5 (Not So) Random Reflections on the Final 3 Weeks of the Steelers 2023 Season

Welcome back! Steel Curtain Rising has been dark since the s loss to the Colts before Christmas.

Although I was in the United States for the last three weeks of the regular season, I only caught ½ of a the Steelers last game. In another point of my life, that would have been unacceptable. But this time, it was OK. I’ll detail the reasons why at the end.

Of course I’ve followed the Steelers on a daily basis, watched highlights from each of their three victories, and the overall experience has left me with 5 insights to share.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

1. You Should Trust Your Instincts

Instinct informed me that things had taken a bad turn the moment Kenny Pickett got hurt against the Cardinals. And instinct held a lot of truth. The Steelers imploded on both sides of the ball following that failed 4th and one attempt.

  • Worse yet, they suffered a weather delay.

My guts screamed for me to do something else rather than wait out the storm until the game resumed. But I didn’t want to sacrifice time as I wanted to get my article written in time to publish Monday morning.

The Steelers of course found a way to lose against the Patriots. Just as Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his retirement finale, Billy B. leaves the Patriots having owned the Steelers. The Steelers were playing the Colts 3 days before I was set to leave for the States.

My wife had wanted to pack on that Saturday (traveling light is not an art we’ve yet to master), but I begged off, wanting to watch the game in part to ensure I could get the post-game article written. I could have watched the game on delay and perhaps accomplished the same thing.

  • Alas I did not. (Yeah, hindsight is 20/20.)

And the Steelers posted one of their worst efforts of the Tomlin era. What a waste of time. (My wife would agree. Enthusiastically.)

2. You Should Trust Your Instincts. Until You Shouldn’t

The Steelers would play 3 games during the second Christmas I’d spend in the US since 2000. That last year I made a point of trekking to the legendary Purple Goose Saloon on Christmas Eve to watch the 2000 Steelers finale against the San Diego Chargers.

  • I made the right decision.

The Steelers won and then I got to watch Bubby Brister come in for Daunte Culpepper and, in his final game in the NFL, once again keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. But I knew I was headed to Argentina and visits to the Purple Goose would be spare after that (I got to the Goose two more times.) And I made it home in plenty of time for Midnight Mass, where the beloved Fr. Adam Kostic would deliver his final Christmas eve sermon.

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

In 2023, watching the Steelers wasn’t a priority. I’d planned to see the Bengals game. But COVID had other ideas. As I was sitting at the Dr.’s office Patient First in Aspin Hill, Maryland as the Steelers were taking the field against the Bengals.

I couldn’t see the game, but my WhatsApp exploded with commentaries from the Steelers Groups I’m in. It was obvious things were going well.

  • That was welcome. And surprising.

But only to a point. I’d thought back to the December 26th Steelers-Panthers match up, the penultimate game of the 1999 Steelers. The Steelers started slowly, then when the snow hit Jerome Bettis took over Three Rivers Stadium, and the Steelers dominated thereafter.

They lost next week – this was the games that saw Bobby Shaw’s Superman shirt and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return. So I chalked the win over the Cincinnati Bengals up as a blip.

  • The Steelers New Year’s eve game against the Seahawks didn’t pose much of a quandary.

The Steelers never win in Seattle. I remember the 1993 Steelers post-Christmas game there, where Jon Vaughn (who? That’s the point) gouged a flu stricken, Greg Lloyd-less Steelers for 131 yards (John L. Williams tacked on 86 more, for good measure.)

I was better from COVID and my wife wanted to spend some time in downtown DC. So to the District of Columbia we went.

  • So I thought nothing of missing the game and, viola, the Steelers won.

I was in New York City for the regular season finale. The wife of my good friend from high school was the curator of an art exhibition in Jersey and invited us to the opening. Needless to say we went. We made it back to the hotel in time for me to catch most of the 2nd half against the Ravens.

I was impressed. The previous two weeks hadn’t been a mirage. I’m glad I caught Diontae Johnson’s interception, Eric Rowe’s forced fumble and Markus Golden’s sack.

3. Trust Mike Tomlin, Not the Pundits

Everyone knows that George Pickens had been a lighting rod for criticism. And for good reason. The guy mailed in when he wasn’t featured on a play. His failure to block for Jaylen Warren was inexcusable. His response was worse.

