Steelers Report Card for Bears Loss: Piss Poor Grades for a Piss Poor Performance

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who what he thought was an Advanced Placement class that nonetheless seems to be regressing towards the mediocre mean here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Steelers report card bears, Steelers vs bears, Antonio Brown, Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper swats away the ball from Antonio Brown in the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Are the arms on Big Ben’s clock ticking towards “Life’s Work” faster than anticipated? Ben Roethlisberger’s stat sheet doesn’t quite seem to indicate that as 22 of 39 for one touchdown and no interceptions is respectable, if hardly spectacular. But Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sharp all season, and he hasn’t been able to establish a rapport with any wide out not named Antonio Brown and even then, Brown is making Ben a better quarterback on some of those throws. Big Ben is far from the only thing that ails the Steelers offense, but he need to improve. Grade: C-

Running Backs
This was to be the week that Le’Veon Bell got back on track, wasn’t it? Truth be told, his rushing average was up, but Bell is still very, very far away from the type of dominating performances that were a Sunday afternoon staples for the 2016 Steelers offense. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two of the four passes thrown his way and had to leave the field with an injury. James was the only tight end targeted this this game. While the type of film analysis needed to offer a definitive critique of the Steelers run blocking woes goes far beyond the scope of this column. So while it might not be fair to label the tight ends a problem area, they clearly haven’t shown they can be part of the solution. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Martavis Bryant dropped a bomb on the game’s opening play that he should have caught, and could have been a difference maker. As it was it set the tone for the day, as both he and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a combined 14 targets for 4 catches. Again, some of those passes would have required herculean efforts to catch, but it takes two to tango. Antonio Brown, in contrast, had 10 catches for 110 yards on 11 targets, which brings the group grade up. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit 5 times. On the surface that doesn’t seem like too bad of a day for the Steelers pass blocking, but the first sack resulted in a turnover, the second forced a punt and the third came against a 3 man rush at the end of regulation. And for the third straight week, the road grading effort from the Steelers offensive line was missing. Grade: D

Defensive Line
For the season’s first two weeks, the Steelers defensive line could do no wrong. And to be sure, Javon Hargrave came up with a sack at just the opportune time. But with that said, the Bears averaged over 6 yards a carry rushing. All of that success certainly didn’t come at the expense of Cameron Heyward’s crew, but responsibility for stopping the run starts with them. Grade: F

Linebackers
Anthony Chickillo added another sack, and seemingly reminded everyone of why he was keeping James Harrison on the bench…. Until the Bears moved 74 yards on the ground for a touchdown in 4 plays during overtime. That’s not all Chickillo’s fault, as both Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams missed tackles with alarming regularity during the game, as did Bud Dupree. When the Bear’s “Yards After Contact” numbers are calculated they’ll put the Steelers to shame. What’s worse is that a good chunk of those came on 3rd or 4th efforts. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble & recover y raises this unit’s grade. Grade: D

Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers Report Card Bears loss, Ryan Shazier, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Howard

Ryan Shazier forces then recovers a fumble during the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
The Steelers secondary came up with an interception, limited the Bears wide receivers to one reception and kept them to 4-12 on third downs, or worse than the Steelers. So clearly the Steelers defensive backs were doing a lot of things right against the Bears. But that doesn’t mean that Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden get off scott free. It’s not the fault of the Secondary that the Bears running backs broke out to the second half, but it is their job to stop them when they do. The Steelers secondary didn’t, especially when the game was on the line. Grade: D

Special Teams
After the Steelers defense forced a 3 and out, Eli Rogers muffed punt gave the Bears the ball on Pittsburgh’s 29 and set Chicago up for their first touchdown. For an encore, prior to the second half, the Steelers field goal unit allowed a Chris Boswell attempt to be blocked that set off a chaotic chain of events concluded with a 6 point swing in Chicago’s favor.

The Steelers kick coverage was strong, and Rogers actually had a nice 12 yard return, but those hardly make up for the first half special teams disasters. Grade: F

Coaching
It’s hard to finger coaches for poor execution at times, but when things go wrong on so many levels as they did against the Bears, the coaches bear the ultimate responsibility.

  • Chicago ran the ball well in the first half, making their first rushing touchdown look frighteningly easy.

Credit Keith Butler for making some adjustments, adjustments which held until the overtime disaster. A week ago outsiders were speculating as to whether the Steelers had the makings of a number one defense. The Bears show that Butler’s boys are very, very far from earning that status.

  • Todd Haley has been a lighting rod for fan criticism since he arrived in Pittsburgh, and most of that (save for early 2014) has been unjustified.

The same cannot be said 3 games into 2017. On paper, the Steelers have the potential to have one of the most lethal offenses in recent NFL memory. This was the team that was supposed to put up 30 points without breaking a sweat. Instead, they’re struggling to break the 20 point mark without Chris Boswell’s help.

