1999 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Donahoe Feud, Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened 1999 in unfamiliar territory:  Instead of playing in the post season, they were watching from home. You can criticize the Steelers brain trust of Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney for many of their 1999 off season decisions.

  • But there is one thing they refused to do following the first losing season of the Cowher era: Panic.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily in 1998. So the Steelers response of firing Ray Sherman and replacing him with Kevin Gilbride was expected. Giving Stewart a 5-year extension that would pay him 27 million more dollars was decidedly unexpected. Yet that’s just what the Steelers did.

Kordell Stewart had hardly been the only one at fault during the up-and down 7-4 start and the ensuing game season-ending meltdown. The offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver had been weak spots.

So the Steelers let Carnell Lake go, a mainstay in the defensive backfield since 1989, and replaced him with Travis Davis. Former first round wide receiver Charles Johnson was allowed to walk, too. They also brought in not one, but two tackles, Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown.

  • And, with the 13th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Steelers took wide receiver Troy Edwards.

Today, we know that Troy Edwards was a bust, but the pick was popular at the time. But there’s a backstory behind the pick.

As Troy Edwards’ name was being sent to the podium, the Steelers were on the phone with Jevon Kearse. This factoid only emerged in 2016, but today it tells us something very important about how and why the Steelers 1999 season unfolded the way it did.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL after a 3-year hiatus on September 12th 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city of Cleveland was ecstatic. The Browns were back!

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

Richard Huntley runs over the Browns. Literally. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The celebration ended quickly.

The Steelers amassed a 20 to 0 zero half time lead, which became a 27 to 0 3rd quarter lead after the first two series. Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak and then Pete Gonzalez. Jerome Bettis gave way to Richard Huntley and then Amos Zereoue. The Steelers won 43 to 0, registering their first shutout in two years.

ESPN commentator Joe Theismann went so far as to compare the 1999 Steelers offense to the 1995 edition which had taken them to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The new Browns were an expansion team, so a Steelers’ victory was expected.

But Pittsburgh made it look easy, incredibly easy. Was the 1998’s 0-5 implosion  just a mirage?

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

Three Rivers Stadium welcomed the Browns for the first time in 3 years in week 9 of the 1999 season. The Steelers were on a 3 game winning streak. Cleveland came to Pittsburgh seeking its first win.

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

During the entire first half, the Steelers could only muster a meager Kris Brown field goal in response. But at least the Browns hadn’t sniffed another score. Kris Brown booted another field goal to start the first half. Then, with victory in their grasp, the Steelers made two critical errors:

  • Richard Huntley scored a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.
  • Yet Bill Cowher opted to go for two and the Steelers failed.

So instead of 13 to 7, the Steelers led 12 to 7.

Still, the Steelers kicked another field goal to start the 4th quarter, making it 15 to 7. That made the lost point inconsequential. Didn’t it?

With about 7 minutes left, the Steelers forced a Browns punt and simply had to kill the clock. Yet after Jerome Bettis gained 6 yards, Kordell Stewart misfired to Mark Bruener. Then he tried a bubble screen to Troy Edwards.

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

Phil Dawson kicks the game winner in 1999. Photo Credit: Browns.com

  • But John Thierry blew by Wayne Gandy and intercepted Stewart’s pass.

The Browns scored a touchdown 3 plays later, but their 2 point conversion failed leaving the game tied. This time the Steelers tried pounding the ball, calling 7 straight running plays but were forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Browns milked all but 2 seconds off of the clock before kicking the game winning field goal.

The Steelers had opened the season by welcoming the Browns back to the NFL by wiping the floor with them. Nine weeks later they were wiping egg off of their faces after giving the Browns their first win since 1995.

After the game, team leader Levon Kirkland confessed, “I’m not going to say it’s the most embarrassing loss, because you never know what’s going to come up next.”

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

So what happened in between those Browns bookend games? The Steelers followed their opening day romp over the Browns with a lackluster win over a middling Ravens team. The Steelers returned to Three Rivers Stadium to suffer a 5-interception blowout loss to the Seahawks, followed by 17-3 home loss to the Jaguars that saw free agent tackle Wayne Gandy give up sacks on back-to-back drives that resulted in safeties.

