Friday Night Lights Offers Antidote to NFL’s COVID 19 Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Memorial Day’s passing brings us closer to the NFL season’s start. But in this COVID-19 context, there are more questions than there are answers about the coming NFL year. Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL is fortunate in that it has had time to prepare a Coronavirus virus contingency plan.

  • But the NFL still has no answer to question of whether it will field games in front of fans or play in empty stadiums.

The prospect of staging major league games in empty stadiums is eerie. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist John Steigerwald has gone as far as to argue that if fans can’t attend games “…the NFL should forget it. Write off the 2020 season.”

“Big games need big crowds,” Steigerwald insists, hypothetically wondering what it would have been like for Bill Mazeroski to round the bases at Forbes Field with no fans in the stands.

  • Steigerwald has a point. Or does he?

At BTSC, Tony Defeo suggests that if the WWE can host matches without fans, then the NFL can play games in empty stadiums. As Defeo deftly points out, “Unlike Razor Ramon, T.J. Watt doesn’t need to draw the ire of the fans in attendance in order to be the bad guy—he just has to sack the quarterback.”

  • Technically speaking, Defeo is right.

But imagine the Steelers are mounting a comeback in their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens. Would a T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree strip sack of Lamarr Jackson have the same game-changing impact absent the roar of the fans?

Imagine in the same game, James Washington sets up a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster go ahead touchdown pass with a devastating block followed by an end zone Terrible Towel Twirl al la Yancey Thigpen vs. the Browns in the ’94 playoffs would bring Heinz Field to a fever pitch.

  • The same end zone celebration in front of an empty stadium on a cold November evening at 10:30 pm would just seem kinda strange.

Defeo and Steigerwald advance completely opposite arguments, yet both men are on to something. Fortunately there’s a way to reconcile both of their points.

Friday Night Lights Holds Antidote to NFL’s Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Although it was filmed long before the word “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, fictional coach Eric Taylor provided the antidote to playing games in front of empty stadiums during Season 4 of Friday Night Lights.

Late in the season, rich kids from the rival Dillon Panthers use their 4x4s on to destroy the field of the less-well-to-do rival East Dillon Lions just before their season-ending matchup. The Dillon Panthers need this win to reach the playoffs, and their plan is to force the game on to their home truf.

  • But coach Taylor out-foxes the Panthers by staging the game in an empty field in a local park.

If by September it is unsafe to play games in front of full stadiums, the NFL should follow coach Taylor’s example and stage games at local high schools. Seriously.

Bethel Park Stadium, Bethel Park High Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park Stadium

Moving games from pro stadiums to local high school fields would solve a lot of problems. Instead of reinforcing sense of isolation that COVID-19 has wrought, it would bring games back to their roots. If the NFL shifted to smaller venues, the focus would remain on the players and the action itself. Empty seats would fade out of view.

  • For a season at least, football would again become back yard boy’s game, only one played by elite men who are the best at it.

Doing so could also serve to re-connect teams to their communities. General-admission tickets could sell for $25 a head. Local health officials could use the Abbott Labs and/or Bosch machines to test fans before the games, ensuring everyone’s safety. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and other “first responders” could be given free tickets.

  • Assuming enough adequate venues can be found, teams could even rotate home games to different stadiums, further integrating communities.

The Steelers could play one week at Central Catholic, another at Baldwin High, another at Bethel Park, and yet another at Upper St. Clair. I grew up in the DC suburbs rooting against the home team, but to be honest, the idea of the Washington Redskins playing under the lights at Wheaton High School is pretty cool.

  • The chances of this actually happening are pretty slim.

There is simply too much money be lost. Forbes estimates that the Steelers would lose a minimum of $156 million if they have to play in front of an empty Heinz Field. The Dallas Cowboys could lose up to four times that amount. Knowing that, the NFL will do whatever it can to get fans into the stadiums.

But if that proves to be impossible, then Roger Goodell would do well to take a page for Eric Taylor’s book.

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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A Tale of Two Field Goals: Steelers Win over Packers Turned on Green Bay’s Failed Field Goal

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a 31-28 victory over the Packers at Heinz Field, Sunday night, thanks to a 53-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell on the game’s final play.

