Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs The New York Jets

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets are two teams that share little history. They’ve only played 25 times. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers and Saints have played 17 times.

  • For the record, the Steelers own a 20-5 advantage over the Jets, 10-1 at home and 10-4 in New York

What the Steelers and Jets history might lack in quantity is made up in quality. Many meetings between these two teams have been steeped in significance, although that fact wasn’t always eveident at the time.

Click on the links below or scroll down to relive some of the key moments in Steelers-Jets History.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

1969 – Super Bowl III, The Most Important Steelers Game in History – Not Involving the Steelers?

“I Guarantee Victory” – Joe Namath, prior to Super Bowl III

You know the story. The NFL and AFL were merging, and the brash young quarterback of the upstart New York Jets guaranteed victory despite being an 18 point underdog.

The Jets took an early lead, Don Shula of course waited too long to put Johnny Unitas in, and the biggest upset in Super Bowl history was on.

On the Colts sidelines that day was a young assistant named Charles Henry Noll. Who knows what happens if the Colts win? Does the added notoriety lead to a better offer for Chuck Noll? Does perhaps stick around hoping to repeat? We’ll never know. One thing we do know is this:

  • Noll learned that the Colts were too tense prior to Super Bowl III felt it cost them the game.

Chuck Noll avoided the same mistakes when he led the Steelers to Super Bowl IX. The rest, as we say, is history.

1983 – The End of Eras

December 10, 1983, Shea Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, New York 7

A moment far more bitter than sweet for Steelers fans. The Steelers snapped a three game losing streak, but the price, as Myron Cope would write a decade later, was “the last throws that were left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm.”
Bradshaw opened with a pass touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity and followed with another touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney. And that was it.

  • Not just for the game. Not just for the season. But forever.

It was the last NFL game at Shea Stadium. It was the last pass of the last game of Terry Bradshaw’s career. It was the last time the remnants of the Super Steelers would ever contend.

Too many eras ended that day.

1988 – So Far, Yet So Close

October 10, 1988, Giants Stadium
New York 24, Pittsburgh 20

The 1988 Steelers had started 1-6, but on the previous week, led by Rodney Carter, Gary Anderson and Rod Woodson, the Steelers had thumped the Broncos to snap a six game losing streak. Could Chuck Noll’s boys make it two in a row?

The Steelers jumped to a 10-0 lead but, as was the case many times during the 1988 season, the Steelers saw that lead evaporate in the second half.

1989 – The Shadow (and Promise) of Things to Come

December 10, 1989, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 13, Jets 0

Steel Curtain Rising discussed this Steelers-Jet’s match up in the tribute to the 1989 Steelers, celebrating Greg Lloyd’s announcement to the NFL that he was a force to be reckoned with, as he knocked Pat Ryan out of the game, caught an interception, and WWE-style three counted a concussed Al Toon.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Jet’s fans jeered “Joe Must Go!” calling for their coaches head. Joe did go.

Unfortunately he arrived in Pittsburgh; hiring Joe Walton became Chuck Noll’s fateful mistake.

1990 – IF Only this Could Have Been a Divisional Game…

November 25, 1990, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Jets 7

This victory was sandwiched in between losses to the Cincinnati Bengals. The 1990 Steelers would finish 9-7. Unfortunately, only one of those victories came against an AFC Central team.

One more divisional win would have put the Steelers into the playoffs….

1992 – Cowher Power’s Second Victory – Barry “Bananas” Foster Romps

September 13, 1992, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s Steelers shocked the NFL in defeating the Oilers the week before. Chris Berman remained unconvinced, predicting that Brownie Nagel would lead the Jets to victory.

  • Barry Foster had other ideas, as he ran for a then team record 190 yards.

The Steelers revival under Bill Cowher was was on!

2000 – Vinny Testaverde – New Uniform, Same Result

October 8, 2000, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 23, New York 3

The Steelers had tormented Vinny Testaverde in Tampa, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Would things be different in New York?

