Review of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel – Jack Lambert Liked It and So Will Serious Steelers Fans

Who are former Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Dudley, Elbie Nickel, John Reger and Myron Pottios and what they mean to the franchise’s legacy? Unless you’re in your mid-60’s or older, you’ve probably never heard of them, let alone considered their importance.

After you read Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel, an 187 page volume published in 2006 and reissued in 2011, you’ll know more about 36 men who wore the Black and Gold before during and after the Super Bowl era and what’s more, Wexell’s work will make you care about their contribution to the Steelers legacy.

  • At first glance, Jim Wexell’s lean, simple structure to Men of Steel might appear to be a drawback, but in truth it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Each of the 36 Steelers Wexell profiles gets between four and five pages to tell their story, including first hand interviews, highlights from the player’s career and an update on each player’s “Life’s Work.”

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger on the cover of the 2011 edition of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel

Wexell effectively employs this spare approach to lend a rich relevance to the stories of familiar players to players from yesterday that even the most diehard Steelers fans will struggle to recognize.

The average “educated Steelers fan” might be vaguely familiar with the Steelers role in effectively ending the career of Y.A. Title, but most probably don’t know that the man who sacked Tuttle on that fateful play was John Baker, a man who went on to serve as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina for the better part of two decades.

Devoting so much space to pre-Noll era Steelers might seem counter-intuitive from a commercial stand point, but Wexell explains, “I wanted to get the same amount of Steelers from each era, with the stipulation that I have to talk to them.”

Expanding on this goal, Wexell details, “I heard that Steelers fans wanted more of the stars, but I just assumed they had access to the internet. I’ve always wanted to know about some of the older players.” Wexell learned and shared stories.

And on that front, Wexell delivers, benefitting on guidance from the Steelers legendary PR man Joe Gordon, who for example, pointed him in the direction of Johnny Lattner, the only Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the Steelers.

Jim Wexell weaves each tale by starting with a key fact or action taken by the player, establishing its significance to the narrative and then providing the reader with a firsthand account from the player. After that, Wexell navigates seamlessly through the player’s college, pro and post-football careers.

  • Each chapter ends with the player moving on just as the reader turns the page to begin the next in medias res narrative a new player.

A book browser who might pick up Men of Steel, scan its table of contents, and see that Wexell takes 16 chapters to get to the beginning of the Super Steelers era could easily put the book down thinking there’s nothing interesting in there for fans focused on rooting for Mike Tomlin to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

Wexell combines crisp, succinct sentences with detailed, game-specific research to deliver compelling stories about men who blazed the trails that opened the way for the NFL and the Steelers to become the icons we adore today.

Wexell matches his economy of words with copious research, as he relates, “There’s really my art. I love research. I love sitting in libraries and poring through microfiche.”

Men of Steel Narrative Galvanized by Super Bowl Era and 80’s Stories

The majority of Wexell’s Men of Steel is devoted to telling the stories of the Steelers from the Chuck Noll era onward. Steelers fans will see names that they know, starting with Joe Greene and ending with stories on Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger.

Wexell secured an exclusive interview with the Steelers signal caller prior to Super Bowl XLV and also documents a pre-draft nugget linking Roethlisberger to Steelers scout Mark Gorscak (the need for greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation process has long been a pet cause of this site.)

Along the way, Wexell scores a rare interview with Jack Lambert. When prodded about how he got the reclusive Steelers legend to speak, Wexell shares that he’d tried, and failed to get an interview for his first book, Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain and for Men of Steel:

[For] , Men of Steel, I made the cursory call. He didn’t answer. I left a message, again, figuring he wouldn’t call back. But he did. “I don’t usually return calls to people like you,” he said with a pause. “But I thought your first book was the best Steelers book ever written. How can I help you?”

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

Lambert not only answered Wexell’s questions, but was surprised that the author only wanted to speak with him for 45 minutes and confesses, “To this day I’m kicking myself for not having more philosophical questions for a guy who obviously wanted to talk about pure football.”

Still, Wexell got enough to impress one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time, as after sending him a copy, Jack Lambert wrote Wexell back:

It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting down in the basement with my friends, a Michelob bottle and a pack of Tareytons. A long overdue thank you for sending me “Men of Steel.” … I just finished it and enjoyed catching up on some of my old teammates.

