Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Too Early to Seek Ben Roethlisberger’s Replacment

Since Chuck Noll ushered Pittsburgh into the modern era of pro football, the Pittsburgh Steelers have used 1st round picks on quarterbacks exactly 3 times.

  • Their first came when they drafted Terry Bradshaw with the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.
  • Ten years later they returned to the well, drafting Mark Malone with the last pick of the first round of 1980 NFL Draft.

Steelers Nation would have to wait 24 more years until the 2004 NFL Draft for Pittsburgh to use another first round draft pick on a quarterback, and the decision to pick Ben Roethlisberger only really came at the behest of Dan Rooney who, by his own admission, was haunted by the teams decision not to draft Dan Marino thinking that the Blond Bomber had a few more seasons, instead of just 8 more throws, left in his arm.

Although is return for 2017 is confirmed, since incumbent Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger has publically as uttered the “R” word it is only fair to ask if the Steelers needs justifying picking a quarterback with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 draft needs quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to pass @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via MMQB

Steelers Depth Chart @ Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

Closing in on his 15th NFL season Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. The Steelers Killer Bees, Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give Pittsburgh its strongest concentration of talent at the skill positions since the days Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris lined up alongside Bradshaw.

  • To judge solely by his passer rating of 95.4, Ben Roethlisberger 2016 season was almost identical to 2015’s (94.5).

But that shows you how fickle of a measure passer rating can be as his completion percentage dropped by 4 points, but he threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions and took fewer sacks. And he did it without the services of Heath Miller, Ladarius Green, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey for much or all of the season.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger continued to prove that he was still a championship-caliber franchise quarterback during 2016, his game was not without its flaws.

First, there was a sharp disparity between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and his play at home. Beyond that, in the playoffs with Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton as his number 2 and 3 receivers the Steelers needed Ben Roethlisberger to make them look better than they were.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Quarterback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Steel Curtain Rising has written more in defense of Landry Jones that he probably deserves, but such is the nature when two of a site’s writers style and ideas overlap. So be it. There’s no need to repeat our praise of the embattled backup here as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert agree with Landry Jones is a viable NFL backup. If Landry looked lost in 2013 and 2014, the showed he belonged in 2015 and in 2016 he proved that the previous season was no mirage.

  • No, the Steelers cannot expect to contend for a Super Bowl if Landry Jones has to start for an extended period.

But you can say almost every other NFL contender can say the same thing about having to start their backup for more than a few games.

Behind Landry Jones the Steelers have Zach Mettenberger, whom they picked up off of waivers. Both fans and columnists would prefer to seen Mettenberger holding down the number two slot and if he proves himself in training camp he may get that opportunity.

When all is said and done, it could be that the Steelers decision to claim Mettenberger off of waivers will grow in importance to Kevin Colbert’s 2002 decision to sign Charlie Batch after the Detroit Lions cut him loose. At the time it looked like Charlie Batch was merely provided a fringe benefit of additional depth behind Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.

  • Ten years later we know that Charlie Batch grew into one of the best backup quarterbacks the Steelers have ever staffed.

Can Zach Mettenberger follow the same script? At this point it is an unknown.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Quarterback

While Ben Roethlisberger might have sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation by admitting he needed to take time to decide whether he would play again in 2017, the fact is that he has made similar statements in private. That’s normal and even healthy thought process for a player to take at this stage of his career.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs quarterback

If statements of Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are any guide the Steelers expect Ben Roethlisberger to finish his contract.

  • There’s a simple but unpleasant reality at work when it comes to the Steelers replacing Roethlisberger.

Replacing one franchise quarterback with another is easier said than done. Sure San Francisco did it with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Green Bay did it with Brett Favre and Aaron Rogers. The Colts did it with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. It is pretty hard to find other success stories.

The difficulty of trying to find your next franchise quarterback while your team still has one ranges somewhere between completing King Authur’s hunt for the Questing Beast and seeing Haley’s Comet – many try but only a few succeed.

Word is that 2017 NFL Draft is a weak one for quarterbacks, and even if it were not, the chances of a franchise quarterback slipping to the Steelers at the 30th pick are non-existent.

If the Steelers can select excellent value at quarterback with their third or 2nd round pick then they might want to consider it, but barring that, focusing on players who help bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 as opposed to trying to lasso a unicorn would represent a far wiser investment of Pittsburgh’s draft capital.

But when all is said and done, Ben’s public utterance of the word “retirement” doesn’t change any of the dynamics at work and the Steelers 2017 draft need at quarterback must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

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Steelers Free Agent Landry Jones Should Be Back in Pittsburgh as Backup Quarterback

Who was the most popular player in Pittsburgh from 1984 to 2003? The answer is simple, “the backup quarterback.”