  • It was certainly one of the greatest finishes in the history of the Steelers franchise.
  • And hats off to Boswell, who tied the the mark for the longest field goal in Heinz Field history.
Steelers vs Packers, Chris Boswell

Steelers hoist Chris Boswell after kicking the game winner against the Packers at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Daily Caller

Of course, if Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s third quarter gamble had paid off, his kicker, Mason Crosby, would hold the Heinz Field record at 57 yards.

Midway through the third quarter, mere moments after the two-touchdown underdog Packers had taken a 21-14 lead on a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Hundley to receiver Davante Adams, Green Bay linebacker Blake Martinez corralled a tipped screen pass that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was tyring to get to Le’Veon Bell that set the visitors up just 45 yards away from another score and a commanding lead.

  • But after driving to Pittsburgh’s 31-yard line, the Packers were pushed back to the 39, thanks to sacks by defensive ends L.T. Walton and Cameron Heyward.

Facing fourth and 18, surely McCarthy, one of the better head coaches in the NFL, would send out his punting unit and force the Steelers offense to start from deep within its own territory.

  • Surprisingly, however, McCarthy, a Pittsburgh-native, sent out Crosby to attempt a 57-yard field goal.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Crosby’s kick wasn’t even close, and Pittsburgh took over from its own 47.

Six plays later, the Steelers tied the game at 21, thanks to a one-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown

It’s impossible to say if Pittsburgh would have still scored a touchdown had it been forced to start the drive from even its own 20, but it’s likely Todd Haley’s play-calling approach would have been different.

  • It just goes to show you that all NFL coaches–even highly-respected one–are susceptible to lapses in judgment.

It’s likely McCarthy, given Green Bay’s health issues (Aaron Rodgers missed his fifth-straight game with a broken collarbone) and precarious playoff positioning in the NFC, was frustrated with his offense’s inability to capitalize on Roethlisberger’s second interception of the night, and he wanted to give his team a boost (along with a two-score lead).

  • Instead, McCarthy gave the home team a boost and allowed the Steelers to quickly get back into the game.

When it comes to kicking 50-plus-yard field goals at Heinz Field, perhaps the toughest place to kick in the history of modern football, there’s a time and a place for everything.

With just four seconds remaining in regulation, it was a no-brainer for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin to send Boswell out to attempt a 53-yard field goal.

  • Worst-case scenario: The kick is blocked and returned for a game-ending touchdown.
  • Likely scenario: Boswell’s kick falls short, and the game goes into overtime.
  • Best-case scenario is what actually transpired, as Boswell’s kick sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.

A head coach can often be his own worst enemy.

If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had to do it all over again, he probably would have played it safe and not allowed Chris Boswell to fire the last salvo of the night.

 

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For Better or Worse, Steelers 31-28 Win over Packers Provides Season’s Defining Moment

The Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers gave us something we’ve been longing for: A defining moment.

  • Mike Tomlin calling out the New England Patriots before the ball was even snapped gave the press their defining moment.
  • The NFL commentating class won’t forget – or forgive – Mike Tomlin’s declaration.

But the other, more critical moment came during the game itself, as the contest between the NFL’s two storied franchises laid bare both the fundamental strengths and fundamental weaknesses that will define the success or failure of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers quest to add Lombardi Number 7.

Steelers vs Packers, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown touchdown packers, Morgan Burnett, Davon House

Antonio Brown burns Morgan Burnett & Davon House for his 3rd touchdown in Steelers win over Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Killer Bees Finally Sting in Unison

For the first 9 weeks of the season, the story on the Pittsburgh Steelers was the under performance of the offense. During 2015 and 2016 injuries and suspensions combined to keep all four Killer Bees Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant from playing together.

Yet, when the Steelers four Killer Bees finally took the field, the result was a plodding, pedestrian effort instead of the Heinz Field re incarnation of The Greatest Show on Turf.

But during the win over the Tennessee Titians Pittsburgh’s offense exploded for forty points and four touchdowns. But excelling for a single week means nothing in the NFL, hence the term “On Any Given Sunday.”

