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

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

It is not.

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

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

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

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

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

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

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

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

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

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

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

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

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

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

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

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

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

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Growing Pains: Steelers 16-10 Loss to Dolphins, 2-5 Record Obscures Painful Progress

Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.

Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.

Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.

There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs  that this pain signals future gain.

Kenny Pickett, Jaelan Phillips

Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back

This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.

  • However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.

Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.

  • The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush, Steelers vs Dolphins

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.

The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.

  • Can you ask more from the defense?

Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.

The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.

Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….

Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.

While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.

So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:

No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett

Pickett’s Charge

Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.

An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.

Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.

  • The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?

You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.

  • He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.

Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.

Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.

I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.

If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.

Let’s Keep It Real

Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.

  • And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.

Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.

Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.

While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.

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15 Memories that Unite Generation X Steelers Fans

Staff writer Tony Defeo recently published an article waxing on what it’s like to be a Steelers fan reaching 50. With a nod to Jimmy Buffett, its titled “A Steelers Fan Looks at 50.”

While I’m still a few months (ok, weeks) from passing the half century mark myself, it got me thinking about some of the unique touchstones that mark me and my fellow Generation Xers as Steelers fans.

Here is my list:

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

1. You had this photo on your wall.

In 1980, you could get a copy of this photo of Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw through a promo run by either the Pittsburgh Press or Giant Eagle. My aunt and God Mother who lived in Monroeville called down to Maryland asking if my brother and I wanted copies. Of course we did! They hung on our bedroom walls just as they hung on yours for years to come.

2. You remember when Pittsburgh really was the Steel City.

Arriving in Pittsburgh from Maryland usually meant taking the Parkway into downtown from the Turnpike. So my first views of Pittsburgh were of J&L’s blast furnaces. They were truly awesome. (Don’t try Googling the terms, just trust memory here.) They were just as awesome as the gastly smells you’d have to endure as we took Carson Street to Becks Run Road en route to Brentwood-Carrick.

The mills are long gone, but seeing them, even in their twilight, was special.

3. You thought Queen wrote “We Are the Champions” for the Steelers.

My older sister and brother told me that Queen had written “We are the Champions” for the Steelers. As a naïve first grader I believed them. But why shouldn’t I have? The Steelers were the champions. At 6 years old that felt like a permanent condition.

4. You parents had to convince you that the Steelers were terrible once.

My parents are Pittsburghers to their cores, but neither is a football fan. When I asked them what it was like rooting for the Steelers when they were kids, my mom would explain “You have to understand. The Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were kids.” History proves them right, especially for the Steelers. But I sure was one skeptical seven year old.

Steelers Jacket 70's

I got one of these from my older cousin David. I couldn’t WAIT to grow into it! Photo Courtesy of @Vintage Steelers

5. Kids made fun of you as you kept wearing Steelers stuff into the 80’s.

My inventory of Steelers stuff remained well stocked through elementary school thanks to hand-me downs from my older brother and my cousin. What didn’t stay well stocked was the Steelers inventory of wins. And kids, as they are wont to do, made fun of me for  wearing Steelers stuff to school.

I wore my gear anyway, because Steelers fans are loyal.

6. Hearing the words “Immaculate Reception” caused you to run to the TV.

Today you can watch the “Immaculate Reception” at the touch of a button while say, slogging through Buenos Aires down Aveneda Directorio on Bus 126 from Flores to Puerto Madero if you so choose.

But I remember as a kid my older brother made a point of showing me the “Immaculate Reception” while watching NFL Films. And for the next several decades, I made it a point to watch the play every chance I got. Kids today are spoiled indeed.

7. You often learned of the results from Sunday’s games on Monday morning.

This is unique to children of the Pittsburgh diaspora, but before the age of the internet, or even cable TV there were plenty of times when I’d have to wait until Monday morning to learn the results of Sunday’s Steelers game. And in the ‘80s, that could lead to a lot of downers at the breakfast table. Although there were pleasant surprises….

8. The 1989 Steelers will always carry a special place in your heart.

The Boomers before us and the Millennials came after us who were reared on Super Bowls don’t understand. But we do. Starting in 1987 we saw flashes of greatness. We even convinced ourselves we could glimpse positives in the 3-1 close to the dismal 5-11 1988 campaign.