Aside from Lambert, Wexell also had the foresight to include stories on then yet-to-be Hall of Famers Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene.

But that’s essentially a function of the fact that we already know so much about those men. You’re not surprised when you enjoy reading Merril Hoge’s reflections on how special the 1989 Steelers playoff run is the way you unexpectedly crave more after learning of John Reger’s role in the 1955 MNF season opening win over the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field.

  • And, to be clear, Wexell succeeds in providing fresh insights on modern-era Steelers.

For transparency’s sake, its important to note that Men of Steel is not a perfect work and does contain a few factual errors. But just as a quarterback can throw an interception but still play a great game, these mistakes don’t keep Men of Steel from being a great book.

When asked what Steelers fans in 2018 can expect to gain by reading Men of Steel, Wexell concedes that he hasn’t given the question much thought, but then offers, “I love writing biographies because that’s where I learn the most.”

This reviewer concurs. Jim Wexell’s love for his subject matter is apparent on every page of the book, and so are the lessons he’s learned from those Men of Steel.

As of this posting, limited copies of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel remain available on Amazon.com.

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20 Years Ago Today: Greg Lloyd’s Steelers Career Ends – Looking Back at a Linebacking Legend

Time flies. 20 years ago today the Steelers cut former All Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd. It hardly seems possible, just as it hardly seems possible that 10 years have passed since we published our original version of this profile of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. But it has been that long.

Pittsburgh yields nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to linebacking excellence, and Greg Lloyd distinguished himself as a top member of that elite group.

  • In 1987 the Steelers drafted Greg Lloyd out of Ft. Valley State in the six round.

Expectations of 6th round picks from Ft. Valley State run low, but Greg Lloyd so distinguished himself that ESPN ranked him at 27th in 2008 on its list of “Top 50 All Time Draft Steals.” Greg Lloyd would have ranked higher on the list, but so many of the things Greg Lloyd brought the field were intangible.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

If, as Mike Tomlin used to say, Hines Ward is a football player first and a wide receiver second, then Greg Lloyd was a warrior before he was an outside linebacker.

  • Greg Lloyd was about intensity, attitude, fury, and “Just Plain Nasty.”

What most people fail to realize is that Greg Lloyd played his entire career with an ACL missing in one knee, and another ACL basically stapled together in his other knee. Lloyd overcame these liabilities because he had an undeniable on-the-field presence.

Jerry Olsavsky tells the story of making a tackle as a rookie and reaching down to help the opposing player up, only to have his hand slapped away by as Greg Lloyd commanded “We don’t do that here!”

Greg Lloyd was relentless. Lloyd was not blessed with anything near the athletic skills of Rod Woodson, but Greg Lloyd set the tone for the Steelers defense. Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career saw Number 95 start 125 games for Pittsburgh, register 53.5 sacks, make 659 tackles, and force 34 fumbles. Not bad, for a guy out of Ft. Valley State.

When Rod Woodson went down in the first game of the 1995 season, Lloyd animated the concept of stepping it up. In his best season ever, Greg Lloyd made 117 tackles, registered 6.5 sacks, intercepted three balls, and forced six fumbles.

Greg Lloyd exploded at the snap and wrought havoc in the offensive backfield. Seldom was Number 95 outside of the camera view when a tackle was being made. Greg Lloyd was the rare player who altered the course games with the sheer force of his will.

The Steelers were losing 9-3 at half time in the final game of the 1993 season to a mediocre Browns team. They needed to win for a shot at the playoffs. In the locker room Greg Lloyd read his team the riot act, smashing a chair, offering to go out and play offense if that unit continued to be unable to do its part.

  • Greg Lloyd backed word with deed.

Two weeks prior he’d torn his hamstring, but readied to play by doing more than the required rehabilitation. He dominated the Browns, leading the team in tackles, making one sack, forcing two fumbles, and saving a touchdown by running down a Cleveland ball carrier from what seemed like ten yards behind.

  • Unfortunately, in the first game of 1996 it was Greg Lloyd’s turn to go down with a season-ending injury.