Afraid not. One week after upsetting the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that set the tone for a decade, the Steelers showed they were for real. The Steelers did not intercept Testaverde because he got only one pass off before getting knocked out of the game.

2001 – Hines Ward’s First 10 Catch, 100 Yard Game

December 6, 2001, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 18, New York 7

It is hard to believe that the Steelers had one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and it is hard to believe that his name is Hines Ward. The previous week the Steelers had lost Jerome Bettis, who had been dominating the league in rushing, and were in need of leadership.

Hines Ward delivered posting his first 10 catch game while breaking the 100 yard barrier for the first time.

2003 – 40 Passes, in the Snow….?

December 14, 2003, Giants Stadium
New York 6, Pittsburgh 0

Ok, it was 38 passes not 40, but the Meadowlands are a difficult place to throw in December, let alone in a blinding snow storm. That didn’t stop Mike Mularkey from throwing the ball, which did stop the Steelers from winning.

During the next draft that proved to be one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser non-decisions

Jerome Bettis broke Franco Harris record that day, causing Mike Prisuta to plead for the Steelers to part ways with the Bus. 1,309 yards and 22 touchdowns and a Super Bowl later, Bettis would prove Prisuta wrong.

2004 – Regular Season – Rookie Roethlisberger’s 11th Victory

December 12, 2004, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 17, New York 6

The Jet’s played this one closer than the score might indicate, as Curtis Martin crossed the 13,000 yard barrier, marking the first time that 13,000 rushers faced off against each other.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger won his 11th consecutive game, in route to setting the rookie record.

2004 Playoffs – Steelers Football at Its Best: Pure Power Rushing Carries the Day

January 15, 2005, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 20, New York 17

People remember this as the game where Ben Roethlisberger started playing like a rookie. They remember it for the Jet’s Doug O’Brien missing 2 field goals that cost his team the game. But the real beauty of the game was the effort put forth by the Steelers running back crops.

  • Jerome Bettis ran 27 times 101 yards and a TD
  • Duce Staley ran 11 times for 54 yards

That might not be an overwhelming total, but both backs had to come out due to injuries at critical times, and the Steelers ability to beat the Jets into submission with two power rushers was a sight to remember.

2007 – Tomlin’s First True “Trap” Game?

November 18, 2007, Giants Stadium
New York 19, Pittsburgh 16

During Mike Tomlin’s rookie season the knock on him was that his Steelers “played down to the competition.” No where was this more apparent than against the Jets. New York was 1-9 in route to 4-12, but the Steelers struggled all day, as Bob Ligashesky’s special teams gave up a 33 yard punt return that allowed the Jets to send the game into overtime where they won by a field goal.

2010 – Jets Out Fox Steelers

December 19th, 2010, Heinz Field
New York 22, Pittsburgh 17

The New York Jets stumbled into this game and seemed prime for the picking. However, Al Everett’s special teams, which had been a strength all season long, gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Steelers fought back with a workman like performance and tied the game at the half.

  • But the miscues continued in the 2nd half.

First Mark Sanchez scored on a 7 yard bootleg after the rest of the Jets offense executed a perfect play fake up the middle. Then Sanchez faked a perfect drop back while LaDainian Tomlinson took a direct snap that converted a third down and burned previous time off of the clock. Rex Ryan’s Jets outfoxed the Steelers.

Finally, when the Steelers were trying to mount a come back Jason Taylor ran unblocked on a tackle of Mewelde Moore, giving the Jets a safety at the 2:38 moment.

2010 AFC Championship – Steelers Defeat Jets, Head to Super Bowl XLV

Sunday January 23rd, 2011, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 24, New York 19

It was a tail of two halves. During the game’s first 3 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers played two of the best quarters of football in franchise playoff history. Running back Rashard Mendenhall took over the game in the first half, running for 97 of his 120 yards during the game’s first 3 minutes.

