James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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4 Keys to the Steelers Success in the 2nd Half of the 2017 Season

The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.

  • While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.

And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.

So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.

Bud Dupree, Alex Smith, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 season

Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports

1. Put It Together on Defense

8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:

  • The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
  • The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
  • That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory

Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.

But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.

2. Get it Done in the Red Zone

Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.

  • Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.

Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.

Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period

3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much

In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.

  • Ok. NFL offenses have changed.

In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).

And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:

Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.

But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.

4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected

OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.

  • Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
  • And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.

But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?

  • Steelers history provides its own examples.

In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.

  • The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.

The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.

The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.

  • Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t  have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.

That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.

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Steelers 4 Killer Bees Aren’t NFL Equivalent to Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons. But There’s Hope

The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on a 6-2 record at their bye week that was good enough to secure a firm lead in the AFC North coupled with a tie atop the AFC rankings. While this team still has a lot to prove over the next eight games, the 2017 Steelers have established themselves as legitimate contenders at the halfway point.

And the Steelers have done so despite one unfortunate reality:

The fielding four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, hasn’t turned out to be the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons.

steelers killer bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant

The Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Antoino Brown. Photo Credits: SI.com, Getty, TotalProSports.com, USA Today Sports via Point of Pittsburgh

Steelers Killer Bees ≠ Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons

The fact that Steelers.com almost immediately began selling “Hold Down the North” T-shirts after last year’s Christmas win over the Ravens is a pretty strong indicator that Game of Thrones has strong crossover appeal in Steelers Nation.

But for those of you not acquainted with the hit HBO series, show runner D.B. Weiss compared Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons to “inserting an F-16 into a Medieval battlefield.” This is what he was talking about:

Perhaps it’s a tad bit of an exaggeration to suggest that the Steelers offense was supposed to be this potent, but following Pittsburgh’s one-and-done playoff loss to the Ravens in January 2015 one Steelers writer privately consoled me advising me to “wait until the middle of next season when we’re blowing teams out of the water.”

During 2014 the first tree Killer Bees, Big Ben, Brown and Bell had already proven themselves as the franchise’s most talented skill position threesome since Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris. Martavis Bryant’s emergence during the latter half of 2014 promised to transform the Killer Bees into a quartet with a John Stallworth caliber player. Of course you know the story since then:

  • Suspensions kept the Bell and Bryant from starting 2015
  • Ben Roethlisberger’s injury kept him off the field for their return
  • Le’Veon Bell’s injury knocked him out for the rest of 2015
  • Martavis Bryant finished 2015 on a high, literally, and it cost him 2016

Now factor in Heath Miller’s retirement. While wasn’t the force he once was, Heath Miller’s dependability as a pass catcher demanded that defenses account for him, particularly in the Red Zone.

2017 was supposed to be the year when things came together. Indeed, to some 30 points a game seemed more of a floor rather than a ceiling. Instead, halfway through 2017 the Steelers highest point total is 29 points and Chris Boswell appears to be Pittsburgh’s most reliable Red Zone threat.

  • Why has the Steelers offense fallen so short of expectations?

There are a lot of theories floating out there, and Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t pretend to have a crystal ball. Ben Roethlisberger was clearly off early in the season, and this trend was clear long before his 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars. He’s been better since then, although consistency eludes him.

  • Le’Veon Bell took some time to get into synch as did the entire offense.

Here the Grumpy Old Man inside me wags a finger and admonishes Le’Veon Bell for his hold out and Mike Tomlin for playing his first team offense so little during preseason. Practice still makes perfect, even when you have All Pro talent.

Martavis Bryant, Martavis Bryant drop, Steelers vs Bears

Martavis Bryant drops a would be touchdown against the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

And of course Martavis Bryant really hasn’t been an offensive force, save for the Vikings game where he had a touchdown, one long catch and drew another deep pass interference penalty. Outside of that Bryant has been best known for the plays he didn’t make on the field and his off the field distractions.

When you account for the fact that Pittsburgh fields a veteran offensive line it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that 8 games into 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is less than the sum of its parts….

