Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

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

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

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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How To Fix The Broken Pittsburgh Steelers? I Believe They’re Already “Fixed”

Since the end of the 2019 season, the questions involving the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers have been abundant. How can they get back to the old “Steeler Way?” How can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin fix this broken situation, this national embarrassment?

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the broken Pittsburgh Steelers have already been “fixed.”

At least when it comes to their sources of bad PR.

I look in my pretend pocket, and I find two receipts. One documenting the trade of receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft pick. The other one is for the transaction that allowed running back Le’Veon Bell to simply waltz into free agency and get the multi-year contract he always wanted–or at least get a multi-year contract with the Jets.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

The way I see it, Brown and Bell–often dubbed the “Toxic Twins” by both the media and the fans–were the headline acts of the circus that had been the Steelers the past few seasons.

They were the players that gave use Facebook Live, bad rap songs, drug suspensions, off-the-field issues involving flying furniture and speeding tickets, Gatorade bucket tosses and camp holdouts.

Brown and Bell were responsible for a great percentage of the non-football related questions — those so-called “distractions”–their teammates had to answer the past few years.

  • So many people wanted Brown and Bell gone, and now they are.

They are no longer going to be a problem for the Steelers. They are no longer going to be creating negative headlines (and even if they do–and even if they’re about the Steelers–they’ll be doing so in other locker rooms).

  • What more can the owner, the general manager and head coach do to “fix” this problem, other than extract the problem children?

I’ll tell you what they can do, they can draft people of higher character, something that has become a reality over the past few seasons. By selecting players like Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington in recent years, Pittsburgh is clearly trying to organically change the culture of its locker room.

This new draft philosophy is something that’s not unique to Pittsburgh, either.

Mostly gone are the days when a team like the Rams would trade its franchise running back — Jerome Bettis — in order to make room to draft another running back — Lawrence Phillips — who was accused of the heinous crime of physically assaulting a woman.

Today, if there’s even a whiff of poor character coming from a prospect’s draft camp, that player’s stock is likely to plummet to the point where he may not even be selected.

No, this recent phenomenon of targeting great players with great character is not unique to the Steelers, but they have clearly hopped on board in a very noticeable way.

Again, what more can be done? Do you want the people of authority to take a more disciplined, hard-line approach to running the team? Do you want Mike Tomlin, who has always been known as a coach who likes to treat his men like men, to become someone he isn’t?

Or do you trust that these young men of great character will grow into veteran players who know what it takes to be responsible professionals, people who won’t embarrass the organization on a local or national level?

Or, maybe, when talking about the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re really referring to a lack of Super Bowl titles for the past decade. “If the Steelers were just a little more disciplined, they’d win it all,” is a popular sentiment among the faithful looking for reasons for their team’s failure to win that One for the Other Thumb.

  • If you think getting rid of two All-Pro players will help that situation, then I guess we’re all about 10 months away from finding out.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer a broken organization, in my opinion–at least, as it pertains to having players in their locker room who will bring them bad publicity.

Are they now fixed to the point where they’ll be able to win a title without two very talented problem children?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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The Right Choice: Steelers to Let Le’Veon Bell Walk, Will Not Use Transition Tag

As Kevin Colbert announced yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have decided not to apply the transition tag or the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. The move comes as a bit of a surprise because the Steelers had seemed intent on playing hard ball with Bell.

They have chosen not to, and that decision might signal that Art Rooney II has mastered one of the one of the most important tests of his tenure as Steelers president.

Our third and likely final free agent focus profile of Le’Veon Bell reveals why.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Here’s the digest version based on our 2017 and 2018 free-agent profiles of Le’Veon Bell.

In his rookie training camp, Ed Bouchette boldly compared Le’Veon Bell’s debut to that of Franco Harris. Journalists such as John Stiegerwald were skeptical, yet Jim Wexell tracked Bell’s rookie performance against Walter Peyton’s as a rookie.

Six years later, Le’Veon Bell has set regular season and playoff rushing records that neither Harris, Jerome Bettis, nor John Henry Johnson could set.

A lot of signs indicate yes, however the fact that Bell has played only one complete season and been hit with two suspensions raises doubts.

The (Theoretical Case) for the Steelers Retaining Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers decision seems clear, but the point of this exercise is to make the strongest case possible for keeping Bell so here goes.

  • On paper there’s a case for the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell to a long-term deal.
  • There’s also a case for using the transition tag on him.

No one inside or outside of Pittsburgh questions Le’Veon Bell’s talent and his ability to perform at peak level at least in the short term. With James Conners and Jaylen Samuels on the roster, bringing Bell back would give Pittsburgh a more potent running back tandem than the Willie Parker/Rashard Mendenhall duo they envisioned in early 2008 (with Samuels standing in for Mewelde Moore.)

