Is 7 Raven’s Lucky Number? Inside Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank Stadium Losing Streak

Although the Steelers injury report still lists him as “Questionable” word is that Ben Roethlisberger will start for Pittsburgh vs. the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium today. The news is welcome. Landry Jones first start in the Steelers loss to the Patriots wasn’t the disaster many (including yours truly) feared it would be. But starting at home is one thing, starting away is another.

News that Ben Roethlisberger probably will start evokes classic moments from the Steelers-Ravens rivalry like this one (available as of 11/6/16):

Although that wasn’t Troy Polamalu’s finest moment in the series – that distinction would be Polamalu’s pick six in the AFC Championship game – it is probably number two. Polamalu’s game changing play is also notable for fact most of Steelers Nation would prefer to forget:

  • It set up Ben Roethlisberger’s final winning effort at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Ravens, Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger's M&T Bank Stadium losing streak

Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank losing streak began in 2011 had has continued since. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Since the 2010 Steelers glorious Sunday Night Football win over the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger (and the Steelers have struggled at M&T Bank Stadium.

In between, of course there was the Charlie Batch authored 2012 upset of the Ravens, but that game has been the exception, not the rule.

Inside Ben Roethlisberger’s Losing Streak at M&T Bank Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger’s lifetime record vs. the Ravens is 9-8, a stat which includes his rookie debut and improves to 11-9 if you include Roethlsiberger’s playoff appearances against the Ravens. However, since that fateful night in 2010, Roethlisberger is only 2-5 in the regular season vs. the Ravens and 1-1.

  • And as we can see above, none of those victories have come at M&T Bank Stadium.

Just how bad has it rough have Ben Roethlisberger’s travels to M&T Bank Stadium been? Well, numbers don’t lie and the tale they tell isn’t pretty:

ben rothlisberger, M&T bank stadium, Ben Roethlisberger's M&T bank stadium losing streak

M&T bank stadium hasn’t been kind to Ben Roethlisberger

First you can see that he hasn’t had a 300 yard game in Baltimore since 2010, where has he’s done it at Heinz Field twice, although to be fair those are his only two 300 yard games in the regular season series. He completes about 3.3% fewer passes at M&T Bank Stadium than he does at Heinz Field – no big difference there. Neither do sacks appear to be a determinative issues, as the Ravens have sacked Ben Roethlisberger 7 times in 3 games at Heinz Field since 2010 and 9 times in 4 games at M&T Bank Stadium.

  • Interceptions are the real culprit for Ben Roethlisberger at M&T Bank Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 6 interceptions at M&T Stadium since 2010 and only 1 at Heinz Field. Whether he’s targeting Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller, or Hines Ward, Rashard Mendenhall or Mike Wallace, Ben Roethlisberger tends to hit the guys in Purple at M&T Bank Stadium.

There’s one other staistic that emphaizes the point above:

  • In 13 career games vs. the Baltimore Ravens, Antonio Brown has 1 touchdown pass.

If the Steelers are to break that cycle and assert their stamp on the AFC North title race, and if Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank Stadium losing streak is to end, Todd Haley had better find a way for Number 7 to get the ball to Number 84, preferably in the painted parts of the field.

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Mike Tomlin Names Darrius Heyward-Bey Starter. Is There Worse News in Store for Markus Wheaton?

he Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette has lamented Mike Tomlin’s mastery of the “informationless press conference” on more than one occasion. But in this week’s conference, Mike Tomlin shared a news bit that is important on several fronts:

This announcement of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s starter status Steelers Nation three important pieces of information.

Darrius Heyward Bey, Mike Tomlin names Darrius Heyward-Bey starter, Markus Wheaton

Darrius Heyward-Bey on his 60 yard touchdown run vs. Miami. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo! Sports

First, the move represents a huge win for Darrius Heyward-Bey. When the Steelers signed Darrius Heyward-Bey during the 2014 off season, you could safely classify the move as another bargin-basement free agency signing made out of desperation by the salary capped Steelers. The Oakland Raiders had made the former Maryland Terrapin the 7th pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, and he was now signing a free agent minimum deal.

But Heyward-Bey buckled his chin strap, and reinvented himself on special teams, settling for a mere 5 pass targets from Ben Roethlisberger during the 2014 season. Darrius Heyward-Bey got more opportunities during the 2015 season, earned a new contract, and teamed with Landry Jones to give the Steelers offense some fireworks in their loss to the Patriots.

  • Second, the move tells us that Sammie Coates still isn’t ready to assume the number 2 slot, either because of injury or his development.

The third piece of information perhaps carries some ominous implications for the incumbent starter Markus Wheaton.

Worse News Ahead for Markus Wheaton?

The Pittsburgh Steelers made Markus Wheaton their third round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, with an eye towards grooming him as Mike Wallace’s replacement. Injuries ruined Wheaton’s rookie season, but he rebounded to start 11 games in 2014.