OK, that’s not quite true, but it is no secret that fans often showed a lot more love for the understudies of Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart than they did for those starting quarterbacks.

The same could not be said during Terry Bradshaw’s (latter) days as a starter, nor for Ben Roethlisberger. Such was the cross that Landry Jones inherited when the Steelers took Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft, a cross which he continues to carry into free agency.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Cardinals, Landry Jones free agent, Markus Wheaton

Landry Jones celebrates during his first NFL game against the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Pittsburghblitz.com

Capsule Profile of Landry Jones Steelers Career

As regular readers of this site know, living down in Buenos Aires deprives me of the ability to watch preseason football. Which is a shame because preseason gives fans their one and only shot at getting an unfiltered look at rookies and backup players.

  • But friends of mine assured me during the 2013 preseason that the Steelers should consider bringing Charlie Batch back.

And these were not reactionary, “Fire everyone” types. Their estimation of Landry Jones didn’t change after the 2014 season, and a quick look at the stats confirmed that Landry Jones had under performed Brian St. Pierre in his first two preseason outings.

The Steelers took note and moved to challenge Jones during the 2015 preseason, bringing in Tajh Boyd, Devin Gardner, and Tyler Murphy but Jones held off those challenges. And even though the Steelers signed in Mike Vick when Bruce Gradkowski went down, Jones looked like he belonged, much to the consternation of fans who felt Landry Jones represented a wasted roster spot.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Browns, Landry Jones Free Agent

Landry Jones in the Steelers 2017 finale against the Cleveland Browns. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Jones got his first action in 2015, coming off the bench to lead victories against the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders while struggling in his first start against the Chiefs. Jones also looked lost in relief of Roethlisberger in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

In 2016 Landry Jones looked solid, although far from spectacular in a loss against the Patriots, while looking sharp in leading the Steelers backups to a New Year’s Day overtime comeback against the Browns.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

Ever since the Steelers traded for Todd Blackledge in 1988, the franchise’s policy, with a few exceptions, has been to staff a veteran backup quarterback. But injuries to Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich in limited play caused the Steelers to reevaluate that philosophy, leading them to draft Landry Jones, who made a commitment to developing him Jones as a backup.

The Steelers invested a lot of time and effort Landry Jones’ development, while hedging their bets. In 2016 Landry Jones showed that he’s matured into a competent, confident NFL backup quarterback. He knows Todd Haley’s offense, and looks comfortable in the huddle leading superstars like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

Landry Jones is a legitimate NFL backup quarterback and, assuming his salary demands are reasonable, there’s every reason why the Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

After Charlie Batch got hurt in 2008 early in preseason, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper on the field in Western Pennsylvania trying out within a day. When he explained his decision, Mike Tomlin insisted that the Steelers were a Super Bowl team and that both players had been franchise quarterbacks. Should something happen to Ben Roethlisberger, he wanted a quarterback capable of taking the Steelers all the way.

  • Can anyone suggest that Landry Jones is that caliber of a quarterback and keep a straight face?

The reality is that after taking every snap in 2013 and nearly every snap in 2014, Ben Roethlisberger has had to miss or leave games due to injuries on 5 separate occasions in 2015 and 2016. Landry Jones might be a game manager, but it is all but impossible to see him leading the Steelers on a Jeff Hostetlerque run through the playoffs (Google 1990 New York Giants if you’re unfamiliar and/or read our obituary of former Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.)

Given that reality, the Steelers shouldn’t invest a valuable roster spot and valuable salary cap dollars in Landry Jones, and should instead look to the 2017 NFL Draft and/or Zach Mettenberger as their “Next Man Up” for the next time Ben Roethlisberger gets injured.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Landry Jones

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert made no bones about the fact that the Steelers would love to have Landry Jones back. This will not sit well with a large segment of Steelers Nation nor with a good chunk of writers who cover the team.

  • So be it. Although it is painful for a Steelers site to quote Buddy Ryan, but if you think like the fans, you’ll be one.

Might Landry Jones find a team that wants to pay him several million dollars above what he can get in Pittsburgh to wear the backup quarterback cap? Perhaps. If he does then more power to him. But Landry Jones is a viable number 2 quarterback that the Steelers have invested a lot in, and the Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh.
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Watch Tower: Steelers Press Coverage on Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown Tension, AFC Championship Aftermath & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season came to an abrupt and ugly end in New England and the Watch Tower focuses its lights on the aftermath of that game, including coverage of tensions between Ben and Brown, coverage of the post-AFC Championship blame game and the Justin Gilbert story.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown pouting, Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown tension

Ben Roethlisberger embraces Antonio Brown at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Aditi Kinkhabwala has the Press Corps Pouting Again…

The end to the Steelers season often times signals the beginning of some of most interesting stories about the team. This is a well-established tendency. Think of how stories of Bill Cowher banishing Kordell Stewart from QB meetings or getting into shouting matches with Tommy Maddox only broke after the games stopped.