  • Even if the Steelers can’t sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal, the case for putting the transition tag on him is strong, in theory.

As one Steelers scribe privately remarked when Bell’s 2018 holdout became permanent, “It would basically dare any other NFL team to improve on the offer the Steelers made last season.” It would also give the Steelers the chance to match that offer. Theoretically, the Steelers could also match the offer and then trade him to someone else.

And a trade could bring the Steelers a pick in the 2019 NFL Draft whereas any compensatory pick would only come in 2020. With a strike or lockout looming, a draft pick in 2019 helps the Steelers far more than one in 2020.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning or Transition Tagging Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers were prepared to commit an eight-figure salary cap to Le’Veon Bell in offers made in 2017 and 2018. Yet, James Conner delivered excellent production (although not ball security) in 2018 and he’ll only make $844,572 in 2019.

  • The Steelers can use the difference to bolster their defense, which needs the help.

Beyond salary cap dollars and sense, not having Le’Veon Bell probably cost the 2018 Steelers the playoffs. Bell’s behavior and the gap between his actions and words widened in 2018. Do the Steelers need another potential locker room distraction? Ah, no.

  • Using the transition tag on Bell carries risk as well.

First, the transition tag ties up valuable salary cap dollars that can’t be used while the Bell situation sorts itself out. Forget Bell signing his tender so that the Steelers can trade him. The Steelers could try to “match and trade” but would need to complete the trade on the same day to avoid a salary cap hit.

Finally, if the Steelers tag Bell then decline to match, they get nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

During the 1990’s, it often felt like the Steelers served as the NFL’s farm team. Pittsburgh would develop players like Chad Brown or Yancey Thigpen only to see them leave as free agents. The Rooneys promised things would change with a new stadium. Heinz Field opened in 2001, and since then the Steelers have done a remarkable job of keeping their own players since then.

Retaining key players has been critical to the Steelers overall success in the 21st century and critical to their victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • But you can’t keep everyone. Knowing when to let a player walk is just as important as knowing when to keep him.

For a long time it seemed like Art Rooney II and the rest of the Steelers brass was determined to use the transition tag to exert some control over Le’Veon Bell’s fate. While that’s understandable, it doesn’t make sound football sense.

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell would have signed the deal his agent had agreed to with the Steelers. But Bell declined. The Steelers gave it a second go around, and Bell sat out all of 2018 while trolling his team at every chance he got.

The Steelers are going to let Le’Veon Bell walk and that is the right decision.

 

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Reminder Steelers Nation: Lombardi Trophies are an Achievement, Not an Entitlement

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived and the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing in it. And while that’s a disappointment, it hardly qualifies as an injustice.

  • Lombardi Trophies are an achievement not an entitlement.

This should be obvious, but certain segments of Steelers Nation seem to have lost sight of the fact. Many bemoan the fact that Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have only gone 1-1 in Super Bowls and haven’t sniffed the big game since 2010.

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

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

Yes, It IS Hard to Feel Good about the Steelers Right Now

Before proceeding, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room:

  • It is very hard to feel good about the Pittsburgh Steelers these days.

Heck, yours truly started in article musing about the potential for a Steelers rebound in 2019 that Tony Defeo finished while on I vacation. During that time even MORE negative news surfaced about the Antonio Brown AND Morgan Burnett publicly asked for his release.

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward have sounded off on the situation. Who knows? Before this is over, we might expect to hear from Preston Gothard. OK, we won’t, but you get the point.

All of this provides a poignant backdrop to the harsh reality that since losing the 2016 AFC Championship game to the Patriots, the Steelers have taken two successive steps backwards.

  • Why have the Steelers regressed?

There are many reasons. The hand of fate has been felt acutely. Think Ryan Shazier’s injury or even the injuries that ruined Senquez Golson’s NFL career before it began.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all made mistakes. None of what follows absolves them of their errors. But it should remind us of just how hard their job is.

Winning a Super Bowl Is Hard

The Pittsburgh Steelers have appeared in 8 of 53 Super Bowls. You’ll find no better example of institutional excellence, but spoils Steelers fans into forgetting just how hard it is to bring home a Lombardi.
Just how hard is it to win a Super Bowl?

Well, let’s begin with the fact that the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have never appeared in a Super Bowl. While the Jaguars and Texans joined the league as expansion teams in the ‘90’s and 00’s, Lions and Browns fans are waiting ½ century and counting for their first shot at a Lombardi.

  • The Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 and 1979 World Series wins practically qualify Bucos as a dynasty by comparison.

