[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.
When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.
Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo
Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?
Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.
Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.
In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:
Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs
In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)
On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.
Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.
But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.
But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.
Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris‘ tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.
It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.
Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.
But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.
Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports
Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg
When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.
For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.
As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.
As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.
Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…
Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence has spilled-over into the regular season.
For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.
Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.
James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada
The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.
Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?
Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).
Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes, perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.
Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%
“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”
Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:
Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs
Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.
In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9% but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.
No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.
Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.
Le’Veon Bell obviously has.
People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.
But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?
Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.
The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.
While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.
And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.
So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.
Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports
1. Put It Together on Defense
8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:
The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.
But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.
Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.
Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.
Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red ZoneOffense must Improve. Period
3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much
In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.
Ok. NFL offenses have changed.
In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).
And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:
Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks toLeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.
But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.
4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected
OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.
Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.
But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?
The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.
The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.
The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.
Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.
That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor Class became official last week and the selection committee chose to dive head first launching the Steelers Hall of Honor by naming 27 members to be inducted this week:
Going forward, the plan is to induct 2-4 new members to the Steelers Hall of Honor every year. The Steelers Hall of Honor 2017 Class will take their place Alumni Weekend (Nov. 25-26), and they be recognized during halftime of that weekend’s game between the Steelers and Packers.
Fair enough. It will be a spectacle to celebrate in Black and Gold. But there’s a problem with the Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor class: It is too big.
Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriola & Mel Blount announce the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class. Photo credit: Steelers.com
Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Simply Too Large
As a life-long Steelers fan and armature Steelers historian, yours truly can’t quibble with any of the selections, save for Walter Kesiling, the coach who cut Johnny Unitas without some much as given him a practice snap.
But perhaps Wiesling does deserve induction, and the rest of the members certainly do.
In this light, the selection committee consisting of Art Rooney II, Joe Gordon, Bob Labriola, Stan Savran and Tony Quatrini chose to operate on the philosophy of “They’re going ot make it eventually, so why not induct them now?” Bob Labriola more or less seem to be speaking to that point, when he said the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class was more about recognition, then about competition.
Steelers linebacking legend Andy Russell. Photo Credit: Andy Russell.org
To that end, you can see the Steelers MO in selecting members from the Chuck Noll era: All of the Hall of Famers earned induction, as well as Donnie Shell,Andy Russell and L.C. Greenwood – three players whom the franchise also think are Hall of Fame worthy, but denied recognition because of the “Already too many Steelers in Canton” mentality.
But if the Steelers are going to take that approach to the Hall of Honor, then what about Larry Brown?
Larry Brown is the one player that Chuck Noll adamantly argued deserves Pro Football Hall of Fame honors, and will certainly find his way in to the Steelers Hall of Honor but was left out of the inaugural class. Ditto Rocky Bleier. Dan Rooney argued that Bleier deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he will certainly make it to the Hall of Honor, but he will have to wait. For that matter, no one would argue that Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll deserve recognition in the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors.
But why induct several of his players, while keeping Bill Cowher on the outside looking in?
By the same token, Bill Nunn Jr.Myron Cope, and Art Rooney Jr. certainly belong and will find their way into the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors. So why not put them in now?
While this “debate” is little more than background noise for most citizens of Steelers Nation, the arguments stand on their own merits. And by taking a “recognition over competition” approach, the selection committee unwittingly opened themselves to the competition argument.
Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Should Have Taken a Rushmore Approach
So what would the alternative be? Truthfully, when you have a franchise that is as stories as the Pittsburgh Steelers and you try to launch a Hall of Honor 85 years into your existence, you’re never going to make anyone happy.
A better way to from the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class would have been to take the “Rushmore Approach.”
We know the Rushmore approach thanks to the rise of the internet, which demands you fill web pages with “content” 365 days a year, every year. (Hence, you see sites that not only debate “Steelers Rushmore” but “Steelers Assistant Coaches Rushmore” “Steelers coaches Rushmore” and probably for that matter, “Steelers backup tight ends Rushmore.”)
Here’s how Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers Rushmore would shape up:
Ernie Stautner, to represent the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll era
Joe Greene, whose arrival effected the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to perennial contender and frequent champion
Hines Ward, because he forms the bridge between the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin Eras
It is far to argue that a player like Troy Polamalu, who had once in a generation talent, would be more deserving than Ward, but players need to be retired for at least 3 years before they can enter the Hall of Honor, and Polamalu doesn’t make that cut.