In recent seasons, a new twist has accompanied the trend:

  • Namely that if you really want a story to get everyone’s attention, filter it through NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala.

After all, it was Aditi Kinkhabwala who’d implied that she’d somehow predicted/foreseen Jack Bicknell’s dismissal after 2013, sparking a social media firestorm with Dejan Kovacevic. In 2014 she managed to get Steelers Nation talking about the groin injury Mike Mitchell had played through during the entire season, despite the fact that Allan Robinson had broken the Mitchell injury story in late October of 2014.

And now of course Aditi Kinkhabwala started the Steelers 2017 season by dropping this bomb buy suggesting Antonio Brown hung his head and “pouted” after DeAngelo Williams scored his first touchdown.

The substance of the story was immediately debunked by video evidence – Brown had in fact blocked on the play and was seen raising his arms in celebration after the score. But Kinkhabwala story had its impact as a quick Google search for “Antonio Brown pouting” confirms.

Interestingly enough, while one of Kinkhabwala’s reports remains available on the NFL Network’s site, the other displays other videos, such as this one of Tyler Matakevich’s NFL Combine workout:

Aditi Kinkhabwala Antonio Brown, NFL Network Antonio Brown, Tyler Matakevich NFL Combine

The url would lead you to think that this would be on Aditi Kinkhabwala’s story about Antonio Brown, but it doesn’t….

A later check of the link displayed highlights of one Le’Veon Bell’s more impressive rushing efforts against the Giants. While could be due to a technical glitch, taken at face value it does not speak well to NFL Networks confidence in the veracity of the story.

And the story might have died there, but this one had legs….

Of Ben and Ron, Antonio and Dale

The impact that the relationship reporters has with his or her subject and the coverage that person receives has long been one of the Watch Tower’s pet interest in an effort to find evidence that supports or disputes the groundbreaking work Elliot King and Michael Schudson did on the subject in the 1980’s.

  • And to that end, we can perhaps learn from the apparent tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

The story begins with the fallout from Antonio Brown’s infamous Facebook Live post following the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff win against the Chiefs, in discussing Brown’s contrition following the incident the Observer Standard’s Dale Lolley confided:

I like Brown. I’ve gotten to know him as well as a member of the media can know a player in these days of million-dollar contracts and internet stars. I’ve been a host of his radio show the past three years.
We’ve had talks about things other than football. About his family. About my family.

While Lolley certainly did not excuse Brown’s video, he did invite readers to see things from Brown’s perspective, which is understandable given the relationship between the two. The role that the relationship between Brown and Lolley became all the more interesting after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook made the case for trading the Steelers Antonio Brown by dropping this bomb:

The distractions are a real problem. Brown’s three excessive celebrations penalties early in the season were bad enough. But there was the incident in the first Miami game when he jogged back to the line of scrimmage, delaying his teammates from running their 2-minute offense. In more than one game, when he wasn’t happy with how he was being used, he frequently ran the wrong patterns, either because of a lack of focus or — worse — intentionally. It happened a week ago in the AFC championship. That’s inexcusable.

The enormity of Ron Cook’s report did not go unnoticed.

Nor was the fact that he didn’t source his information. Clearly Cook wasn’t going to break confidentiality and out the player or the coach who spilled the beans on someone else. But he also failed to provide any anonymous credit by attributing the report to “A league source” (generally a code word for an agent) or “a member of the locker room” or “someone inside the Steelers organization” (a coach or front office staffer.)

Antonio Brown, Byron Maxwell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Ron Cook Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown’s effort in the Steelers 2016 loss to Miami recently came under fire. Photo Credit: Lynne Sladky, AP via wsoctv.com

The same day Cook’s article ran, Dale Lolley countered the argument in favor of trading Brown by reminding everyone that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t always the ideal teammate, or citizen, and cited several verifiable facts to refute the argument that Brown is somehow a bad teammate.

A few days later, Lolley took things a step further observing:

Then, it was Roethlisberger, through his personal mouthpiece, taking shots at Brown, suggesting that Brown ran the wrong routes on purpose to sabotage the team. Please. Might there be times when Brown runs the wrong route? Sure. He probably does it just like every other receiver in the game. Might there also be times when Roethlisberger calls the wrong play? Absolutely. [emphasis added]

To the naked eye, it might seem as if Lolley is making a jump by assuming that Ben Roethlisberger is Ron Cook’s source. By Ron Cook hosts Roethlisberger’s radio show, and the two are known to have a close relationship.

Indeed, long before this story was born, a credentialed member of the Steelers press corps shared with the Watch Tower that, to the chagrin of other reporters, Ron Cook frequently gets exclusive access to Ben Roethlisberger after games.