The 1989 Steelers story book season validated our faith and we felt like we’d closed the door on the 80’s by opening the door to a second Super Bowl era. That didn’t happen, but boy, it sure felt good to believe.

9. When fans attack the offensive coordinator your reflex is: “Yeah. …But Joe Walton was worse.”

Offensive coordinators are the favorite whipping boys of Steelers fans, whether you’re talking about Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley. But Generation X Steelers fans know that none of them was worse than Joe Walton, even if in middle age we’ve grown to appreciate Walton as an outstanding person who did a lot of Western Pennsylvania football at Robert Morris.

10 a. The split back or “Pro” style offense looks normal.

Thanks to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, and Merril Hoge and Tim Worley, the sight of two running backs lined up behind the quarterback will always be “normal.”

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

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

10 b. You still scream for the fullback to get carries.

Your mind understands how and why the game has changed, but every time “they” talk about cutting Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell’s or Najee Harris’ workload your heart screams “Why can’t they just let the fullback run the ball?”

11. Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka is the only Steelers fight song.

OK. Let’s concede that James Psihoulis’ aka Jimmy Pol’s fight song is the property of our parent’s and our grandparent’s generation. But I first heard the song during the ’93 season on my first trip to a Steelers bar (Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon no less).

It was the sound of heaven. Listen for yourself:

I mean no disrespect to “Here We Go,” “Black and Yellow,” “Climbing the Stairway to Seven,” or any of the other fight songs. But the “Western Pennsylvania Polka,” from Jimmy Pol’s thick Pittsburgh accent, to the passion in which he implores “…Let’s go and score, and never ever yield!” while invoking Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s “hunky friends,” Franco’s Army and Gerela’s Gorillas perfectly preserves the Super Steelers and Pittsburgh’s essence.

12. You once thought Dan Rooney was “Cheap” or you defended him.

In the 1990’s, spring free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh were the norm. In the days before Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t have the revenue to compete. Fans didn’t want to hear it and wrote Dan Rooney off as “cheap,” while others, like me, defended him. These arguments were staples of our 20-something bar room banter.

13. When there’s a special teams coaching vacancy, you scream “Bobby April!”

Atrocious special teams plagued Bill Cowher’s 1993 Steelers. He responded by hiring Bobby April who rejuvenated the unit and cemented his cult-hero status with the successful surprise on-sides kick in Super Bowl XXX.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

14.  Number 95 is sacrosanct.

Whether “Just Plain Nasty,” or “I wasn’t hired for my disposition” lights your fire, you loved your “Avoid Lloyd” shirt and you instinctively know that no other Pittsburgh Steeler else can ever live up to the standard that Greg Lloyd set when he donned number 95.

15. You try, and fail, to explain Myron Cope to a new generation.

In 1992, Sports Illustrated described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were right.  Yet Myron was someone to be experienced in real time, and attempts to explain him ultimately fall short. But it is your duty to try.

There you go in Steelers Nation. Those are my top 15 (ok, 16) memories or touchstones that unique to Generation X Steelers fans.

  • Is this a definitive list? I certainly hope not!

While we all share a love for the Black and Gold, each of us has your unique way of finding it. Take a moment to leave a comment and share your additions to the list. (Comments are moderate to keep out the spammers and tolls, but if you write something it will get published.)

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

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

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

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.
Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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Yes, You Can Be a “Pittsburgh Dad” without Being A Steelers Fan. Happy Father’s Day Dad

Steelers themed Father’s Day pieces are in vogue. You’ve seen them everywhere from Steelers.com, to paid sites, to blogs. Writers take time out to thank their fathers for instilling in them a life-long passion for the Steelers, and/or talk about how they’re doing the same with their sons.

  • Those pieces are from the heart, and almost always a must-read.
  • Yet this site has never joined the cause because my father isn’t much of a Steelers fan.

Dad and I. Pawley’s Island South Carolina, Summer 1979.

Oh yes, he’s Pittsburgh born and bred, and pounces his “dahntahn” pitch perfectly even if he hasn’t lived in Steel City since the 60’s. But sports in general, and the Steelers in particular, are little more than background noise for the man who got his start on Warrington Avenue in Allentown and spent his formative years on Cedarcove Road in Baldwin.

  • But then I thought, isn’t that the point?
  • That you can be a perfect Pittsburgh dad and not be a Steelers fan.