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

Jeremy Staat closes in on Doug Flutie. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Steelers followed that with a 24-21 loss to the Bills

After the game Bill Cowher commented that Kordell Stewart could have benefited from seeing Doug Flutie in action. This was ironic, because Stewart’s success in 1997 helped pave the way for Flutie’s NFL return.

For as bleak as things looked during those three losses, the Steelers rebounded with three straight wins. Their win on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion Falcons ended with not one, but two “Who wants it more?” 4th quarter goal line stands.

Pittsburgh followed that with a 27-6 road win over the San Francisco 49ers and by all appearances, the Steelers had done what so many previous Bill Cowher teams had done before them: Right themselves after stumbling early.

Wrong. The Steelers had only set themselves up for a bigger fall.

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

The 1999 Steelers fulfilled Levon Kirkland’s worst fears by losing 7 of their next 8 games and in the process looked worse than any Steelers team had looked since 1969. Chuck Noll’s 1986 and 1988 teams had finished 6-10 and 5-11, but at least both of those squads were playing their best football by season’s end.

But The 1999 Steelers found new ways to get worse as fall faded into winter.

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

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

The bottom fell out of the defense. On the road against the Titans, Chris Sanders hauled in a 46- yard reception as Travis Davis and Scott Shields essentially “watched.” Two weeks later Qadry Ismail came to Pittsburgh and scorched the Steelers secondary for 258-yard, 3-touchdown game.

During a loss to a terrible Bengals team Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart. Fans cheered as Mike Tomczak took the field, but the results were the same.

The Steelers did secure a post-Christmas win over the Carolina Panthers. But that win came by way of Shar Pourdanesh replacing the inept Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad who’d been alternating at right tackle, and some mid game snow that inspired Jerome Bettis to a 100-yard game.

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

Chad Scott stuffs Fred Lane for a 3 yard loss. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The season ended with a sloppy 47-36 loss to a Tennessee Titans backup squad that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman shirt in front of cameras following a garbage-time touchdown, yet another safety and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell following an interception. Worse yet, although the Steelers started at the Titans 5-yard line and ran 6 plays, they still failed to score.

For the record, the 1999 Steelers final record was 6-10, but this was by far the worst Steelers squad since Chuck Noll’s 1-13 1969 team.

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

The 1999 Steelers finished 6-10, and looked a lot worse than their 7-9 1998 predecessors in doing so. But the difference wasn’t driven by talent: The 1999 team was rotting at its core.

The feud between head coach Bill Cowher and Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe that had been simmering for years was consuming the team. Donahoe’s “flat” comment following Fog Bowl II first exposed the tensions between the two men but by 1999, things had become unmanageable.

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

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

The fact that the front office and head coach weren’t even on the same page regarding the first round draft reveals just how deep the dysfunction sank.

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

In the week leading up to the Bengals loss, 3 separate national stories reported that Bill Cowher was planning to leave the team. Tom Donahoe had strong relations with the press, and could have swatted it down with an off-the-record denial.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero evidence to suggest that he declined an opportunity to do so. But after the Steelers laid an egg against the Bengals, Donahoe was on the record and his tongue was particularly sharp as he quipped, “Let me say this, I think we’re more talented than Cleveland and Cincinnati.”

A few days later, Cowher insisted that he was staying, and retorted, “I know what my responsibilities are to this football team and what I’m here to do. That’s to coach a football team, to coach the players I have.”

Late in the season as losses cascaded into bigger, uglier losses, Lee Flowers called out his teammates for “loafing.”

  • Flowers was right. The circus atmosphere of the season finale proved it.

Normally, when players quit on a losing team, it is an indictment of the head coach. But by 1999, this wasn’t a “normal” Steelers team. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reveals that Bill Cowher barred Donahoe from attending coaching meetings because he thought he was a “spy.”

Cowher’s instincts were correct. After the season it was revealed that Tom Donahoe had been privately bashing Cowher to the press.

  • Front office-coaching tension is normal and, in the right dosage, healthy.

But even the most brilliant football minds can’t function successfully if they can’t cooperate. The Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but immune. Art Rooney, Jr. led the greatest scouting team pro football has or ever will see. Chuck Noll was one of the greatest coaches in the game.

  • Yet, by the mid-80’s the two men couldn’t function together.
  • By 1999 Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had reached the same juncture.

