Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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

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

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

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

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

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

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

  • This is one of those times.

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

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

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

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

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

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

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

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

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The Steelers, Le’Veon Bell Reach the Beginning of the End

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have reached the beginning of the end. As expected, the 4:00 pm July 16th deadline for Steelers to reach a new contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell came and went without a deal. Now Le’Veon Bell is bound by the franchise tag.

  • As this site observed during the spring, perhaps a 2nd franchise tag isn’t what sides need but not what either wants.

It didn’t have to be this way. The contract offer the Steelers made and agreed to with Bell’s agent last year would have befitted everyone. Bell would have had more money in his pocket than he does now, the Steelers would have more cap space, and have locked in Bell’s services for the duration of his prime.

"Le'Veon

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bell a 5 year 70 million dollar deal, with 30 million coming in the first two years. Word on how much of that was to be guaranteed has not yet leaked. But if the total is much higher than what the Steelers had on the table last year, Bell might have done the Steelers a favor.

And I write that as someone who likes Le’Veon Bell, thinks he’s got championship caliber talent, and knows he can’t be replaced by a squad of Stevan Ridley clones.

But as DeMarco Murray’s retirement poignantly reinforces the reality that the shelf-life of an NFL feature back is ever so short. In 2014 Murray led the NFL in rushing. Dallas didn’t lift a finger to resign him. Murray floundered in Philly in 2015, bounced back nicely for the Titans in 2016, but struggled in 2017. He’s now called it quits after 7 years in the NFL.

Last year’s deal made sense for the Steelers and for Bell. But Bell is a year older with another 400 plus carries on his body. Art Rooney II has seen enough running backs hand their shoes in Pittsburgh to know which ones are keepers, and he stuck his neck a bit in his bid to keep Bell, but didn’t stick it out too far.

Steelers Fans Might Get Their Running Back by Committee Wish

The next move is up to Le’Veon Bell.

Rumor is that Bell is considering holding out for all or part of the season, although he’s assured Steelers fans this will be the best season yet. Bell will lose just over $900,000 dollars a game for each game he sits out.

  • Yet Le’Veon Bell is weighing that against the toll that another 400 touches will take on his body.

Fans won’t like it, but in pure business sense, Bell might be making the right decision, however disloyal it will feel. On the flip side, those fans who’ve been clamoring for a running back by committee should be careful for what they wish for, because they may be about to get it.

Running back by committee is in vogue in the NFL, and a large contingent of Steelers fans would prefer to see Pittsburgh go that route, most of whom presumably are not old enough to remember the days when Chuck Noll and Tom Moore split carries between Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, and Frank Pollard.

In limited action in 2017, Ridley showed he could be a competent backup, Conner ran well when given the opportunity, but then got hurt and Fitzgerald Toussaint isn’t a bad number 3 back, but I’d trade him for a 1995 version Fred McAfee any day of the week.

Its possible that running back by committee can give Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the ground game they need to do their thing, but something tells me fans who don’t think they’ll miss Bell today, may feel differently come mid September.

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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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Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record – Now Pause & Think about What that Means….

For two straight off seasons, Steelers Nation has fretted and fidgeted while watching the Steelers asking the question “What IF.” The big “What IF” of course was “What if Le’Veon Bell had been playing?”

Going into the playoff loss to the Ravens in 2014 (2015, actually) Bell’s absence represented a loss of 34% of the Steelers total offense. It is harder to calculate the impact of Le’Veon Bell’s absence in the 2015 postseason because Bell missed the majority of the season injured or suspended.

But it is quite possible that Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary against the Bengals had Bell been available to kill the clock in the 4th.

In Pittsburgh’s wild card win against the Dolphins, Steelers Nation finaly got to see their “What IF” come true. So how did that work out?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell breaks Steelers playoff rushing record, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers wild card win dolphins

Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers playoff record breaking performance against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • Le’Veon Bell ran 29 times for 167 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single game post-season rushing record.

Let’s restate that: In his first post season appearance, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single-game playoff rushing record. Now consider what that really means. Had Le’Veon Bell broken this record, say, for the San Francisco 49ers, he wouldn’t have turned many heads, no disrespect to Roger Craig or Rickey Waters.

  • But Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff rushing record for a single game.

This is the same franchise that has sent Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson (you forgot about him, didn’t you?) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the team that gave Willie Parker, holder of the Super Bowl record for the longest run from scrimmage, his shot in the NFL.

