Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

The big day has arrived. The 2022 NFL Draft is here.

A generation from now, will we remember Kevin Colbert’s final draft as the night the Pittsburgh Steelers found their franchise quarterback? Will this be the evening where he tried to go out with a bang and flopped instead? Or will we recall how Kevin Colbert convinced Mike Tomlin not to force things and instead drafted a future Hall of Famer at another position?

Those questions will take years to answer.

As of now, the pundits and tea leaf readers argue that the Steelers brain trust is sold on picking Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder should one be on the board when the clock strikes 20.

steelers press conference,

That may be the case. Mike Tomlin has never been coy about pre-draft crushes. His love for Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Jarvis Jones (ugh), and Najee Harris was well-known long before their names reached commissioner’s desk.

Would picking Pickett, Willis, Corral or Ridder at 20 and/or trading up to get him violate rule number 3 on the Steelers Road Map for Return to the Super Bowl i.e. don’t force finding a franchise quarterback?

  • Honestly, says the guy who thought picking Ben Roethlisberger was a mistake, I don’t know.

But I can opine on what the Steelers needs are in this draft.

Over the past few weeks, with Tony Defeo’s help, we’ve broken down the Steelers needs at each position. Using the Steelers Draft Needs, we’ve clustered their needs into four tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Wide Receiver and Defensive Line clock in at High-Moderate. In other words, a guy Pittsburgh picks there could very well end up starting.

Below that we have a log jam, with Quarterback, Running Back, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker and Cornerback all coming in at Moderate High. In other words, the Steelers aren’t looking for a 2021 starter here, but that could change fast.

Next, we have Offensive Tackle and Safety. The Steelers should be OK here, but could go looking for a future starter.

Finally, we have Tight End and Center/Guard aka “interior lineman,” where the Steelers really are looking for depth.

So how to sort out the pecking order, given that we’ve got apparent ties at several positions?

That’s the Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix comes in.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Here is how I see the Steelers needs playing out:

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Defensive line gets the nod over wide receiver simply because the Steelers two starters there are younger. But that’s close, as the Steelers do have some depth on defensive line with upside on defensive line (Isaiahh Loudermilk), whereas the cupboard is empty at wide out.

The same rational holds at running back over receiver. The Steelers need more at running back than Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, but they’re superior to any backup wide outs.

The fact that the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph and only one Najee Harris is why running back is edges out quarterback. Quarterback comes in over outside linebacker because that’s a more important position, but frankly that’s close because the drop off in proven talent behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is steep.

Likewise, the Steelers have appear to have 3 starter caliber cornerbacks, plus James Pierre, but they have more bodies at inside linebacker, even if there are long term questions about Devin Bush and no “starter in waiting” behind him and Myles Jack.

Inside linebacker is a higher priority over Offensive Tackle because the Steelers have two starters under team control for at least 3 years, and Joe Haeg can provide depth. But again, this is close.

Tackle edges out safety because both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are far more proven commodities than any of the tackles, and Tre Norwood has far more “upside” than Haeg.

  • Safety edges out interior line, because the Steelers four players for 2 positions.

Center-Guard comes out as a higher priority than tight end simply because Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are better, more known commodities than any of the interior lineman.

No, Steelers Mustn’t Draft for Need

With that said, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is anything but a call for Pittsburgh to pick based on need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns happens.

In other words, if the Steelers can grab a play making outside linebacker who could push Alex Highsmith to the bench, by all means they should grab him. Nor should they pass on picking the next Heath Miller let alone a Gronk clone just because Gentry looked good last year.

No, the Draft Needs Matrix seeks to show where the Steelers roster needs the most help and whom they should pick if all other things are equal.

  • Which of course they never are, because success in the NFL draft is a mix of science, art and luck.

The 2022 NFL Draft will be no different, and to the young men who will hear their names called in next three days, we congratulate them on their chance to live the dream that each of us had from the first moment we touched a Nerf football and barked out a snap count!

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Tight End – Pittsburgh Should Stand Pat

In contrast to running back, tight end is one positions whose importance and role in the modern offense has grown significantly in the 21st century.

But like running back, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves far stronger at tight end in April 2022 than they did in April 2021. But how much stronger are they and how should that impact Pittsburgh’s plans for the 2022 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Tight End: The Starter

For six long years the Steelers have struggled to find and fill their roster with Health Miller’s replacement. A year after picking Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft, it appears that the Steelers finally have their man.

Pat Freiermuth started 9 games for the Steelers and made 60 catches on 79 targets for a 76% catch rate. He also had 7 catches for touchdowns proving his value as a weapon in the Red Zone. He also caught a 2 point conversion with 1:48 left to play in the Steelers 20-19 Heinz Field win over the Baltimore Ravens.