Super Bowl appearances are nice, but it is the wins that really count. Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills fans can attest. Those two franchises lead the league in lost Super Bowls with 4 apiece. In total, there are 12 teams that have never won a Super Bowl in the 53 year history of the event.

  • In other words, 37.5% of NFL teams have never hoisted a Lombardi.

And that percentage does not control for timeliness.

The Jets, Chiefs and Dolphins all have Lombardi’s to display. New York’s arrived as to product of one of the greatest upsets in the history of North American sports.

  • That upset also happened 8 days before Richard Nixon put his hand on the Bible to be sworn in as President.

Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs also pulled off an upset of their own in Super Bowl IV, a victory which came three months before the Beatles officially broke up.

The Miami Dolphins won their last Super Bowl in January 1974, back when Star Trek seemed condemned to be forgotten as a cult series relegated to perpetual re-run status on UHF channels.

Going 1-1 in Super Bowls over an 11 year period doesn’t sound quite has bad, does it? (Special nod to Ivan Cole who pointed many of these stats out via email.)

Building Back-to-Back Super Bowl Eras Is Harder Yet

If winning a Super Bowl is difficult, then stitching together back-to-back Super Bowl eras is harder yet. Think of the franchises fortunate enough to field successive franchise quarterbacks.

George Seifert replaced Joe Montana with Steve Young. He also had Jerry Rice, arguably giving him a better quarterback, wide receiver combos than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. He only won one Super Bowl with Joe Montana and one with Steve Young.

The Green Bay Packers had Brett Farve for 16 years and went 1-1 in Super Bowls. succeeded him with Aaron Rodgers, yet have only added 1 more Lombardi to the case under his watch.

  • The Colts of course followed Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck but are still waiting on their latest Lombardi.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have indeed authored a Super Bowl era that has lasted 18 years an counting, an incredible achievement which they very well might add to this evening.

But even the vaunted Patriots went 10 years between Lombardi Trophies. And while we’re at it, just how many trophies did Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom bag?

Hum, going 1-1 in Super Bowls and never dropping below .500 seems a little more appealing now, doesn’t it?

Yeah, But the Steelers Have Had a Franchise Quarterback….

True. And, given what was discussed above, the familiar refrain that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are squandering Ben Roethlisberger’s prime years certainly rings true.

  • But how does sentiment stand up to logic?

Let’s see. Don Shula had Dan Marino and only managed one Super Bowl appearance and zero wins. Dan Reeves lost 3 Super Bowls with John Elway. Marv Levy lost 4 Super Bowls with Jim Kelly. Sean Payton and Drew Brees only have one Lombardi to their credit, and have endured 4 losing seasons since winning a Super Bowl.

  • Franchise quarterbacks come with a sort of Catch 22.

Today, a franchise quarterback is (almost) essential to winning a Super Bowl. Yet a franchise quarterback sucks up salary cap space and all but ensures that his team will draft late in every round. That means a franchise quarterback can take you to the Mountain Top, maybe more than once, but his presence also makes it hard to mount a serious comeback should you get knocked off the top.

Steelers Still Have a Shot at a Third Ring

To repeat:  It is hard to feel good about the direction the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading in. As I have said before and will again, it is entirely possible that the window to Lombardi Number Three for the Ben Roethlisberger era closed the moment Ryan Shazier suffered his spinal contusion.

But the emergence of T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald and James Conner alongside stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Joe Haden at least give the Steelers a chance to keep the window open.

  • Will the Steelers walk through the window before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work?”

Time will tell. But let’s enjoy the ride that might still take us back to the Mountain Top while we still can.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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60 Minute Men. Steelers Comeback, Beat Jaguars 20-16 at Buzzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded for dramatic 20-16 comeback victory over the Jaguars at Jacksonville’s at TIAA Bank Field.

In doing so, the men in Black and Gold extended their winning streak to 6 games, secured a conference win, and perhaps doomed the post-season chances of a re-emerging rival.

But Mike Tomlin’s Steelers also affirmed another, more important truth behind the game: Victory comes to those who play for 60 minutes.

Ben Roethlisberger dives for the game winner vs. the Jaguars. Photo Credit, Gary McCullough, AP via PennLive

Steelers Defense Bends, Badly But Balks at Breaking; Ben Just Bad

The Jacksonville Jaguars had bested the Steelers twice last year by employing a simple formula:

All week, the question on everyone’s minds was, “Can the Jaguars pull it off a third straight time?”

For a while, it looked like they might. Ben Roethlisberger played terribly for the vast majority of the game, and was particularly ineffective in the first half. Four of Pittsburgh’s 1st half possessions a ended in Jordan Berry punts. Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions ended two others.

