Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Preview: Its Mike Tomlin’s Team & Ben Roethlisberger’s Time

Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:

  • This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
  • And it is Ben Roethlisberger’s time

Declaring that the Steelers are “Truly Mike Tomlin’s team” might sound a little strange, given that Tomlin already has 10 years and 103 victories under his belt and given that this site has never abided by the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense (let alone the diarrhea mouthing of Colin Cowherd.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Kevin Lorenzi, The Times

But a quick look at the roster reveals that aside from Roethlisberger, James Harrison is the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have played for Bill Cowher. In fact, the Steelers roster has come full circle under Mike Tomlin, with his first ever draft pick Lawrence Timmons having played for 10 years before departing for Miami.

But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.

Ryan Shaizer, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive

Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.

  • Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.

And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.

  • Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.

For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports

During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.

On defense, the Steelers have methodically rebuilt their roster, done some exercises in trial and error (see Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones), made some mistakes (see Cortez Allen or Shamarko Thomas), and has some plain bad luck (see Senquez Golson).

While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.

  • The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers signal caller caused some cardiac arrhythmia last January when he openly mused about retirement. Fans old enough to remember Mark Malone’s 46.4 passer rating as a starter in 1987, fret at the thought of losing a franchise quarterback, but the positive to all of this is that Ben Roethlisberger will likely leave the game and the Steelers on his own terms.

  • You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.

Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?

  • The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Ike Taylor, Demaryius Thomas, Tim Tebow, Steelers vs Broncos

Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”

But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

  • In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.

Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.

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Steve Bono’s Steelers Career: From Striker Replacement Stud to Proverbial “What If?”

You’ll have to forgive me, but the only memory I have of former quarterback Steve Bono’s Steelers career is from my aunt through marriage.

We were watching some game in 1988 (since the Steelers finished 5-11 that year, it was no doubt a loss), and Steve Bono was standing next to starting quarterback Bubby Brister, when my aunt said, “Those guys are good looking.”

Steve Bono, Steve Bono's Steelers career, steelers strike replacement quarterback, steelers 1987 players strike, 1987 players strike

Steve Bono quaterbacks the Steelers to a win over Atlanta during the 1987 players strike. Photo Credit Spokeo via Plant Steelers

That’s it, that’s the only memory I have of the one-time scab, who once went 2-1 for the Steelers during the 1987 NFL players strike, before eventually departing for the 49ers and a few other NFL organizations during his 14-year NFL career that included stints with seven different organizations.

  • But since this is a Steelers site, you probably want to know about Bono’s time in Pittsburgh.

It was brief.

Bono was a sixth round pick of the Vikings in the 1985 NFL Draft, but did little of not in Minnesota before arriving in Pittsburgh as a free-agent signing in 1987.

  • However, with the veteran Mark Malone entrenched as the starter and

Bubby Brister, the team’s third round pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, as Mark Malone’s backup and starter-in-waiting, there wasn’t much for Steve Bono to be for the Steelers other than their third-string quarterback, which he was during the first two games of the 1987 campaign.

  • However, the NFLPA elected to go on strike after two games, just like the union had done five years earlier.

But, unlike  the 1982 strike that resulted in a loss of nine regular season games, NFL owners decided to use replacement players to offset the ’87 work stoppage.

While Steve Bono wasn’t exactly “scab,” having been around for two years without a real career break, he crossed the picket line and wound up starting all three games for the the Steelers strike replacement quarterback during the duration of the ’87 strike.

  • Pittsburgh went 2-1 during the three-week replacement player era, and Steve Bono completed 34-74 passes for 438 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Decent enough numbers, considering most of his replacement teammates were guys who were and would be (say it with me) bagging groceries once the strike ended, which it did after those three games. (OK, Hall of Famer’s John Stallworth and Mike Webster crossed the picket line too.)

Bono didn’t appear in any other games after the regulars returned in ’87 and only made two appearances for that infamous 5-11 ’88 squad, completing 10 of 35 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as Todd Blackledge ultimately edged him out at backup quarterback.

