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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What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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Why Rod Woodon’s Rugby Tackle Crusade is a Wise One

The Pittsburgh Steelers have sent three cornerbacks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. While all three earned a ticket to Canton by dominating opposing receivers and quarterbacks, Mel Blount and Jack Butler have also left their mark off the field.

Blount so thoroughly dominated opposing receivers that he forced an NFL rule changed that opened up the passing game. Jack Butler, as head of the BLESTO scouting combine, had a role, albeit an indirect one, in constructing the Super Steelers.

  • Now Rod Woodson has a chance to make an even bigger mark.

As Yahoo sports writer Eric Edholm details, Rod Woodson is stepping out to work with middle school and high school players in an attempt to make the game safer. Rod Woodson, currently the Oakland Raiders secondary coach, will be working at the Pro Fooball Hall of Fame’s academy to encourage and teach young players to tackle Rugby style.

  • Edholm praises Rod Woodon’s rugby tackle crusade suggesting it might help save the game of football.

Edholm probably takes things too far. Nonetheless, no one can question the wisdom of Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle initiative.

Applying the Rugby Tackle to Football

The idea of importing players or principles from Rugby into football is hardly new. Like Brad Wing before him, Steelers punter Jordan Berry has experience as a Rugby player. On a number of occasions, this site’s Spanish language writer Gustavo Vallegos aka “El Dr. de Acero” has suggested that the NFL could improve its tackling technique by studying the way Rugby players do it:

El Dr. de Acero’s 2014 missive, “Mirando Los Steelers, Me Hace Preguntar ¿Tacklear o Golpear?” (Watching the Steelers Forces Me to Ask, “Tackle, or Hit?” speaks directly to the points that Rod Woodson is trying to address – NFL players too often try to hit first and tackle second.

  • Tackling in today’s NFL is more about mustering force and hitting than it is about using technique to bring the person down.

It wasn’t always this way.

Although memory flaws may betray some of the details, I can remember Terry Bradshaw discussing this while doing a Steelers game in the early 1990’s, contrasting the shoulder pads used in the 1970’s with the ones used in the 1990’s. Bradshaw used visuals to depict how “improved” shoulder pad technology allowed players like Delton Hall to use their shoulders like projectiles, barely needing to wrap a ball carrier.

  • Similar improvements in helmet technology, have, ironically facilitated the use of the head in tackling.

Woodson relates as to why this is a problem:

When your head is in front of the ball, a lot of time what happens is that his head and your head collide. When [the students] see the rugby players tackle – and do so without helmets, without pads, and not get nearly the number of concussions that NFL players get, I think it will be beneficial.

This brief tutorial on rugby tackling helps bring the issue into perspective:

Absent pads and helmets, the importance of protecting the head becomes an issue not only for the tackled but the tackler as well. And, as the video makes clear, while force is necessary, the rugby tackle makes it clear that proper technique goes a long way.

Lest anyone fear that using rugby style tackles will soften the game, this video should dispel those worries:

Can Safer Tackling Save Football?

Steelers Nation reacted with outrage in 2010 when Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson scapegoated James Harrison in their attempt to reduce helmet-to-helmet hits. When Steelers fans fans complained that Goodell and Anderson were attempting to sissify the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette cautioned that Pittsburgh legends such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell managed to combined hard hitting with textbook tackling.

  • At the time, it seemed like Bouchette might be offering a simple solution to the emerging CTE crisis.

After all, the first known victims of CTE, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters had all played in the 80’s when players got seemingly exponentially bigger, faster and at the exact time when hitting was eclipsing technique in NFL tackling.

  • Alas, we now know things aren’t so simple.

With CTE diagnosis coming following the deaths of older players like Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, and younger players like Adrian Robinson, we now know that the problem’s roots run far deeper. And it should be noted the specter of CTE is causing its own complications for sport of rugby.

IF Football is to answer the threat that CTE poses to its very existence, then an effective response will likely come in the form of some sort of impact absorbing helmet technology, drugs that neutralize the TAU protein that causes CTE and safer tackling. If that day arrives, as anyone reading this surely hopes it does, then Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle crusade will have helped preserve the game we love.