Rahsard Mendenhall, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Rashard Mendenhall had a career game vs the Jets. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via ESPN

Ben Roethlisberger capped off the Steelers offense’s scoring run at the 2:00 warning of the first half, putting the Steelers up 17-0. 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor strip-sacked Mark Sanchez and William Gay recovered the ball and put the Steelers up 24-0.

The Jets, to their credit, managed to get on the board with a field goal before the half, but it only appeared to be window dressing at the time…

  • Except it wasn’t. That Nick Folk field goal sparked a 19 point New York rally.

In the second half, New York harassed Ben Roethlisberger relentlessly, and shut down Rashard Mendenhall. On offense a 45 yard strike to Santonio Holmes started the scoring for the Jets, followed by a safety and a Jerricho Cotchery scored in the bottom half of the 4th quarter.

  • Unfortunately for the Jets, the safety was set up by a failed 4th and goal attempt at the 1.

Those two series gave New York 9 points when it needed 14, and left Pittsburgh with the ball with 2:56 left to play. That series saw Ben Roethlisberger connect on his first two consecutive passes of the afternoon, first hooking up with Heath Miller for 14 yards on 2nd and 9 and then hitting rookie Antonio Brown for 14 on 3rd and 6.

Going into the game, Peter King had profiled how Rex Ryan had implored his General Manager to get him the players he needed to get past the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs. Rex Ryan fulfilled his goal, and so did the Steelers who were AFC Champions and off to Super Bowl XLV.

2012 – Steelers Workman Like Effort Rebounds from Opening Day Loss

September 16th, 2012, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

The Steelers had open the 2012 season severing as fodder for Peyton Manning’s debut with the Broncos in a defeat raised troubling questions about the Steelers defense. And the defense didn’t do much to answer those as the Jets put 10 points on the board quickly while the Steelers offense could only manage two 45 yard Shaun Suisham field goals.

But the Steelers defense kept the Jets off the board for the entire 2nd half, while Ben Roethlisberger led 3 clock consuming drives that ended with Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman touchdowns.

2013 – Steelers Snap 0-4 Start

October 13, 2013, MetLife Stadium
Pittsburgh 19, New York 6

The Steelers started 2013 by going 0-4, the franchise’s worst start since Bill Austin’s tenure in 1968. Unfortunately, as their game against the Jets began, things looked startlingly familiar as the Steelers lost a player during warm ups, lost tight end David Johnson early on, failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger and started each drive deep in their own territory.

But Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward in his debut as an official starter, helped force Jets to settle for field goals after a long drive. The Steelers then assembled 3 straight Shaun Suisham field goal drives.

Ben Roethlsiberger and Emmanuel Sanders added a touchdown to open the 2nd half, and just when the Jets looked to make it competitive again, Ryan Clark netted the first turn of the season. When the dust settled the Steelers finished with a 19 to 6 victory which, while not impressive, did get Pittsburgh in the win column for the first time in 2013.

2014 – Another Tomlin Team Gets Tripped up in Trap Game

November 9th 2014, MetLife Stadium
New York 20, Pittsburgh 13

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their two year playoff drought in 2014 but it took and up and down ride to get there. Sure, the Steelers noticed some impressive wins, like the victory over the Ravens in Joe Greene’s Jersey retirement game, but also struggled against inferior teams.

  • And the loss to the Jets is probably the best, or worst example of that.

After giving up a field goal on the opening drive, the Steelers could do nothing on their first procession, allowing Mike Vick to hook up with T.J. Graham for a 67 yard touchdown on the Jets next play from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger responded by hooking up with Antonio Brown who promptly fumbled away the ball at Pittsburgh’s 21. It only took Mike Vick 6 plays to hook up with Jace Amaro for 5 yards.

  • The first quarter wasn’t even over, and the Steelers were down 17 to 0.