  • Had the Steelers offense come alive, or was the Titans win merely a one-game wonder?

Against the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh’s offense proved it could match another team blow for blow in a contest where the Steelers gave up 3 turnovers, secured zero and had to tie or retake the lead 4 times.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers offense left a lot of plays on the field against the Packers.

While Martavis Bryant scored a touchdown and made important catches, he dropped critical passes. We can say the same of Jesse James and Eli Rogers who came up with critical catches but also suffered drops. All Justin Hunter seems to do is drop passes. But if the supporting cast wasn’t always great, they did clear the stage for stars of the Steelers offense.

  • And the Steelers Killer Bees stung the Packers early and often.

Antonio Brown stung the Packers on long and short routes, with yards after the catch, in the end zone, over the middle and, perhaps most importantly, on the sidelines. Le’Veon Bell had some tough sledding at times, but he remained patient and nearly gouged the Green Bay for 100 yards rushing, while steadily burning them through the air.

And at the center of it, you had Ben Roethlisberger, who in spite of two interceptions, is playing his best football of the season.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Hand in Steelers Defense

While the Steelers offense struggled to find its legs early in the season, the defense filled the void. We saw that dominating defense starting with the Packers second possession of the 3rd quarter.

Things were looking bleak for the Steelers after the Brett Hundley and Davante Adams torched them for a 55 yard touchdown followed by a Ben Roethlisberger interception 7 plays later, followed by a quick Packers first down.

  • But ten L.T. Walton sacked Brett Hundley on first down
  • T.J. Watt defended one of those short passes Hundley had been delivering so lethally all night
  • Cameron Heyward sacked Hundley on 3rd down
  • Then Max McCartney got greedy and tried a 57 yard field goal, which is beyond risky at Heinz Field

When the Packers got the ball back, Mike Hilton and Cam Heyward stoned Jamaal Williams for a two yard loss, followed by an incompletion, followed by Cameron Heyward’s second consecutive sack on third down.

Steelers vs Packers, T.J. Watt, Brett Hundley, Vince Williams

T.J. Watt celebrates his 4th quarter sack of Brett Hundley as Vince Williams looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger PennLive.com

Le’Veon Bell coughed up the ball on the Steelers next drive, but the defense forced a stop in a series highlighted by Ryan Shazier’s pass deflection.

  • If only Steelers defense could have played that well for the rest of the night.

Alas, they didn’t. In the last three games the Steelers defense has given up touchdown passes of 61 yards, 60 yards, 75 yards, 39 yards, 54 yards and 55 yards.

And it is that statistic that gives us the second, and decisive defining moment that surfaced against the Packers.

Steelers Defense, Not Tomlin’s Words Cast Die for Rest of 2017

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it best when he declared, “Mike Tomlin wrote a really big check, so he best cash it.” By declaring that the Steelers should win it all and THEN calling out the Patriots Tomlin looked past the Packers, Bengals and Ravens. That’s a coaching cardinal sin even if another Super Bowl was already the internal measure of success for the 2017 Steelers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Packers

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

But the Steelers head coach has now set the narrative for the rest of the season as the story will now pit Pittsburgh either rising or falling because of Mike Tomlin’s words.

  • And you know what? Those stories will generate a lot of page views and social media clicks, but all will boil down to a bunch of BS.

If you want to know what will really define success or failure of the Steelers for the rest of the season, it comes down to either the defense’s ability to stop averaging one 57 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play or the Killer Bee’s ability to outscore a trio of offenses that are far better than anything Pittsburgh have seen of late.

  • All of the sound and fury generated by Tomlin’s words is nothing more than a distraction.

The success of the 2017 Steelers will come down the their ability to stop the bomb. It really is that simple.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Victory over Packers

Another Steelers game, another nail biter, another win as Pittsburgh triumpthed at the last second over the Green Bay Packers by the score of 31-28 thanks to Chris Boswell’s last second 53 yard field goal.

Antonio Brown, Antoino Brown 2 point conversion, Steelers vs Packers

Antonio Brown gets the 2 point conversion in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

With another victory in the bag its now time to vote Steelers game ball winners. Here’s the ballot:

[yop_poll id=”61″]

Antonio Brown gets top billing, thanks to his 2 touchdown, 10 catch 169 yard game that include several critical catches. Following him is Le’Veon Bell, who had 95 yards rushing, 88 yards through the air and kept numerous drives alive.