Dan Rooney again had a decision to make. And once again, Dan backed his coach over the front office and fired Tom Donahoe.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Bring Back Marcus Allen? Why Not?

On March 5th,2018 Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell made it his mission to “Bring back Marcus Allen.”

Ah, yes, of course Wexell was trying to unmake the Steelers status as victims of circumstance when they missed on drafting USC’s Marcus Allen by two slots in the 1982 NFL Draft and instead had to settle for Baylor’s Walter Abercrombie. Right?

  • Well, no, not even close.

Wexell was doing a pre-draft profile on the a multi-talented Penn State safety named Marcus Allen, whom he thought would be a good fit for the Steelers. Pittsburgh indeed drafted Marcus Allen, who is now and Exclusive Rights free agent, and today we look at his future.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen Career with the Steelers

The Steelers indeed drafted Marcus Allen in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. And the truth is that the notebook on him remained pretty thin for his first two years. He made the final roster but only saw appearances in two games, logging a total of 20 plays, and giving up completions on two of 3 passes he was charged with covering.

Allen failed to make the final roster in 2019, but returned to the practice squad, getting activated for 1 game where he played on special teams. In 2020, the Steelers moved him from safety to inside linebacker. This allowed him to get in on a full 20% of the defensive snaps, thanks to injuries to Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams.

  • The truth is Allen looked mismatched at inside linebacker.

He struggled against the run, and still gave up 8 of 10 passes that he was charged with covering. It would be unfair to scapegoat Allen for the defensive disaster that was the loss to the Bengals, but he certainly contributed.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The truth is that the Steelers neither have depth at inside linebacker nor do they have it at safety and the team clearly is looking to transition to hybrid linebacker-safety type players. (See Morgan Burnett’s displeasure at having to play such a role.)

As an exclusive rights free agent, the Steelers can have Marcus Allen back at essentially the same salary cap charge as an undrafted rookie free agent. Allen also is experienced on special teams.

Who would you rather have as a role player at inside linebacker, safety and special teams? A guy with 3 years of experience under his belt or an inexperienced rookie?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The Steelers have seen Marcus Allen for 3 years at multiple positions and he’s not delivered much at either. In fact, it took injuries to both starting inside linebackers AND the number one backup to get Marcus Allen his first sustained snaps with the defense, and opposing offensive coordinators were only too happy to oblige.

  • Sure, Marcus Allen’s salary cap charge is negligible, but you get what you pay for.

The Steelers have seen enough to know there’s nothing to indicate that Marcus Allen is the next Lee Flowers – another 5th round Safety who sat on the bench in obscurity for 2-3 years before emerging as a serviceable starter.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

Expect this one to be a non-event. The Steelers will give Marcus Allen and exclusive rights free agent tender and allow draft picks and/or rookie free agents to push him during training camp and, assuming it is played, preseason. This is a no-risk move for the Steelers.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Ola Adeniyi – Will “Mr. Preseason” Get an RFA Tender?

The digital era has changed the way the NFL presents its product. By in large, those changes have been for the better, bringing fans closer to the game they love. Preseason football has not aged well in the digital transition.

  • Once upon a time, preseason football was an oasis. 

Football starved fans who’d been suffering a long off season could finally get their fill of gridiron action. It was enough, even if it didn’t feature top talent (although starters did get a fair number of preseason snaps well into the 1990s). Today, YouTube, Twitter and Tiki Toki fill that void from February to August. Preseason football is now perceived as a painstaking rite to be endured, rather than a welcome appetizer that precedes the main course.

  • Yet preseason remains an invaluable experience for unknown players to prove themselves.

Yet names like Donnie Shell, Dwight Stone, Merril Hoge, Lee Flowers, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Isaac Redman and Ramon Foster might ring a bell for Steelers fans. That’s because these “training camp roster spot holders” parlayed preseason performances into careers with the Steelers.

Ola Adeniyi was another no pedigree preseason standout in 2018 and is now a restricted free agent. Has he done enough to earn him that coveted “second NFL contract?” Let’s find out!