Things didn’t get much better for the Steelers, who saw Ben Roethlisberger throw a Red Zone interception on their next possession. The Steelers defense held the Jets to just one field goal on the rest of the day, but Steelers offense could only muster two Shaun Suisham field goals until Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant for an 80 yard touchdown with 1:16 left to play.

The 2014 Steelers would rebound for a strong finish to the regular season, but 2014 loss to the Jets counts as one of Mike Tomlin’s worst trap games.

2016 – This Steelers Win over the Jets Came at a Cost

October 9, 2016, at Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 31, Jets 13

The final score makes this game look like a slam dunk for the Steelers, but the truth is that much more up or down event than the naked eye suggests. Nick Folk put the Jets on the board first with a field goal, but Ben Roethlisberger quickly hooked up with Sammie Coates to when he converted a 3rd and 7 with a 72 yard touchdown pass.

However, the New York Jets scored 10 unanswered points and appeared to be set to take a 13-7 lead into the half when they scored a touchdown at the 2:11 mark.

Ben Roethlisberger engineered a masterful 2 minute drill that saw him hit Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates and Xavier Grimble before connecting with Jesse James at the 0:44 mark for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The Steelers dominated the second half, shutting the Jets out and scoring two touchdowns.

But victory came with costs. Sammie Coates, who otherwise had a career game with six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, needed stitches at half time, and never, ever approached that level of play again. The game also represented the end Markus Wheaton’s season, which set up a Steelers playoff run where Cobi Hamilton and DeMarcus Ayers would become defacto starters.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Dolphins – How Did Mason Rudolph Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his star student can sustain the mental toughness he used to get through a rather tough exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dolphins.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
Coaches let Mason Rudolph test the waters outside of the kiddie’s pool this week, and for the first 20 minutes or so Mason Rudolph looked like he wasn’t going to keep his head above water. After that, Mason Rudolph led the Steelers to score 27 unanswered points, including two drives that started with him standing in Pittsburgh’s own end zone. While this is impressive, Rudolph’s total body of work still shows he has a long way to go. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ground out 145 yards, ripping off several long runs that sparked the entire offense. Benny Snell had 13 yards on 5 carries, while Trey Edmunds got zero yards on his first carry as a Steeler. Roosevelt Nix was back, and helped pave the way for the Steelers rushing success. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes for 19 yards and Nick Vannett caught 1 pass for 15 yards. The presence of both men, along with Zach Banner who checked in as a third tight end on many plays helped make the run blocking a success. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
While his season thus far is not earning JuJu Smith-Schuster many fans among Fantasy Football owners , anyone who has doubts about status as an elite a wide receiver need look no further than his touchdown catch. JuJu had a monster night going 5 of 103 making critical catch after critical catch. Diontae Johnson’s 12 yard grab on 3rd and 11 got the offense moving, and his pre-halftime touchdown was simply sensational. James Washington caught one of 6 passes thrown his way. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
The Dolphins made little secret of their plan to crowd the offensive line either by putting 8 men in the box or by going all out on the Blitz. In both cases, the Steelers offensive line met the challenge, including a heads up play by David DeCastro to recover a fumble. Grade: A

Defensive Line
In their first game without Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers offensive line smothered the Dolphin’s running attack and Cam Heyward terrorized Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half, sacking him, helping stop a 4th down conversion, while hitting him twice. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt continues at this pace, his name won’t be remembered alongside predecessors like James Harrison, Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter. People will put his name before theirs.

