How I Learned of Rocky Bleier’s Incredible Comeback Story

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

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

Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier comeback

Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:

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

  • That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.

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

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

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

Rocky Bleier, ESPN "The Return"

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinos barber shop, Aspen Hill Shoppnig Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you dad. Happy Fathers Day!

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Steelers Draft Diontae Johnson, Who’ll Be Seen, Fairly or Unfairly, as Antonio Brown’s Replacement

The Steelers opened night two of the 2019 NFL Draft as spectators having traded their second round pick to the Denver Broncos to draft Devin Bush, but used the Raiders 3rd round pick they obtained from the Antonio Brown trade to pick Diontae Johnson, the wide receiver from Toledo.

  • The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.

Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers draft Diontae Johsnon

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com

Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout who helped Pittsburgh discover players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and John Stallworth always admonished, “Never draft a player higher than you need to.” (Indeed, Chuck Noll wanted to take John Stallworth ahead of Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert in the Steelers famed 1974 Draft but Nunn convinced Noll that Stallworth would sit on the board – he did.)

  • Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?

According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:

…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.

So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).

Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights

The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”

He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:

Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.

Diontae Johnson doesn’t give Ben Roethlisberger the coveted tall target he seeks, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eli Rogers and Donte Moncrief ahead of him, he won’t automatically get playing time due to his status as a 3rd round pick.

However, Diontae Johnson’s arrival in Pittsburgh could very well leave Ryan Switzer looking over his shoulder, as Diontae Johnson has kick return experience.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Diontae Johnson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • This isn’t just a Pittsburgh thing either.

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

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

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

  • An urban legend was born.

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

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

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

Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.

Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of, but not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.

James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

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

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

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

But when comparing the two games consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Tarping Practice Field? Why Not Follow Chuck Noll’s Lead and Practice without Numbers?

Change happens fast. Only two weeks ago the Steelers decision to erect a tarp to block the view from the Southern End of their practice field was the “big news” out of Pittsburgh.

Now everyone is focusing Joshua Dobbs’ promotion to QB Number 2 at Landry Jones expense, Terrell Edmunds possibly starting for Morgan Burnett and, in case you missed it, Le’Veon Bell holding out.

  • Excellent. Football news should focus on what happens between the lines, not around them.

But this is a new and a strange development as Mike Tomlin explains:

You know how it is. This is an interesting time, drones and so forth, you know? We’ll do what we have to do to prepare and be ready to play. Play on a level of fair competitive playing field

Fair enough. But if Mike Tomlin is worried about the Bill Belichick’s of the NFL spying on him, wouldn’t he be wiser to combat today’s technological threat by snatching a page from Steelers history?

Chuck Noll (may have) had the same concerns. No, he did have to worry about drones, but given his love of both flying and cameras, he almost certainly could have predicted the problem. Regardless, The Emperor had a solution:

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Your eyes tell no lie. Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers practiced with no numbers.

I first learned of this in the 80’s when a TV news story on cheating in pro sports, concluded with shot from Steelers practice and a reporter observing “…Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, still practice with no numbers.”

The offense wore Gold and the defense work Black, and that was that. Chuck Noll’s motives were less clear. On a summer trip to Pittsburgh in the late 80’s or early 1990’s I remember reading in the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette that Noll practiced with no numbers because he wanted coaches to treat all players equally.

If a cornerback was out of position, he wanted to coaches to correct him, whether he was Rod Woodson as a rookie or a veteran like Dwayne Woodruff. If an undrafted rookie free agent like Dwight Stone made a head turning play he wanted him to earn the same praise that Louis Lipps or John Stallworth would.

  • That is highly plausible, given Chuck Noll’s focus on teaching.

Stories of Noll of spending valuable practice time correcting a rookie’s mistake, only to cut him days later, are legendary. Likewise, Noll never hesitated to correct a veteran, as he did with Andy Russell, the only Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette believes that Noll’s goal was to confuse any unwanted on-lookers.

And Noll’s gambit worked.

In the ‘80s the Steelers and Redskins held annual training camp scrimmages which Washington’s WTTG Channel 5 broadcast. Years later, on WCXR’sHarris in the MorningSteve Buckhantz recounted how one summer Chuck Noll decided that the Steelers would scrimmage without numbers.