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Sending a Message: Tony Dungy Names Donnie Shell Hall of Famer Presenter

Make no mistake about it Steelers Nation: Tony Dungy is making a statement by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Dungy, Donnie Shell, Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Steelers, Training camp 1982

Tony Dungy coaches his former mentor Donnie Shell at St. Vincents in July 1982; Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest individual honor a football player can attain. To date, only 303 players, coaches, or builders have secured induction into Canton. The site Pro Football Reference lists 3,860 defensive backs alone, highlighting just how elite the men wearing the gold blazers are.

  • Hall of Famers, in turn, have the chance to bestow their own honor by choosing their presenter.

The choice of a Hall of Famer presenter is a highly personal one. Hall of Famers sometimes disappoint when they fail to choose a teammate or coach and instead tap a family member, college or high school coach or even a life-long friend. But this choice belongs to the Hall of Famer, and he has the right to ask whomever he wishes.

  • But Hall of Famer’s choice sends a strong signal about who that Hall of Famer is and what he stands for.

Dan Rooney asked Joe Greene to present him to confirm unequivocally that Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh shifted the Steelers fortunes. In contrast, Steelers Nation took Terry Bradshaw’s choice of Verne Lunquist as his presenter as a slap in the face and a snub of Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney and the rest the Super Steelers.

John Stallworth chose his son, which must rank as one of the all-time father and son honors. Mike Webster gave Terry Bradshaw his final chance to put his hand under his butt. Franco Harris chose Lynn Swann to boost his Hall of Fame chances, and Lynn Swann returned the favor for Stallworth.

And so it is with Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell.

Tony Dungy’s Special Relationship with Donnie Shell

Tony Dungy’s play for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back and later contributions as defensive coordinator did not earn him his spot in Canton. He’s getting elected for his accomplishments as Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach and for being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

  • It says here that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

But Dungy’s decision to name Donnie Shell as his Hall of Famer presenter represents an implicit acknowledgement of his roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell forged their relationship on the fields of St. Vincents Latrobe.

  • Like Donnie Shell, Tony Dungy came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent.
tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

Dungy made the Steelers final roster as a after his rookie training camp, and recorded 3 interceptions and even pulled double duty as an emergency quarterback in a road game against the Houston Oilers. According to Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp during his sophomore season because of mononucleosis and feared he’d get cut because of it. Shell, his roommate and mentor challenged him to put his faith ahead of football.

  • Dungy did so and led the Steelers in interceptions that Super Bowl season.

Donnie Shell, along with Greene, Franco Harris traveled to Tampa to comfort Dungy when his 18 year old son James tragically took his own life in 2005. As Pomerantz notes, Shell felt like he and Dungy were still teammates.

And now Dungy is doing his part to boost the Hall of Fame chances of his teammate.

Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Shell

Of all of the greats from the Steel Curtain defense, Donnie Shell might be the most overlooked and most forgotten. He shouldn’t be.

Shell joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in summer of 1974 along with the Steelers legendary 1974 Draft Class. Shell found himself behind Pro Bowler Glen Edwards, but the Steelers traded Edwards, in part, to get Shell into the line up.

Stats compiled by the Dallas Morning News’s  Rick Gosselin show how wise of a decision that was. Between 1974 and 1987, Donnie Shell played in 201 games and started 162. During those games Shell:

  • Intercepted 51 passes
  • Recovered 19 fumbles
  • Earned 4 Super Bowl rings
  • Made 5 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to 3 All Pro teams
  • Won Steelers MVP honors in 1980 on a team with 8 Hall of Famers starting

Shell’s 51 interceptions tie him for 32nd on the all time interceptions list, and if that sounds pedestrian, over a dozen Hall of Famer’s on Pro Football Reference’s list of interception leaders have less (although to be fair, not all of those are defensive backs.) As Dungy himself told Gosselin:

Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.

Yes, Donnie Shell could do it all that’s a Troy Polamaluesque resume. Make no mistake about it, by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Dungy is giving his former teammate and lifelong friend a platform that highlight’s Shell’s own Hall of Fame credentials.