3 Signs Hope for the Steelers 2017 Super Bowl Aspirations

…Which isn’t to say that Steelers 2017 offense is a hopeless cause. The Steelers second touchdown drive against the Bengals serves as Exhibit A.

As drives go it covered 75 yards and was pretty run of the mill as touchdown drives go. But the key take way here comes from the fact that aside from a 1 yard Le’Veon Bell run, the rest of the yards came from James Conner, Vance McDonald, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith Schuster.

  • The lesson of the painful end to the 2016 season was that Ben, Bell and Brown can’t do it all by themselves.

But while Killer Bees’ success and the Steelers success remain intertwined, Todd Haley has to find ways to sting opponents with other weapons. This drives was a step in that direction, although time will tell whether it signals a deeper integration of the Steelers offense or merely serves as an example of the law of averages working its will.

James Conner

James Conner rushing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today via BTSC

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence in the Steelers win over the Lions is a second reason for hope.

While most of the commentary focused on whether JuJu’s big game in Detroit would cost Martavis Bryant, Bryant could become the beneficiary of JuJu’s coming out. As Chris Adamanski has pointed out, defenses have continued to target Bryant thus far this season. Now JuJu has established also himself as a threat. You do the math — There’s no way opposing defenses can double Brown, Bryant and JuJu.

  • The third reason for hope comes on the other side of the ball.

During the Steelers rebuilding process, the conventional wisdom is that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler only needed to build a good but not necessarily great defense. The additions of Joe Haden and T.J. Watt, the continued maturation of Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave the stout play of stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have combined to allow this defense to flash greatness.

  • True, the Steelers defense has yet to put together a complete game, but when Keith Butler’s boys at their best, they’ve thoroughly dominated.

During Game of Thrones season seven Daenerys Targaryen learned that her Dragon’s, however powerful, didn’t provide an automatic key to victory. The Mother of Dragons came to understand she had to do more.

8 games in to 2017, the Steelers have learned that simply fielding Bryant alongside Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown doesn’t magically add up a dominant offense. For the Steelers to secure Lombardi Number Seven more will be required.

Fortunately Mike Tomlin’s men are showing signs that its willing and able to do more.

 

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Returning to Their Roots Steelers Beat Chiefs 19-13 with Physical Football

The Pittsburgh Steelers walked in to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that opened questions about who they are and what they’re legitimately able to accomplish this season.

  • Their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was playing at home with an 5-0 record and a claim to “best team so far.”

In short, things weren’t expected to get any easier for the Steelers. And they didn’t get any easier. But the Steelers walked out of Kansas City with a 19-13 win and Steelers Nation can count this as one victory where the means to a “W” are just as important as the win itself.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, Frank Zombo, Steelers vs Chiefs

Alejandro Villaneuva stones Frank Zombo as Ben Roethlisberger connects with Antonio Brown for a TD. Photo Credit: Chaz Pallas

Steelers Define Identity Part I: Defense

By any measure, the Kansas City Chiefs figured to offer the Steelers defense a stiff test. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play. Their quarterback Alex Smith would win the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide were the voting head prior to today and their running back Kareem Hunt was leading the NFL in rushing yards.

In contrast, commentators both inside and outside of Pittsburgh had suggested that the Steelers defense was set to broach elite status, only to see Keith Butler‘s boys get gouged on the ground in Chicago and again against Jacksonville.

The Chiefs gift wrapped 2 points to the Steelers with an errant snap that flew through the end zone, but Pittsburgh gift wrapped them right back by muffing the ensuing punt. If the script from the previous four games was to be followed, instead of starting the game 9, or even 10 to zero, the Steelers would instead start it 7-2.

  • But this Steelers defense took the field intent on writing its own script.

