Looking @ the Steelers Thanksgiving Record – Can Pittsburgh Break the Turkey Day Curse?

The NFL is “honoring” the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 8th time by putting them in the national spotlight on Thanksgiving Day. Given the Steelers Thanksgiving record, one can imagine Art Rooney II saying a heartfelt “Thanks but no thanks” the next time the NFL offers them a turkey day slot.

Here is a look at the Steelers Thanksgiving record that has made for many a memorable turkey day that most of Steelers Nation Wish they could forget.

steelers thanksgiving record, steelers thanksgiving history, le'veon bell, le'veon bell concussion ravens, steelers ravens thanksgiving

Le’Veon Bell loses his helmet in the Steelers 2013 Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Matt Hafley, Post-Gazette

Pre-Noll Era Steelers Thanksgiving Record 1-2

The Steelers played the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving Day in 1939 and 1940. The Pittsburgh Pirates, as they were still known then, lost to the Eagles on Thanksgiving in 1939 17-14. In 1940 the newly renamed Steelers had no better luck, losing to the Eagles 7-0.

The Steelers would have to wait another ten years, including their World War II stint as the Steagles, before playing on Thanksgiving Day. However, the NFL matched the Steelers up with the Chicago Cardinals on Thanksgiving day in 1950 and Pittsburgh prevailed led by Joe Geri’s 101 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 3 extra points.

1983 – The Thanksgiving Day Massacre

November 24th, 1983 @ The Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 45, Pittsburgh 3

The 1983 Steelers had played the entire season without Terry Bradshaw, but despite that Cliff Stoudt combined with a defense that looked to be Super Bowl caliber had given the Steelers a 9-3 record and command of the AFC Central Division heading into their Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit. Detroit for its part was only 6-6.

As defensive coordinator Woody Widenhoffer admitted later, the Steelers weren’t prepared. And then some:

  • At the time, it was the Steelers worst loss in 36 years.

Cliff Stoudt threw 4 interceptions Mark Malone threw 1, Franco Harris gained 16 yards on 5 carries as both Harris and Walter Abercrombie’s combined totals were less than Frank Pollard’s. Meanwhile, Bill Sims looked like genetic fusion between Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, and Eric Hipple looked like Johnny Unitas.

The Steelers would lose the following week in Cincinnati. The week after it would take the last throws left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm to left them over the Jets as the Steelers stumbled into the playoffs where the LA Raiders quickly eliminated them.

1991 – Joe Walton Fails the Steelers. Again.

November 28th, 1991 @ Texas Stadium
Dallas 20, Pittsburgh 10

Considering that Dallas went to the playoffs and won a game and followed the next season with a Super Bowl Championship, one might wonder why this game was close at all. But it was.

  • And in many ways it symbolized all that was wrong with the Joe Walton era of the Steelers offense.

The Steelers still had a talented defense that had finished number 1 overall in 1990, led by players such as Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. It still had the offensive core that had led the rallies that fueled the 1989 Steelers improbable run. But unfortunately, Chuck Noll’s last hire was his worst one, as he’d name Joe Walton his offensive coordinator and gave him total control.

The Steelers defense kept the Dallas Cowboys to 13 points until late into the third quarter, when Warren Williams narrowed the score to three.

  • Alas, Steve Beuerlein to Michael Irvin pass put the gave the Cowboys a 10 point lead.

And under Joe Walton’s offense, Neil O’Donnell couldn’t muster more than 167 yards, and no other skill player could break the 60 yard mark. In other words, in those days 10 points was far too much to overcome in a quarter.

1998 – The Phil Luckett Coin Flip Thanksgiving Day Fiasco

November 26th @ the Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16

For as bad as 1983’s Thanksgiving Day Massacre was, the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster is standard by which every disappointment on the Steelers Thanksgiving record will be judged because it signified the end of an era.

The 1998 Steelers had had their ups and downs. Without a doubt, this Steelers team was missing something and Kordell Stewart clearly lacked the mojo he’d shown in the season before. But these 1998 Steelers had authored enough Tease Games – convincing wins over serious contenders – to give fans legitimate hope Bill Cowher’s boys could pull it together for a deep playoff run.

The scenario for the 1998 Steelers Thanksgiving Day game had all the trimmings for one of The Chin’s late season surges. The Steelers were fresh off a win at home over the division leading Jacksonville Jaguars and took a 7-4 record to Detroit. Jerome Bettis’ parents even had the entire team over for Thanksgiving dinner the night before.