Fans won’t soon forgive or forget Wheaton’s drop in the 2014 road loss to the Ravens, but during latter half of the season, Wheaton flew under the radar to make any number of drive-extending catches. Wheaton also had a shaky start to 2015, but came on strong late in the season.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out this way. Perhaps the one negative piece of news to come out of the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece over the New Orleans Saints was Markus Wheaton’s shoulder injury. Wheaton missed Pittsburgh’s first two games, making his return in the Steelers disastrous loss to the Eagles.

  • Markus Wheaton certainly doesn’t deserve blame for a team-wide “Below the line” performance, but his drops set the tone early on.

Wheaton did rebound with a nice touchdown catch vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, and caught two short passes against the Jets. He’s been injured since and Darrius Heyward-Bey starter status is not good for Wheaton, neither the news on Ladarius Green.

Markus Wheaton’s demotion despite his apparent return to health could be the first sign that he is a possible candidate to get a visit from The Turk. The Observer-Reporter’s Dale Lolley has thrown out that Wheaton’s roster spot could be in jeopardy, although Lolley did not indicate that he was basing this on information gleamed from inside sources. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler also suggested Wheaton might be a trade target.

Of course, the NFL trading deadline came and passed without a serious whisper about Wheaton being on the block so Fowler’s comment was more about filling space in a mandatory ESPN column than anything else. But the fact that two major Steelers beat writers are even classifying a former starter as dispensable is not something to ignore.

  • It’s unusual for the Steelers to cut a starter at midseason, but it did happen with Isaac Redman in 2014.

The odds are against the Steelers cutting Markus Wheaton to make room for Ladarius Green, but clearly Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley’s decision to name Darrius Heyward-Bey starter that Markus Wheaton’s stake in the Steelers offense is declining.

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Was Misleading

Admit it Steelers Nation – the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece vs. New Orleans was satisfying, even if the results don’t count. And so it should. The Steelers offense, both with Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones were in mid-season form.

Often times, preseason does provide fans with a lot of valuable insight into the direction a team is headed. Not that the insight is always pleasant as a previous post 5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles reminds.

  • Yet there are times when preseason offers Steelers fans false flags.

The Steelers preseason history offers plenty of false flags, times when the action on the field in preseason failed completely to foreshadow what was to come in the regular season. Scroll down or click below for 5 Steelers preseason false flags.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers Giants preseason 2013,

Jarvis Jones recovers a fumble as Marshall McFadden looks on in the Steelers 2013 preseason. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

1. 2000 – Plaxico Burress Plays Lights Out in Preseason Debut

Going into the 2000 NFL Draft, many if not most expected Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert to make Chad Pennington their first draft pick. The Steelers opted for Plaxico Burress instead, even though they’d taken Troy Edwards a year before.

In his preseason debut Burress played like a stud, as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounted:

Burress made a smashing NFL debut, leading Steelers receivers with four catches for 60 yards, all in the first half.

He jump-started the Steelers’ offense with three big plays on their second series, one a leaping catch over the back of a 6-foot cornerback. He also caught a looping, ally-oop like touchdown pass from Kent Graham just before halftime, as the Steelers crushed the Dallas Cowboys 38-10 at Texas Stadium.

Burress wasn’t the only receiver to impress. Malcolm Johnson, the Steelers 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft, started opposite Burress. One writer, (perhaps Mike Prisuta) whose article is lost to digital oblivion went so far as to argue that Burress and Johnson were fighting to which would be the alpha-male of the Steelers wide receiving corps.

  • There’s no doubt that both men played well, and the strong overall offensive performance gave hope after the dark days of 1998 and 1999.

However, Plaxico Burress most memorable rookie play was spiking the ball after making a catch, but before he’d been ruled down, which was an immediate turnover. Overall, Burres never aught more than 4 passes as a rookie, and his catch percentage was woeful 33.8%.

As for Malcolm Johnson? He didn’t even make the 2000 Steelers final roster team.

2. 2005 – Ben Roethlisberger Struggles Mightly in Preseason

If there was ever a quarterback who made an immediate impact as a rookie, that rookie was Ben Roethlisberger. But NFL history is littered with rookie one-year wonders (think Kendrell Bell).

And so it was that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers first string offense failed to produce a touchdown in the first four preseason games. After it took Charlie Batch to rally the Steelers to victory in their final preseason game, Bill Cowher remarked: “I like this group of guys, but we’re no where near where we need to be.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2005 preseason statistics seemed to vindicate Bill Cowher’s pessimism.

Over four games, Roethlisberger completed just 16 of 36 passes, for no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 32.8. Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette quipped that the Steelers starters looked more like a team set to go 1-15 instead of the previous year’s 15-1. Indeed, it seemed like an inglorious preview to a team with Super Bowl hopes….

