Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Long-time Steelers Player and Broadcaster, Tunch Ilkin, Passes Away After Battle with ALS

Tunch Ilkin, a long-time Steelers offensive tackle and broadcaster, passed away on Saturday due to complications from ALS.

Photo credit: WTAJ

It was a very brief battle for Ilkin, who was just diagnosed with the disease in September of 2020 before going public with his illness a month later.

Ilkin, who was born in Turkey in 1957 before his family moved to the United States when he was a small child, was a sixth-round pick out of Indiana State in the 1980 NFL Draft. Ilkin, who played right tackle, didn’t become a full-time starter until 1983; it was the final game of that ’83 campaign–a 38-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs–when Ilkin first came known to a national audience, thanks to being repeatedly victimized by the legendary Lyle Alzado.

Ilkin went on to survive that bit of baptism by fire and would remain a fixture on the Steelers offensive line for a decade. Despite the Steelers’ post-Super Bowl dip into mediocrity (and worse) by the mid-to-late-’80s, Ilkin emerged as a team leader and one of the best right tackles in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in both 1988 and 1989.

Ilkin started 143 games for the Steelers in 13 seasons before signing a free-agent deal with the Packers in 1993.

Not long after retiring from football following the ’93 season, Ilkin began his broadcasting career. Ilkin did color commentary for NBC in 1995, but his real broadcasting career began in 1998 when he joined the Steelers Radio Network, alongside Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

Cope retired following the 2004 season and Ilkin became the lone color analyst in the booth, a role he would hold through the 2020 season before announcing his retirement this past June.

Ilkin became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community during his career as both a player and especially as a broadcaster. His work with local charities, including Light of Life, was well known, as was his relationship with the Christian community.

His close friendship with Craig Wolfley, a fellow Steelers offensive lineman and 1980 draft choice, was also a big part of Ilkin’s broadcasting career, as the two often seemed inseparable, both during broadcasts of Steelers games–Wolfley was the team’s sideline reporter for many years before being promoted to the booth this summer–and away from the field when they hosted the radio show, In the Locker room with Tunch and Wolf.

  • Ilkin’s first wife, Sharon, passed away from breast cancer in 2012, and he re-married the following year.

When Ilkin’s death was reported on Saturday, the news was met with an outpouring of love from the Steelers, their players–both past and present–the fans and the local media.

Tunch Ilkin was 63.

 

 

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Screw Seinfeld: When it Comes to Steelers Legends I Cheer Players, Not Clothes

Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that cheering for sports teams was essentially like cheering for laundry.

Seinfeld, a huge baseball fan and a diehard supporter of the New York Mets, was talking about the changing landscape of sports in the 1980s and 1990s due to the realities brought about by free agency. To Seinfeld, it boiled down to “Cheering Clothes.” Don’t remember? Here’s a refresher:

That’s why comedians are comedians, while the rest of us are mere mortals: they have a way of seeing things differently.

  • I can tell you that I’ve become a bit hardened as a sports fan over the years.

I’ve grown a bit jaded. When a player is drafted by the Steelers, for example, I immediately start the clock and begin counting down the time until he becomes a free agent. The closer the Steelers and the player get to that contract year, the more I start to prepare myself for his departure.

A lot of fans have taken a more clinical and almost business-like approach to sports fandom in the free-agent and salary cap era we’ve been living in for decades. “What can they get for him?” is a question only general managers used to ask when discussing players headed into their contract years. If the player was deemed too expensive, past his prime or simply not worth keeping around, a gm may have strongly considered flipping said player for either another player or a draft choice.

  • Now it’s common for most fans to be concerned about such things.
  • They’ve been trained to think that way, to have a more business-like mindset.

Occasionally, however, you’ll see a fan base and city truly embrace a star player and give him nothing but love. There is just something about seeing that player in that uniform and doing the things that make him so great.

Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, AFC Championship

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Troy Polmalu after the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis used to be that for me.

There was just something about watching The Bus score a touchdown; it had more weight to it than when anyone else did it (no pun intended). It gave you that special feeling, like an iconic character from a famous movie franchise. Bettis just had a special way about him, an aura that made you root for him harder than other Steelers’ players. That’s what made Bettis the face of the franchise.

It’s rare to have that feeling, but I got it during the Steelers’ dress rehearsal preseason game while watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger make his preseason debut against the Lions at Heinz Field and subsequently do his thing like only he could. Much like with the running back position after Bettis, it’s going to take me a long time to “trust” another Steelers quarterback once Roethlisberger retires.

I still don’t have the same faith in Minkah Fitzpatrick that I once had in Troy Polamalu at the safety position. True, Fitzpatrick is a free safety, while Polamalu played strong safety.