  • Ben Roethlisberger also gets a ballot slot thanks to his 4 touchdown 351 yard performance, although Big Ben did toss two picks.

Rounding out the ballot for the offense are Martavis Bryant, who had a touchdown and 3 other catches. We’ll also give a nod to Xavier Grimble who caught a touchdown pass, and of course Chris Boswell gets a slot for his 53 yard game winning field goal which tied the Heinz Field record.

On defense, Cameron Heyward gets the first slot, thanks to his monster game which include 2 sacks on third down, 2 tackles for a loss an 3 quarterback hits. Ryan Shazier who led the team in tackles and had a critical pass defense also gets a nod.

T.J. Watt and L.T. Walton, who both had sacks, while Watt added another key pass defense, get a nod. Stephon Tuitt also gets a ballot slot after another strong night.

Write In Your Choice

Remember, you’re not limited to these choices. If you feel that someone like Jesse James, Vince Williams or perhaps Eli Rogers deserves a game ball, write his name in. Better yet write his name in and leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting. The game ended at 1:30 here in Buenos Aires, and the work day looms tomorrow, so click here for our full analysis of the Steelers win over the Packers.

Go Steelers!

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

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

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

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

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

1972 AFC Championship Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1984 AFC Championship Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

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

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

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

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

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The Steelers 2016 AFC North Title is More than Just a Stocking Suffer

Steelers fans like to brag about not cherishing playoff spots, division titles or even conference championships.

I guess the standard really is the standard, and after watching the Black and Bold capture six Super Bowls, well, not to sound too cliched (it’s like nails on the chalkboard, sometimes), fans expect nothing less.

However, there’s something to be said for winning a division title, which Pittsburgh did, Sunday night, thanks to a pulsating Christmas 31-27 victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Hold Down the North,

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers following the Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Did the win secure home-field advantage or even a bye? No, but a division championship is nothing to sneeze at and not just something that you look back on years later and say, “Oh yeah, they won the division that year.”

The AFC North is a pretty tough and bruising division, filled with hard-fought and often dirty battles. Sometimes, the best teams don’t always come out on top, and even when they do, like the Steelers did in 2014, it’s not always unscathed. (Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee against the Bengals in the regular season finale and was lost for the wild card game versus Baltimore a week later.)

The Steelers got out of Sunday’s game without any serious injuries, and the fact that they survived at all, heck, that’s better than the alternative.

  • Can you imagine how glum things would be this week, on the heels of a depressing home loss to Baltimore that would have seriously put the Steelers playoff hopes in jeopardy?

Believe me, the chances of the Bengals, the unstable and probably ready for the tropics Bengals, mustering up the enthusiasm to wreck Baltimore’s season in Week 17 on the way to the plane were probably slimmer than none.

Now, Pittsburgh, a team with a lock on the third playoff seed has a chance to rest players such as James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt, Ladarius Green and perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, players who’ve been injured such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams and perhaps even Sammie Coates can get a chance to get their feet wet.

So, who do the Steelers match-up best against in the postseason? Who cares……for now. Just enjoy that division title for the next couple of weeks. Sure, it’s been done in Pittsburgh 22 times since 1972, but it’s still not that easy (if it was, everyone would do it).

Go out and buy that t-shirt. Go out and buy that cap.

The Steelers are in the playoffs, and that just never gets old.

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No Place Like Home: Is Ben Roethlisberger’s Road Record Under Todd Haley a Concern?

Is there a larger trend behind Ben Roethlisberger’s road record and struggles away from Heinz Field?

Sometimes reality is inconvenient. Last spring Bruce Arians reopened, yet again, the story of Art Rooney II forcing his firing after the Steelers 2011 season.

While unwelcome, Arian’s comments opened the door to a comparison of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance by offensive coordinator. And the numbers painted a clear picture: The Arians-Haley switch worked out well for Roethlisberger, Haley and Arians.

