How I Learned of Rocky Bleier’s Incredible Comeback Story

Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.

The Super Steelers were a national phenomenon. Growing up as the child of “Pittsburgh Expats” in the Washington DC suburbs, names like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris (although I thought his name was Frank O’Harris) and Jack Lambert were well known to me before Super Bowl XIII, which is the first Super Bowl I’m old enough to remember.

Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier comeback

Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:

Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”

  • That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.

But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.

My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):

“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.

In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.

  • After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.

My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.

While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)

  • I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.

I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.

Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.

  • Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.

Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”

When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.

In 1976, Rocky Bleier ran for 1030 yards, during a 14 game season, which complemented Franco Harris’ 1128 yards, making the duo only 1 of six tandems to pull off twin 1000 yard rushing efforts in a single season.

Rocky Bleier, ESPN "The Return"

Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.

  • Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.

No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.

But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.

 

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Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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“Bold” Describes Steelers 2019 Draft Class. Is It Bold Enough to Deliver a Lombardi Trophy?

It takes time to accurately evaluate an NFL Draft class, all of the instant draft grades notwithstanding. But the Steelers 2019 Draft class can already be described with one word: Bold.

  • To say that the Steelers are conservative when it comes to the NFL Draft is an understatement.

On Steelers.com Bob Labriola annually reminds readers that the Steelers objective is not to “win” the NFL Draft anymore than they attempt to “win” free agency.

Devin Bush, Diontae Johnson, Justin Layne, Steelers 2019 Draft Class, Steelers Lombardi Trophies

The success of the Steelers 2019 Draft Class will be measured by whether they help add a 7th Lombardi. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And yet here was Kevin Colbert trading away the Steelers 2nd round pick from 2019 and its third round pick from 2020 to move up into the top ten. The Steelers haven’t sniffed the top ten since 2000, when they got Plaxico Burress.

Kevin Colbert consummated the trade, and a few moments later no less than Joe Greene was at the podium announcing that the Steelers had drafted Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Suddenly, motives behind events of the last few weeks and months now come into focus.

The motive is simple. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that Ben Roethlisberger’s time is limited. At age 37, he’s show few, if any, signs of losing the footrace with Father Time. But lose he will. The potential for a strike or lockout after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021 adds additional urgency.

That urgency translated directly to the way the Steelers put together their 2019 draft class

1st Round – Devin Bush, Inside Linebacker, Michigan
2nd Round – Pick traded to Denver
3rd Round A – Diontae Johnson, Wide Receiver, Toledo
3rd Round B – Justin Layne, Cornerback, Michigan State
4th Round – Benny Snell, Jr., Running Back, Kentucky
5th Round – Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan
6th Round A – Sutton Smith, Outside Linebacker, Northern Illinois
6th Round B – Isaiah Buggs, Defensive tackle, Alabama
6th Round C – Ulysees Gilbert III, Inside Linebacker, University of Akron
7th Round – Derwin Grey, offensive lineman, University of Maryland

A year ago, everyone expected the Steelers to go heavy on defense in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the team turned around and drafted a safety no one expected them to, and then concentrated the bulk of the rest of their picks on offense.

  • This year the Steelers stuck to the script, using each of their premium picks to double down on roster moves they’d made in free agency.

When asked if he felt the Steelers had accomplished their objectives in the 2019 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin deadpanned, “Yes, but we always do” accompanied by a mischievous grin.

Kevin Colbert said with Mike Tomlin had implied when asked if he was satisfied by picking Devin Bush, “Only time will tell. As I said the other day, if he helps us win a Super Bowl then it was a good pick.”

Whether or not a Steelers draft class can help bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh has been the key evaluation criteria for the past several years.

  • The Standard remains the Standard with the Steelers 2019 draft class.

Only this time it carries greater urgency, because Big Ben really has reached the 11th hour of his career.