The Steelers defense yielded only a handful of yards, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Instead staring at 7-2, the Steelers got the ball back only looking at a 1 point deficit. And that was the story of the first three and a half quarters. The Steelers defense went into the home of the NFL’s most potent offense and proceeded to:

  • Hold the Chiefs to under 250 yards, which includes their late game surge
  • Not allow a first down until the tail end of the first half
  • Neuter Kareem Hunt, holding him to 21 yards
  • Rip a would be touchdown on 4th and goal out of the receiver’s hands
  • Unleash James Harrison to sack Alex Smith on the second to last play of the game

What stands out when looking at the stats is that the Steelers did this without forcing a turnover, and by only sacking the quarterback twice prior to the final drive. While Artie Burns had some smart pass breakups and Mike Hilton was devastating behind the line of scrimmage, the Steelers defense shut down the NFL’s number one offense without a lot of “Splash plays.”

James Harrison, Alex Smith, Eric Fisher, Holding James Harrison, James Harrison Alex Smith Sack, Steelers vs Chiefs

Even Chiefs Eric Fisher holding can’t stop James Harrison from sacking Alex Smith with game on the line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Instead, they excelled by executing on the fundamentals, led by Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt disrupting things upfront, while everyone else behind them simply “did their job.”

The Steelers defense was far from perfect. Kansas City’s lone touchdown drive came much too easily, with missed tackles galore. Comparisons to the ’85 Bears remain a ways off. But against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense proved it can close tight games on the road against a high-octane octane offense playing in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums.

That ladies and gentleman, represents a significant step forward for this young Steelers defense.

Steelers Define Identity Part II: Offense

It is no secret that something has been missing from the Steelers offense thus far in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were supposed to give the NFL its most fearsome offensive quartet this side of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and John Stallworth.

  • 30 points a game was supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling.

The Steelers victory over the Chiefs didn’t come close to transforming that 30 point margin from a pipedream into a reality. But the Steelers offense nonetheless found something important with their win over the Chiefs:

  • They reestablished the run, and they did it with Le’Veon Bell looking like he did a year ago.

While Ben Roethlisberger has born the brunt of the criticism for the Steelers offensive woes thus far, number 7 was far from the only player who was under performing. Thus far this year, Le’Veon Bell has looked average at times, good at others, but he hasn’t flashed anything like the Hall of Fame talent that was so evident just one season ago.

  • That changed against the Chiefs, and changed to the tune of 179 yards on 32 carries.

Indeed, going into the half, Bell had more yards than the entire Kansas City offense. Bell’s wasn’t the only running back to shine. James Conner got two carries, and looked sharp running the ball, and Terrell Watson converted a third and short.

  • The Steelers also reestablished the run without falling into the trap of being one-dimensional.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald 1st Steelers pass, Steelers vs Chiefs

Vance McDonald catches his first pass for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger’s 26 yard pass to Vance McDonald while standing in his own end zone might have been the most important completion of the afternoon. With that said, balance still eludes the Steelers offense. While he did manage to hit Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the success of the Steelers passing game largely hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown.

  • Roethlisberger did that often enough and, quite frankly, can thank his lucky stars that he has someone as talented as Number 84 to catch his passes.

By and large the beauty of the day came in the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball and get it often. More often than not, they failed because the Steelers imposed their will.

Time for Steelers to Take Step Forward Not Back

The Steelers responded to an ugly loss to the Bears with a convincing win over the Ravens. Two weeks later they responded to an uglier loss to the Jaguars with a hard fought win against the Chiefs. Perhaps what was most important was the way the Steelers responded:

  • By reestablishing their identity as a physical team on both sides of the ball.

That amounts to a step forward for Mike Tomlin’s team, but it is a step forward that the Steelers must sustain. A win next week over the Cincinnati Bengals will go a long way defining whether the 2017 Steelers are a team that mumbles in mediocrity or one that asserts its will.

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Problem with the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class? Its Too Big

The Pittsburgh Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor Class became official last week and the selection committee chose to dive head first launching the Steelers Hall of Honor by naming 27 members to be inducted this week:

Contributors: Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll

Steelers from the pre-Chuck Noll era: Walt Kiesling, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Bill Dudley, Bobby Layne, Ernie Stautner, Jack Butler, John Henry Johnson, Dick Hoak

Chuck Noll Era Steelers: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell

Cowher Era Steelers: Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Kevin Greene, Jerome Bettis

Going forward, the plan is to induct 2-4 new members to the Steelers Hall of Honor every year. The Steelers Hall of Honor 2017 Class will take their place Alumni Weekend (Nov. 25-26), and they be recognized during halftime of that weekend’s game between the Steelers and Packers.