  • It was not to be.

The Steelers played a sloppy game filled with blown coverages and easily catchable balls that receivers dropped. Nonetheless they opened a 13-3 lead in the third quarter, only to see the Lions kick a field goal, followed by a Charlie Batch to Herman Moore hook up that tied the score. Jacksonville added another 3 and the Steelers had to fight to get into position for a Norm Johnson field goal to tie the game.

  • Carnell Lake and Jerome Bettis approached midfield, called tails, the coin landed on tails but referee Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions as Detroit’s captains struggled to suppress their laughter.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers Thanksgiving Record, steelers thanksgiving coin flip, phil luckett

Jerome Bettis clearly called tails, but Phil Luckett said he heard “heads” in the infamous Thanksgiving Day Coin Flip. Photo Credit: USA Today For the Win

The Lions got into scoring position thanks to another Herman Moore reception that came at Carnell Lake’s expense. A ticky tacky face mask penalty gave Detroit even more yards as they kicked the overtime field goal for the win.

The loss knocked the wind out of the 1998 Steelers sails, who would go on to lose their next 4 games. The Pittsburgh Steelers had been contenders since Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began in 1992, but that era ended on Thanksgiving Day 1998 in Detroit.

2013 – The Tomlin Two-Step and the Failed 2 Pointer

November 28th @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20

Outside of Pittsburgh, everyone remembers this game because of Mike Tomlin’s sideline two-step, but inside Steelers Nation this one was a heart breaker – not because the Steelers played poorly, but because they played so well. The 2013 Steelers had of course started at 0-4 and the 2-6 yet had clawed their way back to 5-6. A win vs. the Ravens would have restored the Steelers record to .500 and put Pittsburgh within striking distance of the AFC North title.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

The Ravens scored a quick touchdown, but the Steelers defense held Baltimore to field goals for the rest of the night. The Steelers offense stalled during the first half, but in the second half Le’Veon Bell and Emmanuel Sanders scored touchdowns, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller 9 times.

With time expiring the Steelers moved into scoring position:

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for 19 yards and an apparent touchdown. Overturned on replay.
    Le’Veon Bell rammed it in from the one. Overturned on replay because his helmet slipped off as he was being concussed.
  • Two plays later Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone…
  • ….but the two point conversion failed.

The Steelers tried an on-sides kick, but failed and the Ravens ran out the clock. While this loss was disappointing, it was Steelers-Ravens slugfest in the truest sense of the word.

Can the Steelers  break their Thanksgiving Day curse vs. the Colts in 2016? Time will tell.

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Did the Steelers Underutilize Matt Spaeth’s Pass Catching Skills? – No That’s Not a Trick Question Steelers Nation

If news of the Steelers releasing tight end Matt Spaeth surprised, the articles themselves were predictable: Each and every article, at some point, defined Matt Spaeth as a “blocking tight end.”

  • And the tape tells no lies: Matt Spaeth primarily played as a blocking tight end

But is it also fair to ask: Were Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills underutilized? No Steelers Nation, that’s not a rhetorical question, but rather a serious one.

Matt Spaeth, pass catch, touchdown, steelers vs. packers, lambeau field

Matt Spaeth catches a touchdown @ Lambeau Field in 2014. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6’7” 260 pound tight end promised to offer Ben Roethlisberger a tantalizingly tall target. And early on it looked like he would do just that. In his first four career games, Matt Spaeth caught four passes, and three of them were for touchdowns.

  • Despite his strong start, Spaeth’s role as a pass catcher never evolved, as the 6’7” tight end’s pass catching production peaked in 2008 at 17 catches on 26 targets.

Still, when Matt Spaeth was heading towards free agency in 2015, an analysis of his passing stats suggested the Steelers should call his number more:

matt spaeth, career receiving stats, spaeth pass catching, touchdown catches

Do numbers lie? Matt Spaeth caught most of the balls thrown his way.

  • Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley never got the memo.

During 2015, Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones only targeted Matt Spaeth three times. For the record, Spaeth caught 2 out of three of those passes for 10 yards, but honestly that doesn’t tell us much. Nor, honestly speaking, does his career target-to-catch ratio of 63.2% suggest much because the sample is so small.

Still, using analysis done to document Heath Miller’s dependability in the passing game, you can see how Matt Spaeth compares to other Steelers pass catchers since 2005:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

Spaeth’s dependability as a pass catcher is on par with Antwaan Randle El and just below Hines Ward, while better than Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant and Nate Washington.