He recovered and was back on the field for opening day 1997, but was slow to regain his dominating presence. Greg Lloyd opened the second half of the season by registering a sack in games 9, 10, and 11. He opened week 12 against the Eagles like a house of fire, knocking Bobby Hoying down as he threw the ball away on an early pass. After that play I remember proclaiming to the members of the PSFCOB at the Purple Goose Saloon, “Greg Lloyd is Back!”

  • Alas, that would be Lloyd’s last play for the Steelers.

He seriously injured his ankle on that play, and a brush with Veteran’s Stadium artificial turf resulted in a staph infection that caused him to lose more than 20 pounds.

Still hobbled by injury, Lloyd nonetheless reported to mini-camp and drilled with the team, an act which made an impression on rookie Hines WardBill Cowher praised Lloyd’s competitive drive, but the team was forced to cut him shortly before training camp.

That was 2o years ago this week. While Joey Porter, James Farrior, Jason Gildon and for a time LaMarr Woodley certainly carried on the Steelers linebacker legacy, but no one (save for James Harrison) has ever matched Greg Lloyd’s intensity, explosiveness, or on-the-field presence.

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Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

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Watch Tower: Gabe Rivera-Ryan Shazier Connection, 2018 & 2003 Draft, OLB Swap & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.

Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.

But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.

Gabe Rivera, Gabriel Rivera, Steelers 1983 draft

Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com

Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers

Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.

  • And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.

Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.

  • However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.

Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.

The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Who Is Mike Tomlin?

Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”

Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live feed notwithstanding.)

  • But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.

In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.

  • Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.

During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”

  • Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.

Junod traveled to Pittsburgh three times and was with the team training prior to the Pro Bowl. During that time Junod talked to, or at least secured quotes from strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont, Pittsburgh pastor Ed Glover, former Tomlin coach Bill Stewart, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Tony Dungy, Joe Haden, Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Mitchell, Cam Heyward and Ryan Clark.

  • Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”

Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.

Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present

Is ESPN’s Jermey Fowler a Watch Tower reader? The odds are against it, but he has nonetheless been answering our pleas. Three years ago, the Watch Tower lamented the dearth of stories that provided insight into the Steelers draft process, drawing a contrast with the rich narrative that surrounds the Steelers drafts of the 70’s.

Troy Polamalu, touchdown, AFC Championship, pick six, touchdown

Troy Polamalu’s AFC Championship Touchdown

This year Fowler delivered again with an article on the Troy Polamalu trade. As with his article on Brown, Fowler didn’t have much luck getting current Steelers employees to discuss the trade, but he still shed new light on one of the most consequential draft-day trades in Steelers history.

  • Once again, Fowler wins Watch Tower kudos.

Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.

Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.

So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.

Split on OLB Shift Story

The decision to swap Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from right to left OLB is the few bits of true news to come out of Steelers OTAs. Dale Lolley had Jim Wexell had indicated to their readers that this move was coming early in the off season, and addition reporting by Wexell during OTA’s suggests the move is permanent.

  • Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.

Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.

Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee

In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.

  • As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.

Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?

Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.

Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.

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Back to Basics: Keith Butler’s Promise for Steelers to Practice Tackling is Music to the Ears

“Back to Basics.” Chuck Noll would be smiling broadly if he’d heard Keith Butler‘s promise that the Steelers would be practicing tackling at St. Vincents during summer of 2018. If Michael MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work is any guide, Chuck Noll uttered “Back to Basics” as much if not more than Mike Tomlin trots out “The Standard is the Standard.”

Sean Davis after missing a tackle on Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via USA Today For the Win.

Chuck Noll was complex person – how many other NFL coaches killed time before playoff games by reading books on celestial maritime navigation – but his coaching philosophies were simple. Noll understood that you win championships by excelling at doing ordinary things – blocking, tackling, taking the right angles, etc…

And that’s why Noll would instruct Andy Russell, the only legitimate Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin, how many inches his feet should be apart, and how to hold his hands prior to the snap. Thus, Andy Russell grew from a good player to a great player.

Seriously, if the Steelers fail to bag Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 do you REALLY think its because Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed a couple of days of OTAs? Troy Polamalu routinely missed OTAs and he seemed to do just fine.

