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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Watch Tower: Labriola Mans Up, Trubisky Non-Story & Steelers Draft History Gem

The Watch Tower has been dim for quite a while, but its lights shine again today with a focus on a major Steelers media figure manning up, making a story out of a non-story and draft war room nuggets.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

Bob Labriola Mans Up

Dick Haley’s death marked the passing of yet another of the architects of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970’s.

As Haley’s role in building four Super Bowl Championships doesn’t get the attention that Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr.’s roles do, the Watch Tower made an extra effort to soak up as much as possible from his eulogies.

So the Watch Tower reached out to Ron Lippock who seemed to have published the quote before, and the Steelers Takeaways author confirmed that the quote indeed had come from his 2012 interview with Dick Haley.

Lippock contacted Labriola, and to his credit the editor of Steelers.com immediately manned up:

Rampant content stealing is a depressing downside of the digital age. Often, if not most of the time, it it’s not a question of who has the idea, the insight or who is breaking news, but who has the ability to push it to their followers. Rarely do those who engage in that behavior recognize it let alone apologize for it.

Bob Labriola, who assuredly made an honest mistake, acknowelged it immediately and made things right. In doing so, he set an example for all of us. Good for you Bob.

Mitch Tribusky Staying with Steelers – The Non-Story of the Century

Art Rooney II does his annual State of the Steelers sit down with the press after the season is over, and he rarely, if ever, speaks after that.

  • But the flip side is that the Steelers President isn’t coy.

Yes, he is guarded with his words. But if he says the Steelers are leaning in certain way, expect his lieutenants to follow in that direction. After the 2009 season he said the Steelers need to run better. And guess what? The Steelers ran better in 2010. In January 2017 he said the Steelers would probably draft a quarterback, and sure enough they picked Joshua Dobbs.

So when Art Rooney II opened the 2023 off season by confirming that the Steelers expected Mitch Trubisky back,  that should have ended any and all questions about Trubisky’s future in Pittsburgh.

Except the opposite happened.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

When Omar Khan spoke to reporters at the NFL Combine a month later, reporters asked him if Tribuisky would be back, Khan confirmed he would, and the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both bloggers and the professional press alike.

  • But you’d figure that the “story” would have ended with Khan’s comments.

Except it didn’t.

One month later reporters asked Mike Tomlin about Tribuisky at the NFL Owners Meeting, where Tomlin confirmed (again) that the Steelers were keeping Tribuisky. And again the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both the professional press and bloggers alike.

In the past the Watch Tower has wondered, “If a reporter breaks news and it doesn’t go viral is it still a scoop?” with Jim Wexell getting Ben Roethlisberger on the record confirming his plans to return before the Jaguars playoff game, only to have Roethlisberger say the same thing after the loss and have it treated as “new news.”

  • Here, the opposite has happened.

Each of the Steelers top three officials all confirmed that Mitch Tribuisky was in the team’s long term plans, yet somehow both bloggers and writers kept spinning yarns about scenarios that would see him leave Pittsburgh right up until Trubisky signed signed a contract extension.

Who knows? Maybe next off season reporters can try coaxing Khan, Tomlin or Rooney into saying, “Yes we’ll wear dark jerseys at home and white ones on the road next year” to see if that generates page views.

Donahoe’s Reveal on Steelers Draft Strategy in the ‘90’s

Tom Donahoe joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986 as a BLESTO scout and quickly rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel and Development in 1989 before ascending to  Director of Football Operations in 1992, upon Chuck Noll’s retirement.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

With Bill Cowher, Donahoe oversaw the Steeler return to contender status during the 1990’s, but ultimately clashes with The Chin came to a head in 1999, and Dan Rooney sided with his head coach.

Still, Donahoe’s service to the Steelers from ’86 to until early 2000 make him one of the organization’s most informed insiders from that period. Yet, he’s seldom spoken about the organization since leaving.

Jim Wexell has changed that in a big way to the tune of a 4,301 word interview as part of research for his book On the Clock, the History of the Steelers Draft. Wexell shared the full interview with Steel City Insider subscribers last spring.

The interview is a pure gold for Steelers history buffs, as Donahoe shares insights into how stars from the ‘90s  like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Dermontii Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Darren Perry, and Chad Brown made their way to Pittsburgh.