  • What to make of all of this?

From a media analysis standpoint, on the surface it looks like Ben and Brown are conducting a surrogate war of words using journalists as proxies, although to be to Dale Lolley, his suggestion that Roethlisberger perhaps calls the wrong play at times is presented as just that a suggestion.

There’s of course nothing wrong with reporters relying on relationships and exclusive access to write compelling stories – in fact, that’s their job. But the Watch Tower hasn’t seen such great contrasts in a major Steelers story since perhaps Stanley Druckenmiller’s attempt to buy out the Rooney brothers.

Fans care the most about the football angle of the story as they should. Art Rooney II has made clear the team isn’t interested in parting ways with Brown, which means that Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep 2 of his 3 Killer Bees happy.

AFC Championship Game Aftermath

Steelers Nation took the Steelers (latest) AFC Championship loss to the Patriots like a sucker punch to the get. The beating was thorough with the Steelers not so much as failing to get on Mike Tomlin’s moving train as being hit by it.

  • Logically, there was a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking that followed.

Most of the coverage centered on the ease with which Tom Brady tore up the Steelers zone defense followed by venting on the Steelers unwillingness and/or inability to counter by playing man defense.

Troy Polamalu, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots 2011, Steelers Patriots man defense

Troy Polamalu brings down Wes Welker in Steelers 2011 win over Patriots. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via NY Times

Fair enough. Only a fool would argue that the Steelers defense has done anything but get embarrassed by Brady. Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola offered a counter view. While conceding that the Steelers defense earned its share of rightful criticism, Labriola added another element to the equation:

Because defeating the Patriots doesn’t happen with defense, as the Houston Texans learned in the Divisional Round. Sack Brady, harass Brady, intercept Brady, but if you don’t have the offense to score and possess the ball and compete in time of possession, eventually Tom Brady will get enough done to beat you….

Any vision of the Steelers winning this game had them showing themselves capable of taking a punch from the Patriots, but then also gathering themselves and hitting back.

Labriola then pointed out any number of areas where the Steelers offense fell short, from Sammie Coates dropping his first pass, while also highlighting the failings of Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers. A few days later, Labriola also reminded the Twitter defensive coordinators in Steelers Nation that Tom Brady actually had a pretty good game in 2011 when the Steelers surprised him by playing man defense, arguing that the key to the win was the offense’s production.

  • It’s true that “Rooney” is the name that is stamped in the signature block of Bob Labrolia’s pay check, he also offered a perspective that needed to be offered.

Over on Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell offered his readers something unique as well. Three days after that game, in his State of the Steelers he offered readers about as close to a fly on the wall review of what had happened in Steelers practices the week before the as a beat reporter can without risking his credentials.

The Watch Tower won’t steal Wexell’s thunder, but he offered enough insight to make both the optimism going into the game, and the ultimate disappointment understandable. He also detailed some unorthodox, albeit, unsuccessful plans to pressure Brady.

Avoiding the Salary Cap Charge for Gilbert

As everyone knows, the Steelers cut Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 6th round pick to acquire his services. One silver lining is that the Steelers would not be on the hook for the remainder of Justin Gilbert’s contract, which would have been guaranteed due to his draft status.

  • The question is why?

Simon Chester, resident salary capoligist at The Steelers Wire, sprung into action and wrote a piece that seemed to indicate that Gilbert had been suspended by the Browns, thus voiding the guarantee on his deal.

That seemed to make sense, but a day later Jeff Hartman and Flip Fisher of Behind the Steel Curtain got Ray Fittipaldo on the record, who broke the story for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, on the record explaining that the Steelers had ensured that they would not be responsible for any guarantees beyond the 2016 season. Cleveland, it would seem, had agreed to pick up the rest of his contract.

BTSC earns Watch Tower kudos for going the extra mile to add extra clarity to the top story of the week.

Going Deep Down Shifts

A week or so after the AFC Championship an ominous “Farewell Cruel World” headline appeared on Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site. Now in the interests of full disclosure, yours truly is a part-time contributor to the site, but had gotten no heads up about this, but the headline’s implication appeared to be unmistakable.

However, clicking on the link didn’t announce that the site was closing its doors, but rather that:

…Going Deep is Going to Stop producing daily posts for a while, probably for most of the off-season. Much as we enjoy writing about and thinking about the Steelers, it’s just too difficult to come up with content of substance when nothing much is happening. And since the whole point of this site was to provide content of substance, it leaves us in a bit of a bind.

From the perspective of someone who has blogged about the Steelers since 2008, sometimes it is actually easier to find things to write about during the off season (an observation BTSC founder Michael Bean once expressed) the truth is that there isn’t much going on at this point.