But you know what I mean. Fitzpatrick is now THAT guy in Pittsburgh’s secondary; he’s the defensive chess piece that Steelers’ coaches use to make life a living heck for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Fitzpatrick is also world-class and a First-Team All-Pro.

I’m glad that Polamalu played his entire career in Pittsburgh. I’m glad that he received such a heartwarming outpouring of love from Steelers fans when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early August.

It gave me butterflies.

  • Watching Ben Roethlisberger do his thing in his lone preseason action gave me that same warm and fuzzy feeling.

To repeat: there’s just something about certain Steelers players doing their thing on the football field.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s not just about rooting for laundry, even as I approach my 50s. It’s not just about contract stuff, analytics and the salary cap.

  • There’s still room to be a fan of individual players.

They say no player is ever bigger than a team. While that might be true in theory, it’s really not when it comes to certain ones.

  • Some players transcend their teams because of their importance and their aura.

Players like Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are the kinds of Steelers legends who make you root harder for them than others. You want them to succeed because of who and what they are and what they represent.

Laundry isn’t capable of giving you that.

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The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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“Yes, Its ‘Only Preseason'” but Ben Roethlisberger Does Need to Play vs Lions

The Steelers will host the Detroit Lions this Saturday night for their third preseason game. Assuming he follows tradition, Steelers head coach will use this game as his tune up for the regular season. Translation: The Steelers starters will play.

  • Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

    Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

    “Starters” likely includes Ben Roethlisberger.

That’s a smart move by Mike Tomlin, although others disagree. This sentiment is common, but a single quote from Mark Kaboly sums up the mentality. In stating his case that Dwayne Haskins deserves time again opposing 1st string QBs, Kaboly argues:

Why not give him a shot against the Lions? Roethlisberger doesn’t need to play in a preseason game. Give Haskins a full first half against a team that will be playing its second preseason game. [Emphasis added]

It is funny. “Practice makes perfect” is one of the first things you drill into a kid’s head the moment he or she starts training for something, be it a football, some other sport, dancing, karate or learning to play a musical instrument. We tell our kids that because it is true.

But that truth is too often betrayed by the mentality that, once you reach a certain level or age, you no longer need to practice. Really? In a previous life I hosted scores of technology focused webcasts. As the pandemic has shown Zoom, Teams and GoTo Meeting are wonderful tools, but things happen.

And you know what? When “Things happened” during those webcasts the presenters that had practiced still gave good webcasts. The ones that hadn’t? Not so much.

  • But we don’t need to stick to the abstract with the Steelers.

Recent history offers a guide. Rewind to the Steelers 2019 opening day debacle against the Patriots. Writing in Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley offered:

Patriots ball, first drive it’s third-and-10. Brady rears back and fires the ball over the middle, and one-hopped it to Julian Edelman, incomplete. Yes, I’m thinking, Brady had under 25 live snaps or so in preseason games. He’s a little bit off. Brady needs to ramp up to game speed. Little did I realize Brady would need a very short ramp.

Wolf was right. Brady needed little ramp to reach Super Bowl form that night. Roethlisberger was “rusty,” put generously, the entire night. But contrast to Brady, Roethlisberger had only thrown 13 passes in the 2019 preseason. In other words, Ben had ½ the work that Brady did.

  • Anyone think now or think then that Ben was the superior quarterback? Mean either.

“But wait! That’s not a fair comparison because Ben was only a few passes away from needing major elbow surgery!” you protest. Yes. I concede. You’re right.

And that brings me to my next point.

Steelers Need to See What They Have in Big Ben

Mark Kaboly followed his article on the QB competition between Haskins and Mason Rudolph with a feature on the 90 passes Ben Roethlisberger threw in a day of practice. Kaboly’s article is excellent. He delivers readers the type of “Fly on the Wall” view of Steelers practice viewed through the lens of an experienced beat writer.

Kaboly’s article yields 2 clear take aways:

1. Mike Tomlin is clearly trying to preserve wear-and-tear on Ben Roethlisberger
2. Ben Roethlisberger is throwing a lot of interceptions

Kaboly isn’t the only beat writer to share this observation about interceptions. Jim Wexell has mentioned interception several times this summer already and admits he’s “concerned.” Now stir in the fact that the Steelers have a new offensive coordinator, a new running back, and a new offensive line.

Even under normal circumstances, this group needs to maximize time working together in “live fire” conditions. Coaches need to see if this unit can function cohesively as a team.

  • Intra squad scrimmages are nice, but there’s no substitute for the crucible of live competition.

And should that crucible reveal Ben Roethlisberger as the weak links in the chain, then there’s no benefit to waiting until September to find out.

 

 

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.

Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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