8 games into the 2016 season we know the story isn’t that simple because after 7 starts, Ben Roethlisberger is clearly struggling on the road. The question remains, Is this a new development, or are we only now just noticing? Let’s see what the numbers tell us….

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger home road splits, Ben Roethlisberger road record

Ben Roethlisberger @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance at Home and on the Road by Coordinator

When we first broke down the numbers on Ben Roethlisberger’s performance per coordinator, the focus was on the number of sacks he was taking and his efficiency at gaining yards, throwing touchdowns, and avoiding interceptions.

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Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under different offensive coordinators through 2015

These are all valuable measures, and using those metrics, the change from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley was just what the Dr. ordered. Nary a thought was given to how the variance in Ben Roethlisberger’s performance by venue.

  • Perhaps we should have, because those numbers tell an interesting story.

Ben Roethlisberger’s road record vs. his performance at Heniz Field with Ken Whisenhunt is quite interesting. Overall there’s very little difference between how Roethlisberger performed on the road and at home from 2004 to 2006. In fact, his completion percentage was a little higher, and he still threw more touchdowns than interceptions on the road.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ken Whisenhunt , Ben Roethlisberger road record Ken Whisenhunt, Ben Roethlisberger home record Ken Whisenhunt, Ben Roethlisberger performance Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger & Ken Whisenhunt home & away

On the critical statistic of wins and losses, Ben Roethlisberger’s winning percentage at Heinz Field was only slightly better than on the road. Likewise, his passer rating was only down slightly. It should be noted that, if the “Roethlisberger is a game manager” motif was unfair at this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger himself claimed to only be the supporting cast of a roster that included stars like Hines WardJerome Bettis, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu.

  • Mike Tomlin replaced Ken Whisenhunt with Bruce Arians, who made little secret of his intent to loosen Ben’s leash.

Here’s how Ben Roethilsberger’s home and away statictics with Bruce Arians look:

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Ben Roethlisberger & Bruce Arians, home and away

Under Bruce Arian’s tutelage we start to see a wider gap emerge between Ben Roethisberger’s performance and record at home, and away from Heinz Field. His completion percentage on the road was down under Arians by 3%, his interceptions were slightly up, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating took a hit on the road under Arians of about ten points. However, the differential between Ben Roethlisberger’s winning percentage at Heinz Field and on the road under Bruce Arians was double what it was under Ken Whisenhunt.

  • So how does Ben Roethlisberger’s record road record and home record vary under Todd Haley’s first four years?

Here’s where the numbers get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger road record Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger statistics Todd Haley

Ben Roethlisberger & Todd Haley at home & away

First, his overall winning percentage under Todd Haley is down, which is part is due to the fact that the Steelers, contrary to Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s protests, were rebuilding in 2012 and 2013.

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  • And that should show you just how much Ben Roethisberger means to the Steelers.

Because Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, in terms of accuracy, throwing more interceptions, and sacks is better under Todd Haley than it was under Bruce Arians. So credit Todd Haley with doing something right. But don’t pat him on the back too hard….

…You can see that under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger’s performance at home is better than his performance on the road. His completion percentage is stable on the road, but his sack number are up, his interceptions numbers are similar to what they were under Arians, but Ben Roethisberger is throwing far fewer touchdowns on the road, and his passer rating reflects it.

Under Todd Haley’s first four years, for the first time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger has a below .500 winning percentage on the road.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Home and Road Records with Todd Haley by Season

How do these trend play out on a season-by-season basis? The numbers don’t tell us a whole lot, but they do suggest but it is the tendency suggests an alarming trend.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger road reacord 2012, Ben Roethlisberger home record 2012, Ben Roethlisberger Todd Haley 2012

Ben Roethlisberger’s road record and home records for 2012

In 2012, there was little difference between Ben Rothlisberger’s performance at home and on the road, except that his winning percentages away from Heinz Field began to dip, but other factors probably account for that.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger road record 2013, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics 2013, Ben Roethlisberger Todd Haley 2013