That’s saying a lot, but T.J. Watt continues to decimate opponents, logging two strip sacks against Miami, two tackles for a loss, and hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. Bud Dupree had a sack and an impressive drop deep in the backfield. Overall a strong night for the linebackers, but Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Mark Barron ALL missed tackles on Allen Hurns touchdown. That brings the grade down. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Secondary
Perhaps the only defensive back’s name that you heard against the Dolphins was that of Minkah Fitzpatrick who intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Oh, and Mike Hilton also forced a fumble. The Dolphins deserve credit for getting on the board fast, but the Steelers defense shut them down completely afterwards, and that only happens if Joe Haden, Steve Nelson and Terrell Edmunds are doing their jobs. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed his first kick of the season but nailing a 54 yarder at Heinz Field is a tall order. The Steelers gave up another longish punt return which didn’t impact the game’s result, but the trend is becoming annoying. Ryan Switzer’s returns were average. Grade: B

Coaching
Steelers coaches had been keeping the training wheels on Mason Rudolph thus far this season, and they took them off against the Dolphins. For a quarter and a half, Mason Rudolph looked every bit like the kid who should only ride his bike on the sidewalk. With the training wheels on.

  • But the Steelers coaches kept Rudolph on the street.

Randy Fichtner didn’t attempt to revert to the Wildcat, nor did he try to limit passing to chink and dink check downs. Mason Rudolph proved to be up to the challenge, although at this point his game has far more rough spots than smooth ones.

Outside of the sloppy play on Miami’s second touchdown, finding fault with Keith Butler’s defense would require a considerable amount of effort. OK, the Steelers defense was dominating a Dolphin team that is actively vying for the first pick overall. But you’re supposed to dominate in those circumstances, and dominate they did. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Things looked bleak after Miami put 14 points on the board in less than one quarter. The Steelers responded with a drive that burned off almost half of the time in the 2nd quarter, netting a field goal.

When Miami got the ball with 2:40 remaining, it would have been easy to play with an eye towards simply keeping the Dolphins off of the score board and getting into the locker room. Instead, the Steelers used a time out on defense and secured an interception.

  • Then they aggressively attacked the Dolphins from mid-field and scored a touchdown.

He takes a lot of heat over his clock management, but his aggressiveness sapped the momentum away from Miami and put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for the 2nd half and for that Mike Tomlin wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers MNF win over the Dolphins.

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Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

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

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.
rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Time Double Down at a Position of Strength?

During the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuild deserve some well earned criticism for misfiring when drafting at linebacker and in the secondary. Artie Burns, Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Bud Dupree all provide prime examples.

  • However, the same cannot be said for their use of premium picks on the defensive line.

So heading into the 2019 NFL Draft the question is whether Pittsburgh’s dynamic draft duo should do what they’ve done best on the defensive side: Look to the defensive lineman. Let’s take a look.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers loss to 2018 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

When the Steelers began their post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding effort, the lead off with a home run when they drafted Cam Hewyard in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert labeled the move as a “historic day for the franchise.”

  • Historic indeed.

In the years since, Cam Heyward has not only developed into one of the league’s best defensive lineman and someone who is leader on the field and off the field. Although statistics fail to capture much of what Cam Heyward does on the field, one number stands out: 45.

  • That’s 45 sacks Cam Heyward has amassed all before hitting age 30.

To put that in perspective, Greg Lloyd had “only” registered 43 sacks before turning 30.

Playing opposite Cam Heyward is Stephon Tuitt, who the Steelers drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Stephon Tuitt is a player in the mold of Cam Heyward, who has gotten better each year and currently has 20 sacks to his name and he hasn’t even turn 26.

  • Rounding out the Steelers starters at defensive line is Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Hargrave immediately became something of a unicore in John Mitchell’s system: He cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Due to the Steelers de-empahsis on of their “base” 3-4 defense, Hargrave’s opportunities declined a bit in the 2nd half of 2017.

However, a strong performance against the Jaguars led Steelers coaches to look to work Javon Hargrave into their starting line up.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Behind their starting front 3 the Steelers have Tyson Alualu who brings the team a versatile presence that can be counted on to step up either position along the defensive line. Although he saw reduced playing time in 2018 thanks to the health of the starters, Tyson Alualu recorded 4 sacks in 2018.