But Hines Ward is a franchise great by any measure, likely won’t make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and would give the class balance between offense and defense as well as representation of all franchise eras.
And as a contributor, Art Rooney Sr. would enter as well, because there’s no way you launch a Steelers Hall of Honor without The Chief.
The selection committee, however, didn’t ask this sites opinion. They made their own choices. These men who form the Inaugural Steelers Hall of Honor class have done far more than yours truly ever would or could to build the Pittsburgh Steelers legacy, and we celebrate in their recognition for those accomplishments. But nonetheless, we suggest that the process should have been more gradual.
The modern NFL Draft is founded upon hyperbole. Even back during the 1988 and 1989 NFL Drafts I can remember watching ESPN and listening in disbelief to Mel Kiper Jr. all but predicted disaster or Super Bowl depending on whether he liked a pick or not.
But then there are moments when a draft pick lives up to the hype, the times when the Le’Veon Bells get picked.
Le’Veon Bell has surpassed his draft day hype and now looks to cash in with his first 8 figure contract as he reaches free agency.
Le’Veon Bell scores the game winning touchdown against San Diego in 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images via antennamag.com
Bouchette has been covering the Steelers since the early 70’s, allowing him to see the preseason debuts of first rounders such as Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. Bouchette has seen more than a few training camp sensations flame out. He is not wont to compare rookies to Hall of Famers. But still, the Dean of the Steelers press corps seemed to be going a little over the top.
Four years later it is clear that skeptics in Steelers Nation should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.
What’s all the more amazing is that it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.
Le’Veon Bell began the 2013 season with a lisfranc injury. He ended 2014 unable to play in the post-season. 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse violations, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.
Despite those difficulties, with 4045 yards to his name, Le’Veon Bell has passed Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson to become the 4th all-time Steelers leading rusher. In four years, Le’Veon Bell has gone from being a 2nd round pick that left some pundits scratching their heads to a player with the potential to revitalize the concept of franchise running back.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell
Do we really need to say anything at all here?
A year ago the Steelers 2016 offense was supposed to be the AFC North’s variant of The Greatest Show on Turf. That didn’t happen and for most of the year Ben Roethlisberger had little more than 5th and 6th string wide receivers to throw to other than Antonio Brown. In other words, opposing defenses knew Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball.
Le’Veon Bell rush for a touchdown in the playoffs against Miami. Photo Credit: Don Wright, FRE via Houston Chronicle
Le’Veon Bell did something in two playoff games which Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker couldn’t do in 58.
You don’t often hear the phrase “So and so running back took over the game for such and such team.”
Le’Veon Bell took over several games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 and the franchise would be wise to see that he continues to do so.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell
In four years Le’Veon Bell has only appeared in 49 of a possible 68 regular and post-season games (depending on how you count the AFC Championship). The rest he’s missed either because of drug suspensions or injuries.
The average NFL career only lasts 4 years, and the average for running backs is lower yet.
He already has 1135 touches on his frame. How many more carries does Le’Veon Bell have before his production curve drops like a rock? The brutal reality of the NFL in the 21st century is that running backs flame out quickly. Hear anyone talk up DeMarco Murray’s Hall of Fame prospects lately? You haven’t, because Dallas has already replaced the man who led the NFL in rushing just two years ago with Ezekiel Elliott. Running backs are disposable commodities.
Is it really wise to invest serious long-term salary cap dollars in a player like Le’Veon Bell who might be suspended at any moment and who all statistical indicators suggest has a short shelf life?
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers plans here are clear. Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell back, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin want him back. Ben Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Le’Veon Bell back. Le’Veon Bell wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
Le’Veon Bell will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.
That’s a good thing. Period. How he gets there isn’t quite clear. The Steelers would like to give him a long-term deal, which is a smart move. The only question is will Bell be reasonable with his salary demands? If he is the deal will be made. If not the Steelers will use the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh in 2017.
James Harrison came in second in the voting earning 29 votes, which also is not surprising given his role in completely neutralizing the Miami Dolphins rushing attack. Next came Antonio Brown, who himself had a record setting day with his two touchdown performance that was good enough to earn him 17 votes.
Bud Dupree was the next highest individual vote getter, grabbing 14 votes, or one more than the Steelers offensive line, which was a write in vote.