Listening to legends Ed Bouchette and Vic Ketchman on Jim Wexell’s podcast during COVID isolation, I fully agreed that the Steelers needed to cut their losses with Pickens. Indeed, I had the time but not the energy to write an article saying the Steelers should bench him for the balance of the season.

  • Once again, it is a good thing Mike Tomlin doesn’t listen to me.

Mike Tomlin has a way with young men. He’s far from infallible (see Martavis Bryant). But he can often shepherd them on the path to maturity. For now at least, he’s done it with George Pickens. Pickens burned the Bengals, singed the Seahawks, and then delivered some devastating blocks against the Ravens.

Yeah, Mike knew what he was doing.

4. The Steelers 3 Quarterback System Works

Self-styled NFL personnel experts argue that salary cap dynamics dictate that investing in a veteran backup quarterback is a waste. As for the third string quarterback? Most people will tell you he doesn’t matter.

  • Most people are wrong.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Omar Khan opened the 2023 off season saying that the Steelers had, “Left the door open for Mason Rudolph.” Few paid attention. Yet, when the Steelers resigned Mason Rudolph it was treated as a “surprise.”

And Rudolph looked to be nothing more than a clip board holder. Until he wasn’t. The NFL is all about stepping up when you get your opportunity. And Mason stepped up. For the first time since he arrived it Pittsburgh, you could see why Kevin Colbert had a first round grade on him.

Oh, and even before he came on gang busters in his first start since the tie vs the Lions in 2020, Mason Rudolph had already proved something else: The Mike Tomlin has ushered in the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks.

5. Take a Page for the Rooney’s: Focus on Family

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

If watching Steelers games wasn’t a high priority when I arrived in Maryland, it became an even lower one quickly. Between COVID, my sister-in-law’s father losing a brief battle with pneumonia (and Donald Hay was a great guy) and some other issues, it clear was that I should follow Dan Rooney’s lead: Focus on the family.

I distinctly remember one of his sons being interviewed, it may have been Dan Rooney Jr. but I can’t be sure, explaining that not only did Dan Rooney focus on academics rather than sports when it came to bringing up his children, he made time to speak to each of his 9 children about their day every evening during dinner.

The same child also mentioned that he didn’t even know what his father did for a living until he was in his pre-teen years. That’s because Dan Rooney, at his core, was a family man. Dan always put his family first.

  • I took that lesson to heart on this trip, focused on family and missed three Steelers wins because of it.

And I’m confident that, looking down from heaven, both Dan Rooney and his father Art Rooney Sr. would wholeheartedly agree with me that this was the best decision I could have made.

Go Steelers. Let’s upset the Bills 1989 style!

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Steelers Fire Matt Canada. Now What? 1999’s Kordell Stewart Benching Offers a Warning….

Yesterday Mike Tomlin shattered franchise precedent by firing Matt Canada in season and in the process he gave Steelers fans what they’ve long wanted. Tomlin’s decision makes sense for a lot of reasons.

Sure, the Steelers are sitting on a 6-4 record, but each of those six wins has been ugly. And the last second loss to the Browns felt like the proverbial other foot had dropped. The Steelers offense has been lackluster for years, but it was poignantly pathetic in Cleveland. And it wasn’t going to get any better with Canada at the helm.

  • But with Matt Canada gone the focus now becomes more intense: What happens next?

As I watch Steelers Nation celebrate Canada’s dismissal on social media, I can’t help but think of a similar situation the Steeler found themselves in back in November 22, 1999. Indeed, as this current season has evolved, its resonance with the 1999 Steelers has grown stronger.

That season offers a clear lesson for today: While Matt Canada was part of the problem, there’s no assurance that firing him will work as a solution.

Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, 1999 Steelers

Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomlin in the late 1990s.

Nightmare Like Its 1999

You can take a deep dive on the 1999 Steelers here. This is the the backstory you need to know now:

Although the Steelers closed 1998 with 5 straight losses to finish 7-9, they began 1999 with hope. Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe confidently boasted to the media something along the lines of, “…No offense. But I like proving you wrong. I don’t think we’re that far off from being a contender again.”

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

The ’99 Steelers opened with a blowout over the expansion Cleveland Browns and a lack luster win against a weak Bears team. Three butt ugly losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars at home, and Doug Fluite and the Bills on the road followed.