Matt Spaeth “Just catches Touchdowns….”

While Spaeth’s pass catching production might fail to reach statistical relevance, it does tell us reveal something else:

  • Matt Spaeth excelled at catching touchdowns.

Matt Speath’s catch-to-touchdown ratio is 18.2%. In otherwords, almost one of ever five passes Matth Spaeth caught went for a touchdown. Only Martavis Bryant has been better and only three others have numbers in double digits. Yes, the small sample size perhaps distorts things a bit, but it does prove that when the ball got near Matt Spaeth when things were most important, he generally made a catch.

  • All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers target Matt Spaeth more in the passing game?

The easiest, and most likely correct answer, is that Spaeth dropped a lot of passes in practice. That idea is supported by the fact that Spaeth’s most prolific pass catching spell came during 2010, when he started several games for after Heath Miller suffered a devastating concussion vs. the Ravens. During that season, Speath only caught 9 of the 18 balls thrown his way, and didn’t score any touchdowns.

  • Still, if that is the case, why would the Steelers call Spaeth’s number so frequently in the Red Zone?

Steelers Nation will never know the answer for sure. But the numbers certainly suggest that Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills were underutilized during his time with the Steelers. Even if that is true, that fact would fail to alter one fundamental fact: Matt Spaeth blocked incredibly well.

Although Le’Veon Bell dazzled as a rookie, his performance as pure rusher remained in consistent, and deep into December, Bell had still failed to break the 100 yard rushing mark. That change just before Christmas at Lambeau Field when Bell romped for 124 yards, which was also Matt Spaeth’s 3rd game back from injured reserve.

That’s no coincidence, although if you’re wondering, that Green Bay game also saw Matt Spaeth’s 2nd and final target of the season – which he caught for a touchdown….

…Steel Curtain Rising thanks Matt Speath for his service in Pittsburgh, and wishes him well on his next NFL stop and/or retirement.

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Will Steelers Free Agent Darrius Heyward-Bey Stay?

Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey presents Pittsburgh with a good problem to have. The Steelers wide receiver has found a second wind in Pittsburgh, which both to his and the team’s credit.

Nonetheless, should he decide to return his spot on the depth chart is not clear, adding complexity to the decision to keep him in Pittsburgh or not.

[Editor’s note, the Steelers Resigned Darrius Heyward-Bey on March 7th. Click here for more.]

Capsule Profile of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s Career with the Steelers

The 2014 off season found the Steelers still navigating their way through salary cap purgatory which, among other things, prevented them from resigning Emmanuel Sanders, whom they expected to lose, and Jerricho Cotchery whom they wanted and expected to keep.

One of those receivers turned out to a prefect fit for Pittsburgh, the other was a disappointment. If, in April 2014, you’d had make a prediction on which would be which you’d have probably put your money down on Darrius Heyward-Bey because he was a number 7 overall pick who never caught more than 64 passes, whereas Lance Moore was one of those dependable, under the radar quality wide receivers.

During his first season in Pittsburgh, Heyward-Bey did little more than play on special teams, only getting targeted by Ben Roethlisberger 5 times and making 3 catches. In 2015 Martavis Bryant’s suspension created an opportunity for Heyward-Bey and he seized it.

  • He proved to be an incredibly reliable target for Roethlisberger and Michael Vick during the season’s first four games.

Against the San Diego Chargers, Heyward-Bey’s targets to catches ratio dipped, but he made back-to-back receptions, including a key 3rd down conversions on the Steelers final touchdown drive. Heyward-Bey’s role in the offense diminished as Martavis Bryant worked himself back into the line up, but when Bryant faltered late in the season, the Steelers turned to Heyward-Bay who delivered.

The Case for Darrius Heyward-Bey Staying a Steeler

While Darrius Heyward-Bey’s evolution as a wide receiver presents one incredibly strong argument for keeping him in Pittsburgh, has this video segment (available as of 2/29/16) from the Steelers season opening loss to the Patriots:

Darrius Heyward-Bey’s greatest contributions don’t come with the ball in his hands and are perhaps those that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

As Rebecca Rollett profiled on USA Today’s The Steelers Wire Heyward-Bey excels at special teams logging 6 and 7 special teams tackles in two seasons of duty. Moreover, Heyward-Bey has learned to channel his inner Hines Ward.