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Ola Adeniyi, Steelers preseason

Ola Adeniyi closes in for one of his patented preseason sacks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Ola Adeniyi’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2018, Ola Adeniyi quickly made a name for himself when he recorded several sacks that preseason. While Adeniyi did make the Steelers roster during his rookie campaign, he was unable to capitalize on his preseason success thanks to an injury that forced him onto the Injured Reserve list for the majority of the season.

Adeniyi made the Steelers roster in 2019 and again in 2020, but the outside linebacker was afforded very few defensive snaps playing behind the dynamic pass-rushing duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Adeniyi’s primary role during his Steelers career has been on special teams.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

Adeniyi is a restricted free agent but one without much of a resume. It should be fairly easy and inexpensive to retain his rights for at least one more season. Besides, with Bud Dupree likely gone in free agency, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker will be a primary concern heading into 2021. It appears that the Steelers may have found themselves a suitable replacement for Dupree in one Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick in 2020. However, Adeniyi, 23, is still really young and perhaps has room to grow as a player. He knows the system and, again, is a major contributor on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

The Steelers coaches know more than we do. While Adeniyi’s rookie preseason was eye-opening, it did primarily come against players of his level. Perhaps the coaches realized this right away, which is why they really haven’t given Adeniyi much of a chance to be a major player on defense.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ola Adeniyi

Again, it should be fairly inexpensive to retain Ola Adeniyi’s services. I see no real problem in him remaining on the Steelers roster in 2021. If he does still have some upside, maybe someone like Highsmith won’t be able to block it as easily as Dupree did. 

With that said, Ola Adeniyi is a restricted free agent, and restricted free agent tenders will clock in at around 2.3 million dollars. The Steelers need every salary cap penny they can get, and could very well opt not to tender Adeniyi yet still bring him back at a veteran minimum.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Steelers Streaming Preseason in Mexico. Excellent! ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de América Latina?

Tonight, Steelers fans in Mexico will watch the Steelers 4th game against the Carolina Panthers as they’ve done throughout the preseason thanks to the Steelers decision to stream preseason live in Mexico.

  • It says here, for the first of two times, that this is an excellent move and the Steelers deserve praise.

But with that said, I ask, ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de los fanáticos de los Steelers América Latina? For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, “What about the rest of us Steelers fans in Latin America?

To be clear: I’m happy that my fellow Mexican citizens of Steelers Nation can see Terrell Edmunds, James Washington, Mason Rudolph, Damoun Patterson and Olasunkanmi Adeiyi take their first steps as Steelers.

But I “complain” for one selfish reason and one business reason that the NFL should consider.

Steelers Fans Mexico

Steelers enjoy a massive following in Mexico. Photo Credit: Interceptado

Short Changing International Steelers Bloggers

I’m a self-confessed unrepentant preseason apologist (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) Preseason gives fans their best chance to evaluate young players under live-fire circumstances.

To be truthful, social media and internet video give fans new avenues for gaining insight without watching preseason games. Reading and seeing examples of Jon Bostic and Sean Davis struggling in pass coverage or seeing that James Conner running smartly is a welcome change.

  • But if you can’t watch the games, you’re still dependent on the evaluations of others.
  • And that creates a real challenge for international bloggers.

Sure, you can scrape someone someone else’s work, but the internet is literally littered with “read and regurgitate sites” and Steel Curtain Rising strives to offer something fresh.

Absent access to preseason games, one is left recycling stories of Bam Morris looking off in 1995 while Lee Flowers looked good in the ’95 and ’96 preseason campaigns, or how George Jones look unsuited as Jerome Bettis’ understudy in 1997 or how the Steelers struggled at run blocking during the 1998 preseason.

  • Writing about that gets stale fast and reading about it even faster.

It would be nice to write about the Steelers 2018 preseason campaign while referencing the preseason performances players like Antonio Brown, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier or, even going back further, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. But alas, I can’t because I never saw any of them play in preseason.

Ah, but you retort, “If you’re such a preseason purist, why don’t you plunk down your pesos and pay for NFL Game Pass?”

NFL’s Preseason Business Model Continues to Lag, Locally and Globally

Yes, I could plunk down my pesos and watch Steelers preseason games via Game Pass. Problem? I already pay for NFL Sunday Ticket on DirectTV. But, NFL Sunday Ticket only covers the regular season. Which leaves paying extra for the Game Pass as the only (legal) option for viewing Steelers preseason here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as the rest of Latin America, outside of Mexico.