  • If you asked any fan what the Steelers needed to do they’d have answered in unison: Bench Kordell!

But Bill Cowher stuck with Kordell Stewart, and the Steelers won 3 straight, then dropped a horrific home loss to the Browns, and an terrible loss to the Titans on the road.

That brought a home game against the Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals of that era were the AFC Central’s doormat. Tom Donahoe, in a bit of candor you would never see in 2023, openly proclaimed Pittsburgh as the more talented team.

The Bengals scored a touchdown on their first possession. The Steelers answered with 4 plays followed by an interception. The Bengals responded with a second touchdown. The teams traded a couple of punts, Pittsburgh managed to get a field goal and Carlos Emmons even opened the second quarter with an interception of his own.

After a 1 yard run to Jerome Bettis, (“Sludge Ball” foreshadowed) Kordell fired off pass towards Jon Witman and Rodney Heath intercepted, returning it 58 yards for a pick six.

Bill Cowher had seen enough.

On the next series Mike Tomczak was under center at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon cheered. The guy two bar stools down from me who’d spent the previous hour alternating between railing against “Queerdell!” and asking “You guy’s don’t think this makes me a racist, do you?” was elated.

Meanwhile, at Three Rivers Stadium where it actually counted, Mike Tomczak hit Troy Edwards for 4 yards. Jerome Bettis ran for 4 more. On third and 3 Richard Huntley ran for 3 more…

…before fumbling, with Takeo Spikes recovering. Corey Dillon ripped off runs of 20 and 12 yards and 6 plays later the Bengals were scoring again, leaving Pittsburgh down by 24-3 just 20 minutes into the game.

To be fair to Mike Tomczak and everyone else, the Steelers offense perked up, putting 17 points on the board in the next 25 minutes to enter the third quarter only down 24 to 20. But here’s how the 4th quarter unfolded for Pittsburgh:

  • Jerome Bettis being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 4th down
  • Tomczak tossing incompletes and then giving up 2 sacks
  • A Wayne Gandy penalty at Cincinnati’s 21, follow by 3 straight Tomczak incompletes

The Bengals scored another field goal along the way, winning the game 27 to 20.

1999’s Lessons for 2023

That home loss to the Bengals left the 1999 Steelers at 5-6, but Pittsburgh still had a shot at the playoffs if not the AFC Central crown. Bill Cowher stuck with Mike Tomczak as quarterback, but the Steelers only won one of its next 5 games.

Tomzack’s final quarterback rating was 75.8 compared to Stewart’s 64.9, but his completion percentage was 5 percentage points lower. Benching Kordell Stewart did spark the offense a bit, but here’s what it didn’t do:

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Indeed, two weeks after Stewart’s benching, the Ravens came to town and earned their first victory in Pittsburgh on the back of a Qadry Ismail 258 yards receiving performance. As Scottie Brown, who was sort of the dean of the Purple Goose quipped after Ismail’s second 50 yard plus touchdown, “Its Kordell’s fault!”

  • And that’s something to keep in mind as the Steelers start life without Matt Canada.

As someone who defended the decision to bring Canada back after 2022’s strong finish, I have no problem eat my share of crow this morning. I was wrong. Clearly his offense lacked “coordination” and, well, that was his job.

But it’s also wise to remember isn’t the only thing that ails the 2023 Steelers. Canada’s absence won’t change the fact that the Steelers seem to be losing a safety and/or an inside linebacker to injured reserve per week.

When the calls to “Fire Canada” went viral in September, I’d have warned you that firing Canada wouldn’t have made any of the offensive lineman playing better. Fortunately offensive line play has improved.

As recently as two weeks ago following the Titans game, there were still tangible reasons to be optimistic that things might soon “click” for Kenny Pickett. After watching him “get by” against the Packers and then struggle against the Browns, I’m less sure.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is true that a bad offensive coordinator can stunt the development of a young quarterback (see Joe Walton and Bubby Brister, or Ray Sherman and/or Kevin Gilbride and Kordell Stewart). And when you invest a first round draft pick in a quarterback, you need to do all you can to make it work.

But the fact is that far more quarterbacks drafted in the first round fail than succeed and replacing one franchise quarterback with another is very difficult to do.