The Steelers did exceptionally well in runs over 20 yards, and as Dale Lolley of the Washington Observer-Reporter informs, Steelers coaches made no bones about who sprung those blocks down field for Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams: Darrius Heyward-Bey

When you look at the value he adds, the argument for the Steelers resigning Darrius Heyward-Bey is incredibly strong.

The Case Against Darrius Heyward-Bey Staying a Steeler

Unlike in 2014 and 2015, Darrus Heyward-Bey can likely command something above the veteran minimum. And while the Steelers do have more salary cap space than in previous years, they have extensions to think about for another of higher priority players.

  • There’s also the question of Heyward-Bey’s spot on the depth chart.

Antonio Brown is the Steelers number one receiver. Martavis Bryant showed in the Steelers 2015 playoffs that he can be a number 2 wide receiver. And if he flaters, Markus Wheaton provides another strong option. Looking at the Steelers playoff game vs. the Broncos, Heyward-Bey figured to be one who need to pickup the slack.

  • Heyward-Bey played well, but Sammie Coates made a very, very strong showing for himself.

The Steelers have to ask themselves if they really want to use that precious extra salary cap space to resign a 5th wide receiver, when the team has such obvious needs for backup defensive lineman and drastic need for an end-to-end improvement in the defensive backfield.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Darrius Heyward-Bey

In a perfect world, the Steelers would find away to keep Darruis Heyward-Bey in the fold. You’ve got to admire wide receiver who was top 10 pick for swallowing his pride, picking up his lunch pail and buckling up his chin strap to make a name for himself in the trenches.

  • Players like that contribute difference making plays on championship teams.

The Steelers will want him back, but their ability to keep him at a reasonable price could depend on how many people outside of Pittsburgh have noticed how much Heyward-Bey has grown.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Case Study in Dependability and Humility

Heath Miller’s surprising retirement prompted an out pouring of support from Steelers Nation. And so it should. Heath Miller was fundamental to the Steelers success during his 11 years in Pittsburgh, and he played a critical role in the Steelers championships in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Heath Miller’s career also reinforces and important lesson for Steelers Nation.

My first reaction when the Steelers drafted Miller in 2005 was “huh?” That’s not terribly surprising. I’m the polar opposite of a “draft nic” so the fact that Miller lacked a combine or pro day pedigree didn’t factor into my “huh?” Instead, my thoughts were much more pedestrian.

  • The 2004 Steelers had finished 15-1 and lost the AFC Championship essentially because Ben Roethlisberger had begun playing like a rookie.

It is quite common to say, “X Team is a quarterback/running back/edge rusher/shut down corner away from the Super Bowl.” No one ever says “We’re a tight end away from the Super Bowl,” (unless you have Rob Gronkowski on your team, and he’s injured.)

But I was OK with the pick. Pittsburgh’s depth chart at tight end featured Jerame Tuman, Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing, and Walter Rasby, and 1st round draft pick figured to be upgrade.

  • The 2005 Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff upset of the Colts highlighted just how wise Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher were to pick Heath Miller.

The Indianapolis Colts played 2005 as the “Team of Destiny” laying waste to everyone in their path, until Bill Polian ordered Tony Dungy to rest his starters late in the season. Then Tony Dungy’s son tragically took his own life. Anyone with even an ounce of human compassion was rooting for Dungy. On top of that, the Colts had spanked the Steelers on Monday Night Football during the regular season. No one gave the Steelers a chance.

Bill Cowher and the Steelers however, brought a decidedly different game plan when the returned to Indianapolis for the playoffs.

Instead of trying to pound the Colts into submission with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers would hook their hopes to Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Roethlisberger’s missed his first pass to Antwaan Randle El.

  • Roethlisberger completed his next pass to Heath Miller who took it 36 yards.
  • The next time he dropped back, he looked again to Miller for another 18 yards.

That took them to the Colt’s 28. 5 plays later the Steelers were up 7 points in a drive where they threw 7 times out of 10, and Heath Miller accounted for 54 of the team’s 84 yards.

In my memory, probably like those of most Steelers fans, Pittsburgh went up 14-0 on its first two drives. But it didn’t happen that way. The Steelers defense forced a quick punt, but on the next drive, the Roethlisberger threw an interception. But Dick LeBeau’s defense forced another 3 and out. Then the Steelers offense struck again. A 45 yard pass to Hines Ward put the Steelers in the Red Zone at the Colt’s 8. Bettis ran for one.

  • Then Roethlisberger dropped back, and found Heath Miller in the end zone for another touchdown.