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Steelers Nation’s Love for Jerome Bettis was Real

There was no questioning the love, respect and admiration those who knew Art Rooney had for the late founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who passed away in 1988.

In fact, the legendary Mean Joe Greene has stated more than once that winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl following the 1974 season and doing it for his thoughtful and affectionate 73 year old boss, a man who had literally suffered through decades of losing, was “real.” Obviously, this sentiment was shared by most of Greene’s teammates, including linebacker and team captain Andy Russell, who, during the post-game celebration in the team’s locker room, made a last second decision to give the game ball to Mr. Rooney, instead of Greene, the team’s ferocious defensive tackle.

Nobody in that locker room thought twice about Russell’s actions, because it was the right thing and, again, it was “real.”

  • Stuff like that in sports is priceless, and it’s rare to find.

Such was the love for now Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis during his 10 seasons toting the rock in Pittsburgh.

Bettis came to the Steelers in 1996, with a bit of a reputation as a malcontent and selfish player from his days with the Rams. But that reputation was quickly washed away upon No. 36’s arrival, and he soon became one of the leaders in the locker room and one of the most beloved players the City of Pittsburgh has ever seen.

  • There was just something special about Bettis scoring a touchdown.

Maybe it was his charismatic demeanor, or the way he seemed to love sticking up for his teammates by taking on defenders. But whenever Bettis reached pay-dirt either by bowling over defenders or carrying them with him, Yours truly would just “mark out,” as they say in the wrestling business, and it just felt more thrilling and satisfying than when any other Steeler did the same.

  • Obviously, Bettis had the collective ear of his teammates, who seemed to want to play well and win as much for him as for themselves.

In his now famous interview with reporters the day after the Steelers disappointing home loss to New England in the 2004 AFC Championship game, an emotional Hines Ward, said of Bettis, “I wanted to win more for him than anything. He deserves to be a champion.” 

Ward was one of several teammates who stood in the team’s locker room at Heinz Field moments earlier and listened to Bettis thank his teammates for the “memories.”

  • It was unclear at that point if Bettis would return for another season.

Thankfully, he did. This is just speculation, of course, but it’s doubtful the 2005 Steelers would have had that “extra something” to get them over the hump and to Detroit for Super Bowl XL, if Bettis wasn’t around to act as a lightning rod of inspiration. Pittsburgh was 7-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs, with only four games left. But there was that “drive” to take the Bus to Detroit.

  • Bettis is a Detroit native, and his teammates wanted desperately to get him “back home” for the Super Bowl.

Bettis wasn’t a starter in ’05, and he only rushed for 368 yards as a back-up to Willie Parker. But he was still one of the leaders of the team, and he had the collective ear of those around him.

The love for Bettis was so real and so genuine, Joey Porter even arranged for The Bus to run out of the tunnel all by himself during the team introductions in Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers winning their first Super Bowl in 26 seasons (a 21-10 victory over Seattle) was special enough, but when you add in the story of Bettis, the love he had from his teammates, and the love the City of Pittsburgh had for him? It turned a great and memorable campaign into a magical one.

Much like with the love and respect his players have for former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the affection Bettis’s teammates had for him is a rare commodity in today’s professional sports world.

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Dermontti Dawson, Jack Butler Round Out Chuck Noll’s Hall of Fame Resume

In 1987, Joe Greene and John Henry Johnson entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame together. Happy happenstance allowed the first Super Steeler to share this individual honor with a star from Pittsburgh’s SOS (same old Steelers) era.

  • Greene and Johnson had little in common beyond having worn the Black and Gold.

Scribes in Steelers Nation might be tempted to say the same thing about this past weekend’s induction of Dermontti Dawson and Jack Butler, but they’d be mistaken because the two men share a deeper, if latent, connection that spans several generations of Steelers football.

Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Hall of Fame, Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2012, Chuck Noll, Blesto

Jack Butler & Dermontti Dawson rounded out Chuck Noll’s Hall of Fame Resume.