It is hard to identify any one or two critical breakdowns on Steelers offense because three games into the season, the only thing that is working is Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. (The awful Steelers offenses of the late 80’s could at least rely on Merril Hoge in the days when Bubby Brister to Louis Lipps set the tempo.)

  • Todd Haley’s job is to find a way to make it work, and he’s failing mightily in that respect.

And that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Steel Curtain Rising has never jumped on the “Fire Tomlin” bandwagon before and won’t now.

  • But that doesn’t mean the Steelers head coach doesn’t deserve some harsh criticism, because he most certainly does.

Trap games have always been tricky for Tomlin teams, dating back to his rookie season as head coach. And whether you want to focus on his 5-9 “early season road games” since 2014 or his 5-13 road record against losing teams, this has become a chronic weakness of Tomlin teams.

Last season, either after the losses to Philadelphia or Miami, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola assured a fan that neither the Steelers nor Tomlin had eased up on their preparation in the weeks prior to those ugly losses. The Steelers and Tomlin haven’t changed a thing, Labriola assured.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, because the impact of the Steelers September stumbles have echoed on well into December and January during the past three seasons. This cannot continue. Grade: F

Vance McDonald, Marcus Cooper, Vance McDonald forced fumble, Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers report card bears loss

Vance McDonald strips the ball from Marcus Cooper after the Bears block a Chris Boswell field goal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Unsung Hero Award
Finding an Unsung Hero after a game where nearly every area on the Steelers depth chart can be either be fingered for a critical failure or otherwise remained mired in mediocrity is a challenge.

As the Steelers stood poised to bring the score within 4 to close the first half disaster struck in the form of a blocked field goal. Not only did the Bears deny the Steelers 3 points, but the ball bounced right into the hands of Marcus Cooper who looked to transform the disaster into a 10 point swing for Chicago.

But Cooper got a little too cocky on the way, and that allowed Vance McDonald, who hustled the entire play to force a fumble and prevent a touchdown and for that Vance McDonald wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Bears.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

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Dan Rooney, sitting in front of the Steelers 1st five Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steeles.com

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

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Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

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Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr.

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

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Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

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Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Steelers 1992 draft room

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

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

The Rothlisbergers and the Rooney’s stand outside the US ambassador’s residence in Ireland. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

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DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

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DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

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DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

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 Focus 2017: Le’Veon Bell – Time for Pittsburgh to Ring the Bell

The modern NFL Draft is founded upon hyperbole. Even back during the 1988 and 1989 NFL Drafts I can remember watching ESPN and listening in disbelief to Mel Kiper Jr. all but predicted disaster or Super Bowl depending on whether he liked a pick or not.

  • But then there are moments when a draft pick lives up to the hype, the times when the Le’Veon Bells get picked.

Le’Veon Bell has surpassed his draft day hype and now looks to cash in with his first 8 figure contract as he reaches free agency.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers, Le'Veon Bell touchdown chargers, Le'Veon Bell free agent, David DeCastro

Le’Veon Bell scores the game winning touchdown against San Diego in 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images via antennamag.com

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

A lot of people rolled their eyes during the 2013 NFL Draft when Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers second round pick, as the best running back the draft. Months later, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

Bouchette has been covering the Steelers since the early 70’s, allowing him to see the preseason debuts of first rounders such as Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. Bouchette has seen more than a few training camp sensations flame out. He is not wont to compare rookies to Hall of Famers. But still, the Dean of the Steelers press corps seemed to be going a little over the top.

  • Four years later it is clear that skeptics in Steelers Nation should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

After struggling for 3 years to replace Willie Parker with the likes of Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers selected a blue-chip running back in Le’Veon Bell in 2013.

  • What’s all the more amazing is that it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell began the 2013 season with a lisfranc injury. He ended 2014 unable to play in the post-season. 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse violations, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

Despite those difficulties, with 4045 yards to his name, Le’Veon Bell has passed Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson to become the 4th all-time Steelers leading rusher. In four years, Le’Veon Bell has gone from being a 2nd round pick that left some pundits scratching their heads to a player with the potential to revitalize the concept of franchise running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

A year ago the Steelers 2016 offense was supposed to be the AFC North’s variant of The Greatest Show on Turf. That didn’t happen and for most of the year Ben Roethlisberger had little more than 5th and 6th string wide receivers to throw to other than Antonio Brown. In other words, opposing defenses knew Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Steelers Dolphins playoffs, Marcus Gilbert

Le’Veon Bell rush for a touchdown in the playoffs against Miami. Photo Credit: Don Wright, FRE via Houston Chronicle

But opposing defenses were powerless to stop Le’Veon Bell as he broke the Steelers single game regular season rushing record. Breaking regular season records is nice, but doing it in January is something else. In his first playoff game Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record. In his second playoff game, Le’Veon Bell broke the record again.