That’s three targets to Heath Miller and three completions to Heath Miller and a touchdown to put the Steelers up by 14 in a game no one gave them a chance for winning. As it turned out, the 2004 had been “A tight end away from the Super Bowl” because throwing the ball to Heath Miller was one of the best bets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had.

Heath Miller an Incredibly Reliable Pass Catcher

Just how much will Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and the rest of the Steelers offense miss Heath Miller? To answer that question, let’s look at just who Heath Miller has had to “compete” with to get Ben Roethlisberger to throw to him:

  • Hines Ward, a Super Bowl MVP and just 1 of 13 players to break the 1,000 reception barrier
  • Santonio Holmes, another Super Bowl MVP
  • Antonio Brown, who is easily the best wide receiver in the game today
  • Mike Wallace, one player who truly “could go all the way” on any given play
  • Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, two freakishly talent players

An those are just the “major receiving threats” during Heath Miller’s time in Pittsburgh. Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Antwaan Randle El, Nate Washington and even Willie Parker were more than capable of doing damage when the ball was thrown their way. So just how did Miller stack up?

The numbers paint a pretty impressive picture:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

In 11 years, Heath Miller proved to be an incredibly reliable receiving target.

Thanks to saber metrics, we now not only know how many times a player has caught the ball, but we can also track how many times the quarterback tried to get it to him. To be fair, the ratio of catches to targets can be a little miss leading – if Ben Roethlisberger overthrows or underthrows Martavis Bryant 35 yards down the field, that counts as a target. But it’s a fairly reliable metric, and with each receiver having over 100 targets, the sample is fairly representative.

  • Heath Miller weighs in a number 2.

It might be tempting to suggest because, as a tight end Miller’s ran shorter routes and was less likely to be overthrown, but his yards-per-catch number is only one less than Hines Ward and not much further behind Sanders and Randle El

In a word, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger an incredibly reliable target.

Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Study in Dependability & Humility

Those statistics create a pretty accurate picture of Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers offense, but mere numbers always fail to do Heath Miller justice. What made Heath Miller special was the effort, dedication, and concentration that it took to create the catches that those numbers represent.

Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire offered this video to explain why Miller is so beloved in Pittsburgh.

Miller made an incredibly difficult catch, knowing he was going to be KOed. He took a vicious hit that drew a penalty, and simply handed the ball to the official, without any jaw boning. Oh yeah, the catch also secured first down. If Lynn Swann set the standard in Super Bowl X for acrobatic “Lynn Swann” catches then perhaps tough, short-to-medium yardage receptions that convert third downs should be known as “Heath Miller catches.”

  • Even that, however, fails Heath Miller’s legacy.

Unlike the fullback, the tight end will not disappear from today’s game. However, “true tight ends,” ones that can both block like lineman and catch like backs or receivers are increasingly rare. Miller excelled at both.

  • It’s tempting to look at some of Miller’s lower-production games from 2015 and say, “Ah, see, he’s was losing a step.”

Heath Miller’s play was dropping off gradually, but Miller’s 3 catch game in the regular season vs. Denver and 2 catch effort in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati were more indicative of his primary role as a blocker in those games rather than as a receiver.

  • Blocking form the NFL’s invisible cadre, they generate no statistics to measure their accomplishments.

But as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminded Steelers Nation, it was Heath Miller who held off Ray Lewis in the 2008 AFC Championship game just long enough to allow Roethlisberger to connect with Holmes and then Miller blocked for Holmes as he reversed field and took it 65 yards to the house.

  • A video tape review of similar “Big Plays” during the second Super Bowl era will doubtlessly reveal similar anonymous blocking assists by Miller.

You’ve got to figure that Heath Miller would have been a perfect fit for Chuck Noll’s Super Steelers, because anonymous is exactly how Miller would want it. And that’s what made Heath Miller a perfect fit for Pittsburgh in any era: Heath Miller’s Steelers career was a study in quiet competencies of reliability, dedication, and humility.

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Here We Go Panthers, Broncos! Steelers Nation Championship Sunday Rooting Guide

Here we are. It is Championship Sunday again and unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not contending for the AFC Championship. Only if….

And on goes the list. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. The Steelers aren’t playing, so what are Steelers fans to do? Who should Steelers Nation root for?

For that, we present the annual Steelers Nation Championship Sunday Rooting Guide.