Fair enough. It will be a spectacle to celebrate in Black and Gold. But there’s a problem with the Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor class: It is too big.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class, Steelers Hall of Honor, Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriolia, Mel Blount

Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriola & Mel Blount announce the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class. Photo credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Simply Too Large

As a life-long Steelers fan and armature Steelers historian, yours truly can’t quibble with any of the selections, save for Walter Kesiling, the coach who cut Johnny Unitas without some much as given him a practice snap.

But perhaps Wiesling does deserve induction, and the rest of the members certainly do.

In this light, the selection committee consisting of Art Rooney II, Joe Gordon, Bob Labriola, Stan Savran and Tony Quatrini chose to operate on the philosophy of “They’re going ot make it eventually, so why not induct them now?” Bob Labriola more or less seem to be speaking to that point, when he said the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class was more about recognition, then about competition.

Andy Russell, Steelers Hall of Honor Inaugural Class

Steelers linebacking legend Andy Russell. Photo Credit: Andy Russell.org

To that end, you can see the Steelers MO in selecting members from the Chuck Noll era: All of the Hall of Famers earned induction, as well as Donnie Shell, Andy Russell and L.C. Greenwood – three players whom the franchise also think are Hall of Fame worthy, but denied recognition because of the “Already too many Steelers in Canton” mentality.

  • But if the Steelers are going to take that approach to the Hall of Honor, then what about Larry Brown?

Larry Brown is the one player that Chuck Noll adamantly argued deserves Pro Football Hall of Fame honors, and will certainly find his way in to the Steelers Hall of Honor but was left out of the inaugural class. Ditto Rocky Bleier. Dan Rooney argued that Bleier deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he will certainly make it to the Hall of Honor, but he will have to wait. For that matter, no one would argue that Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll deserve recognition in the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors.

  • But why induct several of his players, while keeping Bill Cowher on the outside looking in?

By the same token, Bill Nunn Jr. Myron Cope, and Art Rooney Jr. certainly belong and will find their way into the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors. So why not put them in now?

While this “debate” is little more than background noise for most citizens of Steelers Nation, the arguments stand on their own merits. And by taking a “recognition over competition” approach, the selection committee unwittingly opened themselves to the competition argument.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Should Have Taken a Rushmore Approach

So what would the alternative be? Truthfully, when you have a franchise that is as stories as the Pittsburgh Steelers and you try to launch a Hall of Honor 85 years into your existence, you’re never going to make anyone happy.

  • A better way to from the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class would have been to take the “Rushmore Approach.”

We know the Rushmore approach thanks to the rise of the internet, which demands you fill web pages with “content” 365 days a year, every year. (Hence, you see sites that not only debate “Steelers Rushmore” but “Steelers Assistant Coaches Rushmore” “Steelers coaches Rushmore” and probably for that matter, “Steelers backup tight ends Rushmore.”)

Here’s how Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers Rushmore would shape up:

  • Ernie Stautner, to represent the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll era
  • Joe Greene, whose arrival effected the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to perennial contender and frequent champion
  • Franco Harris, who authored the Immaculate Reception the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation
  • Hines Ward, because he forms the bridge between the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin Eras

It is far to argue that a player like Troy Polamalu, who had once in a generation talent, would be more deserving than Ward, but players need to be retired for at least 3 years before they can enter the Hall of Honor, and Polamalu doesn’t make that cut.

But Hines Ward is a franchise great by any measure, likely won’t make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and would give the class balance between offense and defense as well as representation of all franchise eras.

  • And as a contributor, Art Rooney Sr. would enter as well, because there’s no way you launch a Steelers Hall of Honor without The Chief.