What’s more amazing is the way in which Le’Veon Bell broke the record. As Peter King, who is no Steelers cheerleader, observed:

Watch the man. He’s got the oddest rushing style in football today. “The Great Hesitator,” Phil Simms called him on CBS, and that’s just about perfect. Usually, Bell lines up as the classic I-back, seven yards deep, and when he takes a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll take a couple of jab steps toward a hole and almost stop in his tracks. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, had a one-cut running style; the back was told to hit up in the hole immediately—that charging into the hole was the one cut. Most coaches decry what they call pussyfooting.

Peter King then backed up his argument with a statistic, that someone on his staff deserves a ton of credit for unearthing:

I find this amazing: Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king, gained 860 yards in his best seven-game stretch. That’s 142 yards less than Bell’s current seven-game run.

So in other words, in the space of just 8 games, Le’Veon Bell broken a record set by one Steelers Hall of Fame running back that another Steelers Hall of Fame Running back couldn’t touch, and rushed for 142 yards more than Emmitt Smith rushed for during his best seven-game stretch.

Jerome Bettis, Jerome Bettis AFC Championship, Jerome Bettis Broncos

Jerome Bettis in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via BTSC

A little bit of research reveals that it’s not unusual for a Steelers running back to break the century mark in his playoff debut.

  • Barry Foster ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the 1992 Steelers playoff loss to the Bills
  • Jerome Bettis ran for 102 yards in the Steelers 1996 playoff win against the Colts, although he injured himself
  • Merril Hoge rushed for 100 yards even in the 1989 Steelers New Year’s Eve upset of the Oilers

Rashard Mendenhall, Bam Morris, Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier also had 100 yard (or near 100 yard) performances early in their careers, but these came after their first post season game.

All impressive efforts, to be certain. But if you really want to appreciate what Le’Veon Bell accomplished, look no further than to the comments made by Ben Roethlisberger:

I’ll never forget when Charlie Batch was here, he used to always tell me about how he would hand off and just watch Barry Sanders. I am not trying to put Le’Veon with Barry Sanders yet, but it is fun to sit and watch and just see what he is going to do because he is incredibly talented.

So if you’re keeping track at home, in addition to outperforming 3 Steelers Hall of Fame running backs, Le’Veon Bell’s playoff performance against the Dolphins has now drawn comparisons to two other non-Steelers Hall of Fame running backs.

Walter Payton, Walter Payton Steelers, Le'Veon Bell Walter Payton

Walter Peyton dives over the pile as the Steelers are powerless to stop him. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via NFL SpinZone

During Le’Veon Bell took a lot of heat during his rookie season with a lot of journalists both inside (see John Stiegerwald) and outside of Pittsburgh doubting his ability. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took the time to compare his game-by-game results to Walter Payton’s rookie campaign, despite getting needled about it on social media from some of his peers.

  • Three seasons, a couple of injuries, 2 suspensions, and 1 playoff game later, Bell is getting the last laugh.

As Ben Roethlisberger cautioned, it is still too early to categorize Bell alongside the Smiths, Harris, Sanders, and Paytons of NFL lore, but in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have a special running back.

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

Terry Bradshaw, Steelers Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers playoff history vs Miami Dolphins

Terry Bradshaw scrambles in Steelers 1972 AFC Championship loss to the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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Remembering Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career – The Unlucky Soul Tapped to Replace Franco Harris

When the Pittsburgh Steelers made running back Walter Abercrombie the 12th overall selection of the 1982 NFL Draft, he left Baylor as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,665 yards over four seasons.  What did the use of such a lofty draft selection of a running back with such a prolific collegiate career really mean? Here’s the simple English translation:

  • There was no way Walter Abercrombie was coming to Pittsburgh to be anything other than Franco Harris‘ eventual replacement.

When Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career began, Franco Harris had been the Steelers workhorse at running back for 10-full seasons, was 32 years old and, while nobody knew it at the  time, had two seasons of tread left on his tires. (The Steelers cut Franco Harris prior to the 1984 campaign during a contract dispute. He then signed with the Seahawks in Week 2 but Seattle cut Franco halfway through the season after he gained just 170 yards. Franco Harris never played again.)

Unfortunately, much like a lot of things involving the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980s, Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career never came close to matching Franco Harris’ or recapturing the magic No. 32 was a part of in the previous decade, when he helped lead the team to four Super Bowl titles.

As the AP pointed out in a story published on October 31, 1984 shortly after the Seahawks cut Harris, Franco retired from the NFL with the most career 1,000-yard  seasons (eight) and rushing attempts (2,949).

  • Therefore, Abercrombie wasn’t just trying to fill some big shoes; he was tasked to fill, perhaps, the biggest shoes on the team, other than the cowboy boots left behind by Terry Bradshaw.