  • …That is, until the game started counting.

In the season opener, Ben Roethlisberger went 9-11 for 218 yards, throwing touchdowns to Antwaan Randle El and a rookie named Heath Miller. A week later he went 14 of 21 throwing a pair of TD’s to Hines Ward.

The Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL the next February proved that, if there was ever a exhibition effort that should have been written off with “Its only preseason” it was the Steelers 2005 preseason.

3. 2009 – Joystick Video Game Like Preseason Kick Return Statistics

For a defending Super Bowl Champion, the 2009 Steelers training camp and preseason would mid-wife future Steelers Nation house hold names like Isaac Redman, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky (hey, Legursky started a Super Bowl so he counts).

  • But perhaps none captivated the imagination of Steelers fans the way Stefan Logan did.

In his first preseason outing, Logan averaged 39 yards on four kick returns in a preseason loss to the Redskins. The next week in the Steelers shutout over the Bills, Logan returned four punts for 63 yards, including a 27 yarder. The following week Stefan Logan returned a punt 82 yards as the Steelers defeated the Panthers.

  • It seems like the Steelers had their first legit return threat since Antwaan Randle El had departed following Super Bowl XL.

It would be both unfair incorrect to declare Stefan Logan return efforts in 2009 as a failure.

In 2009, Stefan Logan averaged 26.7 yards per kick return, and 9.3 yards per punt return. Stefan Logan had an 83 yard kick return in the ’09 Steelers ugly loss to Oakland, and he also managed returns of 56, 51, an 49 yards in other games.

But Stefan Logan neither took a kick return nor a punt return to the house, and he was never the type of weapon as a return man who could give the Steelers offense a jolt in a season where the team cried out for one. Mike Tomlin once chided Logan when he critiqued blocking of the Steelers return teams, and often times on deep punts Tomlin had deployed Mewelde Moore’s sure hands in favor of Logan.

4. 2013 – Jarvis Jones’s Stud-Like Presason Campaign

It might seem hard to believe now, but in 2013, Jarvis Jones was the toast of the Steelers preseason. Dick LeBeau declared that Jones “Had ‘it,’” after Jones preseason debut where he recovered a fumble. Jones forced another fumble with a heads up behind the line of scrimmage play in the Steelers second game vs. the Redskins. He recorded an interception in the Steelers third preseason game vs. the Chiefs. Then Behind the Steel Curtain editor declared, “Jarvis Jones is simply making plays.”

  • The Jarvis Jones of preseason 2013 teased he might make Steelers Nation forget James Harrison.

Alas, that was not to be. Jones did get the opening day starting nod, but he would relinquish his starting role before midseason. The fact that Jones’ play turned heads in the Steelers win over New Orleans shows that Steelers fans are still wanting for Jones to realize his potential as a first round draft choice.

5. 2015 – Preseason Death of Steelers Defense Greatly Exaggerated

In the 2015 preseason the Pittsburgh Steelers did something they hadn’t done since Alonzo Jackson was a rookie – fielded a defense coordinated by someone other than Dick LeBeau. All eyes were on Keith Butler to see if the long-time understudy could reverse the downward trend of Steelers defense.

  • The early returns disheartened even faithful scribes like Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola.

During the 2015 preseason the Steelers defense gave up scores of 14, 23, and 24 points, before giving up an alarming 43 points to a no-name Buffalo Bills trio of quarterbacks, who completed 90% of their passes. Likewise, opposing teams yards-per-catch grew as the preseason wore on.

It’s true that the Steelers defense did show signs of getting more pressure on the quarterback, and eventual starters Mike Mitchell and Will Allen didn’t play much.

While no one would confuse the Steelers 2015 defense with the 2008 Steelers defense, the Blitzbrugh defenses of the ‘90’s, let alone the Steel Curtain of the 1970’s, Keith Butler did turn the unit around.

No one would have predicted that based on what they saw in preseason.

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Have the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Championship Chances Gone Up in Smoke?

Have the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes gone up in smoke? Who really knows at this point? The news that Le’Veon Bell is facing a 4 game suspension for missing a mandatory drug test offers little encouragement. Now factor in Martavis Bryant’s season-long suspension.

Martavis Bryant, Le'Veon Bell, suspensions, NFL drug policy, Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes

Happier Times: Martavis Bryant & Le’Veon Bell celebrate Bryant’s first NFL touchdown vs. the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: Steel City Blitz

  • No matter how you slice it, the Steelers offense just saw their octane rating drop.

Yes, the Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Markus Wheaton is arguably underrated. Darrius Heyward-Bey remains a viable number 3 wide receiver and Sammie Coates impressed in the playoffs. But the Steelers will also miss Heath Miller, and Heath Miller who gave Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as you can have in the NFL.