With the Steelers out of the playoffs, there is one imperative, and it is the same imperative as in years before. Someone needs to be the New England Patriots. Yet this year this rallying cry takes on greater urgency. Last year, thanks to Russell Wilson, the Bill Belichick tied Chuck Noll as the only coach to win four Super Bowls.

  • Bill Belichick must not get one for the thumb.

Yes, Spygate and Deflategate have tarnished the Patriots legacy. Yes, Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his final game before he retired. Yes, Chuck Noll never cheated, Bill Belichick most certainly did cheat.

But still, the numbers will be the numbers. So for the AFC Championship, the Steelers Nation needs to pull for Peyton Manning to pull out one final great game. Last week he didn’t look up to it. Not even close. Can he summon it for one more shot? The Black and Gold must twirl their Terrible Towels hoping he can.

God knows it would be unwise for the Steelers to bet on the Denver Broncos to beat the New England Patriots, but root for the Broncos we must.

Steelers Nation and the NFC Championship

The NFC Championship is more interesting. On the face of things, Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals would seem like the natural choice for Steelers Nation. You have former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Tom Moore and Larry Foote as an assistant coaches, local favorite and member of the Steelers 2009 draft class and later a practice squad player, center A.Q. Shipley and LaMarr Woodley. You also have former Pitt standout Larry Fitzgerald.

  • So Pittsburgh West is a sentimental favorite.

But if they get past the Panthers, can the Cardinals beat the Patriots? That’s a more troubling question. Bruce Arians’ rehabilitation of Carson Palmer is an incredible success story, but he has yet to prove his a big game quarterback. And Bill Belichick won far more outings against Arians offenses than he lost.

  • Therefore Steel Curtain Rising recommends that Steelers Nation roots for the Carolina Panthers.

Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson has been described as “a special friend” by Steelers owner Dan Rooney, although most fans will be unconvinced by that argument. But the Panthers do have Jerricho Cotchery who was a fan favorite while he was with the Steelers. They also have Chris Scott, whom the Steelers drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft (you didn’t know he was still floating around the league, did you? Neither did I.)

  • The Carolina Panthers have been impressive this year, their near-collapse last week not withstanding, and probably have a better shot at beating the Patriots.

Steelers Nation will be forgiven if they pull for Pittsburgh We… ur, um, the Arizona Cardinals, but the smart money on stopping the Patriots should ride on the Carolina Panthers.

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Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff Finds Both Franchises at Crossroads

You want to know one of the nice things about the NFL? There are very few one way streets. All roads in the NFL might not lead to Rome, ask the Cleveland Browns, but roads double back  to intersect again.

  • And so it is with the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff matchup.

Looking at the X’s and O’s, the Steelers December victory over the Broncos probably offers the best clue to understanding today’s AFC divisional playoff matchup.

It’s a given the Ben Roethlisberger needs to show something and that Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Heath Miller and, yes, Sammie Coates must step up their games in Antonio Brown’s absence. Ditto Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman with DeAngelo Williams out.

  • But you knew that already.

An analysis of the X’s and O’s says that the key to this game will depend on which Steelers defense shows up. If the Steelers defense of the first half of the Broncos game makes even a brief appearance, the Steelers 2016 off season will begin in earnest. However, if the Steelers defense of the second half of that game shows up in full force, the Steelers have a shot at going to Foxborough.

  • But that tells us very little about the story underlying today’s game.

For that you must look back further.

Steelers Getting Tebowed Leads to Transition

The date was January 8th 2012, the site was the same as today, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter trailing by 10 points, but a Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery connection and a Shaun Shuisham field goal had tied it in regulation.

The Denver Broncos got the ball to start ove time. Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle. Ike Taylor missed the tackle. Ryan Mundy couldn’t get into position to take a shot. 80 yards later and Demaryius Thomas ended it all in the end zone.

  • Steelers Nation suffered the ultimate buzz kill.

2011 Pittsburgh Steelers failed at a chance to defend their AFC Championship and atone for the defeat of Super Bowl XLV. But it went beyond that. That loss marked a fundamental shift for the franchise. Shortly afterwards, I remarked to Tony Defeo that I felt I had the feeling that Steelers fans must have had in 1980, when the Super Steelers run can to a sobering end as the Houston Oilers ended their playoff chances.

  • But this thread doesn’t just involve the Steelers, it involves the Denver Broncos too.

Tim Tebow was a terrible quarterback blessed with an uncanny ability for finding a way to win when all appeared lost. That made for some dramatic finishes to football games, but John Elway was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t stake his franchise’s future on an intangible quality.

