Steelers 1974 Rookie Class Legend Deepens Thanks to Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Induction

I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.

  • Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.

But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.

The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.

  • It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.

But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.

Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.

Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.

  • That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.

Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.

While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.

  • Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.

Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.

 

 

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Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Justice Done! Former Steeler Donnie Shell Elected to Hall of Fame Centennial Class

After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.

Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:

  • In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”

This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year

But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”

Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.

Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.

  • The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.

Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

  • Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.

By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.

Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.

  • Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.

Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.

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Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers Career Is Worth Remembering & Honoring

When talking about their all-time great Steelers players, cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who played for Pittsburgh from 1979-1990, rarely (okay, never) is mentioned by fans.

  • While that’s unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable.

After all, Dwayne Woodruff played the overwhelming majority of his career for a Steelers team that was stuck in a decade-plus post-dynasty malaise after winning four Super Bowls in a six-year period in the 1970s.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

The same can be said for players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Louis Lipps, but Dwayne Woodruff actually had the fortune of coming along just before Pittsburgh’s time atop the football mountain came to an end, as it afforded him the opportunity to earn a ring in his rookie season thanks to a 31-19 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV.

In-fact, Dwayne Woodruff had two key interceptions postseason interceptions on the way to the Super Bowl — one in a 34-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round; and one in a 27-13 win over the Houston Oilers in the AFC title game.

When Dwayne Woodruff drove to Latrobe to announce his retirement prior to the start of training camp in 1991, , he was actually the last remaining player from any of those Super Bowl teams from the ’70s.

  • But you don’t remember much about Woodruff’s contributions to that Steelers ’79 Super Bowl season because they were relatively minor.

Dwayne Woodruff’s true legacy was his contribution to the team after his rookie year. Beginning in 1981, he became a full-time starter at left cornerback. The former sixth-round pick out of Louisville would remain a fixture on the left side for the next nine seasons, starting a combined 103 games.

  • For someone who had to play in the shadows of a former dynasty, Dwayne Woodruff had a really respectable career.

In addition to starting a total of 105 games in 12 seasons, Woodruff posted 37 interceptions and returned three for touchdowns. Woodruff had five defensive touchdowns in all, which is pretty exceptional when you consider Rod Woodson, a First Ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL, had six defensive touchdowns in his 10 years as a Steeler.

Steelers vs Rams, Dwayne Woodruff, Wendell Tyler, Jack Ham, Donnie Shell

Dwayne Woodruff helps gang tackle Wendell Tyler of the LA Rams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

As per his Wikipedia Page, Woodruff either led or co-led the Steelers in interceptions five times–1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989–and his 37 picks rank fifth all-time in franchise history.

Woodruff’s Wikipedia Page references a key interception that set up an overtime victory over the Bengals in Week 2 of the 1982 season. As a 10-year old boy who had witnessed Cincinnati sweep the once-mighty Steelers in both 1980 and 1981, I can tell you that Week 2 win is one I still cherish to this day. In fact, it was probably the first time I really went crazy as a fan.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dwayne Woodruff’s skill as a player came during his final season with the Steelers. It the first week of October 1990, following a offensive touchdownless September under Joe Walton‘s offense

Everyone remembers that week 5 victory over the San Diego Chargers for the offensive explosion that saw rookie Eric Green catch two touchdown passes, with Warren Williams and Barry Foster rushing for two more. (Well, OK, the sum total of people who actually remember that game is probably a lot fewer than “everyone.”) 

  • However Steelers defense played just as an important of a role in that win, and perhaps no player played a bigger role than Dwayne Woodruff.

After injuries to Rod Woodson, Thomas Everett and Larry Griffin left the Steelers with just four healthy defensive backs, Dwayne Woodruff was forced to play right cornerback for the first time in 11 years. As Woodruff relayed to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When I first went out there I thought I was going to fall down. After 11 years of backpedaling always looking to your right and breaking to your right and all of the sudden everything’s opposite it was strange.

“Strange” it might have been, but Woodruff responded with 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for 51 yards in the Steelers 36 to 14 win over the Chargers.

Dwayne Woodruff Excels in His “Life’s Work.”

It was well-known during his playing days that Dwayne Woodruff was attending law school at Duquesne University.

Dwayne Woodruff actually began practicing law in the latter stages of his football career, and following his retirement from the NFL, he remained in Pittsburgh and founded the firm, Woodruff & Flaherty.

  • In the 2000s, Woodruff was elected as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County.

Woodruff is still a judge in Allegheny County, and he and his wife are very involved in charity work in the Pittsburgh community.