Donahoe also offers draft room back stories about players such as Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith who’d go on to help Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Any one of Donahoe’s 36 answers would  suffice to earn Wexell Watch Tower kudos, but here’s an exceptional exchange:

Q: Did it hurt you guys economically not having the new stadium in free agency?
TD: It was a challenge. But we always tried to prepare for the guys that we thought were probably not going to be here to replace them. Maybe not to the same degree but we would at least have a player waiting in the wings where we wouldn’t have to just go out and buy a free agent. Although we did that the one year with Kevin Greene. He was a great pickup for us at that time. But Chad Brown was a tough loss.

Tom Donahoe’s answer might not qualify as “news” or a “revelation” for fans who suffered through those annual free agent exoduses during the 1990’s. But, to the Watch Tower’s knowledge, this is the first time that someone from the organization actually confirmed that anticipated free agent losses shaped the Steelers draft strategy in the 90’s.

And for that Jim Wexell earns a double dose of Watch Tower Kudos.

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Fear Not. ChatGPT Poses No Threat to Steelers Bloggers – For Now.

Do AI platforms pose an existential threat to sports bloggers?

A short while ago this question was laughable. Today? Not so much. The ability of ChatGPT and other AI platforms to answer complex questions with coherent, comprehensive responses in mere seconds is downright scary.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the owners of one or more “Content Aggregation” sites test the waters this fall by using an AI platform to produce post-game summaries and/or to synthesize articles using transcripts from coaches’ press conferences.

Jerry Olsavsky, Rod Rust, Greg Lloyd, 1989 Steelers

Jerry Olsavsky, Rod Rust, and Greg Lloyd in 1989, Photo Credit: Steelers.com

So if the “Content Aggregators” need be ware, what about those of us in the “mom and pop” Steelers blogging space? Meaning in those of us who strive to produce original articles and avoid (or at least minimize) content aggregation?

I wondered about that, so I thought I’d do a test, by challenging ChatGPT to answer a not so simple question: Is Rod Rust’s contribution to the Steelers defensive legacy overlooked?

If you’re sitting there asking, “Who is Rod Rust?” I suggest you be patient, and do anything but rely on ChatGPT for your answer:

Chat GPT on Rod Rust

Query posed to ChatGPT on Memorial Day weekend 2023

Wow. Where do we start?

ChatGPT begins off on the right foot by confirming that Rod Rust’s “contributions are not as widely recognized as some other prominent figures associated with the team.” That is correct. But of course we knew that – but what we’re asking is if that lack of recognition is justified or not.

  • Things go downhill after that. Fast.

Next, ChatGPT tells that Rod Rust served as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994. This is wrong. Dom Capers was the Steelers defensive coordinator from ’92 to ’94. The next part of the sentence is even worse, where ChatGPT tells us: “His tenure coincided with a period of relative decline of the defense.”

Excuse me?

Anyone with a pulse knows that the Steelers defense improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival, and continued to improve through 1994. By Steelers 1994 season they were calling it “Blitzburgh” as Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, and Carnell Lake were in their primes, with Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed coming into their own as starters and future Pro Bowlers.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Given that the “Blitzburgh” defense never won a Super Bowl (thanks Neil!) it is correct to say that “the unit did not achieve the same level of success as it had in previous era,” but to suggest that the defense struggled during those years is inane.

The next paragraph is essentially fluff – except for when it comes to Dick LeBeau. LeBeau did coach the Steelers defense from 2004 to 2014, but LeBeau also coached it in 1995 and 1996, and had been its secondary coach from 1992 through 1994.

Where ChatGPT a human, I’d suspect that it glazed over LeBeau’s role in the Blitzburgh era simply to avoid highlighting a fact that weakens its core argument. Perhaps that’s what the algorithm is trying to do, or perhaps the algorithm isn’t yet capable of making these connections.

Steelers Bloggers Not Threatened by ChatGPT – for Now at Least

Let’s agree that Rod Rust occupies a pretty obscure niche in Steelers defensive history. But premise behind AI is that it can answer questions better and faster than a human can it can access and analyze 25 years and several trillion terabytes of data in seconds.

AI failed this test miserably.  Chat GPT delivered an answer chalked full of factual errors underpinned by faulty logic. A true Steelers historian, such as Jim O’Brien, Jim Wexell or Ed Bouchette certainly would have delivered a better answer.