Let’s be honest. When Rebecca launched the site in 2015 with the aim of publishing something everyday without chasing headlines (i.e. no articles about a former Steelers practice squad player’s Instagram tirade) yours truly was skeptical she could pull it off.

  • But she did it, largely by herself and kept it going for a year and a half. That’s enough to earn her Watch Tower Kudos.

She also earns Watch Tower kudos for deciding to shift things down to keep her focus on quality and not quantity. In a Steelers blogesphere that is littered with sites that can be known to publish articles that debate the grades the Steelers get in someone’s mock draft, its refreshing for the Watch Tower to shine its lights on someone moving in the opposite direction.

 

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The Truth Hurts: King Tom Brady Reigns over Pittsburgh in Steelers Patriots Rivalry

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest edition of the Steelers Patriots rivalry (or simply tried to block it out of your mind), the Steelers are home for the rest of the postseason, after suffering a humiliating 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium this past Sunday night.

  • If the words “humbling” and “embarrassing” sound familiar to you with regards to Pittsburgh’s run-ins with the Patriots over the years, that’s because they’re pretty accurate and descriptive.

After Sunday’s loss, the Steelers are now 2-10 against New England in games in the Tom Brady era. Furthermore, after accruing another  three touchdown passes in the title game, Brady now has 22 to zero interceptions when facing the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, which started in 2007.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Sammie Coates, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Rob Ninkovich, Steelers vs Patriots

Sammie Coates doesn’t stand a chance as 4 Patriots gang-tackle him in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And if you want to really be sick to your stomach, you may need a bucket after learning that the Steelers’  had zero passes defensed against Tom Brady on Sunday, this despite him dropping back to pass 42 times.

  • If there ever was a team that had another’s number, it’s the Patriots over the Steelers.

Obviously, if you are a die-hard Steelers fan, you were hoping against hope that they’d be able to exorcise the New England demons and walk out of Gillette Stadium with a postseason victory and a trip to Super Bowl LI.

  • Unfortunately, if you  really are a die-hard fan of the Black-and-Gold, you now realize the Patriots are clearly the superior franchise and have been for the past 15 years.

I mean, did Sunday’s loss look any different to you than the debacles that took place at Heinz Field in both January of 2002 and January of 2005, when Pittsburgh fell victim to the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line?

Going into the game, this one had the feel that it might be different. After all, there were a lot of Steelers-Patriots playoff firsts in this one:

At the end of the day, it might has well have been Kordell Stewart under center handing off to Amos Zereoue and trying to hit Bobby Shaw in the slot, with Lee Flowers and Dewayne Washington tackling receivers as Brady picked apart the Steelers zones.

They seemed all-too familiar, and now, after clinching their seventh trip to the Super Bowl since 2001, it’s clear the Patriots, and not the Steelers, are the standard of this excellents modern era.

Steelers Patriots Rivalry Decidedly One-Sided

Oh sure, the Steelers, with 10 playoff appearances, eight division titles, six AFC title game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two Lombardi Trophies since 2001, have been one of the stars of the NFL in the 21st century. But the Patriots, with 14 AFC East titles, seven trips to the Super Bowl and four Lombardi Trophies over that same time-frame, are rightfully the measuring stick for all NFL franchises.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. While Pittsburgh, with its four Super Bowl victories in six seasons, was the dynasty of dynasties of the 1970s, the Cowboys and Raiders, with their star-studded rosters and combined three Super Bowl titles, certainly carved their own places in NFL lore.

  • The only problem is, it appears that the Patriots’ dynasty, one that seemed destined to end years ago, will continue on for seasons to come.

Bill Belichick, for all his faults with regards to Spygate, is one whale of a head coach. Belichick took over as New England’s coach in 2000, stumbled upon  the greatness of Tom Brady due to injury and soon found a formula for success, one where he has discovered a knack for going after a specific type of player at a specific type of position (can you tell where Wes Welker began and where Julian Edelman ends?) and plugging that player into his system and having success.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Ryan Clark, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Ryan Clark tackles Wes Welker in the Steelers 2008 win over the Bradyless Patriots. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, AP via Post-Gazette

Sure, it helps to have Tom Brady at quarterback, but the scary thing about him is, at age 39, he shows no signs of slowing down. I mean, we’re not talking about Peyton Manning, who threw nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions in his last season in 2015; Brady threw 32 touchdowns to only two interceptions in 2016, while only being sacked 15 times in 432 passing attempts.

  • In other words, Brady looks like he can play another five years, and if you’re a Steelers fan who watched him carve their defense up in the AFC Championship game, that has to be kind of chilling.

In-addition to Belichick, Brady, the system the Patriots employ and their franchise-wide commitment to winning, New England has and apparently will continue to benefit from an overall weak AFC East Division.