Buckhantz explained to Paul Harris and “Dave the Predictor” that “I had Franco Harris running for touchdowns, yet didn’t know it was him” as Steelers PR staffer would sit behind him in the broadcast booth try to determine who the player was based on his body type.

At the end of the day, its doubtful that Mike Tomlin would follow Chuck Noll’s example, although numberless jersey’s would  be cheaper than tarping off the south end of the practice field, and wouldn’t practicing without numbers eliminate the problem of drones flying directly above the field instead of just close to it?

Just say’n….

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Steel Curtain Rising Celebrates 10 Years on the Web and Says “Thank You”

While we’re missing the actual date by a little, today Steel Curtain Rising celebrates 10 years on the web! And, in a curious case of life imitating “art”, events have brought this site full circle. How?

Well, on January 6th, 2008 Steel Curtain Rising’s first article read: “Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars.” Ten years and nine days later we’d be forced to observe: “Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field.”

  • Home playoff losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the preferred way to bookend 10 years of Steelers blog, but it could actually be a good omen (see below).

They’ve been a lot of ups and a lot of downs along the way including, but not limited to Super Bowl XLII and, God willing, Ben Roethlisberger will play well enough and long enough to give the Steelers another shot at the Stairway to Seven.

Until then, let’s take stock of the last 10 years, share some highlights and, most importantly, offer some needed thank you’s.

Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl XLIII trophy, Super Bowl 43, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

Ben Roethlisberger & Tone celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with Dan and Art Rooney

Steel Curtain Rising – Genesis

While Steel Curtain Rising has only existed for 10 years, its roots dig deep into the 1990’s. At the dawn of the Bill Cowher era, I began PC screen saver marquees with “The Steel Curtain Will Rise Again.”

  • Then, during the dark days 1999, I began writing post-game email rants, as an act of catharsis.

Later, during 2000 season, I continued the practice, but decided to focus on the writing and the analysis. Some of those actually made it on to the web via Tim McMillen’sMcMillen and Wife” site, although I’m not sure they’re still there.

In 2001 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for the first time in a decade, I was reduced to watching Steelers Monday night and Sunday Night games, often times on tape delay. I continued the post-game emails, driving my wife crazy.

  • And  she was right: it was a too much work for too little return.

Yet, on a trip home after Super Bowl XL, two people independently complemented me with: “Hey, I really like your post-game write ups. Keep them coming….” A year and a half would pass before I kicked off this site, but I probably never would have had it not been for their complements.

  • So if you’ve enjoyed this site, then my cousin Jim V. and my friend Tom L. both deserve credit.

So in January 2008, on the evening of Mike Tomlin’s playoff debut, Steel Curtain Rising launched with the aim of either saying things about the Steelers that others weren’t or say so same things a little differently.

Ten Years of Steelers Blogging Highlights

Independent blogging is tough, and its tougher now than it was 10 years ago thanks to the rise of “content aggregation sites” and the corporatization of the blogging world. So be it.

But until August 2009, Steel Curtain Rising benefitted from the Tribune-Review’s old “SteelersLive Site” which included a link sharing feature that, for a good article, could net you over a 1000 page views in a single shot.

  • Thanks to that site, the profile on Greg Lloyd was this site’s most viewed article for a long, long time.

As Archie Bunker sang, “Those were the days.”

In time, on the old blogger platform, the retrospective on Steelers-Patriots history would ellipse that thanks to the magic of Google, as would the landing page for our series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the most enjoyable pieces this site has put together.

While blogger provided an easy way to get to the web, things change in the digital world. And as time passed Google showed a clear preference for independently hosted pages. So we moved to WordPress.

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

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

On WordPress the most popular page by far is the history of the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys (thanks to the journalist who gave me a followable link, you have no idea of the favor you did.) After that comes the piece debunking “Your Team Cheats” from a Steelers perspective. Not too far below that comes our 2015 April Fools piece announcing the faux trade of Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins.

As noted, independent blogging is challenging, and often times you need an outside push to get your stuff read. So it’s no surprise that the articles contrasting the Steelers and Redskins salary cap negotiation polices and taking Colin Cowherd to task, both of which benefited from Retweets from high profile journalists, did so well. Thanks to both of you.

ICYMI – Sleeper Steelers Stories

While this site’s high-performing articles are pieces to be proud of, they only represent a small cross section of the best work produced here.