To put the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Braynt into perspective, consider this:

  • While Bryant only played 11 games and Bell only 6, together the two scored 24% of the 2015 Steelers touchdowns.

Of course during 2013 Jerricho Cotchery made a disproportionate share of the Steelers touchdown receptions, but the 2014 Steelers offense more than made up for the loss – in no small part due to the emergence of both Bell and Bryant.

The Steelers depth chart at wide receiver is much better positioned to weather the loss of Bryant than the Steelers depth chart at running back. As noted here before the Steelers depth at running back is close to non-existent. Behind Bell, the Steelers only have DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint. Currently holding roster spots are Daryl Richardson (167-690 rushing, 38-284 receiving for the Rams in 2012-13), first-year man Cameron Stingily and undrafted rookie free agents Brandon Brown-Dukes and Brandon Johnson.

If they are, they’ll from yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s uncanny cap of undrafted free agent steals. But remember, Redman didn’t play a down his rookie year and Willie Parker only rushed 32 times as a rookie.

DeAngelo Williams performed tremendously in 2015. Credit Colbert for another masterful free agent signing. But Williams will be 33 and skill-position players at that age often suffer sharp season-to-season drop offs. Jerome Bettis was 33 when he retired, although Williams has less than half the carries on his frame than Bettis did.

Impact of Bryant and Bell’s Absence on Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes can in no way be considered bolstered absent Martavis Bryant and without the services of Le’Veon Bell for the first quarter season. Martavis Bryant possesses Randy Moss-like talent, while a healthy Le’Veon Bell is the NFL’s best running back not named Adrian Peterson.

  • However Steelers Nation need not abandon all hope.

Last year, absent Antonio Brown, Bell, Williams and Maurkice Pouncey and with Ben Roethlisberger at less than 100% the Pittsburgh Steelers were a fumble and a third and long stop away from the AFC Championship. “AFC Championship” functions as the operative word in the preceding sentence. It is unlikely that the defense in general or more specifically the 2015 Steelers accidental secondary could have gone into Foxborough and beaten Tom Brady.

  • Prior to Bell’s suspension (or Bryant’s for that matter), the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes hinged on Keith Butler’s ability to take Pittsburgh’s defense to the next level.

And for that to happen, Butler and Carnell Lake must successfully see Senquez Golson, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and perhaps Doran Grant through a baptism of fire. Don’t expect much proof that that has occurred in September, when the Steelers will be without Bell’s services.

At the end of the day, the continued development of the Steelers defense and the performance of their untested secondary will impact the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes more than Le’Veon Bell’s looming 4 game suspension or Martavis Bryant’s year-long disciplinary hiatus.

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Watch Tower: Insight into What Makes Tomlin Tick, Steelers Situation @ Safety and Much More

The  NFL’s “true off season” doesn’t leave many Steelers stories for the Watch Tower to shine its light on, but a few do stick out ranging from the new insight into how Mike Tomlin operates, Steelers situation at safety, the evolution of the Steelers defense and creative approaches to “content” in this otherwise dead period for Steelers news. Read on…

Mike Tomlin, Bruce Arians, Art Rooney II

Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians; Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Insight into How Tomlin Ticks via Arians Interview

The Bruce Arians firing made news recently. Again. If you’re reading this, you already know the details and have your own opinion formed on it. No need to repeat. HBO’s Real Sports mostly milked an established story for shock value, but in doing so it lent some insight into Mike Tomlin:

I got a call on Monday and said, ‘I can’t get you the money.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t get you a contract.’ I said, ‘Are you firing me?’ He said, ‘No…’ ‘Well… it’s just a matter of words, Mike. Okay. If I don’t have a contract, I’m fired.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to fly down and talk.’

So where’s the insight, you ask? Unlike Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has never had an itchy trigger finger when it comes to firing assistant coaches. Yet, if Arians’ account is correct, shows that not only does he have a difficult time doing it, he also struggles with breaking bad news.

  • This is the second example we have of Tomlin breaking bad news by distancing himself from it.

As the Watch Tower noted last July, Dani Bostic, then writing for Behind the Steel Curtain, reported that when the Steelers cut Isaac Redman, Tomlin took much of the same tact, declaring “’I tried fighting for you.’” The Watch Tower freely concedes that this insight into Tomlin falls into the category of “interesting, but not terribly useful.” Nor should it suggest anything negative about Mike Tomlin as a person, coach or leader.

Chuck Noll, a man of unquestioned integrity, struggled when delivering bad news to players or coaches headed out the door. But its oft been argued that the Tomlin that Steelers Nation sees in front of the cameras isn’t the same Tomlin behind the scenes, and the HBO report helped pull back the veil.

“New” Name in Mix for Steelers @ Safety?

For the second consecutive year, Steelers secondary remains the team’s biggest question mark heading into training camp. In fact, one could argue that the question mark has grown from 2015 to 2016.