But Steelers OTAs and minicamps sometimes yield useful news nuggets, and hopefully defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s comments about the pitiful state of tackling in Pittsburgh will prove to be one of them. Per the Tribune-Review’s Joe Rutter’s report, Butler isn’t pulling any punches in his self-assessment: “It’s as simple as you can get. Look at the whole last year and we missed a ton of tackles.”

  • Fortunately, Butler plans to do something about it.

According to Butler, the Steelers plan to focus on tackling during training camp, offering that the art of tackling isn’t even something that’s taught much at the college level anymore:

When we get them, we can’t think they know the fundamentals of playing football, we have to teach them the fundamentals of playing football, and it’s our job to do that.

Those are refreshing words from a defensive coordinator of a team that gave up three rushing touchdowns to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a single quarter during the AFC Divisional playoff game. For years, fans have complained about how missed tackles have plagued the Steelers, peppering beat reporters like Ed Bouchette with questions about why things never improve.

  • Bouchette would remind readers that live tackling in practice was a relic, of well, Chuck Noll’s time.

It should be noted, at St. Vincents in Steelers 2013 Mike Tomlin departed from the script and ordered live tackling during training camp. Tomlin hadn’t even told Kevin Colbert he was going to do this, who apparently went apoplectic when he saw it. Tomlin’s goal was to form a “battle hardened unit.”

That didn’t quite work, as the Steelers lost 4 starters to injury on opening day and went 0-4 and then 2-6. And no one rushed to apologize, “But they’re the best tackling 0-4 team we’ve ever seen….”

  • But there’s a difference between simply having live tackling in practice and actually teaching tackling.

Butler’s comments suggest that Steelers coaches are going to focus on the latter. No ever one solved a problem they failed to acknowledge. Butler clearly recognizes the Steelers problem with missed tackles, and he plans to address it, by going back to basics. Chuck Noll would concur.

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Dwight Stone’s Steelers Career Deserves to be Remembered for More than Just “Hands of Stone”

My first memory of the Steelers Dwight Stone came late in the 1987 season–his rookie year.

The Steelers had just secured a hard-fought 13-9 victory over a very tough Seattle Seahawks‘ team at old Three Rivers Stadium, and Dwight Stone, an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, clasped hands with rookie running back Merril Hoge, a 10th-round pick out of Idaho State, as the two celebrated a win that kept their team’s playoff hopes alive.

I remember thinking that that scene of two youngsters and draft long-shots enjoying a victory was very endearing (although, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know the word endearing even existed as a 15-year old).

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

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

Today, it’s pretty common to read about draft prospects with 4.2 speed, but back when Dwight Stone made his professional football debut as a running back, that kind of 40-yard burst was not nearly as common.

In fact, as per Dwight Stone’s official Wikipedia page, the late, great head coach Chuck Noll said Stone was “the fastest player I’ve ever coached over 40 years. He has BEEP BEEP speed.”

Chuck Noll was referring to the cartoon character, the Road Runner.

  • Unfortunately for the real life Dwight Stone, his first two years as an NFL running back didn’t produce much running, as he totaled a combined 262 rushing yards on 57 carries.

However, Dwight Stone did get a lot of work as a kick-returner during his first two seasons. In fact, in a memorable 37-34 last-second Monday Night Football victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston–a win that came at the tail-end of a very difficult 5-11 ’88 campaign–Stone returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.

In 1989, perhaps due to a crowded backfield that included Tim Worley, the Steelers first pick in 1989 NFL Draft, Warren Williams the 1988 Steelers rookie of the year and Merril Hoge, who posted 705 on the ground in ’88 earlier, Dwight Stone and his world-class speed switched positions, as he tried his hand (and feet) at wide receiver.

Despite his tantalizing speed, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career as a field stretching Mike Wallace type of wide out never really materialized.

And it wasn’t just because he wasn’t lucky enough to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball — On one infamous play in Denver in 1990, Dwight Stone stepped out of bounds during a 90-yard reception that actually would have gone for a score had he been able to keep track of the sideline.

ESPN’s Chris Berman, who loved to create nicknames for players, frequently referred to Stone as “Dwight and the Family Stone,” but in my house, he was often called Dwight “Hands of” Stone thanks to his habit of dropping passes.

Which isn’t to say that Stone didn’t make his share of impact plays. He did, including:

Dwight Stone’s best seasons as a Steeler came during a three-year stretch between 1991-1993, when he caught a combined 107 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns, to go along with a combined 241 yards on the ground.