Dwayne Woodruff perhaps falls a bit short of qualifying as an all-time Steeler great, and he arrived a little too late to be associated with the dynasty of the 1970s, despite playing on the Super Bowl XIV team.

But if Dwayne Woodruff doesn’t quite qualify as one of the greatest all time Steelers, he certainly ranks up there as one of Pittsburgh’s best cornerbacks. Any All Time Steelers cornerback depth chart would have Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler at the top.

  • Some fans might rank Ike Taylor as 4th, but there’s a strong argument to suggest that Dwayne Woodruff should occupy that slot on the depth chart. 

When you’re neck-and-neck with Ike Taylor on the all-time Steelers corneback depth chart, you’ve certainly authored a career that is worth remembering and honoring. Such is the case with Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers career.

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson, Steelers draft Diontae Johsnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Steelers Nation Diontae Johnson.

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

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

Sort of, but not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Problem with the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class? Its Too Big

The Pittsburgh Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor Class became official last week and the selection committee chose to dive head first launching the Steelers Hall of Honor by naming 27 members to be inducted this week:

Contributors: Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll

Steelers from the pre-Chuck Noll era: Walt Kiesling, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Bill Dudley, Bobby Layne, Ernie Stautner, Jack Butler, John Henry Johnson, Dick Hoak

Chuck Noll Era Steelers: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell

Cowher Era Steelers: Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Kevin Greene, Jerome Bettis

Going forward, the plan is to induct 2-4 new members to the Steelers Hall of Honor every year. The Steelers Hall of Honor 2017 Class will take their place Alumni Weekend (Nov. 25-26), and they be recognized during halftime of that weekend’s game between the Steelers and Packers.

Fair enough. It will be a spectacle to celebrate in Black and Gold. But there’s a problem with the Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor class: It is too big.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class, Steelers Hall of Honor, Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriolia, Mel Blount

Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriola & Mel Blount announce the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class. Photo credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Simply Too Large

As a life-long Steelers fan and armature Steelers historian, yours truly can’t quibble with any of the selections, save for Walter Kesiling, the coach who cut Johnny Unitas without some much as given him a practice snap.

But perhaps Wiesling does deserve induction, and the rest of the members certainly do.

In this light, the selection committee consisting of Art Rooney II, Joe Gordon, Bob Labriola, Stan Savran and Tony Quatrini chose to operate on the philosophy of “They’re going ot make it eventually, so why not induct them now?” Bob Labriola more or less seem to be speaking to that point, when he said the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class was more about recognition, then about competition.

Andy Russell, Steelers Hall of Honor Inaugural Class

Steelers linebacking legend Andy Russell. Photo Credit: Andy Russell.org

To that end, you can see the Steelers MO in selecting members from the Chuck Noll era: All of the Hall of Famers earned induction, as well as Donnie Shell, Andy Russell and L.C. Greenwood – three players whom the franchise also think are Hall of Fame worthy, but denied recognition because of the “Already too many Steelers in Canton” mentality.

  • But if the Steelers are going to take that approach to the Hall of Honor, then what about Larry Brown?

Larry Brown is the one player that Chuck Noll adamantly argued deserves Pro Football Hall of Fame honors, and will certainly find his way in to the Steelers Hall of Honor but was left out of the inaugural class. Ditto Rocky Bleier. Dan Rooney argued that Bleier deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he will certainly make it to the Hall of Honor, but he will have to wait. For that matter, no one would argue that Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll deserve recognition in the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors.

  • But why induct several of his players, while keeping Bill Cowher on the outside looking in?

By the same token, Bill Nunn Jr. Myron Cope, and Art Rooney Jr. certainly belong and will find their way into the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors. So why not put them in now?

While this “debate” is little more than background noise for most citizens of Steelers Nation, the arguments stand on their own merits. And by taking a “recognition over competition” approach, the selection committee unwittingly opened themselves to the competition argument.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Should Have Taken a Rushmore Approach

So what would the alternative be? Truthfully, when you have a franchise that is as stories as the Pittsburgh Steelers and you try to launch a Hall of Honor 85 years into your existence, you’re never going to make anyone happy.

  • A better way to from the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class would have been to take the “Rushmore Approach.”

We know the Rushmore approach thanks to the rise of the internet, which demands you fill web pages with “content” 365 days a year, every year. (Hence, you see sites that not only debate “Steelers Rushmore” but “Steelers Assistant Coaches Rushmore” “Steelers coaches Rushmore” and probably for that matter, “Steelers backup tight ends Rushmore.”)