To that end, the logic of the late Washington DC sports radio legend Ken Beatrice guides me:

  • Never pay major league prices to watch less than major league talent.

Seriously. It asking Sunday Ticket subscribers to pay extra to watch preseason on Game Pass is inane. Sorry Roger, you can get my money for the Sunday Ticket or for the Game Pass but you’re not getting both.

  • If you’re living outside the United States and you actually want to watch preseason football, you’re the essence of a diehard fan.

And if the NFL is serious about its global expansion, then those diehard fans are the base the league will build its global brand upon. Making it easy for them to indulge their passions by proving easy access to preseason football makes sound business sense.

We close by praising the Steelers again. Gustavo Vallegos the Vice President (really, he’s acting more like the President) of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires brought this issue to the attention of the Steelers, and the Steelers responded:

In a nutshell, Sergio tells us that the Steelers short term goal was to make preseason games available in Mexico, while he acknowledges that there are Steelers fans around the world, and that little by little, they want to reach those fans.

  • Good for them. Hey Art II, give the guy who had the idea a raise!

The Steelers showing they care about their fans in Mexico, showing that they understand that fan base is even bigger and wants to take care of them. It is the right thing to do and a smart business decision.

Why is the rest of the NFL so far behind? Jerry Jones is once again floating an idiotic 18 game season complaining that “Its difficult to get people to watch preseason football.”

Well yeah, Jerry, difficult because you don’t even let those who want to watch it, watch it.

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Steelers 2017 Preseason Starts: Stop Complaining & Start Finding the Next Jordan Dangerfield

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2017 Preseason schedule tonight against the New York Giants. After a six month hiatus, Steelers Nation will rejoice at finally being able to watch the Black and Gold on the gridiron again!

  • But expect the excitement to fade fast.

As soon as Joshua Dobbs throws his first pick six and/or after the 5th commercial break during the 1st quarter, the traditional complaints about the ills of preseason football will litter social media from now until the Steelers kickoff the regular season a month from now.

You know them by rote, and very well may utter them yourself:

  • Preseason football is worse then watching paint dry…
  • Owners rip off fans by force them pay full price for preseason…
  • NOTHING’s worse than watching jobbers stumble through preseason 3rd and 4th quarters…
  • The NFL should cut down preseason by half….

If you’re a Steelers season ticket holder, which let’s admit is a privileged minority in Steelers Nation, who is forced to pay full price for preseason tickets, then you’ve got a legitimate gripe. But if you fall outside that sphere, then it is time to accept a simple reality:

  • Preseason football is vital to the game.

If you need proof, then look no further than Jordan Dangerfield. Jordan Dangerfield is of course one of the Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, who got his first shot at the NFL with the Buffalo Bills in 2013 as an undrafted rookie free agent. Dangerfield failed to make the cut with the Bills, and signed a “futures” contract with the Steelers in January of 2014.

Jordan Dangerfield, Tyler Matakevich, Steelers 2017 Preseason

Jordan Dangerfield and Tyler Matakevich close in on Brandon Tate. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Palm Beach post

The Steelers cut Jordan Dangerfield in 2014 and 2015, but brought him back each time to the practice squad. It took Jordan Dangerfield until 2016 to prove to Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake that he deserved a spot on the Steelers 53 man roster.

And even then, when you saw Jordan Dangerfield getting the nod over Shamarko Thomas as the Steelers, facing injuries at safety and heading into their game with Philly you probably asked, “Who?”

And that’s a problem.

  • Go back to the summers of 2014, 2015 and even, to a lesser extent, 2016 and do Google searches for “Jordan Dangerfield.” You won’t find much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell wrote a glowing report of Dangerfield’s work in training camp on at the end of July, 2014. Neal Coolong, then at BTSC, wrote a nice “content aggregation” piece on Dangerfield offering his own unique spin as only Neal could. Curt Popjoy, then on the Bleacher Report, wrote something about Dangerfield’s chances of making the team.

There’s scant mention of him during 2015, save for one Bleacher Report stub on a fumble he forced in the Steelers 2015 preseason loss to the Bills. Dangerfield did get more attention last summer, as Penn Live’s Jacob Klingler wrote a really nice profile in the lead up to the Steelers preseason win over the Saints.