Comparing Steelers Patriots Rivalry to Steelers Rivalries of Old

If you are old enough to remember the ’70s, you know that while the Steelers dominated the old AFC Central to the tune of seven division titles, they still had to stave off the Browns, Bengals and Oilers, who were determined to build their franchises up in-order to compete. Houston came close, challenging the Steelers two years in a row in the AFC Championship game, while the Bengals swept Pittsburgh in both 1980 and 1981 and actually advanced to Super Bowl XVI, following the ’81 season.

Joe Greene, Dan Pastorini, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers AFC Championship, 1978 AFC Championship

Joe Greene closes in on Dan Pastorini in the 1978 AFC title game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Besides the Patriots, only two teams have won the AFC East since 2001–the Jets in ’02 and the Dolphins in ’08. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since before New England’s run started (1999), the Jets’ last postseason appearance was 2010, while Miami just made it back this year after an eight season absence.

With Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and a great defense, it looked as if the Jets would become a worth challenger to New England, and they were…for two seasons, before imploding into just another doormat in the division.

  • In other words, nobody in the Patriots’ division appears to be even close to challenging them now or over the next few years.

Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, but they’ve gone about trying to challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North–particularly Baltimore, who has simply built its franchise to beat the Steelers over the years and with great success.

If you’re New England, and you know you’re all but guaranteed five or six wins within your own division every year, you just have to win another six or seven against the rest of the league in-order to capture no worse than a number two seed and a bye into the second round of the postseason.

  • If you do that every year–New England hasn’t had to play in the Wildcard round since 2009–the odds of getting to the Super Bowl increase that much more.
  • To summarize, the Steelers have been a major player in this era, but the Patriots are clearly the standard for success.

And it doesn’t look like New England’s dominant run either over the NFL or in the Steelers Patriots rivalry will end any time soon.

 

 

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Chin Up Steelers Nation, There’s a Bright Side to the Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Talk. Seriously

As if the frustration of Pittsburgh’s 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots wasn’t enough, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger dropped another bomb two days after the game. In speaking with 93.7 FM’s “The Fan” Roethlisberger responded this way to a question about how much time he has left to play:

I don’t know. It’s one of those things, I was talking to my wife about it last night and I’ve been talking to my agent about it and coach about it. I’m going to take this offseason to evaluate it, to consider all options, to consider health, family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season — if there’s going to be a next season — all those things. At that point and age of my career, I think that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year.

Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that he’s had these types of conversations with Ben Roethlisberger in the past, and Dale Lolley has gotten confirmation from one of his teammates as well.

  • It says here that the Ben Roethlisberger retirement talk remains a bit premature and that he’ll be back for in 2017.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger retirement rumors

Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk actually has a bright side (for him). Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

He’s too much of a competitor and the Steelers are too close to securing Super Bowl Number 7 for Number 7 to simply walk away. Players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give the Steelers the fire power they need to win another Super Bowl. Ben knows that and he’s not going to walk away from it. Not just yet.

But its sobering, if not surprising, nonetheless to start the Steelers 2017 off season hearing your franchise quarterback admit that he’s reached the point where his playing days are in the “year-by-year” phase.

The Bright Side to Ben Roethlisberger’s Retirement Talk

And if the news is a downer for Steelers Nation, there’s a decided bright side to the Ben Roethlisberger retirement talk for Big Ben himself. Unless injuries accelerate his timetable, Roethlisberger’s statement affirms that he’ll leave both the game and the Steelers on his terms and at a time of his own choosing.

  • Who was the last Steelers quarterback that walked away at a time and on terms of his own? Bobby Layne?

Sure, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart returned to Pittsburgh to “retire” as Steelers. In Iron Mike’s case the Steelers gave him access to their press room at Latrobe to make the announcement, but denied him a 1 dollar contract. Kordell Stewart’s “retirement” came in 2012, seven years after his final NFL game and 10 years after he left Pittsburgh.

  • Compared to their predecessors, those two men were relatively lucky.

Terry Bradshaw of course blew out his elbow and barely got more than a grunting acknowledgement from Chuck Noll. Cliff Stoudt bolted to the USFL, only to “Pittsburgh Maulers Fans” sellout Three Rivers Stadium to pelt him with ice balls when returned with the Birmingham Stallions.

Mark Malone started for four seasons in Pittsburgh, but performed so poorly in 1987 that the Steelers traded him for an 8th round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers. Bubby Brister spent his final year in Pittsburgh as a backup, then went on to play for the Eagles, Jets, Broncos and Vikings.

Neil O’Donnell famously boasted that he’d take less money to stay with the Steelers as opposed to going to a losing team. After Super Bowl XXX, O’Donnell went to the 3-13 New York Jets, who became the 1-15 Jets. O’Donnell faired a little better after Bill Parcells took over, but Tuna decided he wasn’t worth the money and cut him. He played for Cincinnati and Tennessee after that, but never started another playoff game.