And firing Matt Canada isn’t going to change either of those realities.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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Myron Cope was Right about Daniel Snyder. The NFL Should Have Listened 23 Years Ago

The NFL owners voted unanimously to approve the sale of the Washington Commanders from Daniel Snyder to Steelers minority owner Josh Harris, thus ending one of the most ignominious ownership tenures in league history.

You know what? If they’d have listened to Myron Cope 23 years ago they could have saved everyone a ton of trouble.

How’s that? Follow along and find out.

Myron Cope

Myron Cope: Long time radio voice and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Red Flags Flash Early in the Snyder Era

In 1999 Daniel Snyder bought the then Washington Redskins after winning the second round an auction held by the late Jack Kent Cooke’s estate. NFL owners were not pleased. They’d already pressured Daniel Milstein and Snyder to withdraw a previous bid. John Kent Cooke, Jack’s son, had come in second in the and, if memory serves, Dan Rooney openly asked if the NFL owners could consider both proposals.

  • They could not. Snyder got the team.

Snyder got control of the team in May and could do little ahead of the upcoming season. Except fire a bunch of secretaries, administrative employees and other low-level office staffers as a way of showing he was in charge.

  • Snyder made it clear he was going to be more demanding than John Kent Cooke.

Fans and the press liked that. Yet, a friend of mine told me how a business associate of his had been called to the team facilities in Ashburn to do some work on the field. He crossed paths with Snyder, one-on-one in a quiet corridor, extend his hand saying, “Mr. Snyder, I’m a longtime fan. And I just want to say that I love what you’re doing with the team.” Snyder ignored him, said nothing and left him hanging as he walked by.

Contrast that with Art Rooney Sr.’s encounter with Craig Wolfley and Tunch Ilkin shortly after the 1980 NFL Draft. The Chief stopped by in the main waiting room at Three Rivers Stadium, and chatted with the guys as he emptied ashtrays. They thought Rooney was a janitor, not realizing he was the owner who’d just bagged his 4th Lombardi Trophy.

Yeah, that was the first sign that Daniel Snyder would be the anti-Dan Rooney. But not the last.

The Snyder Era’s First Rendezvous with the Steelers

True to his word, Snyder “applied some pressure” and Washington made the playoffs and even won a wild card game, its first since Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. As Washington started the 2000 off season on a high note, Danny was licking his chops.

With Snyder at the helm, Washington hit the free agent market with reckless abandon, spending 100 million dollars on free agents.

  • Others had tried and failed to “Buy a Lombardi,” but both fans and press in Washington drank to Kool-Aid.

Listeners called into Sports Talk 980 WTEM predicting an undefeated season. In late May at a barbecue in the DC suburbs, fans needled yours truly, pointing to the Steelers dismal 1999 effort and predicting disaster for the Steelers December match up against Washington, the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. Then to rub a little salt into the wound, one sheepishly asked, “I wonder if we signed Deion today?” (When they actually signed Dieon a few days later, the Washington Post ran a front page article and devoted a quarter of the Sports section to the deal.)

Days before the season opener against the Carolina Panthers, the owner of the Wheaton Athletic Club quipped, “…I’m tried of people speculating what it means if he [long forgotten Panthers player] plays or not. A win is going to be a win.”

“Yeah, just like a Super Bowl is gonna be a Super Bowl!” a patron responded.

Washington won that first game, but quickly showed themselves as a middling team while Snyder showed himself to be a meddling owner, complete with ESPN zooming in on a sideline phone labeled “Mr. Snyder” – Danny didn’t hesitate to call Norv Turner during the game when he wasn’t happy.

And Danny was often unhappy, firing Turner after a 7-9 loss to the Giants, two weeks before Washington was set to travel to Pittsburgh where Myron Cope would offer the result of the league advice that they’d have been wise to take.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis after the final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Myron Cope loved nicknames, and decided going into the week that Washington would be the “Wash Redfaces.” With the Steelers leading 17-3 at the half in their Three Rivers Stadium finale (oh, was it such a pleasure to see Jerome Bettis steamroll Deion Sanders) Snyder sent someone from his PR team instructing Myron Cope to stop using the term Redfaces.

As Cope explained in Double Yoi, as soon as the commercial break was over, he informed listeners “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you.” He then shared the news of Snyder’s demand, assuring listeners, “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he should stick his head in a can of paint.”