Rick Strom,

Rick Strom during the Steelers 1992 season. Photo Credit: FinalShot

Perhaps mercifully (for him, not Pittsburgh), Steve Bono was allowed to walk after the ’88 season as the Steelers opted to hand their third string quarterbacking clipboard to Rick Strom. Bono did well for himself, as he signed a deal with the 49ers to be their third-string quarterback behind Joe Montana and Steve Young.

  • History tells us that was a thankless and impossible task if one wanted playing time.

But, in addition to earning two Super Bowl rings as an apprentice in both 1988 and 1989, Bono found his way into the starting lineup in 1991, thanks to back issues for Montana and multiple injuries suffered by Young.

  • Steve Bono started six games in ’91 for the 49ers, and won five games, while completing 141 of 237 passes for 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.

In his book, My Life Behind the Spiral, Young, a future Hall of Famer, talks about the frustrations of dealing with injuries, as he watched Bono lead an admittedly talented 49ers team to many victories in his absence. The fact that some of the more 49er fans claimed that Bono should be starting over Young undoubtedly contributed to his frustration.

Steve Young ultimately reclaimed his starting job, and Steve Bono resumed his role as backup QB and remained in San Francisco through the 1993 season before signing with the Chiefs for the 1994 campaign.

In Kansas City, Bono started 31 games in three seasons (Montana was with KC by then and was the Chiefs starter through ’94) and won 21 of them–including 13 in 1995–while passing for 6,489 yards, 37 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Steelers quarterbacks 1990's

Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart

Unfortunately for Bono, he could never quite get his Chiefs over the hump and played out his career as a journeyman backup for the Packers, Rams and Panthers, before leaving the game following the 1999 season.

  • True, Bono was never anything special, but could he have bested the likes of Brister and, ultimately, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh?

It’s hard to say.

After all, Steve Bono had the benefit of playing behind legends the caliber of Montana and Young while with the 49ers and absorbing their wisdom. And what about his coaches in San Francisco? In head coach Bill Walsh and quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, well, can you think of two better offensive minds?

It’s easy to say Bono may have beaten out passers such as Brister and O’Donnell in Pittsburgh, but the fact is, the Steelers didn’t have anywhere near the level of talent the 49ers had in the late-80’s and early-90’s.

Besides, Bubby Brister was pretty darn talented in his own right, and as for O’Donnell, well, it’s hard to top three division championships, two AFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance.

Perhaps it is safe to conclude that, Steve Bono was probably a safer “game manager” than either the Bubster or Slash, but he also lacked Brister’s rifle arm and Kordell’s big play potential. And Bono would have been an upgrade at backup quarterback over Mike Tomczak.

  • At the end of  the day, Steve Bono was just a foot-note in Steelers history.

Could he have been more than that?

Steelers Nation is left to wonder.

 

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ESPN Lays off Jerome Bettis. Why Not Park The Bus in Pittsburgh with the Steelers Radio Network?

Thanks to legions of millennia cord cutters, ESPN is laying off people by the droves. And unfortunately, Steelers Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis is the latest victim.

That’s sad but not surprising news for Jerome Bettis, who landed a job with NBC following his retirement after Super Bowl XL. Bettis provided commentary on NBC from 2006 until 2009 but the network did not renew his contract.

Jerome Bettis, Dan Kreider, Super Bowl XL, Jerome Bettis Super Bowl XL

Jerome Bettis at Super Bowl XL. Now that ESPN has laid him off, why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh? Photo Credit: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press

From their Bettis did a stint on NFL Network, before landing at ESPN in 2013. It is quite common for retired athletes to get into broadcasting, former Steelers Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone have made careers out of it, but those men are the exception, not the rule.

  • Joe Montana only lasted a year at NBC Sports following his retirement. Hines Ward worked for NBC for a year.

Its been speculated that Jerome Bettis will return to the NFL Network and while, that might be a good place for him, dare we ask – Why not park the Bus in Pittsburgh again? Seriously.

Bettis is probably too big of a talent for WTAE, WPXI or even KDKA, but why not add Jerome Bettis to the Steelers broadcast team? Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove do a fine job on their own (although let’s face it, it’s not the same without Myron, but no one could replace Myron Cope.) Bettis would provide a new element to the broadcast.