The selection committee, however, didn’t ask this sites opinion. They made their own choices. These men who form the Inaugural Steelers Hall of Honor class have done far more than yours truly ever would or could to build the Pittsburgh Steelers legacy, and we celebrate in their recognition for those accomplishments. But nonetheless, we suggest that the process should have been more gradual.

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Steelers vs Le’Veon Bell: Franchise Running Back on the Right Team, Trapped in the Wrong Era

So  Le’Veon Bell has reported to the South Side and ended his holdout. Surprise, surprise. The Pittsburgh Steelers vs Le’Veon bell was never going to come down the the franchise running back opting to leave 12 million dollars in cash on the table to go while he worked Dairy Queen, was it? No, it wasn’t. Instead Le’Veon Bell signed his franchise tender and allows the Steelers to start the season with the foursome of Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Le’Veon Bell has of course become a lightning rod for fan criticism. Tony Defeo has already authored this site’s position on Bell’s holdout, Defeo doesn’t care and neither should you. Fair enough. But if I can’t get fired up one way or another about his holdout, Bell’s predicament is truly fascinating for what it tells us about the state of running backs in the modern NFL.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns, Le'Veon Bell contract, Le'Veon Bell salary cap

5 Cleveland Browns attempt to stop Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: ESPN via End Zone Score.com

Wither the Franchise Running Back?

In today’s NFL, the Franchise running back is a quaint, if not outright antiquated concept.

Yet, long before he broke the Steelers regular season and playoff single game rushing records – something Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris, and Jerome Bettis never did – we suggested that Le’Veon Bell was one player who could potentially revive the franchise running back.

  • Suffice to say, the franchise running back’s resurrection has been put on hold, and the non-revolution was televised.

Per press accounts, the Steelers offered Le’Veon Bell a deal that averaged 12.2 million per year, which called for Bell to get about 30 million in his first two years. Not only would that have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, it was 50% more than the annual averages made by next two highest running backs Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, if Over the Cap is to be trusted.

  • 12.2 million dollars IS a lot of money, and making 50% more than the guy right below you marks you as the league’s unequivocal leader.

Yet, in Le’Veon Bell’s eyes, it wasn’t enough. Bell pointed to his pass catching numbers, and asked to be paid as a receiver. He’s got a strong argument there, but truthfully if Le’Veon Bell really wanted to be paid what he is worth, he should have asked for a time machine to take him back 20 years or so….

Franchise Running Backs in the Salary Cap Era

So what is a franchise running back? A franchise running back is a running back so talented that a team can build a Super Bowl contender around him. Sound silly? Perhaps it does in 2017, but for most of the NFL’s existence the opposite was true. Everyone remembers Jim Brown and OJ Simpson, but does anyone remember their quarterbacks? Not so much.

In the 1990’s the NFL boasted a several legitimate franchise running backs. I can remember at the end of college, arguing that Barry Foster deserved to be considered as a franchise running back alongside Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk or this rookie in Los Angeles named Jerome Bettis.

Laugh at my love for Foster if you will, (I’ll still argue he had the talent, but lacked desire and durability) but no one would argue with the other four, who own six Super Bowl rings between them.

The 1990’s didn’t just give us four undisputable franchise running backs; it also gave us the salary cap. While making meaningful apples-to apples-comparisons between players from different eras is as fun as it is impossible, the salary cap let us see how much those players respective teams valued their services.

franchise running backs, franchise running backs contracts, franchise running backs salary

A note about methodology to fellow arm-chair NFL salary capologists. Gathering consistent contract numbers isn’t easy. It was actually easier to get salary numbers on players from the early 1990’s than it was to get numbers on LaDainian Tomlinson (until we discovered his was listed on over the cap.)

Let’s also agree that the total contract value numbers along with average annual salaries are terribly relevant to a lot of conversations about player salaries, because even in the 1990’s the last several years of a contract frequently had base salaries that both the team and the agent knew would never find their way into the player’s pocket.

Fair enough. But the average salary figure does give us a decent measure to gauge how much of its precious salary cap resources a team is willing to devote to one player.