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Final Analysis: Steelers Killer Bees Were Too True to Their Nickname

March 2019 marks the date in Steelers history when the Killer Bees came to an end. Ben Roethlisberger remains in Pittsburgh, but Antonio Brown is now in Oakland while Le’Veon Bell is a New York Jet.

  • To milk the metaphor a bit more, Brown and Bell seem intent on keeping the story alive by stinging their former team via social media.

But none of the barbs that Brown and Bell are throwing Ben Roethlisberger’s way change the fact that these two Killer Bees left town without fulfilling their purpose – bringing Lombardi Number Seven back to Pittsburgh.

  • Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, given the trio’s nickname.

Sports nicknames entrench themselves with fans when they’re both fun and accurate.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

“The Steel Curtain” conjured images of strength while Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood became the front to an impenetrable defense. Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson breathed life into “Blitzburgh” as they terrorized opposing quarterbacks. Jerome Bettis was the football embodiment of a Bus.

  • This isn’t just a Pittsburgh thing either.

Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine really did churn out division titles, pennants, and championships in machine like fashion. Washington’s “Hogs” really did dominate the line of scrimmage. The Redskin’s “Fun Bunch” was fun.

  • And so it was with the Steelers Killer Bees, whose nickname was both fun and accurate.

The “killer bees” or Africanized bees were brought to the Americas in the late 1950’s in an attempt to breed bees that produced more honey. They were originally contained in a secure apiary near Rio Claro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the escaped and headed north!

  • An urban legend was born.

The phenomenon reached critical mass in popular culture the 1970’s. Although their stings weren’t worse than normal bees, “killer bees” were more aggressive, and more likely to swarm. It was too much for Hollywood to resist.

Several (bad) killer bees movies were shot. If memory serves, a Super Friends episode plot line revolved around the “killer bees.” And I even had to read a story about the coming threat of the “Killer Bees” in one of my elementary school reading books.

  • When the killer bees arrived in the United States in the 1980’s, their buzz was much worse than their bite.

Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.

Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide

Shortly after the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, a fellow Steelers blogger, who is no homer, sent me a sort of “chin up” email, assuring me that by mid-October the Steelers offense would be “Blowing other teams out of the water.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant gave Pittsburgh its most potent collection of talent at the skill positions since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Yet, the later quartet delivered 4 Lombardi trophies; the former delivered none.

As others, such as the Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey have pointed out, injuries and suspensions are the main culprit behind Steelers Killers failure meet expectations. Ben, Bell, Brown and Byrant only played together for a handful of quarters in 2015. Le’Veon Bell missed games to suspension in 2015 and 2016 and Martavis Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension.

  • The Steelers should have had the 3 Killer Bees on the field together for 6 playoff games.

Instead, Ben, Bell and Brown only managed 3 complete games and the first quarter of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots together. They won 2 of those three, and only won 1 of the other 3 contests.

  • Injury was the ultimate insect repellent even when all 3 Killer Bees remained healthy.

The 2017 Steelers defense was flashing signs of being good, if not very good before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. But of course we know what happened to the defense without Shazier. For whatever else you want to say about the Jacksonville disaster, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell (and Martavis Bryant) did their part.

Its been pointed out that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before Bell and Brown even arrived on the scene. Perhaps he can do it again.

But if the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner develops a nick name, let’s hope they find one that has a stronger pedigree.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Celebrating the Immaculate Reception – Franco Harris and the “Big Bang” that Created Steelers Nation

Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.

  • That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.

Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

The Post Immaculate Reception Steelers

While the 1972 Steelers lost in the following week to Don Shula’s perfect 1972 Dolphins team, the Immaculate Reception ushered in an unheralded era of pro football prosperity. Since that fateful the Pittsburgh Steelers have:

  • Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
  • Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
  • Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
  • Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
  • Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
  • Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say

These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.

Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.

No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.

The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers

The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.

  • That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.

The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.

In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.