During that time, Jordan Dangerfield presumptively played in 13 Steelers preseason games. Yet these Google searches, (which admittedly can be imperfect) reveal only a handful of mentions.

  • There’s something wrong with this picture.

Jordan Dangerfield remains a roster bubble baby. He’ll have to prove himself this summer to get a helmet in the fall. But any guy who gets pulled of the NFL scrap heap and works his way up to being “the next man up” behind Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell in the Steelers safety rotation has come a long way.

  • And while his work in practice helped, his preseason performance undoubtedly is what convinced coaches to keep him around.

Dale Lolley is right to point out, is he did when writing about Pitt tight end Scott Orndoff’s training camp ending injury that for every Willie Parker and James Harrison there are hundreds of undrafted rookie free agent whose NFL dreams are demolished every July and August.

Willie Parker, Fast Willie Parker, Steelers preseason

Willie Parker stood out in the Steelers 2004 preseason an a year later was starting in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But those dreaded 3rd and 4th quarters of NFL preseason games give the Donnie Shells, Dwight Stones, Darren Perrys, Yancey Thigpens, Lee Flowers, Chris Hokes, Isaac Redmans and yes, Jordan Dangerfields their shot at NFL glory.

So during the 2nd halves of the Steelers 2017 preseason games, instead of grousing about Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant not playing, or griping about Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, why not sit back, relax, and that diamond in the rough who flying below the radar in pursuit of his NFL dream.

Does the quality of NFL preseason, particularly late in games, pale in comparison to the regular season? Certainly. But why not stop complaining and why not enjoy the fact that preseason gives most fans their only chance to see and evaluate rookies for themselves, without the filter of a beat writer and/or the team’s PR organ.

An who know? You might just earn bragging rights by uncovering the next Jordan Dangerfield.

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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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Its Time: Steelers 2016 Team Captains Must Call Players Only Meeting

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are a team in a total tailspin with no exit in sight. While the onus for reversing the Steelers slide resides firmly in Mike Tomlin’s shoulders the answer ultimately must come from within the Steelers lockeroom.

Ben Roethlisberger’s soul searching was evident in his post-game interview and it is clear the rest of the locker room should follow his example. A closed door meeting, with a no-hold barred, heart-to-heart discussion of what must change is in order.

steelers 2016 team captains, steelers players only meeting, ben roethlisberger, cameron heyward, william gay, robert golden, cam heyward

It is time for the Steelers 2016 captains to take matters into their own hands by calling a players only meeting. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Players Close Doors, Ranks in 1995

The 1995 Steelers hit in a similar spot at a slightly earlier spot during their AFC Championship season. After starting 2-0, the 1995 Steelers went on to lose 4 of 5 and managed to discover creative ways to lose games with each defeat. Mind you, this was the successor to the 1994 Steelers team the fell 3 yards short of going to the Super Bowl.

  • Yet here was the AFC ‘s team of destiny, holding on to a 3-4 record.

No one of course knows that was said at the meeting. One change to come out of it was that pagers and cellphones were banned during all team activities. If memory serves, Greg Lloyd was quoted as say he’d smash the next cellphone he saw during a meeting.

  • Regardless, the results spoke for themselves.

The 1995 Steelers went on to win 8 out of their 9 remaining games, and rode that wave all the way to Super Bowl XXX. It is true that Bill Cowher shook up the roster from head to toe, making numerous lineup changes, including shifting Carnell Lake from safety to cornerback.

Players Only Doesn’t Always Pan Out

Players only meetings offer no magic solutions. In 1998, as the Steelers were in the middle of their late season melt down that saw them lose 5 straight, Steelers capitals called a player’s only meeting. Jim Sweeney reportedly stood up for beleaguered signal caller Kordell Stewart. Kordell, who was entering the “My buddy’s the cop” phase of his career in Pittsburgh needed all the support he could get.

  • In the end, it was to no avail.

With notable exceptions of player like Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland and a few others, the 1998 Steelers quit on Bill Cowher down the stretch. Lee Flowers said as much at the time.

More recently, during the 2013 Steelers 0-4 start, the Steelers held a players only meeting where it was decided there would be no pool or ping pong played until the team started to win again. The Steelers skid continued….