Following the Steelers 1993 season, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe determined that neither Jeff Graham nor Dwight Stone were Super Bowl caliber wide receivers. Jeff Graham was allowed to leave as a free agent. The Steelers kept Stone on the roster with the hope of using him as a utility back, similar to roles that Eric Metcalf and Dave Meggett played in Cleveland and New York.

  • Unfortunately, for Stone, that role never emerged as the Steelers only threw 10 passes his way and limited his carries to two.

However, Dwight Stone will always hold the distinction the distinction of scoring the last touchdown of Chuck Noll’s coaching career, when he caught a pass from quarterback Bubby Brister and raced 56 yards–a score that would earn The Emperor his final victory, a win over Bill Belichick no less, in his final game after 23 seasons.

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

Following the 1994 campaign, the Steelers  left Dwight Stone unprotected in the 1995 expansion draft, and the Carolina Panthers took him (along with Gerald Williams and Tim McKyer, for those of you taking notes).

  • Stone would finish out the final six years of his career as mostly a special teams contributor for both the Panthers and Jets.

According to a story published on the Panthers official team website in January of 2017, following his retirement from football after the 2000 season, Stone embarked on a career in law enforcement and spent 13 years as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” said Stone courtesy of Panthers.com. “I always wanted to go into law enforcement or the military before I even considered football. It just happened that a country boy from Florala, Alabama, was able to move and accomplish things that God knows I never thought I would see in my life.”

  • Perhaps in today’s day and age, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career might have been more prolific in a league that employs more players with his kind of skill-set.

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course, but not many undrafted free agents out of schools like Middle Tennessee State last 14 years in the NFL. For that and for what he accomplished after his playing days, Dwight Stone should feel very proud.

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Back in Block! 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey is Perfect if Bittersweet Choice for Generation X

The 2018 Steelers throwback jersey choice to revive the 1978-1978 jersey with block numbers has electrified Steelers Nation. After all, who could argue?

Those two championships don’t simply mark milestones in franchise accomplishment, they represent milestones in football excellence.

2018 steelers throwback jerseys, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Franco Harris, John Banazack

JuJu Smith-Schuster donning Steelers throwback jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The 1978 Steelers win over the Dallas Cowboys made Pittsburgh the first team to win three Super Bowls, and gave the Black and Gold its SECOND win over a fellow multiple Super Bowl winner. Victory in Super Bowl XIV over the Los Angeles Rams made the Steelers the first team to win four Super Bowls and the only team to win four Championships in six years.

  • It took ten years for another franchise to tie the Steelers 4 Super Bowl mark, and no one, not even the Patriots have matched Pittsburgh’s record of winning four Super Bowls in 6 years.

The Steelers changed the block numbering after the 1996 season much to the chagrin of some fans. Honestly, I’m old enough to remember Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart modeling the rounded number jerseys and thinking, “That just doesn’t look right.” Some fans still argue that the franchise has never been the same since.

Still, conjuring images of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward decked out in block letters just as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert did before them is the perfect recipe for raising the hair on the back of your neck just a little.

And yet, the Steelers 2018 throwback jersey choice efficiently serves another, if less pleasant, purpose….

Why 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey Choice is Bittersweet for Generation X

…The Steelers 2018 throwback uniforms are also the perfect remedy for making us Generation Xer’s feel old. Yep. If you’re a Fortysomething Steelers fan admit it, when you saw the announcement about going back to block letters, you probably thought, “Gee, that’s not much of a throwback.”

  • Well, yeah, it’s been 20 years since the Steelers last wore the block jerseys.

IT can really be that long can it, you demand? Yes, it can. The last time Pittsburgh wore the block jerseys was Fog Bowl II, the 1996 playoff loss to the Patriots, which was Rod Woodson’s final game as a Steeler.

Fans from Generation X have earned a special niche in Steelers history.

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Lynn Swann Super Bowl X catch. Credit: AP, via NY Daily News

Our first memories of the Black and Gold are wrapped in Super Bowl glory. The Immaculate Reception was  established history by the time we were able to fully grasp its spectacular nature. Those of us growing up outside of Pittsburgh enjoyed our grandparents sending down Steelers t-shirts, jackets, hats and gloves which drew envy from everyone else on the playground, because we were the champions!