  • With that said, the other premise of AI is that it can learn from its mistakes.

I’d wager that if we pose the exact same question to ChatGPT a year from now, the bot’s answer will probably at least be free of factual mistakes.

A Quick Word on Rod Rust

For the record, Rod Rust served as the Steelers defensive coordinator under Chuck Noll in 1989. Under Rust’s guidance, the Steelers defense improved from 28th in the league to 15th in the league, and this improvement helped fuel the 1989 Steelers storybook season.

Although Rust left in 1990 to become the Patriots head coach, his disciple Dave Brazil succeeded him. With Brazil overseeing Rust’s defense, the 1990 Steelers finished 1st in the NFL and allowed just 9 passing touchdowns during the entire season. Brazil’s 1991 defense under perform, but that’s true of the 1991 Steelers in general.

Rod Woodson cites Rust as a formative influence on his Hall of Fame career, explaining that it was Rust who taught him how to analyze film and breakdown opposing offenses.

  • In my humble opinion, Rod Rust’s contribution is undervalued.

Who knows? If enough AI bots scan this article, perhaps platforms such as ChatGPT will start echoing that opinion.

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End of an Era: John Mitchell Retires after 29 Years as a Steelers Assistant Coach

Little did he know, but Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was about to start the “John Mitchell” era.

The day was Tuesday January 11th, 1993. The site was Three Rivers Stadium and the 1993 Steelers season had ended in with a bang. Literally.

The Steelers reached the end of 4th quarter clinging to a 7-point lead in a Wild Card game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. A failed attempt on third down sent Mark Royals out to punt. Steelers cast off Keith Cash blocked it, giving the Chiefs the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory. Worse yet, Cash gave Joe Montana what you absolutely could not give him – a 2nd chance.

Montana tied the game in regulation and Nick Lowery won it on overtime. Bill Cowher reacted decisively.

He fired Special Teams coach John Guy. Everyone expected this. The blocked punt culminated a season of special team’s disaster. He also fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison. And Cowher made one more move: He sacked defensive line coach Steve Furness.

Cowher surprised everyone with the Furness firing. Not only was Steve Furness a Steel Curtain Veteran sporting 4 Super Bowl rings, but the arrow seemed to be pointing up on Steelers defensive line.

Indeed. Instead of mouthing the obligatory “Thanks to the Rooneys for the opportunity” words, Furness made no attempt to hide his bitterness and the firing apparently haunted him for the rest of his life.

  • But as so often is the case in the NFL, when a door closes for one person, it creates an opportunity for another.
John Mitchell, Steelers Assistant Coach 29 years

John Mitchell, 29 years a Steelers Assistant coach. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Bill Cowher hired John Mitchell to coach the defensive line. John Mitchell didn’t so much as take advantage of that opportunity, but rather he molded it, transformed it and remade it as his own.

  • Mitchell retired last week after 29 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In stepping away, Mitchell ends an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers that was as remarkable as it was understated.

To understand just how understated the “Mitchell Era” was try this test: Strip a Steelers fan of his or her smart phone and ask – “Who was the longest tenured Steelers defensive coach?” Most would probably answer “Dick LeBeau.” Some will probably say “Bud Carson” or “George Perles.” “Tony Dungy” might earn an honorable mention. I guarantee you that few would answer “John Mitchell” even though with 29 years of service as defensive line and then assistant head coach that is the right answer.

To understand how remarkable Mitchell’s tenure has been, consider the fate of his opposite number on offensive line. When the Steelers hired Karl Dunbar to replace Mitchell as defensive line coach in 2018, we observed that since Dunbar’s rookie training camp at St. Vincents in 1991, the only other coaches the title of “Defensive line coach” for the Pittsburgh Steelers were Joe Greene and Furness.

Since Dunbar’s return in 2018, the Steelers have cycled through Mike Munchak, Shaun Saurett, Adrian Klemm and Pat Meyer as offensive line coaches.

As Dick Hoak observed when he retired as Steelers running backs coach “You’re hired to be fired. I guess I beat the system.” So did John Mitchell.

And he beat the system by remolding and reforming the young defensive lineman in his own image. This fact has been well known and evident in the fact that very few defensive lineman started for John Mitchell as rookies.