The write in success of the Steelers offensive line deserves to be commended.
The synergy between Le’Veon Bell and his offensive line is something truly incredible, and truly special. With that said however, the lukewarm support enjoyed by Stephon Tuitt and Mike Mitchell is perhaps a surprise, but this poll is about what you readers think, not about what yours truly thinks.
As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who took out time to vote. Now its on to Kansas City!
For two straight off seasons, Steelers Nation has fretted and fidgeted while watching the Steelers asking the question “What IF.” The big “What IF” of course was “What if Le’Veon Bell had been playing?”
Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers playoff record breaking performance against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
Le’Veon Bell ran 29 times for 167 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single game post-season rushing record.
Let’s restate that: In his first post season appearance, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single-game playoff rushing record. Now consider what that really means. Had Le’Veon Bell broken this record, say, for the San Francisco 49ers, he wouldn’t have turned many heads, no disrespect to Roger Craig or Rickey Waters.
But Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff rushing record for a single game.
This is the same franchise that has sent Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris and John Henry Johnson (you forgot about him, didn’t you?) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the team that gave Willie Parker, holder of the Super Bowl record for the longest run from scrimmage, his shot in the NFL.
What’s more amazing is the way in which Le’Veon Bell broke the record. As Peter King, who is no Steelers cheerleader, observed:
Watch the man. He’s got the oddest rushing style in football today. “The Great Hesitator,” Phil Simms called him on CBS, and that’s just about perfect. Usually, Bell lines up as the classic I-back, seven yards deep, and when he takes a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll take a couple of jab steps toward a hole and almost stop in his tracks. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, had a one-cut running style; the back was told to hit up in the hole immediately—that charging into the hole was the one cut. Most coaches decry what they call pussyfooting.
Peter King then backed up his argument with a statistic, that someone on his staff deserves a ton of credit for unearthing:
I find this amazing: Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king, gained 860 yards in his best seven-game stretch. That’s 142 yards less than Bell’s current seven-game run.
So in other words, in the space of just 8 games, Le’Veon Bell broken a record set by one Steelers Hall of Fame running back that another Steelers Hall of Fame Running back couldn’t touch, and rushed for 142 yards more than Emmitt Smith rushed for during his best seven-game stretch.
Jerome Bettis in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via BTSC
A little bit of research reveals that it’s not unusual for a Steelers running back to break the century mark in his playoff debut.
Barry Foster ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the 1992 Steelers playoff loss to the Bills
Jerome Bettis ran for 102 yards in the Steelers 1996 playoff win against the Colts, although he injured himself
Merril Hoge rushed for 100 yards even in the 1989 Steelers New Year’s Eve upset of the Oilers
All impressive efforts, to be certain. But if you really want to appreciate what Le’Veon Bell accomplished, look no further than to the comments made by Ben Roethlisberger:
I’ll never forget when Charlie Batch was here, he used to always tell me about how he would hand off and just watch Barry Sanders. I am not trying to put Le’Veon with Barry Sanders yet, but it is fun to sit and watch and just see what he is going to do because he is incredibly talented.
So if you’re keeping track at home, in addition to outperforming 3 Steelers Hall of Fame running backs, Le’Veon Bell’s playoff performance against the Dolphins has now drawn comparisons to two other non-Steelers Hall of Fame running backs.
Walter Peyton dives over the pile as the Steelers are powerless to stop him. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via NFL SpinZone
During Le’Veon Bell took a lot of heat during his rookie season with a lot of journalists both inside (see John Stiegerwald) and outside of Pittsburgh doubting his ability. Steel City Insider’sJim Wexell took the time to compare his game-by-game results to Walter Payton’s rookie campaign, despite getting needled about it on social media from some of his peers.
Three seasons, a couple of injuries, 2 suspensions, and 1 playoff game later, Bell is getting the last laugh.
As Ben Roethlisberger cautioned, it is still too early to categorize Bell alongside the Smiths, Harris, Sanders, and Paytons of NFL lore, but in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have a special running back.
Concussion: The story of Dr. Bennett Omalu. The tragedy of Mike Webster. The discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or “CTE.” The genesis of crisis that threatens the existence of the sport we love.
When someone pens the definitive history of the NFL and its CTE-fueled head trauma crisis, Pittsburgh will occupy ground zero. Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster will play the role of patient zero. Dr. Bennet Omalu will act as the canary that sounded an alarm from deep inside the diamond mine.