  • Le’Veon Bell did something in two playoff games which Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker couldn’t do in 58.

You don’t often hear the phrase “So and so running back took over the game for such and such team.”

Le’Veon Bell took over several games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 and the franchise would be wise to see that he continues to do so.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

In four years Le’Veon Bell has only appeared in 49 of a possible 68 regular and post-season games (depending on how you count the AFC Championship). The rest he’s missed either because of drug suspensions or injuries.

  • The average NFL career only lasts 4 years, and the average for running backs is lower yet.

He already has 1135 touches on his frame. How many more carries does Le’Veon Bell have before his production curve drops like a rock? The brutal reality of the NFL in the 21st century is that running backs flame out quickly. Hear anyone talk up DeMarco Murray’s Hall of Fame prospects lately? You haven’t, because Dallas has already replaced the man who led the NFL in rushing just two years ago with Ezekiel Elliott. Running backs are disposable commodities.

Is it really wise to invest serious long-term salary cap dollars in a player like Le’Veon Bell who might be suspended at any moment and who all statistical indicators suggest has a short shelf life?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers plans here are clear. Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell back, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin want him back. Ben Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Le’Veon Bell back. Le’Veon Bell wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Le’Veon Bell will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.

That’s a good thing. Period. How he gets there isn’t quite clear. The Steelers would like to give him a long-term deal, which is a smart move. The only question is will Bell be reasonable with his salary demands? If he is the deal will be made. If not the Steelers will use the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh in 2017.

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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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

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

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

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record – Now Pause & Think about What that Means….

For two straight off seasons, Steelers Nation has fretted and fidgeted while watching the Steelers asking the question “What IF.” The big “What IF” of course was “What if Le’Veon Bell had been playing?”

Going into the playoff loss to the Ravens in 2014 (2015, actually) Bell’s absence represented a loss of 34% of the Steelers total offense. It is harder to calculate the impact of Le’Veon Bell’s absence in the 2015 postseason because Bell missed the majority of the season injured or suspended.

But it is quite possible that Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary against the Bengals had Bell been available to kill the clock in the 4th.

In Pittsburgh’s wild card win against the Dolphins, Steelers Nation finaly got to see their “What IF” come true. So how did that work out?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell breaks Steelers playoff rushing record, Steelers vs. Dolphins, Steelers wild card win dolphins

Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers playoff record breaking performance against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • Le’Veon Bell ran 29 times for 167 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single game post-season rushing record.

Let’s restate that: In his first post season appearance, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single-game playoff rushing record. Now consider what that really means. Had Le’Veon Bell broken this record, say, for the San Francisco 49ers, he wouldn’t have turned many heads, no disrespect to Roger Craig or Rickey Waters.

  • But Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff rushing record for a single game.

This is the same franchise that has sent Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson (you forgot about him, didn’t you?) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the team that gave Willie Parker, holder of the Super Bowl record for the longest run from scrimmage, his shot in the NFL.

What’s more amazing is the way in which Le’Veon Bell broke the record. As Peter King, who is no Steelers cheerleader, observed:

Watch the man. He’s got the oddest rushing style in football today. “The Great Hesitator,” Phil Simms called him on CBS, and that’s just about perfect. Usually, Bell lines up as the classic I-back, seven yards deep, and when he takes a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll take a couple of jab steps toward a hole and almost stop in his tracks. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, had a one-cut running style; the back was told to hit up in the hole immediately—that charging into the hole was the one cut. Most coaches decry what they call pussyfooting.

Peter King then backed up his argument with a statistic, that someone on his staff deserves a ton of credit for unearthing:

I find this amazing: Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king, gained 860 yards in his best seven-game stretch. That’s 142 yards less than Bell’s current seven-game run.

So in other words, in the space of just 8 games, Le’Veon Bell broken a record set by one Steelers Hall of Fame running back that another Steelers Hall of Fame Running back couldn’t touch, and rushed for 142 yards more than Emmitt Smith rushed for during his best seven-game stretch.

Jerome Bettis, Jerome Bettis AFC Championship, Jerome Bettis Broncos

Jerome Bettis in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via BTSC

A little bit of research reveals that it’s not unusual for a Steelers running back to break the century mark in his playoff debut.

  • Barry Foster ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the 1992 Steelers playoff loss to the Bills
  • Jerome Bettis ran for 102 yards in the Steelers 1996 playoff win against the Colts, although he injured himself
  • Merril Hoge rushed for 100 yards even in the 1989 Steelers New Year’s Eve upset of the Oilers

Rashard Mendenhall, Bam Morris, Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier also had 100 yard (or near 100 yard) performances early in their careers, but these came after their first post season game.