Well, it is. And to explain why, we’ll go back to where I got my start. The venue is Dino’s barbershop, which still operates in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. My dad hasn’t been a patron for years, but it is where he got his hair cut when we first moved to Maryland in the early 70’s and where I started getting my hair cut.

  • For a long time, Dino himself cut our hair. Then we moved on to get it cut by George.

dinos barber shop, Aspen Hill Shoppnig Center

Although I’m not sure if George was from Pittsburgh, he most certainly was a Steelers fan: His barber’s ledge featured a framed copy of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell and various now-iconic Iron City Steelers cans.

  • This is important because it was in George’s chair that I first got a clue that my dad might be an atypical Pittsburgher.

It would have been the early 80’s, after the glory years ended, but the before the glow had completed faded, when George asked, “So your father’s from Pittsburgh, eh? Boy, I bet there’s nothing your daddy likes to do on Sundays than drink beer and watch football.”

The question surprised me. The only time my dad watched football was when the Steelers were in the Super Bowl.

  • So I asked, “You mean, when the Steelers are on, right?”

George clarified, “Sure, but I’d guess your daddy likes doing that on Sunday whether he can see the Steelers or not.” George’s entire line of questioning wasn’t simply strange, it was foreign. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father sit on the couch to watch TV on a weekend afternoon, let alone watch football.

My father and I share many things, and one of those is that God gave us many gifts, but athletic ability is not one of them. He, like me, spent his childhood always being the last picked for teams only to end up getting lambasted by “friends” whenever we failed to catch a pass or make a basket in games that both of us would have preferred not to be playing.

  • In contrast to me, my dad is graced with an ability to take his athletic inability in stride.

Al Thomas doesn’t pretend to be perfect, and if someone else has a problem with that, well it is their problem, not his. I don’t know at what age he realized that not having athletic talent was just the way things were and the way things were going to be, but whenever that moment came he accepted it and didn’t give a rat’s ass over whether his peers thought less of him for it.

  • He certainly never thought less of himself. And that’s a lesson he still offers me to this day.

One of the byproducts of that process is that my father developed an almost complete lack of interest in sports.

For me, things were different. When I was young, my dad would tell me, “Don’t worry. The older you get, the less important athletics will be, and by the time you’re an adult, they won’t matter at all.” And yet, while I longed for the to get to high school when mandatory gym class would end, high school was where I chose to make my first foray into organized athletics.

And I didn’t go out just for one of those “wimp sports” like track or cross country (let’s be clear folks – that’s what I thought then about those sports, not what I think now).  I went out for wrestling. And I was every bit as bad as expected. I’d go for weeks without scoring a point in practice during my first year.

My coach, amateur wrestling Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, didn’t cut people, but he later admitted that he almost pulled me aside to ask me “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

  • Mr. Moquin’s patience and my persistence paid off.

While I never grew into a “good wrestler”, by my senior year I was Varsity starter. A below average one, yes, but a legitimate Varsity starter. Wrestling is tough. And to this day I remain proud that, of the dozen novice sophomores who came out for wrestling in the fall of 1987, I was the only one who was still on the team as a senior in the spring of 1990.

  • The others had found the sport too demanding and quit.

Perhaps, not incoincidentally, it was at this same time that I returned to actively following the Steelers, at least as actively as someone could do in suburban Maryland before in those pre-Internet days.

  • My dad supported my foray into wrestling, even if he never quite understood why I was so devoted to it.

He was also perfectly OK with my rising interest in the Steelers, although I’d know better than to ask to watch NFL Primetime over 60 Minutes or Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights. Nonetheless, I can say that my father took me to my first football game, the 1990 Steelers pre-season game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Even he, a certified football ignoramus, knew enough to tell me how horrendously lost the Steelers’ offense looked under Joe Walton.

That game also provided a mini-preview to the phenomenon that was to become Steelers Nation – EVERYONE in our row overlooking the end zone from the lower end of RFK was a Steelers fan.

  • In many senses my father’s lack of Steelers fanaticism is ironic because, in addition to his “Dahntahn’s,” he is very much a “Pittsburgh Dad.”

The textbook we read in Sociology 101 while in College listed characteristics typical of blue collar parents vs. white collar parents. Based on that check list, my father scored out as a blue collar parent, despite the fact that he was a college graduate and life-long white collar worker, and despite the fact that my grandfather could have been considered a “white collar” worker.