While Freiermuth did suffer 2 concussions during the 2021 season, assuming he remains healthy the kid from Penn State shows every sign of being a keeper.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Pat Freiermuth the Steelers have Zach Gentry and Kevin Radar. Both players saw extended action in 2021 after joining the team as developmental projects. The Steelers drafted Gentry in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Gentry was a converted quarterback who was drafted as a project, and injuries limited him to 6 appearances in 2019 and 2020. However, Gentry appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers in 2021 and started in 12 of those playing 40% of offensive snaps while he caught 19 passes on 25 targets for a 76% catch rate.

  • Zach Gentry will also always hold the honor of catching the very last pass ever thrown by Ben Roethlisberger.

Behind Zach Gentry the Steelers have Kevin Radar who joined the Steelers practice squad in 2019 and appeared in one game in 2020 and returned for 6 more in 2021 including one start. During 2021 he caught 2 balls on 3 targets for 8 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Tight End Draft Needs

2021 was not a good year for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, but tight end emerged as one of the only clear-cut areas of improvement. Based on their 2021 performance, in Pat Freiermuth the Steelers have appear to have found a long-term starter at tight end and a solid number 2 back up in Zach Gentry.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Kevin Radar isn’t going to provoke any bidding wars among fantasy football owners nor will he keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.

  • But he appears to be a solid number 3 tight end.

Could the Steelers find someone to bolster their depth at tight end or even challenge Gentry for the number 2 slot? Sure they could.

But relative to their other needs on the roster, this is one of the few areas where the Steelers could stand pat, and their draft need at tight end going into the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Be Gone: Time for Steelers to Move On from Free Agent Tight End Eric Ebron

Since February 19th, 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers have pursued a single goal at tight end: Replace Heath Miller. They’ve signed big-ticket free agents (Ladarius Green.) They’ve let home grown talent develop (Jesse James.) They’ve made both late off season and in-season trades (Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett).

  • Some of them have worked out better than others.
  • All have had their moments of praise-worth play.

But none of them have proven themselves to be even remotely worthy of the title “Heath Miller’s replacement.”

That changed in 2021. That’s bad news for Eric Ebron.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Capsule Profile of Eric Ebron’s Career with the Steelers

In minds many, the narrative on Eric Ebron is that he’s a failed free agent. His record is more complex.

Mike Tomlin likes exceptional athletes and never hesitates to bring one to Pittsburgh, even if he has some baggage (think Mike Vick). Eric Ebron fit the bill, as a 6’4” 253 tight end.

  • Both of those tendencies were in display during 2020.

Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards including 5 touchdowns. And if even at his best he wasn’t a transformational player, he was effective in the Red Zone where he caught all 5 of his touchdown passes in addition to a 2-point conversion.

  • Yet despite his 61.5% catch rate, he had a 7.7% drop rate and is a unmitigated liability as a blocker.

When Vance McDonald retired, the Steelers opted to bring Eric Ebron back in 2021. Eric Ebron generally did what the Steelers asked of him – he caught another Red Zone touchdown, but his role decreased and he then missed 9 games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers offense is young and can use a veteran presence and that will be true even if JuJu Smith-Schuster makes another surprise return. Ebron’s athletic talent is real, and he’s a stud the Red Zone. At age 29, this former first round draft pick has already made 3 stops in the NFL and isn’t likely to have many suitors – It won’t break the bank to bring him back.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers can get the post-Ben Roethlisberger era off to the right start by establishing a physical presence on offense. You don’t do that with Eric Ebron. Moreover, if there was one spot on the depth chart that finished 2021 on a decided up note, it was tight end.

Eric Ebron’s athletic talents are real, but they’re a luxury that the Steelers neither need nor should want.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eric Ebron

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Muuuth! The cry is now spontaneous anytime number 88 Pat Freiermuth makes a catch. Its easiest to hear at Heinz Field, but also audible on the road. The Steelers of course picked Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and the rookie quickly established himself as the starting tight end.

In addition, 2021 was also the year where the team’s investment in Zach Gentry began to pay off, as Gentry proved to be a capable number 2 tight end. Fantasy football owners won’t soon get into fights over who has the rights to draft Number 3 tight end Kevin Rader, but Radar’s shown he’s a good blocker.

Suffice to say, the Steelers in good shape at tight end, and while they can certainly get stronger there, bringing back Eric Ebron isn’t one of the ways that happens.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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A 4 Point Roadmap Steelers Should Follow to Return to The Super Bowl

Super Bowl LVI is today. And again, the Pittsburgh Steelers will watch from home. Worse, the franchise hasn’t been farther away from a Super Bowl since their God-awful 1999 season.

  • This reality is generating untold angst within Steelers Nation.

Social media is full of solutions for returning the Steelers the Big Dance. First, there are the “Make Buddy Parker Proud” plans that involve trading a pirate’s ransom of draft picks to get Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.

On the flip side, there are demands to trade T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward because, “We’re never going to contend during their careers, so why not?” In between, you see calls for sticking with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins — but not to explore their potential — but because they’re Pittsburgh’s best shot at a top 5 draft pick.