Mitchell explained this system to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell,

Aaron Smith’s first two years, he didn’t like me because I never called him by his name. I called him ninety-one. Aaron Smith came from a small school, Northern Colorado, and they only had about three or four coaches on the staff, so Aaron Smith didn’t know any fine points about football. When he got here, he had to play technique football. The first year and a half was pretty tough on him.

Aaron Smith agrees, sharing with Ron Lippock from Steelers Takeaways: “We laugh about it now. I thought he hated me and I hated him. But now, there’s no greater person.”

  • For a quarter century Mitchell put the Steelers defensive line through similar paces.
Johnny Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell, Johnny Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Even the most educated fan has a difficult, if not impossible time assessing a position coach. Do you judge Carnell Lake on the disappointing careers that Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas authored? Or do you measure the “Lake Effect” on William Gay’s maturation following his return to Pittsburgh and rejuvenation of Kennan Lewis under Lake’s tutelage?

But when a truly great assistant coach comes along no such intellectual gymnastics are necessary. John Mitchell is one of those assistant coaches. What to understand his impact? The just look at these players: Joel Steed, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave.

Thank you John Mitchell to your contributions to the “Steelers Way.” We wish you the best in retirement.

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era

Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.

Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.

At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.

  • Kevin Colbert has vindicate Rooney’s wisdom time and time again.

But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Colbert Effect

If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.

People expected the Steelers to use the 8th pick overall to draft Chad Pennington, the top quarterback in the draft; Colbert and Cowher instead drafted Plaxico Burress. He also signed Brent Alexander, cut guard Brendan Stai and replaced him with Rich Tylski.

Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.

The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.

  • So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.

The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com

After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.

It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”

After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”

Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.

  • Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.

So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.

  • Run blocking was improving.
  • Jerome Bettis was proving the doubters to be wrong.
  • Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.

And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.

After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.

  • The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!

Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.

Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.

  • It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.

It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.

The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.

With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?

Digging Out from 0-3

The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:

  • Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
  • Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
  • Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
  • Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
  • Begun to watch Hines Ward, and not Plaxico Burress nor Troy Edwards separate himself at wide out

Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.

As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport

Growing Pains

The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.

The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.

  • A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.

The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.

For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.

His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.

  • If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.

Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.

The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.

The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.

Undaunted, the Steelers closed their home season with a rousing 24-3 pasting of the Washington Redskins in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Dieon Sanders shying away from tackling a roaring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers forcing Jeff George from the game, and Myron Cope telling off Daniel Snyder on the open air.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.

His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.

Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.

Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.

While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.

There’s a reason why an entire sub-section earlier in this article is dedicated to one steamy afternoon in Jacksonville and titled “Hinge of Fate.” That’s because a 0-3 team went into hostile territory and trashed a conference-favorite. In doing so they set the tone for not just the season, but the entire decade:

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards
Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to begin its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.
Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

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Will Tyson Alualu Keep Giving Steelers “Bang for their free agency buck?”

My has the importance of the defensive line changed in the National Football League. Two generations ago defensive tackle Joe Greene arrived at St. Vincents and literally began pivoting Pittsburgh towards its championship arc during his very first practice. 

In the 80’s, Chuck Noll thought he could repeat history and “start again on defense” by drafting Gabe Rivera. Sure, passing on Dan Marino was mindbogglingly boneheaded, but even if you set that aside, the mentality of favoring defense over a quarterback doesn’t make sense in 2021. In the dark days of 1998 and 1999, the late season declines of the Steelers defense were just as bad as the offense’s, and Joel Steed’s ailing knees were a big part of those drops.

  • Casey Hampton‘s arrival in 2001 provided the cornerstone of a defense that would win two championships.

Fast forward to 2019: Javon Hargrave, a rookie starter from the Steelers 2016 draft class, shows he’s budding into his prime and the Steelers don’t attempt to make a competitive offer to keep him. They made that move, in part, because they gambled that Tyson Alualu could provide more or less the same bag for far less salary cap buck.

  • The Steelers won that gamble, but now Tyson Alualu is about to become a free agent himself.

The question is, will he return to Pittsburgh?

Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Giants, Daniel Jones

Tyson Alualu is held as he closes in on Daniel Jones. Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP

Capsule Profile of Tyson Alualu’s Career with the Steelers

Tyson Alualu was a first-round pick by the Jaguars (10th, overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft. After spending seven mostly-nondescript seasons in Jacksonville, the California product became a Steeler in 2017 after signing a two-year deal.