As Tom Boswell of the Washington Post opined afterwards, “Like it or not, Myron Cope was speaking for America. And the Redskins should listen.”

Alas, they did not.

Nearly 23 years later, you can rest assured that the NFL wishes it had taken the advice of the late, great Myron Cope a lot sooner.

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Le’Veon Bell Should Apologize to the Man in the Mirror. Not to Steelers Fans

Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.

The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”

  • Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.

Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.

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

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

Why Bell Owes No Apology to Steelers Fans

Full disclosure. When the Steelers slapped the 2nd franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, I said it wasn’t what either side wanted, but probably what both needed. I was wrong.

And when Bell failed to show up on the first day of practice before the opener, I like many other was upset. Later, as the deadline to report loomed, I opined that Mike Tomlin should call Bell and convince him to report.

The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?

Perhaps.

But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.

That’s simply not Bell’s fault.

Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”

NFL players have a code.

Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.

  • And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.

Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.

The Man in the Mirror

When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.

But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.

  • In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.

The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.

The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.

And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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No Restrictions: Steelers Should Resign J.C. Hassenauer But Not Extend an RFA Tender

Like characters in a story, every NFL player’s career has an arc. Follow a player’s arc and most of the time it reveals a lot about the individual’s talent, dedication and character. Just think of Jerome Bettis “face of the franchise” career journey and you’ll see what I mean.

Yet sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes a player’s career arc reveals more about the team than the player. Such is the case with J.C. Hassenauer who is about to become an Restricted Free Agent.

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers

After watching undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Hassenauer spend 2018 going on an off the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad, the Steelers signed him in the spring of 2019 and he made the practice squad earning a promotion to the active roster for the season finale against Baltimore.

Hassenauer got his first start against Baltimore in November 2020 at center and started two more games at center and one at guard due to injuries to Maurkice Pouency and Matt Feiler. J.C. Hassenauer started against the Chargers in 2021 when Kendrick Green was out, and started the final two games of the season plus the playoff loss to the Chiefs.

In 2022 Hassenauer only logged 46 snaps with the offense, but he did log 71 special teams snaps, a slight increase from two years before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

The Steelers know what they have in J.C. Hassenauer. He brings position flexibility to the interior of the offensive line.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer

J.C. Hassenauer isn’t going to keep any opposing defensive line coach up at night. Position flexibility is nice, but is it really worth $2.627 million? For a guy that in his third year play 46 snaps? You’re kidding right?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer

At first glance the J.C. Hassenauer’s career arch of starting 7 games at two positions in 2020 and 2021 and then failing get on the field in year 3 seems pretty damning. But in reality, this reveals more about the sorry state of those Steelers offensive lines than it does about J.C. Hassenauer.

J.C. Hassenauer has some serviceable skills and an ability to step in and play or even start of a pinch at guard or center. Kind of a modern day Doug Legursky lite.

  • But even if that is true, is Hassenauer worth $2.627 million restricted free agent tender?

Probably not. Even without thinking about who the Steelers might draft, Kendrick Green brings the same position flexibility at a far lower salary cap hit. The Steelers should most certainly bring Hassenauer to St. Vincents, but they can do so for far less than 2.6 million.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Retain Matt Canada – No the Hindenburg Hasn’t Been Sent to Rescue the Titanic

It is official. Mike Tomlin has retained Matt Canada as the Steelers offensive coordinator for at least one more season. Predictably, Steelers Nation is acting like the Hindenburg has just been sent to rescue the Titanic.

It is not.

Steelers fans love to revile their offensive coordinator. It’s an annual pastime. Thanks to marriage of Madden and Fantasy Football, everyone seems to think that working an as offensive coordinator is easy.

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

I’ve railed against Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians. Yet, as the “FIRE MATT CANADA” cries reached a fever pitch, I’ve largely kept my silence, even when joining the chorus would have delivered plenty of clicks.

There are several reasons for this, reasons why Tomlin’s decision isn’t a disaster and might even be a good thing. Let’s look at why.

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

Steelers retaining Matt Canada ISN’T akin to sending the Hindenburg to rescue the Titanic.

“You Have to Have the Players.” – Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney routinely made this statement whenever he was asked to explain the Steelers continued success. The Steelers record, headlined by 6 Super Bowls, since he took control of the team from Art Rooney Sr. in the 60’s vindicates the late Chairman.