No, nothing is easy, is it? Now you understand why Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin agreed to take a final, longest of long shots with Ben Roethlisberger.

If the Steelers road to Lombardi Number 7 certainly isn’t easy, the map they need to follow isn’t complicated because it involves focusing on the fundamentals that got the franchise their first 6 Super Bowls. Here is a four point roadmap.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers first 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1. Embrace the Suck

Jim Wexell quoted Tammy Duckworth’s “Embrace the suck” mantra following Martavis Bryant’s second substance abuse suspension. Duckworth of course lost both her legs in Iraq rebounded to become a US Senator.

In this context, the Steelers “Embracing the suck” means accepting that they are neither a quarterback nor a handful of key players away from contending again. A big part of this site’s Steelers 2021 season review hinged on who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft and who actually made (or stayed) on the field in the early fall.

  • That perspective was useful for reviewing 2021, but is irrelevant for 2022.

Take Tyson Alualu. The Steelers run defense certainly would have been better with Alualu. Alualu can probably help in 2022. But Alualu will be 35 and has only played in 17 of a potential 33 games over the last two seasons. He’s not a long-term answer. The Steelers need long term answers.

Fans can fantasize all they want, but it is important that Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert and his successor are honest with each other and with the men in the mirror about where this team stands.

2. Prioritize Winning Big Over Winning Fast

After Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in 1969, Chuck Noll told him that he could win quickly by beefing up the roster with a few trades. But Noll and Rooney agreed on winning big instead of winning fast.

  • In this light, the idea of trading away 3 or 4 premium draft picks for a blue chip quarterback is pure folly.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, the Steelers are in a much better place today than in 1969. In Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Dan Moore and a few others the Steelers have foundational players.

  • But they need to find more foundational pieces, and they need to take them where they can find them.

Outside of perhaps safety and running back, there’s not a spot on the Steelers depth chart that should be off of the board on Days 1 and 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has argued repeatedly, good things happen when your best player is your hardest worker (and if possible) is the biggest guy in your locker room.

If ever there was a year for the Steelers to deprioritize need in favor of talent in the draft, it is 2022. That could leave some painful holes in the 2022 roster but will deliver long-term dividends.

3. Don’t Try to Force Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Finding a franchise quarterback requires 3 things:

1. Luck
2. Patience
3. Instincts

The importance of luck should be obvious, but it’s not. To understand luck’s role, think of how the Steelers found their first franchise quarterback. Despite drafting Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 NFL Draft, Chuck Noll went 1-13 that season.

The Steelers tied the Bears for the worst record, and they tossed a coin for the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.

  • Pittsburgh won the toss and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The rest is history.

Patience is just as critical as luck. The Steelers whiffed in 1983, drafting Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino. Fans and press pundits panned the team for trying to get by with Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister – didn’t Rooney and Noll know how important the quarterback position was?

They did.

And they also knew that franchise quarterbacks few and far between. Outside of Steve Young in the 1984 Supplemental draft and Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL Draft the Steelers didn’t have a shot at a true franchise quarterback until they passed on Drew Brees in 2001. (Ok, they should have taken Tom Brady instead of Tee Martin in 2000. 29 other NFL teams should have too.)

Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert

Bill Cowher sits beside Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: The Toledo Blade

Reaching for a quarterback and missing is more costly than it is at any other position. Just ask the people who picked Andre Ware, Cabe McNown and JaMarcus Russell. That’s why Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were wise to resist any temptation to draft Chad Pennington in 2000.

  • The Steelers must exercise the same prudence today.

And that’s where instincts come in. Dan Rooney lived through the mistake of passing on Marino and ensured that history didn’t repeat. So if and when the Steelers brain trust really does think they’ve found a franchise quarterback, they must take him.

4. Strive to Be Great, But Build to Win with Good

I took a lot of grief in high school, college and later sports bars defending Bubby, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. After all, the Steelers continued to make playoff runs while teams like the Bengals wasted first round picks on busts like David Klingler and Akili Smith.

  • And besides, you didn’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, you only needed a good one.

Then I saw Ben Roethlisberger go 9 of 12 while throwing laser like touchdown strikes to Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller to open the 2005 AFC Divisional win over the Colts. That’s when I understood why teams threw first round picks at quarterbacks. Neither Bubby, nor Neil nor Kordell could have done what Roethlisberger did that day.

  • The game has changed a lot since 2005 and much more since the 1990s.

Today conventional wisdom holds: You can’t win with a “Good” quarterback anymore, you can only win with a Great one. If you look at the names of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the 21st century, it is hard to argue against that.

Hard, but not impossible.

There’s no doubt that without a franchise quarterback, a team must be virtually error-free in the draft, have depth everywhere, and reach the playoffs in excellent health. But non-franchise quarterback do lead their teams to Super Bowls.