An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.

steelers fans, maryland, dinos, aspen hill

But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.

“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.

The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:

  • A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
  • A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
  • Not even allowing Johnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
  • Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
  • Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
  • Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
  • Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s

The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.

Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.

Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)

The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.

The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change

The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.

Dan Rooney began to take over control of the Steelers in the 1960’s while Art Rooney Jr. began building the scouting department. Rooney in fact influenced his father’s decision to fire the mercurial Buddy Parker, yet could not persuade The Chief to ignore Vince Lombardi’s advice to hire Bill Austin.

Austin failed after just two seasons, and Art Rooney Sr. finally relented in allowing Dan to conduct a thorough coaching search. Then, things began to change for the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll, the first and as yet only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls
  • The city of Pittsburgh agreed to build Three Rivers Stadium, giving the Steelers a modern home
  • Noll selected future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene with his first pick in 1969 NFL Draft
  • Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
  • Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft

Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.

  • Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.

Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.

Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:

  • “Dick, don’t over coach him.”

At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.

According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”

  • That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.

The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.

John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.

  • Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.

The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.

Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.

As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.

And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):

Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.

Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.

  • But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.

Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.

  • As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”

The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation

Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.

  • That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
  • And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.

Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.

Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.

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Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving Honors: JuJu Smith-Schuster

Thanksgiving 2018 has arrived, that that means it is time to dish out our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition Steel Curtain Rising started in 2009. At the time the Steelers were in the middle what would become a 5 game losing streak, and I thought it appropriate of single out an up and comer who was providing Steelers Nation with a reason to give thanks (that year it was Rashard Mendenhall.)

  • The tradition has continued each year since then.

In general, younger players who were just starting to make their impact felt have gotten this award, but in 2010 special teams coach Al Everest, Emmanuel Sanders and Maurkice Pouncey split the award, got it, the Steelers backups got it in 2015 and in 2017 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors were bestowed upon Ben Roethlisberger.

  • This year, we’re sticking with tradition and recognizing and up and comer and our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Before fully turning out attention to JuJu, let’s acknowledge that this year the decision was difficult. Fellow up and comers, T.J. Watt or Mike Hilton’s names could have easily headlined this article. So could Joe Haden. Several other candidates quickly come to mind.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But this year our JuJu Smith-Schuster wins Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving honors because we are truly seeing a dynamic player come of age right before our eyes.

This hardly comes as a surprise. Just as Joe Greene’s first day of training camp prompted a couple of veterans to speed up plans to being their “Life’s Work,” as soon as the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates got into a spat on Twitter. Neither player remains in Pittsburgh.

As a rookie, JuJu Smith-Schuster authored several head-turning plays

This year JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t yet matched that level of drama, although his opening touchdown against Carolina was dramatic, but what’s most impressive JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2018 campaign is his dependability.

But it takes two to tango and every team needs more than one quality wide receiver. The Steelers have struggled to find someone work in tandem with Antonio Brown. But JuJu Smith-Schuster is ending that struggle as we speak because JuJu Smith-Schuster is proving he can be the type of receiver that you can depend on to come up with a catch when you need it the most.

One the first drive, Ben Roethlisberger went to him 3 straight times, and each time JuJu Smith-Schuster delivered. On the second drive, with one, incredibly difficult catch, he put the Steelers into scoring position again.

The Steelers 2018 offense might not have Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons-like quality that the four Killer Bees were supposed to bring to 2017 Steelers offense. But the Steelers 2018 offense is proving itself to be a unit that can make the plays that are necessary for a win, and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s development is a big part of that.

And that gives Steelers Nation something to be Thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Today makes the 17 consecutive Thanksgiving that I have “celebrated” in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday, because it is not commercialized (black Friday deals be damned) and is universally celebrated with the simple gesture of giving thanks.

Hopefully you’ll be celebrating this Thanksgiving with friends and family whether you’re staying close to your house, visiting someone in another state or traveling back “home.”