  • The Steelers offense under Matt Canada had hardly been the Greatest Show on turf.

In 2020 the Steelers posted a 9-7-1 record that featured 7 come from behind wins. The offense was at its best when Ben Roethlisberger was in the 2 minute drill, calling his own plays.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

Not exactly. Ben Roethlisberger was a bad fit for Canada’s offense. This old dog wasn’t going to learn any new tricks. And Roethlisberger was playing behind a make-shift offensive line, with a rookie running back and a rookie tight end.

  • During the first half of 2022 the Steelers offense regressed.

This isn’t opinion. Its fact. The Dr. de Acero commented to me, “Nunca habia visto un ofensa de los Steelers tan inepto” – I’ve never seen a more inept Steelers offense. And he was right. But we’ve also never seen such an inexperienced Steelers offense.

  • Who were the most experienced veterans on the Steelers offense?

Chuks Okorafor, Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry (and Gentry missed most of 2019 and 2020 in IR.) Outside of those three and Derek Watt, no one had more than 2 years of experience with the Steelers.

Moreover, emerging leaders such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth were in their second years. George Pickens and Connor Heyward were rookies. Mitch Trubisky was in his first year with the team and Kenny Pickett was a rookie.

Assembling an offense on the field is a bit different that designating a week’s starters for Fantasy Football. It takes time for 11 guys to learn to play together. Even Joe Gibbs, who perhaps had the greatest offensive mind in the modern NFL, started in Washington going 1-6 before finishing 8-8.

(And Gibbs had veterans like Joe Theismann, John Riggins and future Hall of Famer rookie Art Monk to lean on.)

“Not Making Change for the Sake of Change” – Mike Tomlin

The quote above was Mike Tomlin’s to questions about whether he would fire Matt Canada midseason after the Steelers got pasted by the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin would be asked that question several other times during the course of the season.

Each time Tomlin would preach the virtues of a systematic as opposed to reactionary approach to coaching.

Tomlin’s philosophy prevailed is illustrated by Mike DeFabo tweet:

That turn around might not have led Fantasy Football owners to scramble to trade for Steelers skill players to add to their team, but those statistics added up to wins.

  • How did Matt Canada and the rest of the offensive staff pull off this turn around?

There’s no secret here. They didn’t execute any massive schematic change (although they did make some tweaks.) Instead, they eliminated the execution errors that had plagued the team earlier in the season and, once that happened, Canada’s system worked.

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

This is true. Canada’s offense does lack explosive or “chunk” plays. Even taking into account the turn around in the 2nd half of the season, under Matt Canada, the Steelers remain bottom feeders when it comes to passes longer than 20 yards.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But how much of this is by design and how much of this is Canada’s “fault?”

Perhaps a little of both. As Steel City Insider film reviewer D.I. Davis has pointed out since week 1, the Steelers might lack long passing gains, but the deep routes have been there and receivers have been open.

  • If you doubt that look no further than to George Pickens’s tantrum during the middle of the season.

Mitch Trubisky tried to get aggressive in relief of Pickett against the Ravens and his 3 interceptions likely kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pickett too stuck with the short passes, particularly early on. As the season progressed, he got a bit more adventurous downfield, albeit with mixed results.

  • On the flip side, Matt Canada’s offense clearly favors ball control.

That might not be exciting, but as the wins over Carolina and Cleveland proved, if you ball control combined with drives that end in touchdowns instead of field goals can be downright lethal.

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

As mentioned above, I too was a harsh critic of former Steelers offensive coordinators Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians.

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Walton’s tenure was a disaster and his last NFL job (although he did excel at Robert Morris). Ray Sherman’s was arguably worse, lasted one year and he only had one more season as an NFL coordinator.

I also defended Sherman’s predecessor, Chan Gailey for his aggressiveness in the 1997 AFC Championship loss to the Broncos. As the seasons and AFC Championships mounted between 1997 and 2005, I began to regret his decision to put the game in Kordell Stewart’s rather than Jerome Bettis’ hands.

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

A good chunk of this sites content during our first year in 2008 was directed at criticizing Arians. Then came the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII where Arians’ offense excelled. And of course Arians enjoyed tremendous success since leaving Pittsburgh.