Nick Foles did it in 2017. In 2015 the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with excellent defense, a strong running game and a Peyton Manning who was a glorified game manager at that point in his career. Many would put the Joe Flacco-led Ravens Super Bowl in 2012 into that same boat.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

The Steelers of course tried to win a Super Bowl with a good quarterback in the 1990’s and the early ‘00’s, only to come up short with losses in Super Bowl XXX and 3 AFC Championship games.

But because they were built to win with good while seeking to be great, when luck, patience and instinct combined to start the Ben Roethlisberger Era in 2004 the Steelers as an organization were ready. And 3 Super Bowl appearances and victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII followed in the next 7 years.

Today, Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin must follow the same formula.

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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Frustrated by Devin Bush in 2021? Chill & Remember ACL Tears Are Complicated to Comeback from

Question: Entering the Chargers game, which injures have hurt the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers the most? There’s no definitive answer, but this blogger offers an unorthodox suggestion:

  • The injuries in question have probably never shown up on the Steelers weekly injury reports.

Injuries, as the late, great Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice reminded listeners, are just as much of a factor as talent and coaching. This was true for the NFL during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is even more true today.

  • Where in 2021 have injuries hit the Steelers the hardest?

The Steelers certainly missed Ben Roethlisberger against the Lions and Justin Herbert will force them to miss Minkah Fitzpatrick just as dearly tomorrow. And anyone who has seen the Steelers run defense lapse could and should point to the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

So if those are your answers, you’re in good company, just as is anyone who brings up T.J. Watt’s name. But my two choices are Devin Bush and Zach Banner.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Banner and Bush don’t share a lot in common, but both men suffered ACL tears during the 2020 season.

  • Zach Banner played in training camp and preseason, but had to be put on IR.

The Steelers failure to use him on Sundays has drawn frustrated “Whys” as Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor have had their struggles. Devin Bush has of course played all season, but he hasn’t been the same. This has led even level-minded reporters to go as far as to question the Steelers decision to trade up to get him.

The frustration with Banner and Bush is understandable, but perhaps misguided.

ACL Tears Remain Serious Injuries in 2021

Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell doom for a professional football player. Anterior cruciate ligament sent the legendary Gale Sayers career on the path to ruin. Fortunately, with the rise of arthroscopic surgery, and improvements in rehabilitation therapy, ACL tears stopped being an immediate threat to a player’s career.

In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was the first NFL player to tear his ACL in a season, only to return later that year.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Woodson tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers season opener, but returned to play 12 snaps in Super Bowl XXX. Woodson’s pass defense of Michael Irvin is one of Steelers Nation’s legitimate bragging points from otherwise disappointing loss.

  • In that sense, perhaps Steelers fans got a little spoiled.

Not only because Woodson’s feat remains rather unique, but because it came with a cost. As Woodson confessed to Jim Wexell in Men of Steel, returning for the Super Bowl was “‘not the smartest thing to do'” continuing he adds, “‘I was probably 45-50 percent healthy at that point.'”

Woodson of course returned for the Steelers 1996 season and in the home opener he returned Vinny Testaverde’s first pass 43 yards for a pick six. Woodson made the Pro Bowl in 1996.

  • So of course he was fully recovered, right?

Wrong. Woodson confided this to Wexell, “’In ’96, I was still sore, and then my Achilles started acting up a lot, just from compensating for my knee….’” Woodson left the Steelers after 1996, but went on to play in 7 more years, making 4 Pro Bowls and one All Pro Team will appearing in two more Super Bowls.

  • So surly he was fully recovered by time he left Pittsburgh, right?

Wrong again. While admitting to struggling a bit in San Francisco, Woodson explained, “’I was still trying to recover from the knee a bit, even that second year.’”

And while players like Casey Hampton and Heath Miller returned for a productive seasons after suffering ACL tears late in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, it is easy to forget just how fortunate they were. Shaun Suisham suffered an ACL tear during the 2015 Hall of Fame game that ended his career.

Are Bush and Banners ACL Tears Lingering On?

It is hard to really say how much impact Zach Banner’s absence has had on the offensive line. He won the starting job in 2020, only to tear his ACL in the season opening win over the Giants. Which is to say, he’s largely an unknown commodity.

  • With Devin Bush, it’s a little different.

Bush had a strong, if not fantastic rookie year in 2019 and was playing well early in 2020. So far in 2021 he’s been a non-factor. Is it because he’s still not fully recovered from his ACL tear? It is hard to know for sure.

Some film analysis of the Lions game suggests he was badly out of place on some of those critical runs the Lions used to gouge the Steelers defense. That was only one play, however, and Bush was far from the only person on the Steelers defense out of position (see Joe Schobert and Cam Sutton.)

  • While medicine is a science it remains an inexact science.

People’s bodies heal differently and at distinct paces. Modern medicine has done a lot to make ACL tears more manageable for NFL players, but if something seems not quite right with Devin Bush, just remember that even in 2021 anterior cruciate ligament injuries anything but trivial.