All impressive efforts, to be certain. But if you really want to appreciate what Le’Veon Bell accomplished, look no further than to the comments made by Ben Roethlisberger:

I’ll never forget when Charlie Batch was here, he used to always tell me about how he would hand off and just watch Barry Sanders. I am not trying to put Le’Veon with Barry Sanders yet, but it is fun to sit and watch and just see what he is going to do because he is incredibly talented.

So if you’re keeping track at home, in addition to outperforming 3 Steelers Hall of Fame running backs, Le’Veon Bell’s playoff performance against the Dolphins has now drawn comparisons to two other non-Steelers Hall of Fame running backs.

Walter Payton, Walter Payton Steelers, Le'Veon Bell Walter Payton

Walter Peyton dives over the pile as the Steelers are powerless to stop him. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via NFL SpinZone

During Le’Veon Bell took a lot of heat during his rookie season with a lot of journalists both inside (see John Stiegerwald) and outside of Pittsburgh doubting his ability. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took the time to compare his game-by-game results to Walter Payton’s rookie campaign, despite getting needled about it on social media from some of his peers.

  • Three seasons, a couple of injuries, 2 suspensions, and 1 playoff game later, Bell is getting the last laugh.

As Ben Roethlisberger cautioned, it is still too early to categorize Bell alongside the Smiths, Harris, Sanders, and Paytons of NFL lore, but in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have a special running back.

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How Kirk Cousins “How Do You Like Me Now?” Callout Vindicates Dan Rooney’s Contract Negotiation Stance

One of the peculiarities of being a Steelers fan first and a football fan second is that it becomes easy to forget just how differently the rest of the NFL operates sometimes. In fact, when I read that a team has extended a contract during the season, my first reaction is often “…But wait a minute, players don’t get signed during the season.

  • But of course they do – It just doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Reading Andrew Brandt’s column in MMQB on the Kirk Cousin’sHow do you like me now?”call out to Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, brought home just how wise Dan Rooney was to install the Steelers regular season contract negotiation blackout policy in 1993.

  • Can you imagine something like the Kirk Cousin’s incident happening in Pittsburgh?

No, neither can I. That’s not to say that the Steelers are immune to contract malaise. Alan Faneca was not happy about not getting his extension in 2007, and he grumbled about it loudly in the off season, but that ended when the games started.

Dan Rooney, Steelers contrat negotiation policy

Dan Rooney following the 2010 AFC Championship victory. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images via BTSC

Jeff Reed likewise was unhappy that the Steelers didn’t extend his contract in 2010, and that unhappiness perhaps contributed to Mike Tomlin’s decision to cut him.

  • But by and large, you don’t see these types of contract-based stories popping up in Pittsburgh during the regular season.

Reporters certainly ask players in their contract years if they want to come back, as they did with Lawrence Timmons after the Steelers win over the Giants, but answers usually run along the lines of “I’d like to stay, but we’ll see what happens in March.”

It wasn’t always that way, however….

Free Agency Comes to Pittsburgh….

1993 was the first season that the NFL experienced free agency, thanks to the Freeman-McNeil verdict. The new era saw the Steelers say good by to long-time stalwarts like Tunch Ilkin, but allowed them to bring in veterans like Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

  • At the time, most fans thought that Dan Rooney was cheap, but the Steelers also pioneered success in the salary cap era by resigning their own players.

During that 1993 off season, the Steelers came to terms with Neil O’Donnell, Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson a year before their contracts expired (O’Donnell had been a RFA). They also wanted to reach similar deals with Rod Woodson and Barry Foster, but couldn’t get them done in the summer. So negotiations continued, as the 1993 Steelers got off to a 0-2 start.

Patricia Rooney is the only one who knows if her husband Dan watched ESPN PrimeTime that night, but Chris Berman’s lead on the Steelers game talked about the Woodson and Foster contracts, and showed in image of a guy handing out money….

…If Dan Rooney did see that ESPN, he could not have been pleased.

1993 the Year of the Locker Room Lawyer

While the Steelers had locked up their best defensive player and, at the time, best offensive player the rest of the locker room was not happy, particuarly because after inking Woodson and Foster, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe decided to cut off further negotiations until season’s end.

Tight end Adrian Cooper went as far as to tell Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If everyone’s contract would be done, I think we’d be 4-0 instead of 2-2. It has something to do with it. We’re unbeaten since they signed the two big guys.”

Big things had been expected of Adrian Cooper, so much that the Steelers openly discussed trading Eric Green. Cooper’s breakout season failed to materialized, and after the season he explained to reporters, “I feel neglected. As a result, my performance was a reflection of how they treated me.”

  • As soon as Tom Donahoe heard that, Cooper was on the next bus out of town, heading to Minnesota via trade.