So he did something about it. He went out and got Peyton Manning, convincing Manning that, like Elway, he still had enough to win Super Bowls in his late 30’s.

  • Elway’s first test of that ability came next season, on Sunday Night Football, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If Steelers Nation has blotted that game out of their collective memory, we’ll forgive them. Much screamed to be forgotten. Its synthesis, however, is rather simple. All night long, Peyton Manning engaged in a chess match with Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu, while James Harrison watched in street clothes from the sideline.

  • And at each and every critical juncture, Peyton Manning outfoxed LeBeau and Polamalu.

In a word, Peyton Manning schooled the Steelers defense. Yes, the Steelers 2012 defense would finish the season as the NFL’s number one overall in terms of total yards. Yes, the defense would keep the Steelers in games they had no business being in late in the season (see the 2012 7 turnover fiasco vs. the Browns).

  • But Petyon Manning revealed that “Coach Dad” had no clothes.

It may have difficult for some of us (read: Steel Curtain Rising) to see at the time, but with 20/20 hindsight, Peyton Manning revealed the bitter truth that Sunday Night opening day loss.

Steelers and Broncos Two Teams at Diverging Crossroads

Now the Steelers and Broncos meet and again the venue is Mile High, and again it is the playoffs. But this time the backstory is decidedly different.

Peyton Manning is in the twilight of his career. One would have to be a fool to discard the possibility that number 18 would be able to find a way to move the needle in dramatic fashion just one more time. And he might.

But the number of quality football games Peyton Manning has left in him are measured in single digits –at best. Objectively speaking, Steel Curtain Rising is already on the record saying that Pittsburgh’s best plan for success is to dare Peyton Manning to beat the Steelers defense.

  • And this is a very different Steelers defense and, for that matter, offense, than the one that lost to Tim Tebow.

On defense, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Will Allen are (about) all that remain. In terms of personnel, the Steelers offense hasn’t seen as much turnover since 2011, but the backfield is completely new, Matt Spaeth is back, and the offensive line presents a mix of old and new.

Regardless of the outcome, assuming that Ben Roethlisberger neither risks nor suffers greater long term injury as a result of playing today, the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff marks as much of a new beginning for the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise as it does an ending for the Peyton Manning era of the Denver Broncos.

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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terence Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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As Brice McCain Bolts to Dolphins, Steelers Scramble

In some ways free agency is like the NFL Draft. While the big names get all the money and generate all of the headlines, fans gripe when their team isn’t make a sufficient splash early on.

Yet, just as there are quality players to be found later rounds of the draft, there are also 3rd line free agents who can contribute.

  • You just have to be wise enough, and smart enough to find them.

In 2014 Brice McCain proved to be a true a testament to Kevin Colbert’s ability to find talent in the most unlikeliest of places. McCain’s signing a year ago was panned by much of Steelers Nation, but by the end of the season it was McCain and not Cortez Allen who was making splash plays.

McCain’s rejuvenation story is something for Pittsburgh to be proud of, but sadly he won’t be finishing it with the Steelers as McCain bolted to the Miami Dolphins for a reported 2 year deal that included 3 million dollars in gurentted money.

McCain’s Dolphins Defection Unfortunate, But Unsurprising

McCain’s loss is bad news for the Steelers, who now only have William Gay, Antwon Blake, and Cortez Allen under contract for the coming season. Of the three only Gay is a proven starter, and Blake realistically only projects as a 3rd corner – at best.

  • But the news of his departure should shock no one.

As our Steelers 2015 Free Agent Focus indicated, McCain was in a similar situation to Arthur Moats – someone who wasn’t going to get a ton of money thrown at him, but quite possibly someone who would get more than the Steelers could or would pay.

The Steelers, it would seem are not quite out of salary cap purgatory yet. Which doesn’t mean that they would have signed McCain for anyway, as the Steelers rarely entertain bidding wars for free agents and have even more rarely been guilty of overpaying.

Steelers Restructure Pouncey Contract, Eyeing Johnson

While the Steelers are expected to target cornerback early in the 2015 NFL Draft, they’re likely to address the need in free agency and word is they’re interested in Patrick Johnson of the New Orleans Saints.

The Steelers are clearly angling to make some sort of move, as they restructured the contract of Maurkice Pouncey and gained an additional 3.5 million in salary cap space, according to reports.