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Steelers Nation Matured with Bill Cowher as He Validated Mom’s Wisdom

Today, Bill Cowher enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame 29 years after becoming Steelers coach in January 1992.

“Passionate” “Inspiring” “Intense” “Daring” “Emotional” “Intimidating” “Fiery” “Boisterous” “Balanced” are all excellent words that describe Bill Cowher. Yet most Steelers fans could have applied these adjectives to The Chin before he’d even coached a half season’s worth of games.

Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 16 years. As we observed in the intro to “The Cowher Years” the series, the world changed tremendously during his time. And it is through change that we learn the most.

To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them and to re-experience all of the change wrought by them.

  • So what did Steelers Nation learn and what did it gain from Bill Cowher’s time in Pittsburgh?

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via Daily Record

Vindicating Faith

Generation X occupies a curious spot within Steelers Nation. Unlike the our Depression Era grandparents and our War Baby/Boomer parents, we never experienced the perpetual losing SOS (Same Old Steelers.)

  • But unlike the millennials, we did live through the 80’s, when the Steelers muddled through mediocrity.

Yet, as children of the ’70’s we had been young enough to actually believe that “We Are the Champions” really was written for Steelers. And this instilled in us an unshakable faith that someday, I daresay, the Steel Curtain would Rise Again.

Chalk some of that up to naiveté of youth, says the writer who scoffed at winning “The Aikman Derby” because, “The Steelers don’t need to draft Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister!

But the 1989 Steelers breathed new life into those hopes. And if 1990 disappointed, the logic behind Bob Labriola’s favorable position-by-position post-season comparison between the Steelers and the surprise Super Bowl Champion Giants was sound.

The Steelers had the pieces needed to be champions. Chuck Noll felt so himself, but admitted to his wife during the 1991 season that he couldn’t coach them up to that level.

And in writing about the early Cowher years, it occurred to me that during the early 1990’s, Steelers Nation experienced what it was like in the 70’s when the team was on the rise. Winning was novel. Winning was fun. And it was pure.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

I’ll never forget answering the door 2 days after Christmas at my grandma’s house in Baldwin, moments after the 1992 Steelers closed with a win over the Browns. I greeted a teenage paper boy sporting a Steelers hat, Steelers jacket and Steelers T-shirt and huge simile tattooed across his face. I’d been to Pittsburgh scores of times through the 80’s, but I hadn’t seen that enthusiasm since the late 70’s.

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

Not only were the Steelers finally playing the Championship Caliber football that they could have and should have been playing before, but they were playing the Championship Caliber football that we fans felt we deserved to see them play.

That feeling reached its peak when Yancey Thigpen took out his Terrible Towel in the end zone 1994 AFC playoff win the Browns.

A generation of Steelers fans felt like we were were finally claiming our birthright!

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

As we know too well, a week later Alfred Pupunu broke the magic spell that Thigpen’s Terrible Towel twirl had cast. That loss, ugly as it was, fostered a transition in how Steelers Nation perceived its beloved team.

The Steelers of the 70’s might not have been the Greek gods that NFL Films portrays them as, but they were modern day Epic heroes, Goliaths, if you will. In contrast, the Steelers of the 1990’s, ever struggling against the salary cap, played the role of Davids.

  • And that perception was grounded in a bit of reality.

The Steelers Digest once ran covers of Rod Woodson dressed as Superman and another of Greg Lloyd posing with a Darth Vader helmet. Both motifs were appropriate.

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

But I’ll simply observe, with my heart full of love for Number 26 and Number 95, that Jack Lambert never needed costume department props to stage his iconic photo.

  • The “David” role suited the Steelers and Steelers Nation well.

But it also confronted some hard realities. In Super Bowl XXX team “David” came far closer to slaying team “Goliath” than anyone expected. But when David’s sling is quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Goliath has Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman as his sword, Goliath is going to win most of time, especially if David’s sling fires at the wrong team, twice.

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

Let’s be honest. The “David” complex led to a bit of self-righteousness on the part of Steelers Nation. Who didn’t snicker when Tom Donahoe waived off Eric Green and Woodson’s requests to return with his “Salvation Army” comment? I know I did.

Well, they defied gravity until they couldn’t. The Cowher-Donahoe dispute proved that, even if the Steelers do run one of the better, more people-friendly organizations in the NFL, they are not immune from the poisons of petty personnel disputes and ego clashes.

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

The fact that the Steelers were able to return to contender status so fast after the dark days of 1998 and 1999, attests to how well the organization was run. Yet, before the 21st century was even a half decade old, the Steelers had played two more AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh and lost both of them.

Players who could have, and should have helped bring One for the Thumb back to Pittsburgh, guys like Mark Bruener, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake gave way to players like Heath Miller, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, and yet the Super Bowl remained distant. To repeat:

  • To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them.