Our aforementioned 1989 Steelers series cleaned up on the blogger site, but hasn’t fared so well on WordPress. The Myron Cope obituary, the site’s 12th article, was the first breaking news event I wrote about, and remains a source of site pride, as is Dwight White’s obituary.

  • Writing profiles on Steelers legends, both living and for those who have passed, has been a pleasure.

Yet, those pieces don’t always get the traction that you’d think the would, but site tributes to the likes of Kordell Stewart, Rod Woodson, John Stallworth, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, and of course Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney are labors of love, and worth checking out.

If there’s any one surprise in terms of page views, it was a May 2010 piece on the 2000 Steelers road upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it didn’t “go viral” it did well when published kept drawing visitors long after this sort of #TBT type story should.

Thanks You – Part I

Success results team effort and this site is no exception.

To that, thanks go out to my wife and, yes, my mom who help with editing and proofreading when time allows. The articles that have benefitted from their extra pair of eyes should be easy to spot.

  • Thanks also go out to Osvaldo in Patagonia, who migrated me from blogger, and Raghav in India who has provided SEO advice from time-to-time.

Words of appreciation are also due for Michael Bean and Neal Coolong, who gave me a chance to contribute to BTSC when it was a site on the rise, and who’ve done favors for this site large and small. Rebecca Rollett, Ivan, Homer, Clark, Bill and all of the contributors at Going Deep with the Steelers also get a well-earned “Thank You” nod here, for the same reason.

The first big Thank You goes out to Gustavo Vallegos, “El Dr. de Acero,” who started contributing articles in Spanish a few years ago and continues to do so on an occasional basis, as time allows. While dream of establishing a true, bi-lingual Steelers blog remains a way off, the truth is Gustavo’s analysis and writing is excellent, and this site is far strong for his contributions. Muchas Gracias, Gus!

  • We save the biggest shoutout for the man who’s done the most.

As a rule, big Steelers news has a knack of breaking when I’m away and/or unable to write. Tony Defeo stepped in and began helping by keeping the site updated in breaking news situations when I’m away. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

For close to two years now, Tony has been contributing to this site on a regular basis, raising the level of quality of this site across the board.

His profile on Calvin Sweeney a top-performer and must read. Likewise his piece on Larry Brown. And his work on Weegie Thompson stands as an example of blogging brilliance at its best. Thank You Tony!

Thanks to You the Readers

The biggest thank you goes you to you, the readers. For better and for worse, this site’s footprint in terms of comments and interaction has always been limited. That’s fine. But the Black and Gold faithful find this site, and if Google Analytics is any guide, visitors stay here after they arrive and they, or you, return.

It was also particularly gratifying, in the early days of 2008, before total life time visitors had even broken the 1,000 mark, to see “Steel Curtain Rising” hoping up in the referring keywords report.

  • Its been said that Google is the ultimate truth serum and that’s correct in a lot of ways.

The numbers of this site confirm it. While half of this site’s visitors come from Western Pennsylvania, the other half does not. And while the US, UK and Mexico send the lion’s share of visitors, this site has served visitors from nearly every country on the globe.

So thanks to whoever it was from Romania who kept visiting early on, thanks to whoever it was in Austria who visited this site day in and day out for several years. And thanks to the person in Nigeria who searched for Christian Okoye, found the page on the 1989 Steelers Chiefs game, and then went and viewed several dozen other pages.

In a word, thanks to each and every one of you for reading.

Jaguars Playoff Loss as a Good Omen?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are NOT in a good place right now. Instead of playing for the Super Bowl, they’re watching it at home as all sorts of negative stories permeate the press coming out of Pittsburgh.

But things didn’t seem too bright 10 years ago, after a promising season ended with the defense on the decline, and a controversial play call to the outside and a controversial special teams decision allowed the Jaguars to beat the Steelers at home twice in one season.

At that time, I made this observation, in the very first edition of the Watch Tower:

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.
But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Things didn’t feel quite as bleak in January 2008, but the arrow on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t seem to be pointing up. One year later the Steelers were Super Bowl Bound.

Yours truly is most certainly not predicting a Super Bowl next season. But then again, I wouldn’t have done so in January 2008 either….

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover and commentate on it all.

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