Bettis would also be the first African American to commentate for the Steelers Radio Network, and the added diversity could only widen the commercial appeal of the broadcast team.

  • Bettis could also join Ilkin and Craig Wolfley on doing video breakdowns for Steelers.com.

Jerome Bettis is one of the most popular Steelers in over a generation. Indeed, when he entered the Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis had the distinction of having been the face of the franchise. Yet, the ten years have elapsed since Bettis began his “Life’s Work” and the only players who remain from his day are Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Greg Warren. And of course Bill Cowher followed Bettis’ lead a year later.

In other words, while popular and a fan favorite Jerome Bettis can still be counted on to provide objective commentary in the booth. So why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh?

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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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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.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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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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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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3 Factors that Fueled Steelers 3rd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

The Steelers 9-game winning streak skidded to a thundering halt at Gillette Stadium with Pittsburgh’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. The AFC Championship loss to the Patriots of course ends the 2016 Steelers season, their Super Bowl hopes and perhaps the last best hope of keeping Bill Belichick from breaking Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record.

  • Steelers Nation is not a pleasant place after a thorough clock cleaning at the hands of their conference rivals.

Ironically enough, 3 root causes fueled the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots: A failure to get pressure on Tom Brady, a lack of a playoff-caliber number 2 wide receiver, and a failure to control the line of scrimmage when it counted.

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Logan Ryan breaks up a pass for Cobi Hamilton in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Champonship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Tom Brady Dictates Tempo, as Patriots Dance Around Steelers

At 39, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in the NFL, a status he seized 15 years ago in part by leading the AFC Championship upset against the Steelers at Heinz Field (with all due respect to Drew Bledsoe’s excellent relief efforts.)

  • But if Tom Brady is the greatest of this era, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time, he remains vulnerable.

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but if you succeed in getting pressure on him, you can make him look human. New York Giants did it in two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos did it last year in the AFC Championship. Houston even managed to hang with Brady for a few quarters by following the same formula. In the leadup to the game, the Steelers talked the talk of doing the same.

How well did the Steelers walk the walk?

  • Javon Hargrave forced a 3 and out by sacking Brady with the Patriots holding an 3-0 lead early in the 1st quarter.
  • Sean Davis sacked Brady late in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots held a 33-9 lead

In between, you’d be hard pressed to find a Steeler who breathed on Brady, much less touched him. (For the record, Stephon Tuitt is listed as getting a “QB hit.) It doesn’t take a football genius to predict the results.

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Sacks were spare in the Steelers latest AFC loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The New England Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, Tom Brady threw for almost 400 yards, and Chris Hogan – a former lacrosse player – caught 9 passes for 180 yards. In his post-game video commentary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette remarked that Bill Belichick observed that the Steelers chose to only 3 rush three defenders most of the night.

If video tape analysis confirms that, then Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler should be questioned as to why they didn’t try to send James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons after Brady more often. When you lose as badly as the Steeler lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, coaches open themselves to such “What iffing.”

  • But even when the Steelers went after Brady, things fell apart.

On Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, the Steelers sent the house. Yet, the Patriots’ line completely picked Pittsburgh’s blitz so perfectly, that even at age 58, Mark Malone could have left the broadcast booth and made that throw. (And yes, it helped that there wasn’t a Steeler within 10 yards of Hogan.)

And that was the story of the night. The Steelers couldn’t and wouldn’t get pressure on Brady. Instead Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler trusted their young secondary to make plays in coverage, and Tom Brady scorched the Steelers secondary.

  • Pittsburgh started off the 2016 season on pace to break the 1988 Steelers defense’s record for ineptitude in pressuring the passer.

They revved up their sack production well enough to earn themselves a spot in the AFC Championship, but unfortunately on the biggest day of the season, the Steelers defense reverted to its early season form.

Wanted: A Playoff Caliber Number 2 Wide Out in Pittsburgh

A little over a year ago, as the Steelers headed to Denver for the divisional playoff game, word was that Sammie Coates was the player to watch in the quest to compensate for Antonio Brown’s absence. Coates played well enough that day, that many coaches had him penciled in as Martavis Bryant’s replacement as soon as news of Byrant’s suspension broke.