Ben Roethlisberger’s road record and home records for 2013

Ben Roethlisberger’s performance at Heinz Field in 2013 and on the road was very similar, except that his winning percentage was down, but like 2012 this was probably due to other factors.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger home and away record 2014, Ben Roethlisberger statistics 2014, Ben Roethlisberger Todd Haley 2014

Ben Roethlisberger’s road record and home record for 2014

In 2014, Ben Roethlisberger’s road record remains stable, but his performance away from Heinz Field begins to dip in a couple of key areas.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger road record 2015, Ben Roetlhisberger statistics 2015

Ben Roethlisberger’s on the road and @ home in 2015

Many of Ben’s performance metrics on the road and at home are stable across the first four years of Todd Haley’s tenure, but the difference in Ben Roethsiberger on the road and Ben Roethlisberger at home gets noticeably bigger in 2014 and 2015 – which lay outside of the Steelers current rebuilding window.

It is in 2014 and 2015 that Ben Roethlisberger starts taking more sacks on the road than he does at home. His touchdown numbers plummet (although they were bad in 2013 too) and his completion percentage dropped by 6% in 2015. Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger’s winning percentage on the road fell to its worst level in 2015.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Road Record in 2016…

So how are the trends holding up halfway into the 2016 season. Quite frankly, the early returns are not good:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger road record 2016, Ben Roethlisberger statistics 2016

Ben Roethlisberger at home & away 8 games into 2016

If you had to write a book on the 2016 Steelers at this point you would title it “A Tale of Two Roethlisbergers.” He’s really looking like two separate quarterbacks at Heinz Field and on the road.

To be fair to Ben NO ONE played well in Philadelphia. And in Miami and at Baltimore Ben was injured. Likewise, against Miami his defense was missing Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier, who define the concept of “Difference maker.” Likewise, in Miami Todd Haley inexplicably abandoned the run in a game when Le’Veon Bell was looking like he could take over the game.

And, for most of the season, the Steelers have rotated 4th or 5th WR’s alongside Antonio Brown.

Will Ben Roethlisberger’s Road Struggles Continue?

What to make of all of this? Somewhere out there are probably statics on how a quarterback’s play drops off on the road. My guess is that Ben Roethlisberger’s road record under Ken Whisenhunt was probably better than that average, that it was probably at about that average under Bruce Arians, and is below that under Todd Haley.

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Late in their careers, word was that Peyton Manning couldn’t play in the cold and that the wheels fell off Brett Favre after Thanksgiving.

  • Could the late game story on Ben Roethlisberger be that he struggles on the road?

The raw numbers suggest that, but it is impossible and unfair to make that assertion without assessing the performance of the entire defense along with other offensive skill players in question during the timeframes we’re looking it.

Ben Roethlisberger made a name for himself in his second year by leading his team to Super Bowl XL with three straight playoff wins on the road. But the numbers do not lie. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger’s road record shows that he struggles when he’s away from  Heinz Field and it would be ironic if that trend defines the latter part of his career.

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Why the Steelers Need a Win vs. Ravens Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium

Most would say a game at the halfway point of the regular season (even one between two division rivals) isn’t a must win.

However, while that may be true for the Steelers, as they travel to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium to take on the Ravens this Sunday, they sure could put down a huge deposit on their second AFC North title in the past three years with a victory.

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Antonio Brown Ravens defensive back Will Hill. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports

It’s a lot easier said than done, of course, especially if Landry Jones ends up splitting time with Ben Roethlisberger because surgically repaired meniscus back to health fails to hold up.

  • But just think about what a win over the Ravens this Sunday could mean.

For starters, it would give Pittsburgh (4-3) a two-game lead over the 3-4 Ravens, as well as a 2-0 record in the division.

Furthermore (and while it’s never wise to count your chickens–or victories–before they hatch), the Steelers have two games against the hapless Cleveland Browns over the final eight weeks. The first  tiebreaker to decide division titles is head-to-head, while the second is record within the division. Therefore, you could be talking no worse than a 4-2 record within the AFC North if the Steelers can avoid tanking against Cleveland.

Things haven’t been the greatest for the Steelers lately–including on the injury front. A team that looked like a Super Bowl juggernaut as recently as October 9, following a 31-13 victory over the Jets, suddenly seems frail and unstable.