But even Merril Hoge, a man whose ethics are beyond question, confided, “When we went 0-2, I think they thought players were more concerned about their contracts. That may have been true.”

After the season Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe all agreed that contract issues had been a distraction for the Steelers in 1993. Their solution was to use the regular season to focus on winning, not negotiating.

The results speak for themselves. Although he may have wanted his contract extension sooner than he got it, Ben Roethlisberger certainly never considered walking off of Heinz Field and screaming “How do you like me now?” at Kevin Colbert, because the focus in Pittsburgh during the season stays where it should, on winning.

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6 Improbable Steelers Backup Quarterback Upset Wins

Raise your hand if you’re Steelers fan excited to see Landry Jones start against the New England Patriots. OK. Didn’t think we’d get too many takers. Fair enough. With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from knee surgery and Cameron Heyward also the odds makers have been rather generous in installing the Patriots as 7 points favorites.

  • Still, should Steelers Nation abandon all hope?

Perhaps, but Steelers backup quarterbacks have a history of delivering some surprising results under duress. Here are six notable Steelers backup quarterback upset wins dating from 1988 to 2012 (no disrespect to Steelers 1976 rookie Mike Kruczek, just not old enough to remember him.)

Charlie Batch, Steelers upset Ravens 2012, Charlie Batch final game, Charlie Batch Ravens

Charlie Batch won his final start as 2012 Steelers upset Ravens on the road. Photo Credit: Chris Knight, The Patriot-News

1. 1988 – Todd Blackledge Leads Steelers to 39-21 win over Denver Broncos

It had been a bad week for Chuck Noll that began with a 34-14 drubbing in the Astrodome at the hands of arch nemesis Jerry Glanville. Noll cut short his weekly press conference when reporters asked him what it would take for him to step down. Terry Bradshaw called for Noll’s dismissal su

ggesting he was too old for the job. Bubby Brister was injured, and back up Todd Blackledge was struggling even to get snaps from Mike Webster.

In short, no one expected the explosion that was coming, led by Rodney Carter who took it 64 yards to the house on the game’s third play. Carter rushed for 105 yards, caught a touchdown and completed a pass, as Noll employed uncharacteristic trickery. Merril Hoge ran for another 94 yards, and Rod Woodson set up another score with a 29 yard interception and Gary Anderson kicked 6 field goals.

Todd Blackledge was only 9 of 17 for 129 yards on the day, but that was good enough to give Pittsburgh the win.

2. 1991 – Neil O’Donnell Authors 26-15 Upset of the Houston Oilers

1991 had been a tough year for Chuck Noll, and his Steelers had just been humiliated at home by the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins. Scalping dished out by the Redskins the week before at Three Rivers Stadium had given the Steelers a 4-7 record, and 4-8 seemed certain against the 9-2 Oilers.

It is also true that perhaps Neil O’Donnell should be considered a backup, having started since relieved Brister 5 weeks earlier against the Giants, but Noll had been coy about designating a “starter.”

The Steelers ability to shut down the “Run ‘N Shoot” offense is one of the reasons why that never “stuck” in the NFL, but that was far from apparent in 1991. Games like this began to change the tune, as Bryan Hinkle, Thomas Everett, and Shawn Vincent picked off Warren Moon 5 times.

Those turnovers set up 3 Gary Anderson field goals, a 43 yard pass from Neil O’Donnell to Dwight Stone, and a Warren Williams touchdown. For the record, Neil O’Donnell went 12 for 29 for 155 yards one touchdown and 1 interception.

3. 1994 – Mike Tomczak Out Guns Dan Marino, Steelers Beat Dolphins 16-13

Perhaps the lead up to this game would have been different in the age of social media, but news that Mike Tomczak got the starting nod over Neal O’Donnell came as a surprise when game day arrived.

  • Imagine getting to the sports bar to learn that Mike Tomczak would square off against Dan Marino.

But got toe-to-toe Tomczak did, and how! In 1994, 300 yard passing games were relatively rare in the NFL but both quarterbacks broke the 300 yard mark, with Tomczak topping Marino’s yardage total. But for all of that passing, the game represented more of a defensive chess match. Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Joel Steed team to sack Marino 4 times, with Levon Kirkland intercepting him once.

  • The Steelers held the lead until the Dolphins tied it a 48 yard field goal as time expired.

The Steelers won the toss, but could not score. The Dolphins took over at their 40, but the vaunted Steelers 1994 Blitzburgh defense stopped him cold at Pittsburgh’s 47. Mike Tomzcak excelled in overtime, scrambling twice and completed passes of 27 yards to Barry Foster and 23 yards to John L. Williams to set up Gary Anderson’s game winner.

As this site has previously observed, Tomzack’s ’94 wins against the Dolphins and the Raiders marked the shift of the focal point of the Steelers passing attack away from Eric Green and to Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings and Charles Johnson.