Not only did Abercrombie fail to fill Harris’ shoes, he was never the team’s leading-rusher in any given year. In six seasons with the Steelers, Abercrombie rushed for 3,343 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he often took a backseat to big, bruising fullback Frank Pollard, a 1980 11th round pick out of Baylor, ironically enough, who was Pittsburgh’s leading-rusher in the ’80s with 3,989 yards. 

Indeed, early in the Steelers 1986 season, Chuck Noll did something he was not wont to do – he picked up Earnest Jackson off of waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jackson actually ended up getting two more carries than Abercrombie, despite starting 3 fewer games.

However, Abercrombie was a decent-to-great receiver out of the backfield, and caught 139 passes during his career–including 47 for 395 yards in 1986. You can see some of Walter Abercrombie’s receiving exploits for yourself (available as of 7/15/16):

In-fact, Abercrombie had such good hands there were some fans who clamored for him to move to receiver (and not necessarily out of love), so Rich Erenberg, a ninth round pick out of Colgate in 1984, could get a chance to start at tailback.

After six years in Pittsburgh, Abercrombie, bothered by knee injuries and with younger players like Merril Hoge on the rise, was released prior to the 1988 season and finished up his career with the Philadelphia Eagles one year later.

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career Highlights

No, Abercrombie couldn’t replace Franco, and he clearly wasn’t a fan-favorite, but as he indicated to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he understood what he was up against:

“It didn’t bother me,” Abercrombie said of not living up to fan expectations. “I had some big shoes to fill, and there wasn’t any way I was going to make the fans forget about Franco.”

Abercrombie did have some decent years, however. He rushed for 851 yards in 1985. One year later, he added another 877 yards on the ground, which, coupled with those aforementioned 395 receiving yards, gave him 1,272 yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, Abercrombie’s two best years coincided with back-to-back losing seasons, which hadn’t occurred during Chuck Noll‘s regime since 1970 and 1971– not so coincidentally the last two years before Harris arrived on the scene in 1972.

But Abercrombie did have some crucial performances for the Steelers in high stakes situations. As the aforementioned Post-Gazette article pointed out, No. 34 rushed for 75 yards and added another 18 receiving yards in a Steelers 24-17 upset of the Broncos in a 1984 divisional playoff game at Mile High Stadium.

Walter Abercrombie, Sports Illustrated, Steelers, Broncos, Steelers upset Broncos Mile High, 1984

Steelers Walter Abercrombie in 1984 AFC Divisional Playoff upset of Denver; Photo Credit Sports Illustrated

Abercrombie acquitted himself so well in that playoff game, that he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  However, two weeks earlier, in the final regular season game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Raiders in Los Angeles on December 16, 1984, Abercrombie had perhaps the best day of his career–and right when the Steelers needed it most.

When the Steelers (8-7) took the field at 4 p.m. EST, they did so with the knowledge that they needed to win in-order to capture the AFC Central Division title. Earlier in the day, the Bengals wiped out the Bills, 52-21, to finish at 8-8. Cincinnati held the tiebreaker, and a Steelers loss would mean missing the postseason for the third time in five years.

Thankfully, Abercrombie came through with 111 yards on the ground and another 72 through the air–including a 59-yard catch-and-run late in the game that set-up Pollard’s one-yard touchdown plunge.

  • Pittsburgh won, 13-7, and advanced to Denver where Abercrombie and Co. pulled off the incredible playoff upset two weeks later.

Today, Abercrombie remains Baylor’s all-time leading rusher, and he’s also heavily involved with his alma mater; since 2004, he’s acted as executive director of the Baylor “B” Association.

“I had one of the best collegiate football experiences a player could have,” said Abercrombie, in a story published by Baylor Lariot in May.  “Aside from the individual honors I earned as a player, I had outstanding coaches and dedicated teammates. Also, we won a conference championship and went to two bowl games.”

According to a 1997 Sports Illustrated article featuring Abercrombie, when he came into the NFL in 1982, he was part of a rookie group of running backs that had the potential to be the best in the history of the draft (think the 1983 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks that produced Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and of course Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason, and Todd Blackledge.)

Unfortunately, other than the legendary Marcus Allen, ’82’s class of running backs failed to live up to the hype. Said Abercrombie in ’97: “You have a window of opportunity for greatness. I didn’t step through that.”

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career may have fallen short of filling the shoes left by Franco Harris, and he certainly didn’t leave behind much of a Steelers legacy. But the love and respect he has at Baylor shows that, well, maybe a Steelers legacy isn’t the only one that matters.

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