Mr. Smith Goes to Pittsburgh: Steelers Hire Arthur Smith as Offensive Coordinator

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is set to hire Arthur Smith as his 5th offensive coordinator. In making the move, Tomlin may not have quite turned over all possible loose stones, but he did make good on his promise to look outside the organization.

Smith is most recently served as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and prior to that he worked for two years as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He will be the first Steelers offensive coordinator in the 21st that neither has ties to the team nor the city of Pittsburgh.

Ironically however, a quick look at Smith’s track record suggests he could help the franchise remain true to its roots.

Mike Tomlin, Arthur Smith, Steelers vs Falcons

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Of Running, Ryan and Combos

In his season-ending press conference, Mike Tomlin clarified that he wanted his next offensive coordinator to have experience and that he wanted someone who can foster Kenny Pickett’s development.

  • Arthur Smith checks both boxes.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft he started 88 games for them over 6 seasons. Tannehill’s numbers were OK, but never delivered what you’d need and expect an 8th overall pick to deliver. He never started a playoff game although the 2016 Dolphins did make it to the playoffs, Tannehill did not play as they got crushed by the Steelers.

The Dolphins moved on after 2018 and Tannehill headed to Tennessee where he joined Smith, who’d just been promoted to offensive coordinator. The difference was eye popping. Tannehill’s average passer rating at Tennessee was 91.2. In his two seasons with Smith that soared to 117.5 and 106.5

That pickup caught the attention of NFL owners, undoubtedly helping Smith land the head coaching job in Atlanta. And what’s telling here is that without Smith Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to Miami-like levels.

  • And there’s no real secret to Smith’s success with Tannehill – he leaned into the running game.

Under Smith’s guidance, the Titan’s rushing offense ranked 2nd and 3rd in rushing in the NFL. That’s welcome news for Steelers Smash Mouth Football purists who’ve longed for the team to get back to its roots.

  • It also may signal that Mike Tomlin’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If anyone ever doubted that, look no further than Josh Allen’s role in defeating the Steelers during the playoffs. But you can build a Super Bowl team around a solid running game and a strong defense as the 2015 Denver Broncos demonstrated (please spare me the “but they had Peyton Manning” replies, Manning was a glorified game-manager at that point in his career.)

With the Smith hire, it seems that Tomlin is acknowledging that the Steelers don’t have a super star quarterback and is acting accordingly.

The other encouraging sign in Smith’s resume is his background as a tight ends coach. Working as with tight ends gives a coach a unique perspective on the dynamics that drive both the running and passing games. I can’t speak for the rest of the league, but both Bill Cowher promoted both Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, and the Steelers offense flourished under both.

With that said, if during the Steelers 2022 win over the Falcons, Atlanta didn’t lean into its running game when it should have and they lost because of it, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Of Precedents and Pedigrees

The Steelers tendency to keep things in the family when it comes to finding offensive coordinators is nothing new. Tom Moore, Chan Gailey, Mularkey, Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians, Randy Fitchner and Matt Canada were all in-house hires. Both Joe Walton and Todd Haley had ties to the city and/or the team.

So Smith is now just the 4th “virgin” Steelers offensive coordinator hire, with Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride being the first three.

Looking at his track record, Arthur Smith looks a lot more like Ron Erhardt than a Sherman or a Gilbride. That’s a good thing.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

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

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

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

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “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.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, 1999 Steelers

Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomlin in the late 1990s.

Nightmare Like Its 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cowher had seen enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1999’s Lessons for 2023

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

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

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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How Hatred of Matt Canada has Gotten Out of Hand (Even if He’s Doing a Bad Job)

What exactly did the Steelers win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium last Sunday really mean? How will we see it in a few years when we look back?

  • Will it be a turning point for the Kenny Pickett-era?
  • Or will be an example of “On Any Given Sunday” at work?

Today, there’s way to know.

There is one thing we can be certain of today: Sunday’s win against the Ravens marks the point where hatred for Matt Canada reached surreal levels.

And no, this veiled “Give Matt Canada more time” plea. This is different.

Matt Canada

Matt Canada talking to reporters on the South Side. Photo Credit: Brooke Pryor via Twitter

Canada Hatred Reaches Surreal Level in Steelers Nation

Matt Canada comes from a long line of unpopular Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinators. Its part of the job description.

But Matt Canada stands in a class of his own. He’s charting new territory as this Twitter (or X) exchange reveals:

Andrew Fillipponi isn’t some random fan who happens to have a large X following, he’s a credentialed member of the Pittsburgh press – at least he’s not making a pretense of journalistic integrity.