Tommy Maddox reportedly got into shouting matches with Bill Cowher during his final year as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger, found himself demoted to third string behind Charlie Batch and burned his final bridge with the Steelers by no-showing at the team’s White House ceremony following Super Bowl XL.

Ben Roethlisberger Deserves to Leave on His Own Terms

Steelers fans have been blessed. Terry Bradshaw played for 14 seasons and, although he wasn’t an instant winner, he developed into one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. Ben Roethlisberger will return for a 14th season and perhaps one or two more after that.

  • But the day when Roethlisberger hangs it up isn’t too far off on the horizon.

Hopefully Ben Roethlisberger will add a Lombardi Trophy (or two?) before he calls it a career. But even if he doesn’t, he’s earned the right to step down on his terms. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement will mark a sad day in Steelers Nation, but it the fact that Big Ben will decide should make us appreciate the moment much more.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

antonio brown, justin houston, antonio brown vs justin houston, Steelers vs. Chiefs, steelers red zone receiver

Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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Why Le’Veon Bell’s Record Game Isn’t Biggest Story of Steelers 27-20 Win over Bills

Le’Veon Bell’s record game led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills on a snowy afternoon at Orchard Park. Much of the game’s coverage will center around Le’Veon Bell’s record setting performance.

Le’Veon Bell deserves all the praise his 298 yards from scrimmage will earn him. But his monster individual game shouldn’t overshadow a larger, team accomplishment that Pittsburgh displayed in beating Buffalo: The Steelers relied on teamwork to excel in the face of adversity.

Le'Veon Bell's record game, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Bills, Le'Veon Bell 236 yards rushing, Le'Veon Bell Steelers rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in route to is 236 rushing performance vs. the Buffalo Bills. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Bills Offer True Challenge, Steelers Respond as Team

The true leaders on any team rise to their position because they both excel at a level above everyone else in a way that allows others to elevate their performances.

For a long time now, Ben Roethlisberger has served as the leader of the Steelers offense. And, for the past two or three seasons, Cameron Heyward has stood as the leader of the Steelers defense. When both men are playing at the top of their games, everyone else tends to follow.

  • But the true test of teamwork comes when the leader is absent or unable to perform up to standard.

Going into the game, it was clear that LeSean McCoy and the Buffalo Bills were going to test the Steelers. The Bills have the NFL’s toughest rushing attack, and worst outings of the season for the Steelers rushing defense came with Cameron Heyward either out or playing injured.

  • Knowing the Steelers would be without Cam Heyward AND Javon Hargrave, doubtlessly left Rex Ryan licking his chops as he viewed game films of Pittsburgh’s losses at Miami, New England and Dallas.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler knew exactly what Rex Ryan would try to do and had a week to plan. Todd Haley wasn’t so lucky. Haley certainly didn’t plan for his franchise quarterback to have one of his worst outings in recent memory. But he did.

The die was cast: The Buffalo Bills would be putting both the Steelers offense and defense to the test.

As Ben Stumbles, Bell Rumbles

Sometimes good players have bad days. Count the Bills game as a bad day at the office for Ben Roethlisberger. It wasn’t that Ben Roethlisberger was simply out of sync the entire day. At times, Ben made adjustments to convert 3rd downs. At others, he exploited weakness in the Bills defense to find Antonio Brown and set up scores.

  • But at other moments, particularly in the Red Zone, Ben Roethlisberger was way, way off.

The interceptions he threw were of the Mark Malone or Kordell Stewart variety. Interceptions are bad. Throwing interceptions in the Red Zone is worse.

  • This season alone, we’ve watched Roethlisberger’s struggles signal stumbles by the rest of his offense.

That was certainly the case in Philadelphia and Miami and at home vs. the Ravens at home. Fortunately, it was not the case on the road against the Buffalo Bills. Given the weather, Rob and Rex Ryan had to have expected a steady diet of Le’Veon Bell. Todd Haley didn’t disappoint.

  • The Bills knew Le’Veon Bell was run at them, and they still couldn’t stop him.

Le’Veon Bell has taken over games before, his performance against the Titans in 2014 springs to mind. However, he has perhaps never dominated as he did against the Bills. Bell didn’t do it alone. Once again, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will.

  • But the line wasn’t the only contributor to Le’Veon Bell’s record game.

David Johnson had an unheralded day blocking, and Roosevelt Nix provided the best fullback play the Steelers have seen since the days of Dan Kreider. To be sure, Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers each made a critical catch.

But this game belonged to Le’Veon Bell and the road graders who paved his way.