With passing article in the Cowher Years series, the feelings generated by those inopportune interceptions, blocked kicks, free agent departures, blown calls and those lost AFC Championships grew more acute.

And it reminded me of something my mother told me in 1980 when I was a 3rd grader complaining that the Steelers weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Here is her response:

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Ben Roethlisberger and Bill Cowher in the final moments of Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey, AP via The Athletic.

“If the Steelers won the Super Bowl every year, it wouldn’t be special.”

Mom was right, as she (almost) always is. By the mid 00s, instead of expecting a Super Bowl, many Steelers fans feared they’d never see one. Of course Dan Rooney steered Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And while Big Ben didn’t deliver in his first season, he did in his second.

Bill Cowher could finally make good on his promise to Dan Rooney. He brought home the 5th Lombardi.

And when it finally happened, one Steelers scribe had the maturity to appreciate just how special it was.

Thank you Bill. May your bust in Canton shine forever!

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2006 Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl Hangover, The Chin Hangs It Up

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw the 2005 Steelers become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University.

Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming. Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion.

The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near Pittsburgh’s Armstrong Tunnels, Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.

Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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Steelers 2006 Season Record and Summary

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw Pittsburgh become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University. Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming.

Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion. The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near the Armstrong Tunnels in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy

We can be a better football team, I can be a better quarterback and not win 15 games…. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 games.” – Ben Roethlisberger August 2005

We would have no way of knowing it at the time, but Ben Roethlisberger was wise beyond his years. You could describe the Steelers 2004 season in many ways, but “Unplanned” might be the most accurate. After a 6-10, 2003 campaign, nothing was expected of the 2004 Steelers. And that was before they lost their starting quarterback.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 15 straight wins, until finally falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. To Bill Cowher the challenge was to keep maintain “that same look in our eye” now that expectations were high.

Expectations were high. In July none other than Art Rooney II declared “I think for the people who have been around for a while now, I think we all feel like it’s time. We’ve been close and we have to take that last step.”
In other words, “Win the Super Bowl” was the Steelers plan. Ironically, their ability to do that would hinge on their ability to improvise when things did not go as planned.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Retooled for a Run

By summer of 2005 the annual exoduses of free agents from Pittsburgh were fading from memory.

Sure the Steelers had lost free agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent, but Max Starks and Kendall Simmons were essentially upgrades. Chad Scott had gone too, but Ike Taylor was more than ready.

No one was sure, but Randle El was a proven player.

The Steelers also welcomed tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Most importantly, Jerome Bettis decided to return for one final shot at Super Bowl instead of retiring

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

When the Steelers arrived at St. Vincents Jerome Bettis passed out “Super Bowl XL Detroit: The Bus Stops” T-shirts. But all eyes were on Hines Ward’s hold out. Ward had a year on his contract. Dan Rooney did not negotiate with hold outs. He hadn’t made an exception for Franco Harris. Ward would be no different.

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward in the playoff win against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tony Tribble, AP via Al.com

But Dan Rooney felt this team had “…the closeness that brings championships” and didn’t want a money squabble poisoning camaraderie. With Jerome Bettis’s help, Rooney talked Hines Ward into reporting and delivered on his promise to treat him fairly.

Ward’s return was welcome in football terms too, because yellow flags flashed around both the Steelers running game and passing game during the 2005 preseason. The plan had been for Duce Staley to serve as the bell cow with Jerome Bettis as his backup.

  • But both Staley and Bettis had health issues during training camp. So Bill Cowher turned to Willie Parker, 2004’s preseason wonder.

Ben Roethlisberger had surprisingly struggled during the 2005 preseason, posting a 32.8 passer rating prompting Bill Cowher to confesses “I like this group of guys, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Was Willie Parker a legit starting running back? Would Roethlisberger prove to be a one-year-wonder? The Steelers were about to find out.

Season Opens as Planned, But NFL = “Not For Long….”

The 2005 Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to open the season. Willie Parker ran for 160 yards and 111 yards respectively, while Ben Roethlisberger had an average passer rating of 149.05. The Steelers would be alright with Ben and Willie.

The New England Patriots returned to Pittsburgh on week 3 left as victors yet again, after a 23-21 contest. Next the Steelers traveled to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, but it took a last second Jeff Reed field goal to get them there.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee during the game.

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

Outsiders have long questions the Steelers practice of keeping 3 quarterbacks but October 2005 would vindicate the franchise’s philosophy.

The Steelers would lose their next game as Tommy Maddox struggled all day, until finally throwing a pick six to Rashean Mathis in overtime.

Big Ben returned, and Pittsburgh rebounded for 2 more wins, but in the 2nd victory over the Ravens, but hetweaked his knee again. Worse yet, both Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis were down with injuries.

And the Steelers were traveling to Lambeau Field, one of the NFL’s most difficult venues to play in.