There’s perhaps in bigger position battle than that at free safety. Robert Golden enters camp as the front runner, with second round draft pick Sean Davis in the mix and Shamarko Thomas in contention (on paper at least.)

In an article covering Robert Golden’s determination to claim the starting roster spot, Kaboly observed: “…and there even is talk about Will Allen being an eventual option.” Will Allen is of course not a “new” name to the Steelers, but Mark Kaboly is the first credentialed Steelers journalist to report that there’s a serious possibility of Will Allen returning.

If the Steelers do turn to Will Allen all will not have gone well in training camp, but Mark Kaboly will be able to claim bragging rights.

Popjoy Adds Something Significant to the Archer Story

In 2016 “Content aggregation” forms a fundamental part of the sports media landscape. By necessity, any site (including this one) that doesn’t have access to original sources practices it. At its best it works like this: Someone else publishes a story, a blogger rehashes that story; the better bloggers either expand upon the story or find some way to add their own twist.

  • The news that the Jets cut Dri Archer and that Archer then refused show up for practice when claimed by the Bills offers a perfect example.

Nearly every Steelers blogging site wrote an obligatory post on the failed Steelers third round draft pick continuing to flounder outside of Pittsburgh. Curt Popejoy of USA Today’s SteelersWire however, provided a good example of content aggregation at its best. Popejoy went beyond the “this shows Archer did have off the field issues” angle of the story, by informing his readers that the Steelers, by all accounts, did not have a pre-draft visit with Archer.

In other words, instead of simply recycling someone else’s story, Popejoy found a way to add new information by connecting dots that no one else thought to connect. And for that Curt Popejoy wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Wexell on Evolution of Steelers Defense

The evolution of the Steelers defense from a 3-4 zone blitz focused unit pioneered by Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher to a 4-3ish Cover 2 is hardly a unique topic in Pittsburgh and has been discussed frequently in the 2016 off season. But perhaps no one has covered it in as much detail as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell and an early May piece by Wexell caused the Watch Tower to raise its antenna.

After detailing how the Steelers personnel has evolved away from the scheme Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher built, Wexell shared this:

That’s reportedly what the great Tampa-2 defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, actually liked about the Steelers’ defense this past season. When Kiffin visited practice for a short spell, I perceived it as a consultation session. I perceived the wise old genius was brought in to help out a first-year coordinator bridge two systems.

Monte Kiffin visiting the Steelers was news to the Watch Tower.

A quick Google search confirms that Kiffin had in fact been present at practices at some point in the Steelers 2015 season. In fact, Tomlin discussed Kiffin’s visit at length in a Steelers.com interview (presumably during a press conference, Steelers.com doesn’t clarify the context.) The news that Mike Tomlin’s mentor stopped by Steelers practice is hardly a bombshell, nor is the revelation that Kiffin offered advice to Keith Butler exactly ground shaking.

  • Similar to insights gained from the Arians interview, the Monte Kiffin factoid falls into the category of “more interesting than useful.”

But this was a story out waiting to be told or at least a fact out there waiting to be used to support a larger story. And once again Jim Wexell separated himself from the pack by using it to deliver an extra bit of added value to his readers and for that again he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

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Isaac Redman Deserves Respect from Steelers Nation, Not Ridicule

Who was the last Pittsburgh Steelers running back to rush for 100 yards or more in a playoff game?

The answer must be “Jerome Bettis” or maybe “Willie Parker” or perhaps even “Rashard Mendenhall” right? Wrong.

Redman offered a ray of hope in a very depressing Steelers loss. “Red Zone Redman’s” exploits in preseason during 2009 earned him cult hero status, followed by a roster spot 2010. The 100 yard playoff game seemed confirm Redman’s viability as a backup running back. But injuries led to an down-then up-then down again 2012, and more injuries led to a rough 2013, getting cut and ultimately retirement.

  • In the process, Redman went from being Steelers Nation’s cult hero to whipping boy

When he was an unheralded rookie free agent, Red Zone Redman could do no wrong. But when stumbled, fans turned on him quickly.

Steelers Nation met the Steelers cutting Redman in October 2013 with “Good riddance.” While the Steelers decision to cut someone who’d started just a few weeks before was strange, even season bloggers didn’t bat an eye in private correspondence. Steelers Nation reacted with outright ridicule at Steel Curtain Rising’s April 2014 suggestion, before his injuries became public, that Redman be brought back.

Unfortunately, the fact that Isacc Redman’s career was cut short by a serious spinal injury isn’t enough to absolve him of blame:

isaac redman, fitzgerald toussaint fumble, afc divisional playoffs, steelers, broncos

Isaac Redman deserves respect, not ridicule from Steelers Nation

Isaac Redman responded with pure class:

When people think of great Steelers running backs, names like Bettis, Parker, Franco Harris, John Henry Johnson, Merril Hoge and even Barry Foster come to mind. In his 1 season on the practice squad and three and a third on the Steelers active roster, Isaac Redman didn’t put himself in that category.