4. 2002 – Kordell Stewart Rebounds to Lead Steelers over Bengals 29-13

Time to fess up. Just as Neil O’Donnell wasn’t really the “Steelers backup quarterback” in the 1991 Astrodome upset of the Oilers, the Steelers win over the 1-10 Bengals can hardly fall into the category of an “upset.”

But its author, Kordell Stewart, most certainly was a backup. Less than one year removed from winning the team MVP award, Kordell Stewart found himself on the bench in favor of Tommy Maddox. Raul Alegre of ESPNDeportes had revealed 5 weeks eailer during the Steelers Monday night game vs. the Colts, Bill Cowher had confided in him that he hadn’t wanted to bench Kordell, but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the Steelers locker room.

  • Expectations don’t get much lower than that.

Nonetheless, Kordell Stewart fearlessly took the reigns after Tommy Maddox’s injury the week before in Tennessee. The Steelers raced to a 17 point lead on a Jerome Bettis touchdown run, a 64 yard bomb from Stewart to Hines Ward, and a Jeff Reed field goal. But the Bengals fought back, scoring 14 points in the second half. The Steelers tacked on another 3 in the third quarter, but midway through the 4th the Bengals took the lead.

  • Kordell Stewart rallied the Steelers, first bringing Reed into range to boot a field goal, and then rifling a 27 yarder to Hines Ward which set up a 24 yard rumble by Bettis.

Kordell Stewart was flawless that day, going 22 for 26, one touchdown and zero picks.

5. 2005 – Charlie Batch off Bench @ Lambeau as Steelers beat Packers 20-10

2005 was a rough year for Green Bay, who entered the game at 1-10. On the face of it, that might make it difficult to categorize this win as “an upset” but if you’re playing at Lambeau Field, who do you want to be your quarterback Brett Favre or Charlie Batch, a man who hadn’t thrown a non-mop up time pass since 2001.

  • And did we mention that Jerome Bettis was out and that injuries limited Willie Parker to 5 carries?

The Steelers struggled in this one, as did Batch, but he played well enough to win, as did Duce Staley who saw his last real NFL action, and helped the Steelers win with 76 yards rushing and a touchdown.

6. 2012 – Charlie Batch Wins Finals Start, Steelers Upset Ravens 23-20

This Steelers 2012 game against the Ravens at M&T Stadium was one for the ages. The Steeler were reeling, having suffered back-to-back divisional losses, including an 8 turnover game to the Cleveland Browns. Charlie Batch had quarterbacked that game, and committed 3 of the turnovers, all interceptions.

And here the Steelers were, traveling to the home of their arch rival, with their 3rd string quarterback, 3rd string wide out, 2nd string outside linebacker. During the game, they would also lose their starting guard.

  • This was as hard fought game as you get.

The lead changed 5 times. Twice in the second half, Steelers turnovers gave the Ravens a chance to put Pittsburgh away, and twice Pittsburgh clawed back. James Harrison led the Steelers final rally, with one of his patended strip-sacks which came shortly after the Steelers had turned over the ball. Charlie Batch fired a missle to Heath Miller, who then willed himself into the end zone.

  • The Steelers defense held on the next drive.

Charlie Batch then took over at Pittsburgh 15 and with 6:14 remaining, led the Steelers on 13 play drive where Batch completed 7 straight passes, as Pittsburgh reached the Ravens 24 yard line. Shaun Suisham booted in a 42 yard field goal, and the Steelers had won.

Is Landry the Steelers Next “Legendary” Back Up Quarterback?

So, could Landry Jones author a game worth of inclusion of on this list above? With Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Gilbert and DeAngelo Williams out the odds are against him. But the odds were also once against Todd Blackladge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzcak, Kordell Stewart and Charlie Batch and they proved everyone else wrong.

Let’s hope Landry Jones follows in their footsteps.

 

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Remembering Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career – The Unlucky Soul Tapped to Replace Franco Harris

When the Pittsburgh Steelers made running back Walter Abercrombie the 12th overall selection of the 1982 NFL Draft, he left Baylor as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,665 yards over four seasons.  What did the use of such a lofty draft selection of a running back with such a prolific collegiate career really mean? Here’s the simple English translation:

  • There was no way Walter Abercrombie was coming to Pittsburgh to be anything other than Franco Harris‘ eventual replacement.

When Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career began, Franco Harris had been the Steelers workhorse at running back for 10-full seasons, was 32 years old and, while nobody knew it at the  time, had two seasons of tread left on his tires. (The Steelers cut Franco Harris prior to the 1984 campaign during a contract dispute. He then signed with the Seahawks in Week 2 but Seattle cut Franco halfway through the season after he gained just 170 yards. Franco Harris never played again.)