  • It seems that Pittsburgh imparted its working class mentality and ethics into my father (and mother, too) just the same.
  • He was a better father for it and I am a better son because of it.

As far as the Steelers are concerned, it occurs to me that our father-son-relationship kind of flips the script. Yes, I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV with him. He took me to my first football game. But the Steelers were something I had to find myself.

I can remember at my brother’s wedding reception my father telling me, “Have you talked to Scott (my brother’s new brother-in-law), he went to Colorado where Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans of the Steelers went.”

To which I inquired, “How did you find that out?” He explained, “Son, I’ve learned that because I’m a male, and because I’m from Pittsburgh, people automatically assume I’m a Steelers fan. And at this age I’ve also learned that saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like sports’ is a conversation killer.”

Yet, my father will tell you now that my own passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers has prompted him to pay more attention. Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a blogger was getting an email from him after he finished reading my profile of John Stallworth, telling me how much he had enjoyed reading it.

  • But as nice as that is, it is only an extra.

I had to learn to twirl a Terrible Towel on my own, and I learned it pretty well. And that’s fine.

But there’s so much about life, being a good friend, being a good husband, being a good person and being a better man that I could have only learned and can only continue to learn with the guidance and mentorship of my father.

Thank you dad. Happy Fathers Day!

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. Despite losing in the conference championship, the Steelers appeared to be a team headed up following the 1997 season, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers Career Is Worth Remembering & Honoring

When talking about their all-time great Steelers players, cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who played for Pittsburgh from 1979-1990, rarely (okay, never) is mentioned by fans.

  • While that’s unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable.

After all, Dwayne Woodruff played the overwhelming majority of his career for a Steelers team that was stuck in a decade-plus post-dynasty malaise after winning four Super Bowls in a six-year period in the 1970s.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

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

The same can be said for players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Louis Lipps, but Dwayne Woodruff actually had the fortune of coming along just before Pittsburgh’s time atop the football mountain came to an end, as it afforded him the opportunity to earn a ring in his rookie season thanks to a 31-19 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV.

In-fact, Dwayne Woodruff had two key interceptions postseason interceptions on the way to the Super Bowl — one in a 34-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round; and one in a 27-13 win over the Houston Oilers in the AFC title game.

When Dwayne Woodruff drove to Latrobe to announce his retirement prior to the start of training camp in 1991, , he was actually the last remaining player from any of those Super Bowl teams from the ’70s.

  • But you don’t remember much about Woodruff’s contributions to that Steelers ’79 Super Bowl season because they were relatively minor.

Dwayne Woodruff’s true legacy was his contribution to the team after his rookie year. Beginning in 1981, he became a full-time starter at left cornerback. The former sixth-round pick out of Louisville would remain a fixture on the left side for the next nine seasons, starting a combined 103 games.

  • For someone who had to play in the shadows of a former dynasty, Dwayne Woodruff had a really respectable career.

In addition to starting a total of 105 games in 12 seasons, Woodruff posted 37 interceptions and returned three for touchdowns. Woodruff had five defensive touchdowns in all, which is pretty exceptional when you consider Rod Woodson, a First Ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL, had six defensive touchdowns in his 10 years as a Steeler.

Steelers vs Rams, Dwayne Woodruff, Wendell Tyler, Jack Ham, Donnie Shell

Dwayne Woodruff helps gang tackle Wendell Tyler of the LA Rams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

As per his Wikipedia Page, Woodruff either led or co-led the Steelers in interceptions five times–1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989–and his 37 picks rank fifth all-time in franchise history.

Woodruff’s Wikipedia Page references a key interception that set up an overtime victory over the Bengals in Week 2 of the 1982 season. As a 10-year old boy who had witnessed Cincinnati sweep the once-mighty Steelers in both 1980 and 1981, I can tell you that Week 2 win is one I still cherish to this day. In fact, it was probably the first time I really went crazy as a fan.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dwayne Woodruff’s skill as a player came during his final season with the Steelers. It the first week of October 1990, following a offensive touchdownless September under Joe Walton‘s offense

Everyone remembers that week 5 victory over the San Diego Chargers for the offensive explosion that saw rookie Eric Green catch two touchdown passes, with Warren Williams and Barry Foster rushing for two more. (Well, OK, the sum total of people who actually remember that game is probably a lot fewer than “everyone.”) 