  • Who was the target of Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass a bomb down the sidelines on 3rd and 1 the Steelers first series?

Sammie Coates of course.

IF Coates catches that ball, then he puts the Patriots on notice that the Steelers now have a multidimensional, vertical passing game, and he forces them to respect it. Instead, Coates dropped the ball and the Steelers punted.

Coates’ drop isn’t much of a surprise for those following his multiple broken fingers story and/or his latent loss of Ben Roethlisberger’s confidence which writers like Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell have alluded to. It’s telling, however, that the Steelers passing game focused so much on Coates, whom the Steelers targeted 5 times.

  • The Steelers knew they needed someone to stretch the field and divert attention from Antonio Brown.
Eli Rogers, Kyle Van Noy, Eli Rogers fumble AFC Championship game, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Eli Rogers fumbles late in the 3rd quarter in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

During the Steelers 9-game winning streak, Todd Haley has relied on reserve receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to take heat off of Antonio Brown. And the development of both of those men played a pivotal role in the Steelers late season rally.

  • But ultimately, neither man is ready to be a number 2 wide receiver on a Super Bowl team.

Cobi Hamilton had a number of drops and negated his own touchdown by stepping out of bounds. Eli Rogers made some nice catches, but fumbled the ball away deep in Pittsburgh territory, when New England held a 27 to 9 lead late in the third quarter.

Jesse James played a strong game at tight end, his failure to get into the end zone notwithstanding. He might not be a true number 1 NFL tight end, but he was not a liability on the field. The same could not be said for other Steelers pass catchers not named Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams.

On a night when Le’Veon Bell was lost early the Steelers were going to need their passing game to pick up the slack. They weren’t up to the task.

Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage When It Counted

On the face of it, the Steelers offensive did a stealer job against the Patriots, while the Steelers defensive line did its part against the running game. The Patriots failed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, and only hit him once per ESPN’s statistics. Fair enough. The Steelers line protected its quarterback.

But did anyone else notice the Patriots ability to completely collapse the Steelers offensive line in the Red Zone before the first half ended? DeAngelo Williams lost yards on two consecutive carries. It’s one thing try to ram it in and fail; it is quite another to get smothered in the process.

Jamesy Harrison, LeGarrette Blount, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Jamesy Harrison tackles LeGarrette Blount in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Officially speaking the Steelers run defense “shut LeGarrett Blount down” by holding him to below 50 total yards and keeping his average below 3.

  • But Blount literally needed only 1 carry to break the back of the Steelers defense.

On 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19, LeGarrett Blount ran 18 yards rugby-maul style to the Pittsburgh’s 1 with seemingly the entire Steelers defense hanging on. One play later, and Blount was in the end zone, and the Steelers were staring down an 18-point deficit.

James Harrison argued that the Patriots didn’t dominate the Steelers physically; for the most part that’s true. But these two series provide poignant examples of how the Patriots made critical plays when it counted.

Conclusion? These Steelers Simply Aren’t Ready

Is this a harsh assessment of the Steelers performance? You bet it is. The New England Patriots were yet again superior to the Pittsburgh Steelers in another AFC Championship game. That’s a bitter pill to swallow after 9 straight wins.

  • But even a brutal loss such as this one shouldn’t overshadow the gains the Steelers have made.

All hope looked to be lost when the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside the 2-minute warning to give the Steelers their 4th straight loss. Cameron Heyward going on IR prompted this site to declare an Aliens style “Game over!” yet the defense improved during the latter half of the season. And the Steelers spent large portions of the season playing two men who, a year ago would have been charitably projected as their 5th and 6th string wide receivers.

  • At the end of the day, it was good enough to get the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but not through the AFC Championship.

In a city that measures success in Lombardis, the 2016 Steelers weren’t quite ready for a Super Bowl run. Mike Tomlin is wise to remind everyone that the Steelers will arrive at Latrobe next summer starting from zero, just like everyone else in the NFL.

Yes, they will again indeed start at zero next July. But if the Steelers internalize the lessons they learned this season, they will give themselves and excellent chance of not only returning but also winning the AFC Championship and the game that comes after it….

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

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Terry Bradshaw scrambles in Steelers 1972 AFC Championship loss to the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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