Unfortunately, much like a lot of things involving the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980s, Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career never came close to matching Franco Harris’ or recapturing the magic No. 32 was a part of in the previous decade, when he helped lead the team to four Super Bowl titles.

As the AP pointed out in a story published on October 31, 1984 shortly after the Seahawks cut Harris, Franco retired from the NFL with the most career 1,000-yard  seasons (eight) and rushing attempts (2,949).

  • Therefore, Abercrombie wasn’t just trying to fill some big shoes; he was tasked to fill, perhaps, the biggest shoes on the team, other than the cowboy boots left behind by Terry Bradshaw.

Not only did Abercrombie fail to fill Harris’ shoes, he was never the team’s leading-rusher in any given year. In six seasons with the Steelers, Abercrombie rushed for 3,343 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he often took a backseat to big, bruising fullback Frank Pollard, a 1980 11th round pick out of Baylor, ironically enough, who was Pittsburgh’s leading-rusher in the ’80s with 3,989 yards. 

Indeed, early in the Steelers 1986 season, Chuck Noll did something he was not wont to do – he picked up Earnest Jackson off of waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jackson actually ended up getting two more carries than Abercrombie, despite starting 3 fewer games.

However, Abercrombie was a decent-to-great receiver out of the backfield, and caught 139 passes during his career–including 47 for 395 yards in 1986. You can see some of Walter Abercrombie’s receiving exploits for yourself (available as of 7/15/16):

In-fact, Abercrombie had such good hands there were some fans who clamored for him to move to receiver (and not necessarily out of love), so Rich Erenberg, a ninth round pick out of Colgate in 1984, could get a chance to start at tailback.

After six years in Pittsburgh, Abercrombie, bothered by knee injuries and with younger players like Merril Hoge on the rise, was released prior to the 1988 season and finished up his career with the Philadelphia Eagles one year later.

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career Highlights

No, Abercrombie couldn’t replace Franco, and he clearly wasn’t a fan-favorite, but as he indicated to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he understood what he was up against:

“It didn’t bother me,” Abercrombie said of not living up to fan expectations. “I had some big shoes to fill, and there wasn’t any way I was going to make the fans forget about Franco.”

Abercrombie did have some decent years, however. He rushed for 851 yards in 1985. One year later, he added another 877 yards on the ground, which, coupled with those aforementioned 395 receiving yards, gave him 1,272 yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, Abercrombie’s two best years coincided with back-to-back losing seasons, which hadn’t occurred during Chuck Noll‘s regime since 1970 and 1971– not so coincidentally the last two years before Harris arrived on the scene in 1972.

But Abercrombie did have some crucial performances for the Steelers in high stakes situations. As the aforementioned Post-Gazette article pointed out, No. 34 rushed for 75 yards and added another 18 receiving yards in a Steelers 24-17 upset of the Broncos in a 1984 divisional playoff game at Mile High Stadium.

Walter Abercrombie, Sports Illustrated, Steelers, Broncos, Steelers upset Broncos Mile High, 1984

Steelers Walter Abercrombie in 1984 AFC Divisional Playoff upset of Denver; Photo Credit Sports Illustrated

Abercrombie acquitted himself so well in that playoff game, that he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  However, two weeks earlier, in the final regular season game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Raiders in Los Angeles on December 16, 1984, Abercrombie had perhaps the best day of his career–and right when the Steelers needed it most.

When the Steelers (8-7) took the field at 4 p.m. EST, they did so with the knowledge that they needed to win in-order to capture the AFC Central Division title. Earlier in the day, the Bengals wiped out the Bills, 52-21, to finish at 8-8. Cincinnati held the tiebreaker, and a Steelers loss would mean missing the postseason for the third time in five years.

Thankfully, Abercrombie came through with 111 yards on the ground and another 72 through the air–including a 59-yard catch-and-run late in the game that set-up Pollard’s one-yard touchdown plunge.

  • Pittsburgh won, 13-7, and advanced to Denver where Abercrombie and Co. pulled off the incredible playoff upset two weeks later.

Today, Abercrombie remains Baylor’s all-time leading rusher, and he’s also heavily involved with his alma mater; since 2004, he’s acted as executive director of the Baylor “B” Association.

“I had one of the best collegiate football experiences a player could have,” said Abercrombie, in a story published by Baylor Lariot in May.  “Aside from the individual honors I earned as a player, I had outstanding coaches and dedicated teammates. Also, we won a conference championship and went to two bowl games.”

According to a 1997 Sports Illustrated article featuring Abercrombie, when he came into the NFL in 1982, he was part of a rookie group of running backs that had the potential to be the best in the history of the draft (think the 1983 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks that produced Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and of course Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason, and Todd Blackledge.)