  • But before injuries derailed his career, Isaac Redman worked himself into a quality number 2 NFL running back which is respectable for an undrafted rookie free agent.

Isaac Redman deserves respect from Steelers Nation, not the ridicule that blaming him for Fitzgerald Toussaint implies. And this holds true even if that blame is coming from a small, and extremely ignorant, subsection of Steelers Nation.

 

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Steelers Bengals Playoff Preview – Backup Running Backs Carry Pittsburgh’s Hopes

The last time the Cincinnati Bengals won a playoff game, Dan Quayle remained a heartbeat away from the presidency, David Letterman still worked for NBC, “car phones” were luxury items, Coke still sold in 16 oz glass bottles and Chuck Noll was still the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach.

It is the position of this Steelers Bengals playoff preview that Pittsburgh’s hopes of prolonging Bengals playoff drought likely depend on two Steelers playoff running backs – Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman– that no one in Steelers Nation had ever heard of when the Black and Gold’s initial 53 man roster was set.

  • Yes, how quickly we forget!

News that Kevin Colbert cut not one but two members of the Steelers 2015 Draft Class make way for wavier wire pickups sent Steelers Nation up in arms in a case of collective 2008 draft Déjà vu. Colbert and Mike Tomlin had fumbled away yet another draft. Or so it seemed.

One of Kevin Colbert’s wavier wire pickups was running back Jordan Todman, who could easily lead the Steelers in rushing in the Wild Card game vs. the Bengals. A day later Colbert added Fitzgerald Toussaint to the practice squad who will start tonight for the Steelers.

This could change should Pittsburgh advance DeAngelo Williams may return, but right now the Steelers playoff running backs are Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Ben Roethlisberger still has Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller to throw to, but the Steelers success might hinge on Toussaint and Todman’s ability to put in an “above the line performance.”

  • Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard. Next man up” philosophy is about to get another test.

When DeAngelo Williams name first appeared on the Steelers injury report, Steel Curtain Rising observed that not only was the Steelers running back depth preciously low, but that the Steelers had made a conscious choice to go into the season with a backfield that was two men deep (its obvious no one on the South Side was counting on Dri Archer).

Who are Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman?

Of the two men, Jordan Todman is a much better known commodity.

Todman has been in the NFL since 2011 having spent time on the rosters of Minnesota and San Diego that season. After that, he spent three years in Jacksonville, where he appeared in 33 games and made 3 starts.

  • Jordan Todman has authored precisely one 100 yard game, a 104 yard effort that came against the Buffalo Bills in December 2013.

For his career, Jordan Todman has rushed for 472 yards on 117 carries for an average of 4.1 yards a carry and 3 touchdowns. In Pittsburgh, Todman has carried the ball four times, for 22 yards. Todman’s carries have come in the Steelers home wins against San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland.

The Baltimore Ravens gave Fitzgerald Toussaint his NFL break in 2014, where he appeared in 4 games and rushed 6 times for 12 yards. The Steelers activated him from the practice squad several weeks ago, perhaps to keep Baltimore from claiming him, and since then the Steelers have rushed Toussaint 18 times for 42 yards.

  • That average is unimpressive, but most of that came against Cleveland, and DeAngelo Williams wasn’t doing much better.

Fitzgerald Toussaint also scored his first points in Cleveland, when he caught a Ben Roethlisberger 2 point conversion pass. Taking our cue from the Pittsburgh sports writers, who while they can’t reveal what they see in practice do nonetheless find ways to signal important information to readers, we know a little more the Steelers plans for their playoffs running backs.

Commenting on the Steelers running game going into the Wild Card vs. Cincinnati, Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter offered this observation “Every time somebody in the organization mentions Fitzgerald Toussaint, they add what a solid blocker he is.”

Other writers have reported similar comments. Answering a question about an NFL running back by talking about his pass blocking ability is kind of like saying the blind date you were on was “nice.”

Steelers Relying on Backup Running Backs in Playoffs the 21st Century Norm

Hats off to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review for connecting some rather obvious dots. When DeAngelo Williams went down vs. the Browns, the image of Le’Veon Bell hyper-extending his knee in the season finale vs. the Bengals flashed through everyone’s mind. As well it should.

  • But as Adamski indicates, the Steelers starting backup running backs in the playoffs is nothing new.
  • Neither are late-season injures to starters, for that matter.

In 2011 Isaac Redman got the start in the Tebowing at Denver (and fans forget, Redman racked up over 100 yards) after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL late in the season. In 2007 Willie Parker broke his leg in week 16, leading to Najeh Davenport to start for the 2007 playoffs. And as Adamski reminds us, the trend goes back to Bill Cowher’s days, when Amos Zereoue started for Jerome Bettis, although Bettis had been out for several weeks.