By the time the game was over, Andrew Fillipponi’s tweet drew 217,900 views, 1,333 retweets and 1840 “Likes.” You can see how my numbers stack up (Gracias Gus por collaborar con tu RT!)

So let this sink in: Going into the Ravens game fans weren’t focused on the rivalry or the AFC North lead, but hoping things would go so badly that Rooneys would be forced to break a 90-year precedent and fire a coordinator midseason.

This boggles the mind.

Joe Walton was a bad offensive coordinator. The 1989 Steelers had breathed life into a nascent Steelers Nation. In 1990 Walton’s stumbling, overly sophisticated offense sucked the oxygen out of the room.

Did I want Chuck Noll to replace him? Sure. I thought Dick Hoak would have made a great in-season replacement. I even toyed with the idea of writing Noll a letter and suggesting it (ah, to be a naïve teenager again.)

  • Yet, I always rooted for Steelers to win, and for Walton’s offense to ‘click.’

Ditto Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride (and Bruce Arians and Randy Fitchner). But I guess that makes me old school.

From Surreal to Sublime

Let’s call a horse a horse: For most of the afternoon the performance of Matt Canada’s offense strengthened the case for his dismissal. Sure, a wily-eyed optimist could say that unit was making baby steps before exploding for the Kenny Pickett to George Pickens hook up.

  • But at the end of the day this was yet another one touchdown game for the Steelers offense.

With that said, Kenny Pickett seemed to get better as the game progressed. He made tough throws to convert 2 third downs on that drive and then audibled when he say the Ravens were in zero coverage and about to bring the house. Pickett made them pay by hitting Pickens for a 42 yard TD.

Finally, the offense had a big play to match the splash plays authored by Miles Killebrew and Rodney Williams on special teams and Joey Porter Jr. on defense.

Yet many Steelers fans STILL felt compelled to find fault with Matt Canada:

Excuse me? When did the measuring stick for an offensive coordinator shift?

Funny, I always thought you’d judge an offensive coordinator on total yards, Red Zone and third down performance, time of procession and, get this, whether the Steelers have more points on the board than their opponent does when the clock strikes zero.

  • But apparently that’s not the case.

Apparently the best measure of an offensive coordinator is his facial expressions after a big play….

I supported the decision to bring Matt Canada back. And I’ll man up and say I was wrong. This isn’t the first time nor will it be the last. The Steelers offense has been terrible in 2023. The progress they showed late last season looks like a mirage.

But I’ll root for his offense to succeed because when it does, the Steelers succeed. And when it performs poorly I’ll criticize Canada, based on the X’s and O’x and not on his non-verbal behavior in the coaching booth.

That’s the way things should be. Shouldn’t need to be said, but I guess it does.

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Trap Game or Truth Game? Texans Humiliate Steelers 30-6 in Houston

The Pittsburgh Steelers flew to Houston and dropped a 30-6 loss to the Texans. The humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston wasn’t as bad as the score suggests.

It was far worse.

Prior to the game NPR’s Jeremy Scott quizzed Jim Wexell on whether this matchup had “…all the ingredients of a trap game.”

Wexell’s response? “Absolutely.”

It is tempting to credit the Steel City Insider scribe for being clairvoyant. But is that what’s called for here? Because the question this scribe is asking today is this: Was this really a “trap game?” Or does this defeat expose the painful truth about this football team?

Let’s try to find an answer.

Jaylen Warren, Jaylen Pitre, Steelers vs Texans

Jaylen Pitre knocks ball loose from Jaylen Warren. AP via Tribune Review.

Did History Reverse Itself in Houston?

You can often peg the outcomes of football games, even blowouts, on a pivotal series or play. The Steelers loss to the Texans is no exception.

After logging the one of the worst first haves in recent franchise memory, the Steelers flirted with respectability to start the 2nd half.

Sure, the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, but the defense forced a 3 and out, and then offense was right at it again, getting back to the Red Zone in just four plays. There they had to settle for another field goal. But that narrowed the score to ten, and the defense delivered on its next series.

It started off promising, with Najee Harris exploding for a 23 yard run. Kenny Pickett and Darnell Washington hooked up, giving the rookie his first NFL catch for 10 yards. Things bogged down after a catch by George Pickens on third and 18 netted 17 yards.

  • This brought up a make or break 4th and 1 situation.

Seeing the Steelers lining up in the shotgun immediately brought me back to the Steelers 2008 trip to Houston. That was the very first game Steel Curtain Rising covered, and on its first series on opening day, Houston coach Gary Kubiak went for it on 4th down. Here’s how it unfolded:

That was a bold move, worthy of an elite team, and rather brash, considering the pedigree of the Steelers run defense….