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

Troy Polamalu strip sacks Brett Favre. Photo Credit: John Biever, SI.com

Fortunately, Bill Cowher had flexibility at backup quarterback and started Charlie Batch started instead. He also had Duce Staley in his bullpen at running back.

  • Neither Duce nor Batch made any fantasy football owners happy that day.
  • Pittsburgh’s best“offensive” play was Troy Polamalu’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But that play, combined with just enough plays by Batch and Staley, put the Steelers over the top.

A week later, Charlie Batch did make a lot of plays in quarterbacking the Steelers to a 17-7 halftime lead, but unfortunately going into halftime he broke his finger during a QB sneak for a touchdown. Tommy Maddox struggled again, but midway through the 3rd quarter Ken Whisenhunt improvised by going to his bag of tricks, as Antwaan Randle El tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fake reverse to Hines Ward that all but iced the game.

Unfortunately, no such magic was on tap a week later as Maddox continued to struggle costing the Steelers an overtime loss, this time to the Ravens.

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

Ben Roethlisberger returned for a key Monday Night Football matchup against the 2005 undefeated Indianapolis Colts. While the Steelers kept it closer than the score indicates, the Colts won, 26-7.

That was perhaps to be expected. Ben Roethlisberger has typically struggled his first game back after an injury, and this was one of the games that set this trend. But the following week the Steelers came up short 38-31 to the Bengals, leaving Pittsburgh at 7-5 with a three-game distant second in the AFC North.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Bengals

  • A Post-Gazette photo caption went so far as to suggest that Jerome Bettis questioned his decision to return.

With his back to the wall, Bill Cowher called full pads for practice, something that was unheard of in mid-December. He did something equally meaningful in the meeting room. Cowher had always kept a white board filled with stats, facts and figures that he’d chart progress by updating throughout the season.

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

I had been there for 10 years and it’s something he did for a long time. It was always there. We come into the team meeting room and he erased all of it. We’re like, ‘Whoa, the season’s not over. We have four games left.’ And all he said was ‘Chicago. This is it. We’re not looking at all of it, just one game: Chicago.’

With 4 games left in the regular season, Bill Cowher had installed a playoff mindset in his team.
Cowher’s gambit worked.

The next week a 9-4 Chicago Bears team came to Heinz Field, and with Jerome Bettis leading the way in the snow, the Steelers dispatched the Bears 18-6. Next, the Steelers knocked off the Vikings on the road, then clobbered the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

Even though the Steelers still needed to win – and needed help going into the final game of the season, Bob Labriola concluded, “The playoffs are coming, and so are the Steelers.”

So there was no panic on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the Lions went up 14-7 in the final week of the season. The Steelers responded with 3 Jerome Bettis touchdowns and stopped a Lion’s comeback attempt with another touchdown to win 35-21.

The Steelers got the help they needed and were in the playoffs, but as the last seed in the AFC. No last seeded team had ever won a Super Bowl.

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

This suited Bill Cowher perfectly. Bill Cowher was a motivator, yet his repertoire of stories was limited. Veterans could often finish his speeches for him. .

When the playoffs arrived , Bill Cowher shocked his veterans by reminding them that people had told Christopher Columbus that he would sail off of the edge of the earth. Columbus persisted, discovering the New World.

As Bettis recounted to Ed Bouchette, “’My point is, don’t let history dictate your future, let your future make history.’”

  • History remembers the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals as a 31-17 blowout.

What it forgets is that, even after Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently knocked Carson Plamer from the game, Cincinnati managed to build up a 17-7 2nd quarter lead. The Steelers made it 17-14 before half time, but in the third quarter the Bengals marched directly toto the Steelers 15.

There punter Kyle Larson tried to run bumbled field goal attempt, fumbled and lost 20 yards in the process. As Mike Pruista of the Tribune-Review observed, at this point Cincinnati’s playoff inexperience grabbed them by the throat and never let go.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting with Cedrick Wilson on a flea flicker to go up 28-17, the Pittsburgh was playing with Cincinnati.

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

The only thing missing from the legend of Steelers-Colts 2005 AFC Divisional is narration by the late John Facenda.

The 2005 Colts had been perfect, only losing because they rested starters. The tragic suicide of Tony Dungy’s son had the rest of the league pulling for them. The 2005 Steelers, in contrast, had been anything but perfect.

  • Yet, for the first 3 quarters the Steelers had been absolutely perfect in this game.

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Colts, 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs

Troy Polamalu’s should have been interception. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Tory Polamalu had a game-sealing interception overturned, which to Colts used to narrow the score to 21-18. Two series later, Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Peyton Manning on 4th and 6, giving the Steelers the ball on the Colt’s 2. Gary Brackett ended Jerome Bettis’ touchdown attempt with a fumble, and only Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle saved the day.

  • What everyone remembers after that was Mike Vanderjet’s missed 46-yard field goal.

But Steelers rookie Bryant McFadden authored the critical play on that series. Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone and delivered the ball perfectly. McFadden squared his shoulders, and deflected the pass in what was the best play of his 7 year NFL career.

