congratulate Harris.
Greene deserved to be there because he almost single handedly set the stage for the most momentous day in Steelers history.
The Immaculate Reception gave the Pittsburgh Steelers their first playoff victory in history, but first they had to get to the playoffs. A victory over Cleveland in week 12 gave the Steelers a 10-3 record, but they still had not clinched the AFC Central crown. To do that they needed to beat the 1-11 Houston Oilers in the Astrodome, which wasn’t as simple as it sounded.
L.C. Greenwood and Sam Davis were out to start. Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins had the flu, and Mullins only lasted to the 3rd quarter. Bruce Van Dyke, another starting guard, pulled his calf and was gone in the first quarter, and his replacement Jim Clack hurt his ankle and was gone. Craig Hanneman, LC’s understudy, reinjured a knee and was done. Terry Bradshaw dislocated a finger in the 2nd quarter. Dwight White injured a knee and Steve Furness sprained an ankle. Things got so bad that Larry Brown, a tight end who’d finish his days playing tackle, had to play wide out.
To quote Dan Rooney from his self-titled autobiography, “In this situation a great player steps up, and that’s exactly what Joe Greene did.”
Joe Greene sacked Dan Pastorini five times. He blocked a field goal. He recovered a fumble and forced another, both of which set up Steelers’ field goals. At the end of the day, Pittsburgh prevailed 9-3, with Greene personally causing a 9 point swing.
Winning, on the championship level always requires players to dig for something, and Joe Greene delivered when called.
Pittsburgh’s defense had carried the team throughout the 1974 season, as Noll alternated between Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam, and Terry Hanratty.
Few gave the Steelers much chance when the playoffs started: their first game was against the Buffalo Bills and OJ Simpson.
Simpson had already logged his 2,000 yard rushing season in ’73, and rooked the Steel Curtain Defense in ’72 for 189 yards. The Steelers simply didn’t have the offensive fire power to keep pace should Simpson turn in a repeat performance.
But defensive coach George Perles had an ace up his sleeve.
Prior to the playoffs, he deployed the Stunt 4-3, which had Greene line up at an angle between the guard and center while Holmes lined in the other gap. Stunt 4-3 had a threefold impact:
It completely plugged the middle on every play.
It got L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White into one-on-ones.
It prevented opposing guards from pulling.
The “downside” was that Joe Greene sacrificed opportunities to get to the quarterback. But the scheme worked. The Steelers held OJ Simpson under 50 yards in the AFC Divisional playoff game, and of course went on to win Super Bowl IX.
All of this was facilitated by Greene’s unhesitating willingness to put his team first.
Suffice to say, number 75 would find little in common with modern-day prima donnas such as Keyshawn aka Meshaw “Will you just give me the damn ball!” Johnson.
“Hey Kid, Catch!” — Cementing Bonds via Popular Culture
By the late 70’s injuries had robbed Joe Greene of some of his dominance, but he got his first chance to make a contribution to his legacy off of the field.
Coca Cola was looking to make a commercial, and they came right to Greene. Watch it for yourself here:
With the simple phrase “Hey kid, catch!” “Mean” Joe Greene became a friend to every kid who ever wore a Steelers hat to school, including those growing up in suburban Maryland who wore hand- made Steelers’ scarves to Harmony Hills Elementary school.
In a moment, Joe Greene created a cultural icon and in doing so cemented a bond with a generation of Steelers fans too young to really appreciate his greatness on the field.
“What the Hell is Going On?” — Stabilizing a Legend’s Legacy
After Super Bowl XIV, Joe Greene’s dream was to get “One for the Thumb.” He continued playing in 1980 and 1981, but the Steelers came up short and out of the playoffs in both seasons. Greene opted to retire and begin his life’s work.
He opened 3 restaurants in Texas, all of which failed. He tried his hand as a commentator, but his gig with CBS only lasted a year. He didn’t finish his degree, nor did ventures in real estate or insurance sales pan out.
As he told Gary Pomerantz, his heart wasn’t in it.
In 1987, Chuck Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh as a defensive line coach. Great players seldom make great coaches, although Washington DC’s WMAL’s Ken Beatrice insisted that Joe Greene could be the exception. Unfortunately, the Steelers defensive lines of ’87 to ’91 were nothing special.
In fairness, the material Greene had to work with was, in a word, limited….
But that hardly means Greene’s tenure as an assistant coach was a failure.
No, Joe Greene did something that perhaps no other individual could have done and he did it by walking into Dan Rooney’s office and bluntly asking:
“What the hell is going on?”
The 1988 Steelers finished 5-11 and looked as bad as their record suggests. Chuck Noll quipped during the season that the Steelers would have difficulty with a grade school team. At one point during the season Dan Rooney, uncharacteristically labeled the play calling “stupid.”
At the end of the season, Dan Rooney demanded that Chuck Noll fire some assistants.
No one had ever dared dictate who would or would not be on Noll’s staff.
Noll called his assistants together and detonated a bomb: he was quitting. Several of the assistants hit the phone seeking jobs. Others, including Dick Hoak, offered to resign to save Noll’s job. Per Ed Bouchette in Dawn of a New Steel Age, Noll quipped “No, you’re not the ones they want.”
Joe Greene walked down to Dan Rooney’s office and asked “What the hell is going on?” Dan immediately called Chuck Noll, asked him not to make a rash decision, and got him to agree to talk with him after Christmas.
The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers would astound the critics and make the playoffs after a disastrous start. On New Year’s Eve, in the playoffs Noll would upset Jerry Glanville in overtime at the Astrodome, costing his arch nemesis his job. The Emperor got his Last Hurrah.
It’s true that the 1990 and 1991 seasons which followed ended in disappointment. But Noll left as he should – on his own time and own terms, thanks at least in part to Joe Greene’s intervention.
Joe Greene: Ensuring Continuity Across Eras
Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe interviewed Joe Greene for the Steelers head coaching job after Chuck Noll retired but ultimately settled on Bill Cowher. Greene later admitted he was disappointed by the decision, and moved on to coach for Don Shula in Miami and then for the Arizona Cardinals.
In the interim, he inducted Dan Rooney into the NFL Hall of Fame with no hard feelings at not getting Noll’s job.
In 2004, when a coaching change cost Greene his job in Phoenix, he’d decided coaching wasn’t for him. But he still needed to work. Dan Rooney and Kevin Colbert named him Special Assistant for Pro and College Personnel focusing on scouting in the Southwest in addition to pro evaluations.
When Greene retired, I privately asked a member of the Steelers press corps. “Did Joe Greene actually do anything?”
Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene
The response I got was, “I don’t know. That’s something we often talked about. But we’d see him at team headquarters all the time, and he was always working out one player or another, sort of as a coach emeritus or something.”
Art Rooney II himself observed that without Joe Greene, the Steelers couldn’t manage to win a Super Bowl. But they did win Super Bowl XL the year after he returned, and then Super Bowl XLII three years later.
Coincidence? Don’t count on it.
One for The Thumb, and Then Some….
At the end of the day, Joe Greene got his One for the Thumb, and then he added another for Super Bowl XLIII another, making him one of a few select Steelers with 6 Super Bowl rings.
In every way, Joe Greene was, is, and always will remain the perfect portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.
A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?”
The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.
In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:
Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes,
Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material,
And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.
Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.
Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness
The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.
Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.
Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.
Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.
With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:
To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.
Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.
But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers.
Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day
While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.
Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History
Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.
Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”
The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.
Pillar of the Steelers Franchise
Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.
And that “retirement” was in name only.
Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”
Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com
Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.
For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.