  • However Steelers defense played just as an important of a role in that win, and perhaps no player played a bigger role than Dwayne Woodruff.

After injuries to Rod Woodson, Thomas Everett and Larry Griffin left the Steelers with just four healthy defensive backs, Dwayne Woodruff was forced to play right cornerback for the first time in 11 years. As Woodruff relayed to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When I first went out there I thought I was going to fall down. After 11 years of backpedaling always looking to your right and breaking to your right and all of the sudden everything’s opposite it was strange.

“Strange” it might have been, but Woodruff responded with 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for 51 yards in the Steelers 36 to 14 win over the Chargers.

Dwayne Woodruff Excels in His “Life’s Work.”

It was well-known during his playing days that Dwayne Woodruff was attending law school at Duquesne University.

Dwayne Woodruff actually began practicing law in the latter stages of his football career, and following his retirement from the NFL, he remained in Pittsburgh and founded the firm, Woodruff & Flaherty.

  • In the 2000s, Woodruff was elected as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County.

Woodruff is still a judge in Allegheny County, and he and his wife are very involved in charity work in the Pittsburgh community.

Dwayne Woodruff perhaps falls a bit short of qualifying as an all-time Steeler great, and he arrived a little too late to be associated with the dynasty of the 1970s, despite playing on the Super Bowl XIV team.

But if Dwayne Woodruff doesn’t quite qualify as one of the greatest all time Steelers, he certainly ranks up there as one of Pittsburgh’s best cornerbacks. Any All Time Steelers cornerback depth chart would have Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler at the top.

  • Some fans might rank Ike Taylor as 4th, but there’s a strong argument to suggest that Dwayne Woodruff should occupy that slot on the depth chart. 

When you’re neck-and-neck with Ike Taylor on the all-time Steelers corneback depth chart, you’ve certainly authored a career that is worth remembering and honoring. Such is the case with Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers career.

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Yes, You Can Be a “Pittsburgh Dad” without Being A Steelers Fan. Happy Father’s Day Dad

Steelers themed Father’s Day pieces are in vogue. You’ve seen them everywhere from Steelers.com, to paid sites, to blogs. Writers take time out to thank their fathers for instilling in them a life-long passion for the Steelers, and/or talk about how they’re doing the same with their sons.

  • Those pieces are from the heart, and almost always a must-read.
  • Yet this site has never joined the cause because my father isn’t much of a Steelers fan.

Dad and I. Pawley’s Island South Carolina, Summer 1979.

Oh yes, he’s Pittsburgh born and bred, and pounces his “dahntahn” pitch perfectly even if he hasn’t lived in Steel City since the 60’s. But sports in general, and the Steelers in particular, are little more than background noise for the man who got his start on Warrington Avenue in Allentown and spent his formative years on Cedarcove Road in Baldwin.

  • But then I thought, isn’t that the point?
  • That you can be a perfect Pittsburgh dad and not be a Steelers fan.

Well, it is. And to explain why, we’ll go back to where I got my start. The venue is Dino’s barbershop, which still operates in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. My dad hasn’t been a patron for years, but it is where he got his hair cut when we first moved to Maryland in the early 70’s and where I started getting my hair cut.

  • For a long time, Dino himself cut our hair. Then we moved on to get it cut by George.

dinos barber shop, Aspen Hill Shoppnig Center

Although I’m not sure if George was from Pittsburgh, he most certainly was a Steelers fan: His barber’s ledge featured a framed copy of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell and various now-iconic Iron City Steelers cans.

  • This is important because it was in George’s chair that I first got a clue that my dad might be an atypical Pittsburgher.

It would have been the early 80’s, after the glory years ended, but the before the glow had completed faded, when George asked, “So your father’s from Pittsburgh, eh? Boy, I bet there’s nothing your daddy likes to do on Sundays than drink beer and watch football.”

The question surprised me. The only time my dad watched football was when the Steelers were in the Super Bowl.

  • So I asked, “You mean, when the Steelers are on, right?”

George clarified, “Sure, but I’d guess your daddy likes doing that on Sunday whether he can see the Steelers or not.” George’s entire line of questioning wasn’t simply strange, it was foreign. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father sit on the couch to watch TV on a weekend afternoon, let alone watch football.