  • And it is our sincere hope all of you can be thankful for many other more important things than football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

Click here to read past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors articles.

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Should the Steelers Trade Le’Veon Bell? Pittsburgh Faces Gut Check with Talented, Troublesome Running Back

Should the Steelers trade Le’Veon Bell?

Fans have debated the question for weeks, but word from Le’Veon Bell is he’ll return to the Steelers during the bye week changes everything. IF, and that is a big “if,” Bell shows up, he will give Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin one of their biggest gut checks of their time together.

  • The Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera has featured more twists and turns than Glass Run Road.

There’s no need to summarize them here. The only piece of this backstory that potentially impacts Steelers 2018 on-the-field fortunes is the Steelers trading Le’Veon Bell. I’ve avoided writing about a potential Le’Veon Bell trade because it has been an academic question.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble, Steelers vs Titans

Le’Veon Bell in 2017 vs. the Titans. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Adam Schefter’s “League Source” could very well be Adisa Bakari simply making mischief while keeping his client in the news. And nothing would change if the Steelers have leaked the trade rumors because Pittsburgh can’t trade Le’Veon Bell unless he signs his franchise tender.

But if Le’Veon Bell is serious about signing his franchise tender at the bye week, the Steelers will have time to trade him before the NFL’s October 30th trade deadline.

  • The Steelers would still need to find a general manager willing to give up a 3rd round pick or better, and that’s a bit of a stretch.

But it is possible. Who thought the Steelers could get a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant?

One month ago if you’d told me the Steelers could trade Le’Veon Bell and get anything more than a 3rd round pick, I’d have said “Make the deal.” Despite his “I want to retire as a Steeler” claims, Le’Veon Bell’s actions tell us that staying in Pittsburgh isn’t his priority. Therefore, Steelers best course of action was to take what they could get and move on.

  • Ah, but what a difference getting out scored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters can make.

The jury is still out on James Conners, but he looks like he might be a good NFL running back. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell’s resume says he is a great NFL running back (cue previous reminders about Bell breaking Steelers records that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis touched. Also see Tony Defeo’s piece on Bell’s uncanny ball security.)

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense isn’t the same without Le’Veon Bell. A big part of that lies in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown‘s inability to get in synch (or even talk to each other, apparently.)

But in the past, the Steelers have leaned on Le’Veon Bell when the passing game faltered (see the Cleveland road game in 2016 and the Buffalo game in 2016.)

  • When Ben Roethlisberger is playing his A game the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers can hang with anyone.

Yes, I went there. But thus far, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been a 60 minute man in 2018. If he had, the Steelers would be 3-1 now. But instead, they’re 1-2-1 and tied for last in the AFC North.

  • This is why a potential Le’Veon Bell trade equals gut check time for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers goal is to win the Super Bowl. Their chances of winning the Super Bowl this season improve with Le’Veon Bell playing in Pittsburgh. So Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must take long look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really think the Steelers have a shot at Lombardi Number Seven this season.

  • If they do, then keeping Le’Veon Bell is the only option.
  • If not, and they can find a taker, then the Steelers must make the trade.

The Steelers have never been a franchise to play for draft position; see Bill Austin costing the Steelers at shot at O.J. Simpson, which “forced” Chuck Noll to draft Joe Greene instead – and we know how that turned out.

Some might suggest that trading Le’Veon Bell would be abandoning that philosophy. It might. But a Bell trade could bring Pittsburgh another pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and preserve salary cap space.

Everyone expected the Steelers to go heavy on defense in the 2018 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the opposite and displayed incredible self-confidence in their roster in the process.

  • The NFL trading deadline is October 30th.

Regardless of whether Pittsburgh’s record is 1-5-1, 2-4-1, or 4-2-1 at that point, the Steelers decision on trading Le’Veon Bell will reveal how much of that confidence remains.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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