  • And these numbers reveal just how dramatically differently the NFL values its running backs today, and just how quickly things have changed.

Barry Sanders got the largest chuck of the pie available to him, with the Lions giving him almost 14% of their cap in 1997. Emmitt Smith wasn’t too far behind, getting almost 12% of the Cowboys cap. The difference there is perhaps explained by the fact that Barry Sanders was the Lone Star on his team, while Smith had to share his Den with two other Hall of Fame bound triplets (pun intended).

Two years later Marshall Faulk got 11% of the Rams cap. Five years later LaDainian Tomlinson was able to get almost 10% of the Chargers cap, and even as late as 2011, the Vikings were still willing to give Adrian Peterson 11% of their cap.

Jerome Bettis’ salary cap percentages seem rather pedestrian by comparison, and that leads me to wonder if the numbers out there are in fact accurate (although Bettis did take less money to stay in Pittsburgh in 1997 and perhaps in 2001 as well.) Still, even in 2001, at age 29, the Steelers were still willing to devote a slightly larger portion of their salary cap towards keeping the Bus parked in Pittsburgh, than they are (or were) to keeping Le’Veon Bell in the Steel City.

Indeed, in this salary cap percentage comparison, Le’Veon Bell barely comes out ahead of Barry Foster (who for the record, was only included this table for comparison’s sake.)

Mitigating Circumstances on Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Situation

While Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation clearly shows how little the NFL values running backs in 2017, there are mitigating circumstances. Clearly, Le’Veon Bell has talent that makes him truly special, but in each and every season he’s missed games either to injury or suspension.

  • If Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, that’s one reason why the Steelers offer wasn’t more generous.

If press reports are correct and the first two years of Le’Veon Bell’s deal would have paid him 30 million dollars, then he’s left 6 million dollars on the table, assuming the Steelers franchise him again in 2018 (which could be complicated, the capologist assure us), in search of a larger pay day come 2019.

That’s a fairly a large risk, but it’s a gamble Le’Veon Bell has the right to make on himself. If Le’Veon Bell can continue his Hall of Fame level production through 2017 and 2018 while avoiding injury and suspension, more power to him.

But even then, when he’s 27 years old, Le’Veon Bell’s unlikely to find a team willing to offer him a contract that commands the kind of cap space that the Sanders, Smiths and Petersons once commanded.

Fairly or unfairly, Le’Veon Bell is and will likely remain a franchise running back trapped in the wrong era.

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7 Keys to Winning a Seventh Steelers Super Bowl in 2017

The Steelers 2017 season has finally arrived. When the Steelers kickoff their 2017 season opener against the Cleveland Browns, 232 days will have elapsed since their (latest) humiliating AFC Championship defeat at the heads of the New England Patriots.

Added the desire to wash that bad taste out of Steelers Nation’s collective mouth, comes the reality that the Roethlisberger retirement clock “officially” began ticking in the off season.

While the 2017 season might not be a franchise “Now or Never” moment, Ben Roethlisberger’s career is nearing its end. With that in mind, here are 7 Keys to a Seventh Steelers Super Bowl in 2017.

Seventh Steelers Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown & Ben Roethlisberger at Cleveland in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

1. Keep Ben Roethlisberger Healthy

This is a no-brainer. Landry Jones deserves more respect than he gets, but he’s no franchise quarterback. The Steelers have struggled without Big Ben in 2015 and 2016. 2017 will be no different.

Ben Roethlisberger must stay healthy for the Steelers to win Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Period.

2. Find a Way to Keep from Tolling the Bell Too Much

Le’Veon Bell is easily the best running back in the NFL, and he makes the Steelers offense truly dynamic. If all works out well, if Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant both stay healthy and play to their potential, the Steelers shouldn’t need to lean on Le’Veon the way they did in 2016.

  • The Steelers need a healthy Le’Veon Bell to win a Super Bowl.