Dermontti Dawson – Successfully Succeeding a Legend

Men who follow legends generally fail, at least by comparison. Frank Pollard took Franco Harris’ place in Pittsburgh backfield, and while he did finish his career with a better yards-per carry average, Pollard’s sin was to be merely good instead of great.

Dermontti Dawson followed legendary Pittsburgh center Mike Webster, and in a very literal sense of the word, he succeeded his predecessor.

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Success on offense starts with the offensive line but, in an ironic twist of fate, few metrics exist to evaluate offensive lineman. They accumulate no yards, score no points, make no splash plays. Instead, their efforts empower others to make plays.

Dermontti Dawson claims his share of success in this regard, because Dawson:

“Pulling” is perhaps Dawson’s greatest legacy. Prior to Dawson, only guards pulled.

  • Outside of quarterback, the center has the most difficult job on the offense.

He’s got to keep one hand on the ball, pay attention to shifts by linebackers and lineman, release the ball backwards, get the snap count exactly right, snap the ball backwards and then, in a split second, shift his attention to one or two 300 pound tackles with blood in their eyes.

  • Dawson was able to do all that, then move outside to take on linebackers and defensive backs.

A single play suffices to illustrate Dawson’s excellence at pulling.

In January 1998 the Pittsburgh Steelers were hosting a playoff game vs. the New England Patriots. The two teams had fought a neck-and-neck battle that the Steelers won in OT after never leading in regulation.

The game was a pure chess match, and Dawson made the pivotal move.

Early in the game Kordell Stewart rolled out. It was meant to look like a pass, but it was in fact a designed run. After snapping the ball, Dawson pulled out wide to the strong side, and as Kordell began his advance up field, Dawson obliterated the closing defender.

  • 40 yards later Kordell was in the end zone on a day when the final score was 7-6.

“Dermonti Dawson” doesn’t appear in the box score, but his ability to pull and then deliver a decisive block carried the day.

The Butler Did It

Jack Butler came from an era where the Steelers played third fiddle behind the Pirates and Pitt. He became a Steeler because Fr. Silas, St. Bonaventure’s athletic director, was Art Rooney Sr.’s brother.

Butler joined the Steelers in 1952, playing it wide out and the defensive end. Then, as a testament to how times have changed, a defensive back got hurt and Joe Michelosen put him in the game.

As Ed Bouchette detailed, in his second game, Butler took his first NFL interception to the house and never looked back.

In fact, Butler hauled in 52 interceptions – an incredible sum during an era when seasons lasted 12 games and a 200 yard passing game was considered exceptional.  When Butler retired he held the number 2 spot on the all-time interceptions list. Over 50 years later, he’s still 14 on the list.

BLESTO, Butler, Noll and Dawson

Canton is honoring Butler for his achievements on the field, but he easily could have earned induction for his accomplishments off of it. From 1963 to 2007, Jack Butler directed BLESTO (Bears Lions Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization), the league’s first scouting combine.

Obviously, the Steelers were not the only team to benefit from Butler’s prowess as a scout.

  • But four generations of Pittsburgh Steeler rosters can’t help but bear his figure prints.

And of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers won a few games during that time.

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The key to winning those games, was of course the players. From 1969 to 1991 one man had the final word on draft day, and his name was Charles Henry Noll.

  • Noll’s run of Hall of Famers selections in the 1970’s remains unprecedented.

But Noll’s drafting record slipped in the late 70’s, a tendency that worsened in the ‘80’s.

Many reasons those draft misfires, but a big factor was Noll’s inability to get along with effectively with Art Rooney Jr. (to better understand Pittsburgh’s drafting woes in the 80’s, click here to read the article Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Talent Evaluators.)

Tensions got so great in 1986 the Dan Rooney was forced to make a choice, and he fired his younger brother.

Ed Bouchette chronicled the move in his classic, Dawn of a New Steel Age, and concluded that Dan’s difficult decision failed to pay dividends.

The record suggests Bouchtte is mistaken.

Even in his twilight of his reign The Emperor retained an uncanny ability to transform raw data from the scouts like Butler into draft day home runs.

And that’s what makes Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson’s simultaneous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just a little extra special for Steelers Nation.

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