…The bottom line is that a players only meeting won’t provide Pittsburgh with a panacea for what ails it, but a players only meeting would be a step in the right direction.

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As Shamarko Thomas Steelers Career Hangs in Balance, Safety Hits a Risky Precedent

Let’s get something straight: Shamarko Thomas Steelers career has not reached a crossroads. He arrived at that milestone last summer at St. Vincent’s:

  • Shamarko Thomas entered the Steelers 2015 preseason poised to fulfill his anointed role as Troy Polamalu’s successor.

shamarko thomas, steelers safety, pittsburgh steelers, tom brady,

Shamarko Thomas tries to sack Tom Brady, comes up short; Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

At the preseason’s conclusion, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas. Thomas logged 20 snaps with the defense in 2015, up from 3 in 2014 but still a far cry from the 190 he logged as a rookie in 2013. Put poetically, as Shamarko Thomas reached a crossroads last summer, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake opted to send the safety on the road less taken.

  • This summer at St. Vincents, Shamarko Thomas will likely compete with Ross Ventrone for a roster spot.

That reality made Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider’s morsel from Steelers mini camp all the more interesting:

Shamarko Thomas laid the hit of the spring on rookie receiver Demarcus Ayers over the deep middle as Ayers tried to catch up to a wide pass from Landry Jones. It was a crushing blow, the sound of which surprised onlookers who had become accustomed to what otherwise is touch football.

As Wexell confirmed in the comments section to his article, hitting during Steelers Mini Camp is supposed to be a no-no. While Shamarko Thomas’ hit of Steelers 7th round draft pick Demarcus Ayers generated no controversy, it does bring to mind past precedents of Steelers safeties attempting to make an impact with exaggerated hits in practice.

Pittsburgh’s Precedent of Safeties Taking Out Teammates in Practice

Lee Flowers paved the way at St. Vincents in 1998, when he laid out 3rd year receiver Jahine Arnold.

Pittsburgh had drafted Flowers in the 5th round of the 1995 NFL Draft, and Flowers played mostly on special teams remaining buried behind Carnell Lake and Myron Bell on the Steelers depth chart at safety, until Donnell Woolford faltered and Flowers stepped in at strong safety while Carnell Lake shifted to cornerback.

The next summer, with Chad Scott’s injury forcing Lake to again shift to corner, Flowers smashed Jahine Arnold’s collarbone and Bill Cowher tore into the safety in front of the entire team.

  • Flowers attempted to apologize but Arnold would hear none of it.

Ten years later, Anthony Smith followed in Flower’s footsteps 2008 when he took out Willie Reid with a hit so vicious that the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gene Collier accused him of “training camp thuggery.” Mike Tomlin took exception to Collier’s remarks, but kept Smith in street close for the next preseason game.

The Steelers had drafted Anthony Smith in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft has Chris Hope’s replacement . As a rookie, Smith post-interception showboating shenanigans drew a sharp sideline rebuke from Dick LeBeau. A year later, starting for the injured Ryan Clark, Smith idiotically guaranteed victory prior to the Steelers game vs. the Patriots, only to get torched by Tom Brady.

  • Intentionally or unintentionally, Shamarko Thomas is following the path blazed by Flower’s and Smith.

What result will hit have? Unfortunately, Steelers history offers little help. Bill Cowher might have been angry with Flowers, but he stuck with his plan to start Lee Flowers at safety while keeping Lake at cornerback.

As for Anthony Smith, he contributed on special teams during the 2008 season that saw the Steelers emerge as victors in Super Bowl XLIII. But the Steelers opted to let Smith go, and he bounced around between the Rams, Jaguars, Packers and Titans over the next three season.

  • Can Shamarko Thomas still salvage his career with the Steelers?

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly says “there is hope that hope Shamarko Thomas can turn his career around…” but in the very same sentence, says that there is talk of bringing Will Allen back. Carnell Lake assured the press that “he’s improving form the neck up.”

  • The Steelers think enough of Shamarko to give him one final shot.

To take full advantage of his final chance, Shamarko would do well to figure out a way to deliver his fire power against opponents in preseason. Because Steelers safeties taking out teammates in practice is a tactic that only has had a 50/50 percent success rate in the past.

And Shamarko Thomas needs better odds than that.

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