There’s a reason Le’Veon Bell’s first playoff apperance led to a Steelers AFC Champion trip.  As previously discussed, limiting Le’Veon Bell’s carry count is simple on paper, but tremendously complex to execute in the heat of a game.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers must find a way to use James Conners and Terrell Watson to spell Le’Veon Bell.

Chuck Noll didn’t need to do it with Franco Harris, he split carries between the halfback and the fullback. The franchise talked about spelling Jerome Bettis during his prime, but really couldn’t make it happen (anyone remember George Jones? No? Point made).

Todd Haley needs to be the offensive coordinator who threads this needle.

3. Get There with Four

Keith Butler’s mantra as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with 4.” “There,” in case you haven’t noticed, is the quarterback.

Keith Butler’s goal is to use no more than four defenders to rush the passer, in an attempt to bolster coverage downfield, and particularly on the short and medium routes that form the soft underbelly of the Steelers Zone Blitz scheme.

  • Thus far, this goal has eluded Butler.

In Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers have 3 down lineman who can pressure the passer. Bud Dupree must continue the growth he flashed in late 2016 while come combination of T.J. Watt, James Harrison and Anthony Chickillo must get the job done on the other side.

T.J. Watt, James Harrison

James Harrison tutors T.J. Watt. Hopefully the rookie learned something. Photo Credit: Pitt247 Sports

4. Man Up in the Secondary

This subtitle is perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration. After the AFC Championship debacle, the arm chair head coaches quickly second guessed Mike Tomlin for not playing more man coverage against the Patriots. Tomlin as much admitted that the Steelers didn’t have the secondary personnel to do so. And let’s remember something important:

  • Playing man against the Patriots worked for about 3 quarters for the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

The problem is you need it to work for more than that. Regardless of whether it’s playing more man coverage when necessary, shifting seamlessly between 3-4 base alignments and nickel alignments that use more of a 4-3 base alignment, the Steelers secondary must improve in 2017.

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier interception

Ryan Shazier intercepts a pass during his rookie preseason. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

That doesn’t mean that the secondary needs to be a shutdown defense like Bill Cowher’s Blitzgurgh defenses of the 1990’s or of the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl Championship run. But there’s no path to Lombardi Number 7 that includes allowing any playoff quarterback to shred their defensive backfield the way Tom Brady did in January.

  • Point 4.b. to this list would be keeping Ryan Shazier healthy.

Ryan Shazier has shown the dynamic playmaking capability that has marked the great Steelers defenders of yesteryear. But he’s also been hurt a lot. Fans who scapegoat him or criticize him for this need to get over themselves.

But a lot of offensive coordinators will sleep very easily at night if the Steelers starting inside linebackers are Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort for an extended period of time.

5. Embrace and Overcome the Unexpected

The Steelers returned to the playoffs in 2014 but without Le’Veon Bell, the man who accounted for 1/3 of their offense. In 2015, they made it to the divisional round without Antonio Brown, without Ben Roethlisberger, and without DeAngelo Williams. If someone had told you a year ago:

“By December, our number 2, 3, and 4 wide receivers will be Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers. Oh, and Cam Heyward will have been lost since midseason. And Bud Dupree will just be working himself back into the line up.”

You’d have likely concluded that Steelers Nation was set, at best, to spend Christmas memorizing NFL playoff tie breakers.

Eli Rogers, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Christmas win Ravens

Eli Rogers races for a first down in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Except that’s not what happened. Yes, the AFC Championship proved to be too big a stage for Rogers, Hamilton and Ayers, and you’d certainly prefer to start Cam Heyward over Ricardo Mathews across from Tom Brady.

  • “The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse.”

Mike Tomlin has preached that since he arrived in Pittsburgh and over the last three seasons the Steelers have internalized his mentality. Injuries will happen in the NFL. It is the nature of the game. 2017 will provide no exceptions to that reality.

To win a Super Bowl, whenever the untimely injury, suspension or other off the field event strikes, whoever the Steelers proverbial “next man up” is must embrace it as an opportunity and his teammates must work to overcome the unexpected.