Perfection fought with imperfection in Indianapolis, and it was an unheralded rookie who swing the balance to the Steelers, sending them to the AFC Championship.

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

By the time he traveled to Denver on January 22nd 2006, Bill Cowher had coached in 5 AFC Championships with Jerome Bettis playing in three of those. All of those had been at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Cowher had lost 5 of 6 and Bettis all three.

  • If playing at home wasn’t the problem, perhaps getting away from Pittsburgh was part of the solution.

Jerome Bettis grew up in Detroit and he’d never won a championship. The night before the game, he implored his teammates: “Take me home! Take me home.”
The Broncos never had a chance.

Sure, rookie wide receiver Nate Washington turned into a defensive back to make a heads up play to stop a would have been game-changing interception. But that’s precisely the point. Championship teams find ways to make those plays.

When all was said and done, Joey Porter logged a sack, backup lineman Brett Keisel made 2, Larry Foote had an interception, and the Steelers completely neutered the Broncos “Zone Rushing” attack.

On offense, Cedric Wilson, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis all found the end zone, while Jeff Reed kicked 2 field goals. By the time Ben Roethlisberger rushed for the final score, it really was an insurance touchdown.

  • But the most telling moment of the game came on the sideline.

As Bill Cowher faced Dan and Art Rooney II, shaking hands, his left-hand index finger was raised to form the numeral 1 and he was clearly mouthing, “We’ve still got 1 more game to play!”

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

You can win Super Bowls several ways. You can dominate out of the gate as the Steelers did to the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Two fantastic franchises can go toe-to-toe with the best one eking out a win as the Steelers and the Cowboys did in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. You can make up for inferior talent by outfoxing your opened with better coaching as the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.

Every coach plans to dominate, probably expects to go toe-to-toe and likely falls back on outfoxing his opponent. But of none of those work one other option remains:

  • Create your own opportunities.

And that’s the route the Steelers took in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XL, but their offense was stuck in 2nd gear for most of the first half. In fact, Seattle held a 3-0 lead for most of the first 30 minutes.

So the Steelers did what they’d done so well all year long – improvise.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger was nervous and not playing well. After trying, and failing to connect with Hines Ward through the air, Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him in a reverse. Ward picked up 18 yards. The Steelers didn’t score on that drive, but on the next one they darted around the backfield buying time as Ward made a 37 yard catch that brought the Steelers to the Seahawks 3.

  • When two Jerome Betis runs didn’t get it done, Roethlisberger ran it in himself.

Save the whining Seahawks fans. Sure, the replay is hardly “indisputable,” but the referee who was standing right there had a far better view than the camera angle and he called it a touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt I
If the Steelers offense had been stalled in the first half, their play calling had forced the Seahawks to adjust their formations, just as Pittsburgh’s coaches expected, as recounted by Alan Faneca in Jim Wexell’s:

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

That wasn’t “just” a 75 yard run for a touchdown, it was an remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

Ike Taylor
Ben Roethlsiberger would turn over the ball on the Steelers next possession with Kelly Herndon returning it 76 yards. The Seahawks took 4 plays to score. Four series later, Seattle was at it again, driving to Pittsburgh’s 27 yard line, threating to score.

Ike Taylor was a great cornerback who couldn’t hold on to the ball. He had 17 interceptions, regular season and playoffs combined, in his entire 12-year career. Dwayne Woodruff also played 12 years and had 37 in the regular season alone.

  • Matt Hasselbeck thought he had Darrell Jackson open at the five.

Ike Taylor thought better of it, intercepted the ball and returned it 24 yards. Ike didn’t pick off too many passes in his career. But he sure made this one count.

Ken Whisenhunt II
The Steelers got the ball at midfield. A mix and match of runs and short passes earned a first down. Then Ken Whisenhunt went for the knockout punch. Ben Roethlisberger handed to Willie Parker. Parker tossed it to Antwaan Randle El. Randle El kept running his reverse. Ben Roethlisberger threw a block. Hines Ward got open. Randle El released.

The Steelers went up 21-10

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. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

Dicky LeBeau
Seattle still had time. They got the ball back. They advanced to midfield. The Steelers held them, forcing a third down with 8 yards to go. Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass. Deshea Townsend came out of nowhere sacking Hasselbeck and forcing a punt.

  • Dick LeBeau’s blitz was a new one, one he’d improvised and installed the night before.

The Steelers fed the ball to Jerome Bettis 7 times on their next 8 plays. Seattle got the ball back but it was too little too late – they turned over on downs.

  • With 3 seconds separating the Steelers from One for the Thumb, Ben Roethlisberger took a final knee.

Minutes later Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher took tie dais together. Bettis declared “The Bus stops here.”

Bill Cowher finally did what he returned to Pittsburgh to do: He handed Dan Rooney his 5th Lombardi Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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