Beyond Alualu, the Steelers also have Daniel McCullers, whom they drafted in 2014 in the 6th round whose presence at this point is a surprise to many. New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar took McCullers on as some sort of a project in 2018 and the Shady Tree showed enough to earn a 3rd contract from the Steelers.

The Steelers also have defensive lineman Winston Craig, Conor Sheehy, Lavon Hooks and Casey Sayles under contract.

The Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs

At first blush investing anything more than a 6th round pick in a defensive lineman might seem like a luxury the Steelers cannot afford in the 2019 NFL Draft.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

  • But appearances can be deceiving.

Let’s start with the Steelers defensive line itself. Officially the Steelers are still a 3-4 team, but they play in their base defense so infrequently that Cameron Heyward is now listed as a defensive tackle instead of as a defensive end.

While the Steelers pure need for a defensive lineman might be low, a legit “edge rusher” to work opposite T.J. Watt could give Pittsburgh’s defense a real shot in the arm. Now such an “edge rusher” has traditionally been an outside linebacker, but given the way positions are evolving in the NFL, that could also be someone considered as a defensive lineman.

  • Beyond that, the Steelers only have 4 quality defensive lineman on the roster as it stands today.

If Daniel McCullers shows himself to be “serviceable” in 2019 then that will be an achievement. But it is not something the Steelers can count on. L.T. Walton did everything the Steelers had asked of him from the time the Steelers drafted him until 2017. He looked to be developing into a quality 5th defensive lineman.

However, under Karl Dunbar he fell behind Daniel McCullers on the depth chart and remains unsigned. Therefore the Steelers defensive line draft needs in 2019 should be considered Moderate.

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Final Analysis: Steelers Killer Bees Were Too True to Their Nickname

March 2019 marks the date in Steelers history when the Killer Bees came to an end. Ben Roethlisberger remains in Pittsburgh, but Antonio Brown is now in Oakland while Le’Veon Bell is a New York Jet.

  • To milk the metaphor a bit more, Brown and Bell seem intent on keeping the story alive by stinging their former team via social media.

But none of the barbs that Brown and Bell are throwing Ben Roethlisberger’s way change the fact that these two Killer Bees left town without fulfilling their purpose – bringing Lombardi Number Seven back to Pittsburgh.

  • Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, given the trio’s nickname.

Sports nicknames entrench themselves with fans when they’re both fun and accurate.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

“The Steel Curtain” conjured images of strength while Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood became the front to an impenetrable defense. Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson breathed life into “Blitzburgh” as they terrorized opposing quarterbacks. Jerome Bettis was the football embodiment of a Bus.

  • This isn’t just a Pittsburgh thing either.

Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine really did churn out division titles, pennants, and championships in machine like fashion. Washington’s “Hogs” really did dominate the line of scrimmage. The Redskin’s “Fun Bunch” was fun.

  • And so it was with the Steelers Killer Bees, whose nickname was both fun and accurate.

The “killer bees” or Africanized bees were brought to the Americas in the late 1950’s in an attempt to breed bees that produced more honey. They were originally contained in a secure apiary near Rio Claro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the escaped and headed north!

  • An urban legend was born.

The phenomenon reached critical mass in popular culture the 1970’s. Although their stings weren’t worse than normal bees, “killer bees” were more aggressive, and more likely to swarm. It was too much for Hollywood to resist.

Several (bad) killer bees movies were shot. If memory serves, a Super Friends episode plot line revolved around the “killer bees.” And I even had to read a story about the coming threat of the “Killer Bees” in one of my elementary school reading books.

  • When the killer bees arrived in the United States in the 1980’s, their buzz was much worse than their bite.

Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.

Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide

Shortly after the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, a fellow Steelers blogger, who is no homer, sent me a sort of “chin up” email, assuring me that by mid-October the Steelers offense would be “Blowing other teams out of the water.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant gave Pittsburgh its most potent collection of talent at the skill positions since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Yet, the later quartet delivered 4 Lombardi trophies; the former delivered none.