6. Secure Hope Field Advantage for the Playoffs

Cream rises to the top. The ‘80 Oakland Raiders, the ‘97 Denver Broncos, the ’00 Baltimore Ravens, the ’07 New York Giants and of course the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers entered the playoffs as Wild Card teams and exited as Champions.

  • But there’s no denying that the extra week of rest that a playoff bye brings makes a big difference.

Case in point, the 2010 Steelers were the last team to secure a playoff bye and the last team to make the Super Bowl. So its critical that the Steelers secure first round playoff bye, even if they play in a more difficult division than some of the other AFC contenders.

  • But getting a playoff bye alone isn’t enough.

If the Steelers are to bring home Lombardi Number 7 then in 2017 road to the Super Bowl must once again run through Pittsburgh. There are lots of obvious reasons for this, and one less than obvious reason is that at this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger is playing far better at home than on the road.

7. Don’t Get Hung Up on New England

Every self-respecting citizen of Steelers Nation relishes the idea of beating the New England Patriots in the playoffs. That’s fine for the fans, but the Steelers as an organization can’t allow beating New England to become their focus. To understand why, think back to:

  • The 2011 Steelers win over the Patriots, the 1972 Redskins, and the ’11 Debacle in Baltimore.

The Steelers last win over the New England Patriots came in October 2011 at Heinz Field on a glorious Sunday to be a Steelers fan. Unfortunately it also marked the last time the Steelers looked like a Super Bowl contender until 2015. In fact, in the very next week the Steelers choked against the Ravens in a game that cost them the AFC North.

Steelers defeat Patriots 2011, Troy Polamalu, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Troy Polamalu takes down Wes Welker in the Steelers last win over the Patriots in 2011. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via New York Times

That experience brings to mind the 1972 Redskins. Growing up in DC I can remember an NFL Films sketch on the 1972 Redskins that featured a wild post-NFC Championship Redskins locker room celebration that included a veteran form the team explaining that “When we beat Dallas in the NFC Championship when they were World Champs, that was like our Super Bowl….”

Except it wasn’t then, and won’t be in 2017. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin realizes that as evidence to his response to Peter King’s “How are you going to beat the Patriots” question:

I don’t think about that. I just know that it is less about the nameless gray faces that you play, and most of the time your issues and your solutions are in house. We gotta strengthen ourselves for the fight. It’s easy as a cop out for me to identify the outside variables. It’s a much tougher discussion with yourself to really get gritty and look within yourself and look at the things that are important and what you need to get done. It’s not a lack of acknowledgement of the dominance of the Patriots. But it’s really not that important. We better take care of our house. We better till our soil, as they say.

Mike Tomlin has the right mentality here. But, given that the Steelers play the Patriots in December and then, potentially a few weeks later in the playoffs, Tomlin needs to ensure that his team follows his lead.

Going into the 2011 season many in the press felt the Steelers had the Raven’s number. The fact that the Ravens had made so many last minute personnel changes only fueled the feeling. Mike Tomlin didn’t flinch and instead preached of the danger inherent in unfamiliarity.

Many potential paths to Pittsburgh’s 7th Super Bowl Championship include victories over New England, but none of the end there, and everyone in the Steelers organization much remember that.

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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

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

Antonio Brown, Steelers Draft Antonio Brown,

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

Jeremy Fowler Delivers Story Behind Steelers Drafting Antonio Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lolley Calls Steelers 4th Round Pick 2 Months in Advance

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

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

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

Josuha Dobbs, Steelers OTAs

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

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

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

It’s Not Easy Being Green II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Most of Steelers OTA’s

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, St. Vincents, Steelers Training camp

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

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

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

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

Ethan Cooper, Steelers OTAs 2017

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

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

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

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

Hello Stafford (and, BTW So Long Shamarko)

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

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

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

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

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

Shamarko Thomas, Carnell Lake, Steelers 2015 OTAs

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

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

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

Running into an Old Friend – McMillen & Wife is Back

Sometimes its just nice to run into an old friend.

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

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

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

  • But Tim McMillen is back with a vengeance.

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

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

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