Additionally, the competency of head coach Mike Tomlin has come into question (yet again); and those Patriots, not only did they go 3-1 at the beginning of the season in the absence of the suspended Tom Brady, they took advantage of Pittsburgh’s quarterback problems with a 27-16 victory at Heinz Field on October 23.

Not only is New England (7-1) in the driver’s seat for a bye and a number one seed, the Steelers are currently the fourth seed in the AFC.

  • But while the Steelers have some work to do with regards to earning at least a second seed, it’s still very early.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may be down, but they’re currently up by one game in the AFC North, and a victory this week would make a lot of folks feel better about the second half of  the 2016 regular season.

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Has Chris Boswell’s Honeymoon with Steelers Nation Ended?

As hard as it is to believe, when Steelers kicker Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter of the Steelers loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field, it never actually occurred to me that he might miss.

In-fact, as I watched Chris Boswell’s attempt sail through the air, the football appeared to be heading where it always had so many times before since he became a Steeler last October: right down the middle. When it stayed out to the left (my left as  I watched it on TV, Boswell’s right as he watched it at Heinz Field), I couldn’t believe it and thought I was seeing things when the officials singled that it was no good.

  • Jim Nantz even seemed to pause before annoucing the miss, as if he wasn’t sure he could believe his eyes.
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Has Chris Boswell’s honeymoon with Steelers Nation ended? Photo Credit: Don Wright, Associated Press

This is what happens when a kicker comes out of no where, as it seemed Chris Boswell did one year earlier when he won an in-season tryout and replaced the struggling Josh Scobee, and goes on to make 33 of his first 37 field goal attempts (and one of those misses is a block).

Had that miss happened under normal circumstances, it may not have hurt so much, but since it came just two plays after it appeared Pittsburgh had tied the game at 14 on a touchdown pass from Landry Jones to Darrius Heyward-Bey, it stung just a little more. (Especially on a day when you knew a Ben Roethlisberger late game rescue was out of the question.)

Of course, at the time, I didn’t feel as if Chris Boswell’s honeymoon with Steelers Nation had ended. However, in the fourth quarter, when the young kicker missed a 54-yard field goal after head coach Mike Tomlin (some would  say) inexplicably sent him out there to attempt it with his team trailing by 11 points and only needing three yards to keep the drive going, my brother texted: “Boswell is having a bad game!”

  • After seeing similar sentiments all throughout social media, I began to think the good feelings were over for Boswell.

Is that fair? Probably not. After all, while a 54-yard attempt is far from a sure thing – especially at Heinz Field–a 42-yarder is no gimme, either; coming into Sunday’s game, all three of Boswell’s career misses that weren’t blocks were from between 40 and 49 yards away, so maybe you don’t have to worry about him missing many actual gimmes (kicks from inside 40 yards).

Yes, while the honeymoon part of Boswell’s career may have ended on Sunday, I  don’t think the insanely accurate part of it has. If you use your mind’s eye to go back and re-visit the vast majority of Boswell’s kicks since signing with the Steelers, it’s hard to picture many of them not being dead-center perfect.

What that tells me is whatever it is that Chris Boswell is doing–his approach, his target, his follow-through–is on the money; as long as it stays that way, his accuracy will continue to be closer to the 89 percent it was coming into Sunday’s game, than the 60 percent that it was during it.

Earlier in the year, as I watched yet another one of his kicks evenly split the uprights, I turned to someone and said, “Boswell’s going to be the best kicker in the NFL before long.”

The fact that Chris Boswell is doing what he’s doing just over a year after not being able to find an NFL job, exemplifies just how universally good kickers have become at their craft. Therefore, he may never reach the top of the mountain, but he’ll certainly be in the mix of top NFL kickers for the next several years.

  • So, if you fear Boswell is Heinz Field’s latest victim and that he’ll suddenly become a head-case on par with Kris Brown and Jeff Reed, I don’t think you have to worry about that.

Sometimes, kickers miss field goals. And while Chris Boswell had a bad day on Sunday (relatively speaking–in-addition to his two misses, he also connected from 32, 44 and 46 yards away), he seems to be on his way to having a very good career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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