Here’s how Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers Rushmore would shape up:

  • Ernie Stautner, to represent the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll era
  • Joe Greene, whose arrival effected the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to perennial contender and frequent champion
  • Franco Harris, who authored the Immaculate Reception the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation
  • Hines Ward, because he forms the bridge between the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin Eras

It is far to argue that a player like Troy Polamalu, who had once in a generation talent, would be more deserving than Ward, but players need to be retired for at least 3 years before they can enter the Hall of Honor, and Polamalu doesn’t make that cut.

But Hines Ward is a franchise great by any measure, likely won’t make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and would give the class balance between offense and defense as well as representation of all franchise eras.

  • And as a contributor, Art Rooney Sr. would enter as well, because there’s no way you launch a Steelers Hall of Honor without The Chief.

The selection committee, however, didn’t ask this sites opinion. They made their own choices. These men who form the Inaugural Steelers Hall of Honor class have done far more than yours truly ever would or could to build the Pittsburgh Steelers legacy, and we celebrate in their recognition for those accomplishments. But nonetheless, we suggest that the process should have been more gradual.

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Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?

…Adding new players to their roster, it would seem. Just one day after trading to acquire the San Francisco 49er’s Vance McDonald, the Steelers signed Joe Haden, the recently cut cornerback of the Cleveland Browns, and they did it to the tune of a 3 year, 27 million dollar contract that reportedly comes with 7 million in guarantees.

The Steelers are of course familiar with Joe Haden’s body of work, as Haden has played in 11games against the Steelers, covering the likes of Hines Ward, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Joe Haden, Antonio Brown, Steelers sign Joe Haden

Joe Haden will be covering Antonio Brown more frequently now that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler. Photo Credit: Ken Blaze, WKYC

While Joe Haden might not have reached “Shut Down” corner status, he quickly established himself as one of the best corners in the league as he made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. Injuries have taken their toll since then. A concussion kept Haden out of action for 10 games in 2015, and last season several groin injuries hobbled him, which required surgery in the off season.

  • During much of the 2017 both the press and the Steelers fan base made a lot of noise about Pittsburgh’s in ability to bolster their pass defense following the AFC Championship disaster.

The Steelers were rumored to be targeting Dre Kirkpatrick or some other big name corner in free agency, but no deal ever materialized. Instead, the franchise settled for Coty Sensabaugh, a mid-level cornerback at best.

The Steelers did of course draft Cam Sutton and Brian Allen in the 2017 NFL Draft, but both players have been injured for much of the summer. Likewise, this was to be the summer at St. Vincent’s when Senquez Golson finally emerged from the training room. But Sutton and Allen have been injured for most of the summer, and Senquez Golson only lasted a few practices before finding his way back to the injured cart.

  • During the preseason wins over the Falcons and losses the Colts the Steelers pass defense has struggled.

Mike Tomlin reacted by trading for Dashaun Phillips and giving Coty Sensabaugh at shot at Ross Cockrell’s starting job. Now both men will have to yield to Joe Haden, because the Steelers are paying Haden starter money.

  • Whether Haden can boost a struggling Steelers secondary remains an open question.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell quoted sources in Cleveland that described Haden as “tentative” and another who declared that Haden is no longer capable of covering number 1 NFL wide receivers. However, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey pointed out, the key isn’t whether Joe Haden can be the next Rod Woodson, Mel Blount or even Ike Taylor, its whether he’s better than Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensbaugh.

  • This is of course not the first time the Steelers have looked to a recycled Cleveland Browns cornerback to bolster their secondary late in the summer.

A year ago the Steelers traded for Justin Gilbert, whom they coveted in the 2014 NFL Draft, only to see Gilbert play a handful of snaps and then be cut in the off season.

The Steelers signing of Joe Haden will certainly have ripped effects elsewhere on the roster. Artie Burns will switch sides, and one other cornerback will find himself on the wavier wire. Salary concerns could mean that person is Ross Cockrell, which would be quite unfortunate for the young man.

It could also impact the Steelers plans to extend the contract of Stephon Tuitt, but Bob Labriola’s comments seem to indicate that the Steelers have structured his deal so that this will not happen.

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Steelers vs Penguins – Pens May Hoist Stanley Cup, but Men of Steel Still King in Pittsburgh

It seems every time the Penguins experience a run of success, as they are right now–a run that includes back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, following a 2-0 victory in Nashville over the Predators Sunday night–people like to entertain the topic.

What topic am I talking about, you ask?

  • The idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins are about to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers as the number one team in the City of Pittsburgh in terms of popularity.