My father and I share many things, and one of those is that God gave us many gifts, but athletic ability is not one of them. He, like me, spent his childhood always being the last picked for teams only to end up getting lambasted by “friends” whenever we failed to catch a pass or make a basket in games that both of us would have preferred not to be playing.

  • In contrast to me, my dad is graced with an ability to take his athletic inability in stride.

Al Thomas doesn’t pretend to be perfect, and if someone else has a problem with that, well it is their problem, not his. I don’t know at what age he realized that not having athletic talent was just the way things were and the way things were going to be, but whenever that moment came he accepted it and didn’t give a rat’s ass over whether his peers thought less of him for it.

  • He certainly never thought less of himself. And that’s a lesson he still offers me to this day.

One of the byproducts of that process is that my father developed an almost complete lack of interest in sports.

For me, things were different. When I was young, my dad would tell me, “Don’t worry. The older you get, the less important athletics will be, and by the time you’re an adult, they won’t matter at all.” And yet, while I longed for the to get to high school when mandatory gym class would end, high school was where I chose to make my first foray into organized athletics.

And I didn’t go out just for one of those “wimp sports” like track or cross country (let’s be clear folks – that’s what I thought then about those sports, not what I think now).  I went out for wrestling. And I was every bit as bad as expected. I’d go for weeks without scoring a point in practice during my first year.

My coach, amateur wrestling Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, didn’t cut people, but he later admitted that he almost pulled me aside to ask me “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

  • Mr. Moquin’s patience and my persistence paid off.

While I never grew into a “good wrestler”, by my senior year I was Varsity starter. A below average one, yes, but a legitimate Varsity starter. Wrestling is tough. And to this day I remain proud that, of the dozen novice sophomores who came out for wrestling in the fall of 1987, I was the only one who was still on the team as a senior in the spring of 1990.

  • The others had found the sport too demanding and quit.

Perhaps, not incoincidentally, it was at this same time that I started actively following the Steelers, at least as actively as someone could do in suburban Maryland before in those pre-Internet days.

  • My dad supported my foray into wrestling, even if he never quite understood why I was so devoted to it.

He was also perfectly OK with my rising interest in the Steelers, although I’d know better than to ask to watch NFL Primetime over 60 Minutes or Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights. Nonetheless, I can say that my father took me to my first football game, the 1990 Steelers pre-season game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Even he, a certified football ignoramus, knew enough to tell me how horrendously lost the Steelers’ offense looked under Joe Walton.

That game also provided a mini-preview to the phenomenon that was to become Steelers Nation – EVERYONE in our row overlooking the end zone from the lower end of RFK was a Steelers fan.

  • In many senses my father’s lack of Steelers fanaticism is ironic because, besides his “Dahntahn’s”, he is very much a “Pittsburgh Dad.”

The textbook we read in Sociology 101 while in College listed characteristics typical of blue collar parents vs. white collar parents. Based on that check list, my father scored out as a blue collar parent, despite the fact that he was a college graduate and life-long white collar worker, and despite the fact that my grandfather could have been considered a “white collar” worker.

  • It seems that Pittsburgh imparted its working class mentality and ethics into my father (and mother, too) just the same.
  • He was a better father for it and I am a better son because of it.

As far as the Steelers are concerned, it occurs to me that our father-son-relationship kind of flips the script. Yes, I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV with him. He took me to my first football game. But the Steelers were something I had to find myself.

I can remember at my brother’s wedding reception my father telling me, “Have you talked to Scott (my brother’s new brother-in-law), he went to Colorado where Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans of the Steelers went.”

To which I inquired, “How did you find that out?” and he explained, “Son, I’ve learned that because I’m a male, and because I’m from Pittsburgh, people automatically assume I’m a Steelers fan. And at this age I’ve also learned that saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like sports’ is a conversation killer.”

Yet, my father will tell you now that my own passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers has prompted him to pay more attention. Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a blogger was getting an email from him after he finished reading my profile of John Stallworth, telling me how much he had enjoyed reading it.

  • But as nice as that is, it is only an extra.

I had to learn to twirl a Terrible Towel on my own, and I learned it pretty well. And that’s fine.

But there’s so much about life, being a good friend, being a good husband, being a good person and being a better man that I could have only learned and can only continue to learn with the guidance and mentorship of my father.

Thank you dad. Happy Fathers Day!

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