  • The moral of this stroll down memory lane is two-fold.

First, Matt Canada may not be Pittsburgh’s next Bruce Arians, but he has earned the chance to try. Second, Mike Tomlin is far more qualified to make that judgement than I am.

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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Emperor’s Wisdom: 5 Chuck Nollisms to See Steelers Nation Through the 2022 Season

These are tough times for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans. The team holds a 2-6 record at the bye week and the franchise appears to be fated for its for its first losing season since 2003. Oddly enough, its during tough times like these that Steelers Nation would do well to lean into the wisdom of Chuck Noll.

  • Chuck Noll, the head coach who altered the course of the franchise, was never known for his colorful quotes.

As Myron Cope remembered in Double Yoi, after one of Noll’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, a national reporter taped a blank page to the wall of the press room titled, “Highlights of Chuck Noll’s Press Conference.”

Yes, Nollism’s were rare. That’s what makes them so special. Here are a few that are relevant to 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll in his element with the Steelers at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

1. “When you’re losing, everything they say about you is true”

This quote from Noll underlines his understanding that the NFL is a bottom line business. There may be, as his successor Bill Cowher often reminded, a “Fine line between winning and losing,” but Noll knew that when you end up on the wrong side of that fine line, no one cares why, even though some might think they do….

2. “…the question they’re really asking is ‘Why don’t you win?’”

After the 1989 Steelers started the season losing to the Browns 51-0 and to the Bengals 41-10, as vulchers circled over Three Rivers Stadium, ESPN dispatched Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh to ask Noll “Has the game passed you by?”

Noll dodged the direct question while delivering a truthful response, by responding “When people ask that question, its like when they ask, ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun?’ ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ and what they’re really asking is, ‘Why don’t you win?’”

  • He was right then and his words of wisdom apply today.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

Should the Steelers use Derek Watt more in the offense? Yes, I certainly think so.

But I wouldn’t care if the Kenny Pickett was playing as well as Ben Roethlisberger did in 2004. Nor would we care about how Mike Tomlin was splitting carries between Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris if they were pounding offenses the way Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were during that same Steelers 2004 season.

3. “Back to Basics”

Whenever the Steelers would hit a rough stretch, Chuck Noll would begin the week with one of his “back to basics” speeches. Noll was a fundamentalist. He lived and died by the credo that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily.

That philosophy is what led him to critique and correct the pre-snap stance of Andy Russell, one of the few good players he inherited from Bill Austin, transforming a Pro Bowl player into someone who, arguably broached Hall of Fame level under Noll

This pearl of wisdom relevant to the entire 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers squad, but particularly the offense. Lost in all of the anger directed at Matt Canada and his “one touchdown a game” offense is the fact that this is young and inexperienced unit.

Extra focus on “the little things” like avoiding illegal formation penalties, or footwork to get your feet in in bounds, would be invaluable for this offense.

  • Doubt that, do you?

Well consider the penultimate drive against Miami. Kenny Pickett moved the team to the 3rd and 1 on the 1 yard line, only to see penalties on successive plays push the offense back 10 yards when he threw an interception. The “little” things add up, particularly when you don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

4. “If everyone can be just 1% better, we’ll be 22% better as a team”

Teamwork drove Chuck Noll. He talked about it in his Hall of Fame induction speech. He relentlessly reminded his players that geese flew much faster in formation than alone.

The 2022 Steelers need to take this to heart, whether this means holding a block a second longer, concentrating just a bit more on the cadence of the snap count, or focusing on executing their exact assignment on a play.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

This is mentality was in evidence during the Steelers win over Tampa Bay, and something they should embrace coming out of the bye week.

5. “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.”

This Nollism isn’t oft repeated, but I remember Mel Blount and Ray Mansfield talking about it during an NFL Films clip on Chuck Noll. As Blount explains, Noll preached this to his team at the peak of their Super Bowl runs in an effort to ensure that their success never went to their heads.

  • Suffice to say the 2022 Steelers are on anything but a Super Bowl run.

And that’s their fans need to keep Noll’s wisdom front of mind. The Steelers are rebuilding. Rebuilding is a process, not an event. And because its a process, that’s why its painful as it is far more like rehabbing an injured joint than pulling off a Band Aid.

So expect that results, at least at first, to be measured by progress before those measurements come via victories.

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