  • Before the Steelers final drive of the 1st half netted 35 garbage yards, Pittsburgh’s offense totaled 42 yards.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was more of a mixed bag. The Jaguars made it clear that they were going to feed the ball to Leonard Fournette. But in the early going Keith Butler’s defense also signaled that they were going to contest every yard.

That worked, for a while, but as the first half wore on, Forunette and Carlos Hyde started ripping off double digit runs and it was Déjà vu all over again for the Steelers defense.

  • With one large exception.

The Jaguars advanced relatively deep into Pittsburgh territory 3 times in the first half, but each time the Steelers defense steeled up and refused to allow touchdowns. Bud Dupree and L.J. Fort came up with big stops, and Javon Hargrave sacked Blake Bortles on third down.

So instead of being down 21-0, the Steelers defense kept the difference to 9 going into the half.

Establishing the Run

Running the ball might be out of fashion in today’s NFL, and that’s a shame, because something special happens when a team rushes the ball successfully.

As Mike Tomlin explained, when an offense starts to rush well, piles move forward a little more; players start missing tackles, running backs routinely eek out 2-3 extra yards in the open field. The defense erodes.

  • Bill Cowher described it as “Imposing your will.”

And “Imposing their will” has been a key ingredient to the Steelers success in this second Super Bowl era, whether that involved pounding the ball with Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or James Conner.

There are few things better than seeing the Steelers impose their will on an opposing defense, and few things are worse than seeing a running back impose his will on Pittsburgh. And as the second half began, it appeared that the Jaguars were about to impose their will on the Steelers.

And to be sure Fournette got 8 yards on his first two carries, but a penalty pushed the Jaguars back, and then T.J. Watt ended the first drive with a strip sack of Blake Brotles.

But it looked like that stop might be just a footnote in the box score, as the Jaguars took advantage of another Roethlisberger interception by ramming the ball down the Steelers throats on an 80 yard touchdown drive.

That put the Jaguars up 16-0 and, on a day when its offense could do nothing right, it appeared to be the dagger in the Steelers heart. Ironically, it was the turning point of the game.

Steelers Defense Energized Instead of Eroded

It took only two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to hit Antonio Brown for a 78 touchdown to put the Steelers on the board. And, for all the credit the Steelers offense would earn for the fourth quarter comeback, the Steelers defense were perhaps the real stars of the rebound. As Steelers Wire founder Neal Coolong explains:

The Steelers offense stalled after the Roethlisberger to Brown strike, failing on the 2 point conversion and then punting and turning over on downs on its next two drives. It wasn’t an issue, because instead of eroding the will of the Steelers defense, Leonard Fournette’s 1st half energized Keith Butler’s boys into 2nd half shut down mode:

Then the Steelers offense finally came alive, as Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to move down the field, setting up Vance McDonald to make another tough touchdown catch.

Vince Williams, Blake Borteles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Vince Williams lowers boom of Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars got the ball back. Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run, and everyone knew Fournette was going to run it.

  • Forunette got four yards on his first carry, only to have the Steelers stuff out his next two carries forcing a punt.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:42 left and one time out. A picture perfect fade pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers well into Chris Boswell field goal range, but Mike Tomlin opted to go for the win. Another 25 yard pass to Antonio Brown got the Steelers to the two.

It would take the Steelers 4 tries, but Ben Roethlisberger ran it in with 5 seconds left to go. For good measure, T.J. Watt strip-sacked Blake Bortles again to seal the Steelers win.

Lessons Learned, Lessons to Live By

Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers players themselves undoubtedly wanted a dominating revenge win over the Jaguars. With a last second win, Pittsburgh failed to deliver. But the Steelers leave Jacksonville with a W, and they learned some important lessons in the process.

The Steelers defense is capable of going toe-to-toe with an elite NFL rusher and adjusting along the way as Christopher Carter’s stats highlight:

The Steelers also showed they’re capable of winning a game even when Ben Roethlisberger is not at his best – at least for most of the afternoon. But perhaps most importantly, the this group of Pittsburgh Steelers demonstrated that they have the discipline, the attitude and the resilience to fight to the very last minute.

And against the Jaguars, that made all the difference.

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Mike Tomlin Should Call Le’Veon Bell and Ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

This time tomorrow, mercifully, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera will be over. But before then, there’s one more move that should be made:

  • Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell and ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

That’s a simple question, and one that carries a “Yes” answer for anyone who ever laid their hands on a Nerf football as a kid, barked out a bogus snap count, and faded back in search of connection on one of those “2 completions for a 1st down.”