Unfortunately, other than the legendary Marcus Allen, ’82’s class of running backs failed to live up to the hype. Said Abercrombie in ’97: “You have a window of opportunity for greatness. I didn’t step through that.”

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career may have fallen short of filling the shoes left by Franco Harris, and he certainly didn’t leave behind much of a Steelers legacy. But the love and respect he has at Baylor shows that, well, maybe a Steelers legacy isn’t the only one that matters.

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RIP Buddy Ryan: Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers Shows Pittsburgh Struggling vs. 46 Defense

NFL defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan passed away this week as the league mourned one of its most create, colorful and cantankerous personalities in a generation. The Pittsburgh Steelers only stood on opposite side lines to Buddy Ryan five times and perhaps Steelers Nation should give thanks for that..

  • Buddy Ryan’s record vs. the Steelers tells tale of one-sided domination.

This site prefers to celebrate and commemorate Steelers successes, but Buddy Ryan simply had the Pittsburgh Steelers number. Sure, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Bennie Cunningham and Jim Smith might have hung 38 points on Ryan when he was defensive coordinator of the 1980 Chicago Bears. But the Steelers were 4 time Super Bowl Champions and the Bears were 4 years away from a winning record.

  • Make no mistake about it, Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense owned Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Steelers.

When Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers took their 2-8 record down the Turnpike to face Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan showed no mercy as his defenders sacked Bubby Brister 4 times and intercepted him another for good measure. The Steelers did hold a narrow lead going into the 4th quarter but the Eagles won 24 to 23.

Buddy Ryan Breifly Revives Steelers-Oilers Rivalry

Pittsburgh paid little mind when Houston Oiler’s named Buddy Ryan defensive coordinator early in’93 off season. They should have because Buddy Ryan was about to reignight a revival of the Steelers-Oilers rivalry that was as intense as it was brief.

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Buddy Ryan and Michael Barrow during Ryan’s stint as Houston Oilers defensive coordinator; Photo Credit: John Makely, Houston Chronicle

In the late 80’s the Giants, Redskin and Eagles vied for supremacy in NFC East and interesting divisional dynamic emerged. Bill Parcell’s Giants had an edge on the Redskins, the Redskins had an edge on the Eagles, and the Eagles edge on the Giants. In other words, Buddy Ryan knew how to defend against Ron Erhardt, and Ron Erhardt was Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator.

  • The first matchup came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1993 on Sunday Night Football.

The Steelers and Oilers were going toe-to-toe for AFC Central supremacy, and it wasn’t even close. Oiler’s “only” won 23 to 3, but that doesn’t even begin to detail their domination, as the Oilers sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times and Mike Tomczak two more times. Houston limited Steelers running backs Leroy Thompson and Merril Hoge gained 38 yards on the ground.

  • The Steelers in fact pulled O’Donnell, put him back in the game, then pulled him again.

Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, and Dwight Stone dropped multiple passes including one in the end zone that saw Jeff Graham have the ball hit him in the hands, bounce off his face mask, and then slip again through is hands. Late in the game a Houston defender removed Mike Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him.

  • The Steelers rallied behind, “We play them again.”

Play them they did. Perhaps their best effort of the game was Gary Anderson’s deep kickoff. The 26 to 17 final score makes it look like the Steelers were competitive. Those 17 points were pure garbage time glory. The Oilers schooled the Steelers in every sense of the word.

Again Oilers defenders dropped O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow that one-season wonder.

After the game, Buddy Ryan boasted, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Few Can Match Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers

Steelers fans hoped in vain for a third shot at Buddy Ryan in the 1993 playoffs, but the Steelers would tangle with Buddy Ryan one final time in 1994 season on Ryan’s final NFL stop as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Dan Rooney has stated that the Steelers trip to Arizona in 1994 was the first time he noticed an unusual number of Steelers fan in an opposing stadium. At the time however, the game was known for several bizarre plays. One was failed fake field goal that saw Gary Anderson gain his only 3 yards rushing in 23 NFL seasons. Another was Eric Green running out of bounds with a clear shot at the end zone simply because he ran out of gas.

  • Those blunders, pared with some uncanny turnovers led to 20 to 17 Steelers over time loss.

Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense didn’t dominate the Steelers in that final match up as it had a season before, nonetheless, they did drop Neil O’Donnell to the turf 4 times. More importantly, they bettered Buddy Ryan’s lifetime record against the Steelers to 4-1.

  • There are not too many coaches who stood opposite Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher who can boast that kind of winning percentage, but Buddy Ryan can.

Buddy Ryan self-assuredness made Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick look humble by comparison. But when it came to confronting the Steelers, Buddy Ryan walked the walk, and talked the talk. May Buddy Ryan rest in peace as Steel Curtain Rising offers his sons Rob and Rex Ryan its sympathy and prayers.

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