Steelers Defense Puts on Shut Down Performance When It Counts

LeSean McCoy might not be get the ink Ezekiel Elliott gets, but if you reach your 11th game in the National Football League with a 5.5 yard rushing average, you’re an elite back. Both elite and less than elite backs have tormented the Steelers defense too often this season.

  • The Steelers defense shut down LeSean McCoy in a way that would make the Steel Curtain or Blitzburgh defenses proud.

Time and time again, LeSean McCoy’s number got called only to see the Steelers defense stone him at or behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Steelers defense made 7 tackles for a loss. There was simply no place for McCoy to go; he finished with a partly 27 yards rushing.

Stopping LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have mattered if Tyrod Taylor had been allowed to gouge the Steelers defense with his legs, or put the Bill’s wide receivers in position to burn the Steelers secondary.

  • Keith Butler’s defense didn’t allow either event to occur.

Taylor had 3 scrambles for 2 yards, while Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Sean Davis and Stephon Tuitt sacked him 5 times. The Steelers defense wasn’t perfect. An Artie Burns holding call negated a William Gay Pick Six, and a collision in the secondary set up a the Bill’s last non-garbage time touchdown.

  • But the defense showed it could step up when it had to.

Artie Burns immediately answered the Bills final interception with one of his own, and which set up a Steelers field goal. This Steelers defense still has its flaws, but with each passing week a new player steps up, elevating the performance of the entire until.

Steelers Have Grown Much in a Month

Just one month ago the Pittsburgh Steelers had lost their 4th game in a row, and the key take away was that this team simply wasn’t that good. Since then the Steelers have won two road games in 5 days, and stopped a streaking NFC playoff contender at home.

  • This week the Steelers defense directly attacked and neutralized the strength of Buffalo Bills offense.
  • Equally important, the Steelers offense relied on physical football to overcome a poor performance by Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bengals and Ravens will offer tougher tests in the next two weeks, but the level of difficulty has risen for the Steelers in each of the last four weeks. The cream rises  in December football and, Mike Tomlin has his team stepping it up a notch each new week.

And that’s exactly what must continue happening.

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Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

News that a Chris Boswell abdomen injury forced the Steelers to sign Randy Bullock sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation just 24 hours before the Steelers critical matchup with the New York Giants at Heinz Field.

  • And so it should, Chris Boswell has proven to be a very accurate kicker and beyond that, a pretty good clutch kicker.
Chris Boswell, Steelers vs. Bengals, steelers emergency kickers, randy bullock,

Chris Boswell kicks a for the Steelers vs. the Bengals in October 2015. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via Yahoo! Sports

But Steeles Nation’s collective trepidation is also felt so deeply because past history of Steelers emergency kickers has been pretty dismal. Or it should say, history of “Steelers emergency kicker” because in the modern era, the Steelers have only had to go to their “Spare Parts” list to sign a kicker once.

Steelers Emergency Kickers of Yesteryear

It happened in mid-November 1998, when a Norm Johnson strained calf muscle forced the Steelers to sign Matt George, and it is not an experience Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith or anyone else in Steelers Nation would wish to repeat.

  • There were red flags around this move even before Matt George’s foot touched the pigskin.

The Steelers had brought Matt George to training camp with them that summer, but cut him in late August. In other words, they’d seen enough of him to know that he wasn’t their first choice of a “in case of emergency break glass” kicker.

The Steelers brought Brett Conway to Three Rivers Stadium, gave him a tryout, and negotiated with him for two days, thinking they had a deal in place. Then suddenly, Brett Conway left the building.

Brett Conway left on the advice of his agent, after the Washington Redskins offered him spot on their practice squad, infuriating Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher.

The Steelers signed Matt George, who, after missing several kicks during pre-game warmups, kicked low on a 36 yard field goal kick which the Tennessee Oilers blocked.

The Steelers instead went for it on 4th down, only to have Kordell Stewart stopped. The Titans took the lead on the next drive on an Al Del Greco field goal. In desperation, the Steelers tried to lateral their way to retake the lead with time expiring, but the Oilers ran in a loose ball to score an insurance touchdown.

For the record, the Tennessee Oilers won the game 23 to 10 thereby completing their first (and only, at least as the “Tennessee Oilers”) season sweep of the Steelers. Norm Johnson returned the following week and kicked through the end of the 1999 season. Although Matt George wasn’t the only reason the Steelers lost the game, he never played another down in the NFL.

  • As Bill Cowher candidly confided after the game, “I now realize how important it is to have a kicker.”

It is safe to say that, if he didn’t already know that, Mike Tomlin learned that lesson last season as he stood with an injured Ben Roethlisberger watching Michael Vick and Josh Scobee struggled in the Steelers Heinz Field loss to the Ravens.

Hopefully Randy Bullock’s tenure as Steelers emergency kicker won’t force him to relive those memories.

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