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

This is a serious proposal. OK. Mike Tomlin’s eyes will never grace the pages of Steel Curtain Rising, let alone this article.

  • But this is still and idea worth executing idea.

As Jim Wexell suggested, Le’Veon Bell likely feels backed into a corner. Although he did threaten a hold out, he also indicated numerous times that he’d be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Yet he’s missed milestone after milestone, and quite possibly feels like sitting out is his only face-saving option.

  • And, there’s the business side of this equation to consider too.

Le’Veon Bell has already forfeited 8 million dollars in change, and “only” stands to make about 6.5 million if he signs his franchise tender. 6.5 million dollars for less than a half a season is a lot of money even by NFL standards, but it pales by comparison to what Bell things and probably can make next spring as a free agent.

  • All it takes is a torn ACL or blown Achilles and Le’Veon Bell’s 2019 signing bonus drops exponentially.

And that’s why Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell, and ask, “Hey Le’V, we want to win a world championship? Do you want to help?”

Because that’s one bargaining chip the Steelers still have, because money can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a Lombardi Trophy or Super Bowl ring as Daniel Snyder and Neil O’Donnell can attest.

It is true that if James Conner continues to play at this level and remains healthy, the Steelers strictly speaking don’t need Le’Veon Bell.

  • The operative phrase above is “If James Conner stays healthy.”

As mentioned here last week, James Conner’s bruising running style carries costs. Moreover, while Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are not bad backups, but at this point I’d still rather have the 2010 or 2011 edition of Isaac Redman as my number two. Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until the wheels fell off, and as noted here in August, during the Tomlin era the Steelers have struggled to keep RB 1 and RB2 healthy until season’s end.

  • Viewed this way, Le’Veon Bell signing his franchise tender even at this late date is a win-win for both sides.

The Steelers get an immediate upgrade to the depth behind James Conner. Le’Veon Bell pockets 6.5 dollars, or more than his entire rookie contract. He has the luxury of getting into shape, and the security that Mike Tomlin no longer has a need to ride him into the ground.

And, he makes a legitimate AFC Championship contender even stronger.

Is there a Precedent for This Sort of Thing…?

Word is of course, that Le’Veon Bell has already decided to sit. Who knows where that is coming from, but the report surfaced on ESPN and now everyone and his brother is reprinting it like Gospel.

That’s a same, because having James Conner and Le’Veon Bell would give the Steelers their strongest, deepest backfield since 2004 when Bill Cowher had Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at his disposal.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Perhaps the better analogy would be 2005, when Duce Staley played little, save for a start against Green Bay that helped ensure a win. A win the Steelers needed to make into the playoffs en route to victory in Super Bowl XL.

  • Sometimes stories yield their own symmetry.

The last time the Steelers played and defeated the Carolina Panthers was in 2014. The game cost the Steelers the services of Jarvis Jones, then seen as an up and comer. It didn’t take long for the Steelers to hit the Red Phone to James Harrison.

But it wasn’t only Mike Tomlin that picked up the phone. If reports are correct, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel called Harrison and encouraged him to come out of retirement.

Mike Tomlin should not only call Le’Veon Bell, but get Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and perhaps Ramon Foster to follow suit. A chorus of “Hey Le’Veon, do you want to win a Super Bowl” just might do the trick.

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Defeo Demands and T.J. Watt Delivers – Add to Defeoman’s Wish List

One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in football to know that the Steelers defense needed someone to step up in a big way heading into their 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Several Steelers defenders did indeed step up, and perhaps we have Tony Defeo to thank for the defender who made the biggest bang.

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Writing on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo made a simple statement, but one strong enough to merit a game day Retweet:

And just like that, T.J. Watt delivered, leading the Steelers in tackles, tackling 5 players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Matt Ryan 4 times, and sacking him 3 times, including a forced fumble which L.J. Fort recovered in the end zone for a game clinching touchdown.

Articles like that remind me of the days back at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, where I’d jaw with buddies Mike and Todd.

Bill Cowher needs to use Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala to give Jerome Bettis a breather, and while he’s at it, they need to throw more to Mark Bruener, especially when they’re in the Red Zone….”

Then one of us would quip “Yep, and we’ll tell him you said that the next time we see him!”

  • Of course now that the blogesphere exists, it is a lot easier to fool one’s self into thinking an average fan can exert such influence.

We can’t . But it’s nonetheless a little uncanny that our beloved Defeoman would see such a demand transformed into reality in such dramatic fashion. In the event that Tony’s DOES have some sort of mystical connection allows such wishes to be granted, here are a few to add to his bucket:

This list is just for starters. Feel free to add yours, although be judicious because Tony must wield his power wisely….

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