Perhaps someone should have reminded Kubiack of Bum Philip’s old dictum, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so…” because quarterback Matt Schaub, went for it, came up short, and Pittsburgh dominated thereafter.

Pretty ironic, isn’t it?

Given the game situation and field position, Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it was pretty conventional. Now, had the Steelers converted that 4th down, right now we’d be praising Matt Canada’s play call as “bold.”

But instead we’re stick to a simple, objective observation:

  • Matt Canada’s play call was stupid.

Instead of trying to muscle out a single yard, Canada tried to outthink everyone, and we watched Jonathan Greenard push Broderick Jones aside to sack and injure Kenny Pickett.

  • For all intents and purposes, the game was over there.

The question is, did play just end the game for the Steelers? Or did it close the door to bigger and better things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Down on the Defense?

The headline of this article leads with “Trap game or Truth Game?” To answer that, we’ll define a “trap game” as “A game where a good team under performs and loses against a team with inferior talent.”

The thinking going into 2023 were that the Pittsburgh Steelers were a team that might establish it as a contender whereas the Houston Texas were a club looking for respectability. In other words, to suffer a trap game a team needs to be good in the first place.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers really didn’t look a “good” team today and haven’t all season. Have they?

But appearances can deceive. The defensive side of the ball is perhaps illustrative here. The Houston Texans were playing a second sting offensive line against a Steelers defense that has terrorized quarterbacks all season long.

Yet, neither T.J. Watt nor Alex Highsmith got a sack, and the duo barley laid a glove on C.J. Stroud. Neither did any of the Steelers defensive lineman. While that’s concerning, there’s no reason to think that this is indicative of what to expect for the rest of the season.

And while the Steelers run defense didn’t give up a long run, it suffered death by a thousand cuts from Dameon Pierce. Stroud made some nice throws, but was basically a 50/50 passer.

  • But at the end of the day, there’s still hope for the Steelers defense.

That isn’t to say the Steelers defense will rebound to dominate the way they did in Cleveland, but they will rebound.

The irony is, the Houston Texans offense did what Matt Canada’s couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t

Is Canada’s Offense A “Couldn’t” Or a “Wouldn’t”

This morning in Steelers Nation you won’t have to look far to find calls to Fire Matt Canada. And that’s been true most Monday mornings since Canada took over.

Yours truly has declined to lean into such sentiment, at the expense of page views, because the Steelers offensive coordinator has been the most hated figure in Pittsburgh sports since George Herbert Walker Bush sat in the White House. And, taken in context, the struggles of Canada’s first two offenses were understandable.

  • But the Texans game is trying even my patience

During the first half the Steelers offense managed one interception and three punts. It failed to enter Texan territory. Exchange those for even a pair of field goal drives, maintain the two field goal drives that the Steelers opened the second half with, and you don’t find yourself in a do-or-die 4th down conversion situation with 3 minutes left in the third quarter.

But that was the situation. And instead of letting the offense try to impose its will, Canada got cute. And it blew up in his face.

  • And that’s been the story of the Steelers offense this season.

It does well for a few drives or parts of drives. Then it falls on its face at critical moments. Taken literally, and offensive coordinator’s job is to coordinate things so that the opposite occurs. Matt Canada is failing at his job.

Does Canada fail to grasp the value of physical football? Or does he ignore it because, like his predecessors Joe Walton and Kevin Gilbride, he wants to show the rest of the NFL he’s a genius? Or Canada actually doing the best he can with substandard offensive line and quarterback that we all overestimated?  Mike Tomlin, Hell Yeah, There's Going to be Changes

I don’t know, but Mike Tomlin needs to find the answer, quickly.

Trap Game or Truth Game Question Answered

Mathematically the loss brings the Steelers to 2-2, which is an OK place to be after week 4 in the NFL. But this is one case where the way the Steelers lost this tells us more than the outcome itself.

  • The Steelers failed the eye test today.

They didn’t look like a contender descending into “Any Given Sunday” territory against a lesser team. No. They looked like a team will be lucky to flirt with .500 – and that’s without knowing the severity of the injuries suffered by Dan Moore, Pat Freiermuth, DeMarvin Leal and Kenny Pickett.

When asked after the game if changers were coming, Mike Tomlin snapped, “Hell yeah. There’s going to be changes.”

Good. Because many things must change for 20/20 hindsight to transform this loss into a trap game.

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Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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

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

It is not.

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

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

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

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

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

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

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

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

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

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

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

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

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

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

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

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

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

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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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