  • The Steelers playoff record with backup running backs starting isn’t promising.

Zereoue, only a nominal backup at that point, led the Steelers to victory in the 2001 Steelers Divisional Playoff victory over the Ravens. Other than that, the Steelers are 0fwers or winless when starting backups.

Most of the analysis of the Steelers post-season prospects, including Steel Curtain Rising’s, has focused on Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant playing better and Keith Butler and the Steelers defense getting pressure and turnovers. That analysis is sound.

  • But for all of its potency, Pittsburgh’s offense still needs some production out of its running backs.

Against the Bengals it least, it appears that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 playoff hopes will go as far as Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman can carry them.

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Steelers Nation Gives Thanks in 2015 for the Steelers Understudies DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva

Thanksgiving is here and as always my thoughts turn to Pittsburgh because, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either involved a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives from Pittsburgh.

Those days have long passed and 2015 actually marks the 14th consecutive year yours truly will spend Thanksgiving outside of the United States. Thanksgiving traffic could make the I-270/I-70/Pennsylvania Turnpike/Parkway circuit quite stressful, but it was a more manageable haul than Buenos Aires-to-Maryland.

As we have every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising takes stock of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and gives Steelers Nation something Steelers-related to give thanks for. And this year we’re giving thanks for “The Understudies” DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva.

 

pittsburgh, skyline, thanksgiving, 2015, dave dicello, steelers understudies

Pittsburgh, Thanksgiving 2015, photo by Dave DiCello

Steelers Thanksgiving 2015 “An Ode to Steelers Understudies”

Success in today’s NFL means preparing for the unexpected, which is, by definition, difficult. Unless you get really lucky, the question isn’t “If” a star player is going to injured, but “When.”

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers represent no exception.

The Steelers opened the 2013 season without their starting running back and their top two tight ends, and, by the third quarter, had lost their center, right cornerback, third down back and right inside linebacker.

  • ESPN.com argues that the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers have been hurt by more injures than anyone else.

ESPN might exaggerate, but at quarterback alone Pittsburgh has seen Ben Roethlisberger on the cart twice, and watched both Michael Vick and Landry Jones come out of games, never mind Bruce Gradkowski’s ten day journey from the PAP list to the IR list.

Fortunately, thanks to the role of understudies, the 2015 Steelers have been able to adapt and overcome.

Steelers Understudy DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Old, He’s Mature

A year ago Le’Veon Bell‘s injury left Steelers entering the playoffs with their pants down. Unfortunately Bell was injured again this year, but fortunately the Steelers have been ready thanks to DeAngelo Williams.

The NFL has always been a “young man’s game” but that statement is more true at running back now than it ever has been. Perhaps its appropriate to say that “26 is the new 30” for NFL running backs. Running backs just don’t play for very long. The Steelers know this. Their top three running backs from 2012 (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, and Isaac Redman) were out of football by 2014.

When the Steelers signed him from the Carolina Panthers, DeAngelo Williams was 32, had nine seasons, and had rushed the ball one thousand four hundred and thirty two times. On paper, that would seem like a very risky proposition.

  • In just four starts, Williams is ½ way to 1000 yards, and his rushing average is actually a hair better than Bell’s.

In Bell’s absence, Williams just hasn’t held his own he’s helped move the Steelers offense forward. (Oh, yeah, and as the embedded Twitter video shows, DeAngelo Williams is a pretty good blocker too….)

Will Allen, the Under Appreciated Steelers Understudy

Has there been a more under appreciated Pittsburgh Steeler in recent memory than Will Allen?

You’d have to make a really strong case to convince me. We’ve told Will Allen’s story here before:

2015 was supposed to be Shamarko Thomas’ year to shine. The Steelers, in fact, let Will Allen hang in free agency until Troy Polamalu retired. Instead, the Steelers have benched Thomas and started Will Allen and Allen has been a source of strength, leadership and stability for the Steelers secondary.

Wallace & Villanueva: The Offensive Lineman No One Else Wanted

“There’s a reason why no one else wanted him….” That’s a stock response Steelers fans hear any time a fan ask “Why hasn’t Pittsburgh signed [insert player sitting at home] yet.” Sometimes it’s true. I confess to using it myself on more than one occasion.

But Kevin Colbert has a keen eye for seeing upsides on struggling player that other NFL general managers miss. And ten games into the 2015 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is starting two of them.

In September 2013 things did not look good for Cody Wallace. 2009 saw him suit up for one game with the San Francisco 49ers who’d drafted him in the 4th round. Spent 2010 getting signed and cut by the Jets and Lions but never played for either. In 2011 he held practice squad and a roster spots with the Houston Texans. Tampa Bay picked him up in 2012 where he played in 8 game, but the Buccaneers cut him before the 2013 season.