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Steelers Cut Lance Moore Highlighting How Fast Things Change in NFL

With an eye towards the March 10th start of NFL Free Agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut Lance Moore yesterday, and as they shed one wide receiver they gained approximately another 1 million dollars in salary cap space.

  • But you knew that already.

Lance Moore’s departure from the Steelers has been impending since the Steelers playoff loss to the Ravens. Moore never quite fit in in Pittsburgh, he wasn’t happy with his role in the offense, and made no bones about asking for his release.

He got it to no one’s surprise. What’s interesting about Moore’s release, is what it tells us about how quickly situations, and perceptions of situations, change in the NFL.

Steelers at Wide Receiver 1 Year Ago Today

365 days ago the Steelers were awaiting the start of free agency, just as they are today. Their depth chart at wide receiver looked like this:

Sanders departed as expected. Then a number of things followed that the Steelers management did not expect. Al Woods left for Tennessee. Woods loss was far from catastrophic, but it did show that other NFL teams who weren’t so salary cap strapped as the Steelers both could and would offer free agents just a little more than the Steelers could.

Except Cotchery didn’t resign. Rumors floated that he was wanted in Carolina. Where there was smoke, there was fire. Cotchery signed with Carolina, and the Steelers responded by signing Moore.

  • Moore’s arrival in Pittsburgh calmed a lot of nerves.

Some (read this site) even went as far as to invent their own sabermetrics showing that Moore would provide more bang for the buck than Cotchery. Numbers don’t lie, that analysis was sound.

Jerricho Cotchery, Lance Moore, stats, touchdowns

  • But past performance does not guarantee future results.

Lance Moore got injured in training camp. Word was that coaches were not impressed with his efforts in rehab and when the season opened, it was Justin Brown, the practice squad golden boy who started as the Steelers number 3 wide receiver.

  • But things didn’t stay settled for long.

Yes, Moore began working back into the line up, but he wasn’t the newcomer who announced his presence with a bang – that honor would befall Martavis Bryant, who lit up the Houston Texans on Monday night, and helped provide the spark that shifted the Steelers season.

Moral of the Story, Steelers Nation

The lesson here is that things can and do change quickly in the NFL. In December 2013, inside linebacker was the weakest spot on the Steelers depth chart.

  • By September 2014 it was arguably the deepest.

14 months ago the Steelers situation at wide receiver seemed almost dire. Today the development of Wheaton and Bryant has made both Brown and Moore expendable.

There’s no guarantee that the Steelers can repeat these types of personnel pivots across the depth chart, but it is worth keeping mind if/when you see James Harrison decide to join Dick LeBeau in Tennessee and Jason Worilds takes big money to go somewhere else.

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Steelers Free Agent Darrius Heyward Bey, Will He Stay or Go?

Most of the heavy lifting has been done by the Steelers 2015 Free Agent Focus in terms of its free agency preview. The would be and should be fates of the likes of James Harrison, Jason Worilds, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel have been discussed.

With that out of the way, we take a look at the remaining second line Steelers Free Agents, starting with the wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Capsule Profile of Darrius Heyward-Bey with the Steelers

The Steelers decision to sign Darrius Heyward-Bey turned some heads last year, if for no other reason than Heyward-Bey’s status as a being one of the top 7 players taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. And with Emmanuel Sanders departed for Denver and Jerricho Cotchery heeding the call to Carolina, Heyward-Bey seemed like a very interesting prospect.

Of course Markus Wheaton established himself as a starter as expected, and Martavis Bryant emerged as a stand out rookie, relegating Heyward-Bey to the role of spot duty receiver and special teams player.

  • Heyward-Bey did quite well on special teams notching 7 tackles.

Heyward-Bey didn’t make a lot of noise as a reciver, catching only 3 balls, but he only had 5 targets.

The Case for Keeping Darrius Heyward-Bey

The case for the Steelers keeping Darrius Heyward Bey is pretty simple: He’s fast, he integrated well into the locker room, he knows the system and he’s willing to play on special teams. He’ll also come cheap.

The Case Against Keeping Darrius Heyward-Bey

The fact that veterans like Jacoby Jones are already on the free agent market suggests that the Steelers can fill that roster spot with someone who can contribute more at a comparable contract and salary cap value.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Darrius Heyward-Bey

The Steelers have a lot of reasons to bring back Darrius Heyward-Bey, but really face no urgency to do so quickly. They can afford to shop the free agent market. If they can find someone who adds more bang for the same salary cap buck, then they should sign him. If not, Heyward-Bey’s a good fall back option.

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