As others, such as the Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey have pointed out, injuries and suspensions are the main culprit behind Steelers Killers failure meet expectations. Ben, Bell, Brown and Byrant only played together for a handful of quarters in 2015. Le’Veon Bell missed games to suspension in 2015 and 2016 and Martavis Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension.

  • The Steelers should have had the 3 Killer Bees on the field together for 6 playoff games.

Instead, Ben, Bell and Brown only managed 3 complete games and the first quarter of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots together. They won 2 of those three, and only won 1 of the other 3 contests.

  • Injury was the ultimate insect repellent even when all 3 Killer Bees remained healthy.

The 2017 Steelers defense was flashing signs of being good, if not very good before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. But of course we know what happened to the defense without Shazier. For whatever else you want to say about the Jacksonville disaster, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell (and Martavis Bryant) did their part.

Its been pointed out that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before Bell and Brown even arrived on the scene. Perhaps he can do it again.

But if the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner develops a nick name, let’s hope they find one that has a stronger pedigree.

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

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

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Watch Tower Special Edition: Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap Transform Conflict into Charity

The “Watch Tower’s” lights have been out for a while as material has abounded but time has been in short supply. However a recent player-pundit spat prompts us this special edition.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Ryan Switzer in the Steelers win over Tampa Bay

The Inherent Tension Between Journalists and Athletes

An inherent tension defies the relationship between sports journalists and the athletes they cover. Journalists, unlike us bloggers, job depends on getting athletes to talk to them. But by the same token, a journalist’s credibility with his or her readers depends on them writing objectively about those athletes.

  • And by definition, it is inevitable that at some point are going to rub the men in the locker room the wrong way.

Usually these tensions remain below the surface, although writers like Jim Wexell frequently share insights into how easy or difficult it is to talk various players. Sometimes the public gets wind of these tensions.

Greg Lloyd stopped talking with much of the local media in the mid-1990’s, and John Stiegerwald even described how Greg Lloyd once physically shoved him out of the way while he was trying to interview another player. If memory serves, Rod Woodson barred reports from the Tribune-Review from a press conference when he announced he was leaving Pittsburgh.

More recently Ben Roethlisberger blew off an interview with reporters who overheard him explain “I ain’t gonna win no Rooney award anyway.” (The post-Midgeville Roethlisberger did in fact win The Chief Award a year later.) And just last summer Antonio Brown blasted Ed Bouchette over an injury report.

But if tension is natural, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be resolved, as Ryan Switzer and 93.7 The Fan’s Colin Dunlap demonstrate.

Switzer – Dunlap Turn Twitter Spat into Charity Fundraising Challenge

If you’re reading this you know that the Steelers 20-16 win over the Jaguars came down to a hectic and heroic goal line situation set up a James Conner drop and by several Ben Roethlisberger JuJu Smith-Schuster hookups.

The target of Ben Roethlisberger’s penultimate pass was Ryan Switzer, prompting Colin Dunlap to make this observation:

Ryan Switzer responded:

However, rather than given into the corrosive nature of bad blood, Colin Dunlap and Ryan Switzer decided to do something constructive:

In response, Ryan Switzer pledged to donate $40-per-catch to UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department for the rest of the season.

  • And the duo didn’t stop there.

The two opened their challenge to the public and are inviting everyone to join in which they can do via the Pittsburgh Children’s hospital page. Their orginal goal was to raise $5000 dollars, but as of 4:00 pm Eastern on Saturday November 24th it appears they’ve raised over $10,000 already, with team mate T.J. Watt donating $1000 dollars.

While this won’t be the last time a journalist butt’s heads with one of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in this time of tension and violence both Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap win Watch Tower Kudos for finding a way to transform conflict into an opportunity to raise money for UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department.

Click here to donate to the The Ryan Switzer Reception Challenge.

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