  • Such moves generally signal the end for 29 year old offensive lineman who’ve drifted from team-to-team.

But Kevin Colbert saw something in Wallace he liked, brought him to Pittsburgh, and Wallace has started 16 games and counting for the Steelers. Yes, Wallace poor technique has been cited by those who know more than I do, and he earned a spot as one of 6 Steelers who need to step up. But Cody Wallace has generally been soild for the Steelers.

Alejandro Villanueva’s story is well known. Son of a Spanish immigrant who grew up an Army brat. Four year player at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and defensive tackle for West Point. US Amry Ranger who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. And now, after one year on the practice squad, he’s the Steelers starting left tackle.

Villanueva struggled in his first start, and still has a lot to learn, but thus far he’s avoided being a liability.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

So in 2015 Steelers Nation can give thanks for the Steelers Understudies, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva.

But, while the Steelers are important to me and the fact that you’ve read this far says they’re important to you too. But Steel Curtain Rising’s real Thanksgiving wish for everyone has nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to that end we sincerely hope that all of you reading this have no-shortage of non-football reasons tied to good health and that of your family and friends to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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DeAngelo Williams Needs More Carries – For the Sake of Le’Veon Bell’s Durability

In his weekly press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley confirmed that he wants to get DeAngelo Williams the ball more. That is a refreshing sign because DeAngelo Williams needs more carries.

  • That might seem odd given that Le’Veon Bell has close to 300 yards from scrimmage in just two games.

But in this case counter intuition wins the day. DeAngelo Williams needs more carries precisely because Le’Veon Bell is such a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers need to keep him that way. Le’Veon Bell is entering his third year as a starter. While that doesn’t sound like much, the truth is that he he’s already reaching the point where most NFL running backs are done.

Depending on whether you believe the NFLPA or the NFL owners, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years or about 6 years. But the average running back only plays for 3.1 years, by far the shortest in of any NFL position group.

nfl running backs, average career length, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams

The average career of an NFL running back is 3.11 years. Le’Veon Bell is already in his third year….

Those statistics are not encouraging.

The Myth of the Durable Steelers Running Back

While the short self-life of NFL running backs is nothing new, the rise of saber metrics and fantasy football has brought the issue into much closer focus. Art Rooney II once declared that running the football was “the foundation of the franchise.” No team has rushed for more yards since the NFL-AFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • At first glance, it might seem that Pittsburgh bucks the tradition and durable Steelers running backs are the norm.

After all, Hall of Famers Franco Harris played for 12 years and Jerome Bettis played for 10 years in Pittsburgh. Rocky Bleier played for 11 years, Dick Hoak played for 10 years, Frank Pollard played for 9 years and Merril Hoge played for 7 years.

  • Alas, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs are no more durable than the rest of the NFL’s.

In 1992 when Cowher Power was taking the NFL by storm on the back of Barry Foster’s franchise record breaking season, Bill Cowher once joked that they’d run Foster until “parts of his body came falling off.” That’s pretty close to what happened. After rushing for over 2000 yards from scrimmage in 1992, Foster’s productivity dramatically dropped off in 1993 and by 1994 he was done.

  • Willie Parker was a little more durable, rushing for 3 straight 1000 yard seasons before injuries began to take their toll.

One of the differences between the other running backs mentioned here and Willie Parker, is that Harris, Bleier, Hoak, Pollard, Hoge and, to some extent, Bettis, all had strong number two backs to help them split the load.

The Case for Giving DeAngelo Williams 5 Carries a game

The nature of the running back position in the NFL has twisted in turned since the NFL merger. Most people fail to realize that Franco Harris was listed as a fullback on Chuck Noll’s depth chart. The position hardly exists today, but it thrived in Harris day in part because most NFL teams field twin backfield sets where both backs got carries.

  • The trend continued in one form or another during the 80’s, but began to change in the 1990’s.

While this dates me, during the 1990’s it became common to look at the Monday morning box scores and see a single running back getting the lion’s share if not all of a team’s carries. Running back by committee seems to be more in vogue these days as the concept of a “franchise running back” is all but extinct.

  • A player of Le’Veon Bell’s caliber could change that, however.

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

  • The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

This of course sounds nice in theory, but it can be difficult to implement in practice. Last year against the Titans, Bell showed he was capable of taking over a game, and you don’t sit a running back when he’s in the zone.

And there’s no assurance it will work even if the Steelers can find a way to get Williams on the field. Mike Tomlin used Isaac Redman to spell Rashard Mendenhall in 2010 and 2011, but Mendenhall was essentially done after 2012. But the Steelers were right to try then, and they’d be right to ensure DeAngelo gets his carries in 2015.

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