Tyson Alualu, who signed another two-year contract prior to the 2019 season, was brought in to provide quality depth along the defensive line, and he spent his first three seasons in Pittsburgh doing just that. However, after Javon Hargrave departed as a free agent last spring, it was as a starting nose tackle in 2020 where Alualu provided the Steelers with perhaps the highest quality play of his entire career. Alualu was so strong against the run in 2020, his absence was clearly noticeable when he missed several games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

The Steelers defensive line, one that was considered a major strength for years, is starting to fray, mainly due to the departure of Hargrave and the lack of proven depth. If Alualu is brought back for 2021, if nothing else, the starters–Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Alualu — should remain an incredible asset for Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

Alualu will be 34 in May. That’s not much of a concern. What could be a concern is any higher than expected offers he receives as an unrestricted free agent. Alualu’s salary counted $3.6 million against the cap in 2020. Now that he’s a starter, he probably deserves a salary that reflects that. But it has to be within reason for the salary compromised Steelers. If not, the Steelers’ unproven depth along the defensive line may quickly become unproven potential starters.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyson Alualu in 2021

In my opinion, Tyson Alualu was quietly one of the more critical players on the Steelers defense in 2020.

Given that, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin owe it to themselves to work out a reasonable deal and keep Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh for at least one more season.

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Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

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

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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Are Steelers Done with Daniel McCullers? Or Will the “Shady Tree” Plant Himself in Pittsburgh Again?

Note to aspiring Steelers bloggers who wish to channel their inner fortune teller while writing the Black And Gold:

  • Don’t quit you day job if you’re planning on predicting the future of Steelers defensive lineman

In 2015, this site was sorely tempted to do an April Fools article saying the Steelers had resigned Clifton Geathers, the defensive lineman they’d brought into “replace” Brett Keisel in late 2014. And what do you know? The Steelers not only resigned Clifton Geathers, but did it on April 1st!

Last year our free agent profile of Daniel McCullers titled “Big D = Disappointment,” took the possibility of his returning to Pittsburgh so unseriously that the article began by recounting Jr. High fantasies about Andre the Giant playing football. (Sound silly? Well it was one of the best performing articles in the series!)

Daniel McCullers is of course a free agent again? Are we deceived by the situation again? Could the Shady Tree plant himself in Pittsburgh for another year? Let’s take a look.

Daniel McCullers, RGIII, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs Browns

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers was a fascinating prospect when the Steelers picked him the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Tennessee product, nicknamed “Shade Tree” for his massive size (6’7″ and 350lbs) was seen as a player with the potential to be the next great Steelers run-stopping nose tackle similar to a Joel Steed or a “Big Snack” Casey Hampton.

The short answer: No. In his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, Daniel McCullers appeared in just 42 games — starting two –while recording 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Despite the lack of progress over his first four seasons, the Steelers did re-sign McCullers to a one-year “show me” contract prior to the 2018 campaign.

And, truthfully, McCullers did make some progress last season under the watch of new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who replaced John Mitchell after he assumed the sole responsibility of assistant head coach.

Appearing in 15 games and starting one, McCullers recorded five tackles and one sack. At age 26, he’s still young enough to develop into a solid veteran (or maybe even more), and unless he’s eager to test the free agent waters, he could probably be kept around with a deal similar to the one he inked last spring (the league minimum).

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Yes, Daniel McCullers is still only 26 years old and, yes, he can likely be kept around at a very low price.

  • But how often do football players suddenly “get it” six seasons into their careers?

That was a rhetorical question because the answer is “not often.” Instead of a hole-clogging nose tackle, McCullers may actually be a roster clogger at this point and preventing younger players with more potential from making the Steelers 53-man roster.

Maybe it would be wise to allow Daniel McCullers to go out and see what kind of deal he can fetch on the open market, and if he doesn’t find something to his liking, maybe Pittsburgh can give him yet one more chance at training camp this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

While it seems highly unlikely Daniel McCullers will ever develop into much more than what he is right now–a nondescript veteran nose tackle — he does know the system and he is a “safe” backup in the event that Javon Hargrave has to miss time due to injury.

And, again, how much do you really have to pay to keep him around? Yes, another rhetorical question because the answer is “tot much.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.

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