On talk radio last week, Dejan Kovacevic, filling in for the popular and controversial Mark Madden, threw that thought out there and basically agreed with it.

  • Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering 105.9 the X is the Penguins flagship station.

At this very moment, the Penguins are the number one team in town; how could they not be?

Stanely Cup, Nick Bonino, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguin Nick Bonino hosts the Stanley Cup at the Steelers South Sid facility as Cam Heyward and others look on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Tribune-Review

They boast some of the NHL’s and hockey’s greatest players–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–and, as previously mentioned, Lord Stanley will be paraded around Pittsburgh for a second consecutive summer.

Also, with the drafting of the legendary Mario Lemieux in 1984, the Penguins forever changed the fortunes of their previously downtrodden franchise and have won a total of five Stanley Cups since the summer of 1991.

  • Meanwhile, the Steelers have won just two Super Bowls since 1979, the same year the Pirates claimed their last World Series title.

Over the past three-plus decades, the Penguins have gone from a laughingstock of an organization, to hockey royalty.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a Steelers fan, you obviously know the legacy that was forged in the 1970’s that was jump-started by the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969 and the drafting of defensive stalwart Mean Joe Greene almost immediately afterward.

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Terrible Towel, Black Terrible Towel

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth sport Terrible Towels in Three Rivers Stadium during 70’s Super Bowl.

With the help of nine future Hall of Fame players (Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster), the Steelers went from an also-ran in the early’70’s to the class of the NFL by the end of the decade.

  • And, in Pittsburgh, there was no mistake who reigned supreme in a sports sense.

Here we are, nearly five decades into the Steelers run of football supremacy, and there are no true signs of this love, this passion the fans have for the team dissipating anytime soon.

Sure, it might seem that way, considering the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups since the last time the Steelers hoisted a Lombardi, following their 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, some eight years ago.

But all one needs to do is examine the TV ratings–both locally and nationally–to see that the Penguins have a ways to go before they supplant the Steelers for local sports supremacy.

As USA Today pointed out on Tuesday, NBC, the network with the rights to the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, is doing cartwheels for the ratings the six-game final between Pittsburgh and Nashville drew.

Stanley Cup 2017, Penguins vs. Predators, Ron Hainsey, Juuse, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ron Hainsey shoots puck past Nashville Predators goalie Juuse. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via FanRag.com

What was the average for those six games? A 4.76, or almost two points lower than Last Man Standing, a Tim Allen sitcom that recently made the news after being canceled by ABC. 

  • By contrast, the most recent Super Bowl–SBLI between the Patriots and Falcons–drew a 48.8 share for Fox. That’s almost a difference of almost ten times in case you’re wondering.

OK, yes, I just pointed out that football is still king in America, and that its signature event is watched by almost half the country, while hockey’s marquee series is watched by the same amount of people who would tune in to watch a middling TV show on Friday night.

What about the local ratings for the finals?

  • According to NBC Sports, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final–the clincher–drew a 40.0 rating in Pittsburgh, while the entire series drew a 32.0.
  • Great for Pittsburgh and great for NBC.

But when you examine some of the Steelers’ recent local regular season TV ratings, you may start to get a sense for just how popular they still are.

According to a TribLive article from January of 2014, that came on the heels of a playoff-less and 8-8 2013 season that included starts of 0-4 and 2-6, the Steelers averaged a 38.2 local rating, which was pretty much on par with what the Penguins generated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final this past Sunday.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers playoff rushing record, Jesse James

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record for a 2nd consecutive week in Steelers playoff win over Chiefs. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via Newsday

And when you examine the Steelers most-recent playoff win–an 18-16 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round on January 15–you may wonder if NBC, the network that broadcast the game, has already contacted head coach Mike Tomlin about starring in his very own sitcom: First Down Family…Obviously. 

  • The game averaged 37.1 viewers and was the most watched non-conference championship game playoff matchup in NFL history.

Wow.

Sure, the game was moved into primetime due to weather concerns in Kansas City, but it doesn’t lessen the impact the Steelers and the NFL have on the country and the City of Pittsburgh.

So, what am I saying?

  • Yes, the Penguins are the hot team in town right now, and probably will be for quite some time.

The organization did a great job years ago by marketing the team to young fans–don’t know how many young millennials are huge Penguins fans.

However, while Pittsburgh started to develop a bit of a hockey culture after the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux 33 years ago, it was almost as if the Pittsburgh of pre-1970, with its blue-collar work-ethic, was a football town waiting for a team to embrace.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became that team in the early-1970’s, and it appears as if no one–not even the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins–will knock them off the top perch anytime soon.

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