  • Be honest fellow fortysomething fans. Raise your hand if as a kid you really thought that the Steelers had inspired Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Our parents had to explain to us, and it took a long time for us believe them, that the Steelers had been terrible when they were our age. Then, just as we were taking the Steelers excellence for granted, the 1980’s arrived, and with it came mediocrity.

Yet we remained faithful. Always feeling, often times feelings fueled by little more than naiveté, that Chuck Noll’s really wasn’t that far from making the Steel Curtain Rise again. The 1987 tease at a playoff run and late season surges in 1986 and even in 1988 seem to legitimatize our optimism.

  • And of course the 1989 Steelers improbable playoff run steeled our passion for the Black and Gold in a way that fans from both earlier and later generations struggle to understand.

Of course the 9-7 and 7-9 finishes of the 1990 and 1991 Steelers amounted bit of a buzz kill, yet Bill Cowher’s 1992 return to Pittsburgh awoke the sleeping giant we now call Steelers Nation. Steelers fans from Generation X had expected One for the Thumb to come before we got out of elementary school. Now Cowher Power promised to deliver in the 1990’s. Yet, after teasing in Super Bowl XXX (thanks Neil), it came up short.

  • Instead, we had to wait until our 30’s for Lombardi’s 5 and 6 to arrive in Pittsburgh.

And now, with the window closing on bringing home Lombardi Number Seven during the Roethlisberger era, we now hope that a return, albeit for one game, to the block letters, will be the talisman the turns the trick.

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Why the Steelers T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree Outside Linebacker Swap Could Be Good News

Perhaps the biggest news, if not only piece of true news coming out of the Steelers first OTAs last week was that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the Steelers twin first round draft pick outside linebackers, were switching sides.

A lot of the “news” that comes out of OTA’s, or football in shorts, doesn’t amount to much (remember the Dallas Baker OTA breakout in 2008? Nope, neither did I), but if Jim Wexell’s reporting is correct, the Steelers outside linebacker swap is permanent.

  • Such a shift might sound crazy for a player like T.J. Watt, perhaps the more promising stud outside linebacker coming off a tremendous first year.

On the surface, this might seem kind of silly. Why would a defense that’s been struggling to find its way the past few seasons mettle with perhaps its best young asset and someone who could develop into its best splash-player?

  • Maybe because that defense needs T.J. Watt to make splashes in other areas, like while covering the tight end, a job Dupree was often tasked with a season ago.

With the unfortunate spinal injury suffered by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier late last year, the Steelers defense lost its best athlete, a player the unit relied on to do many things.

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T.J. Watt strip sacks Joey Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

T.J. Watt may not be on Ryan Shazier‘s athletic level, but judging by his ability to switch from tight end to outside linebacker in college, along with his ability to quickly grasp the Steelers defense in his very first season, he may actually be pretty darn close.

In addition to his seven sacks, T.J. Watt recorded 54 tackles, seven passes defensed and an interception in 2017. And for good measure, he even blocked a field goal.

Like Ryan Shazier, T.J. Watt certainly has the ability–both physically and mentally–to do a lot of things on the football field, and perhaps those abilities are needed in other areas of the defense.

  • Will this hurt the Steelers pass rush? It says it here that it won’t.

For starters, Pittsburgh recorded a franchise record 56 sacks a season ago, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree accounting for only 13 of those. Second, while Bud  Dupree has struggled to get over the hump, he’s clearly shown a more explosive pass-rushing gear that, say, Jarvis Jones. Put over on a side where rushing the passer is a bigger part of his job requirement, Bud Dupree might actually excel and turn into the player many thought he was tantalizingly close to becoming even a year ago at this time.

  • The whole key in this potential switch, of course, is T.J. Watt.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler obviously don’t want to make its defense weaker by putting such a young stud in a position where his skills won’t flourish.

But while it is a small sample size, T.J. Watt has shown nothing but the ability to be a stud no matter where he plays on a football field.

In today’s Steelers defense where outside linebackers are asked to do so much more than just rush the passer, the left side just might be where T.J. Watt can do the most good.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

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True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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