For a lifelong Steelers fan watching Concussion was going to be difficult. Not because of what I might learn, but because of what I already knew:
The hits that Mike Webster took in football that caused the CTE that took his life are in no way an aberration.
Difficulties aside, Concussion tells a story that any conscientious football fan must hear. Steelers fans know it all too well. Mike Webster died at age 49, penniless and robbed of his wits thanks to the tau proteins that accumulated in his brain. CTE took Justin Strzelczyk two years later, at age 36 in a fiery wreck. Yet another year later, Terry Long ended his own life by drinking antifreeze while suffering from CTE. Less than one year ago, Adrian Robinson was posthumously diagnosed with CTE after committing suicide the age of 25.
Concussion recounts the story of a young Nigerian doctor, who saw 2 + 2 not equaling four and insisted, at his own risk, on doing something about it.
Mike Webster blocking against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Photo Credit: Mike Fabus, AP via Al Jazeera
A Steelers Fan Watches Concussion
From an artistic stand point, Concussion represents a work of excellence. Its imagery and acting in many ways capture the essence of Pittsburgh. Will Smith provides an Oscar-worthy performance. David Morse became Mike Webster. While there’s an undeniable “David and Goliath” air to Concussion, the producers do tell a balanced story.
They pull no punches when it comes to depicting the horrors of CTE and the resistance the NFL marshaled when Dr. Omalu refused to keep quiet.
Yet, Concussion also conveys to the viewer the power and pull of football. Interspersed with live game footage showing Mike Webster taking hits to the head throwing blocks for Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier shots of Terry Bradshaw rocketing off bombs to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann epitomizing just how graceful a sport defined by brute force can be.
The director takes some artistic liberties – depicting a meeting between Strzelczyk and Webster that almost certainly never happened.
Another apocryphal meeting between Dave Duerson and Andre Waters one between serves the same purpose: To clarify football stands at the very crux of the tragic deaths suffered by these players.
In Concussion, the NFL establishment plays the part of the antagonist. Yet Steelers Nation will likely see the portrayal of their Pittsburgh representatives, in shades of grey and rightly so.
Concussion casts Dr. Joseph Marron the same Steelers doctor who once earned the wrath of this site, as one of the ultimate NFL skeptics and someone vehemently hostile to Dr. Omalu. But according to Julian Bailes, the movie casts Marron in an unfair an inaccurate light.
But one thing Dr. Marron’s character claims in the movie is undoubtedly accurate:
Football forms a fundamental part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s identity and the Rooney family has been pillars of the community. In an earlier scene, Danny Sullivan, a fellow doctor who plays Bennett Omalu’s antagonist in the coroner’s office pleads with Omalu not to press forward with a deeper investigation of Webster arguing that it was players like Webster who gave the city hope when J&L and the rest of the steel industry collapsing.
WDVE’s Scott Paulsen spoke to that reality in his seminal essay “Steeler Nation” that provides a touchstone for both the city, the products of the Pittsburgh diaspora and the Steelers nationwide legion of fans. Before the 70’s, Pittsburgh was known for its steel. Since then it’s known more for the Steelers.
Mike Webster talks to Don Shula before his final game with Steelers. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Pro Football Talk.
No one can dispute that.
But based on what we now know, Webster’s may have suffered from the first diagnosed case of CTE, but he certainly was not the first to suffer from that affliction. As former ABC Radio journalist Mike Silverstein observed in a related story on Going Deep with the Steelers, that as long as 20 years ago “…there were stories of ‘punch drunk’ ex-football players living in abject poverty, without medical care or insurance.”
Still, several times during ConcussionMike Webster repeats, “If we finish the game, we win.” The movie’s none too subtle message is that perhaps the key to winning at football is not to play at all….
Perhaps new helmet technology can dissipate impact to prevent the brain from sloshing against the cranium. Pittsburgh Post Gazette writer Ed Bouchette has commented that he’s seen hundreds of former football players grow into their golden years with sharp minds but with painfully broken bodies. Maybe some study will pinpoint the independent variable that correlates to the excellent mental health of those players. Perhaps an enzyme will be discovered that neutralizes the tau protein.
Yeah, that’s the emotional side of my brain talking more than the intellectual side, for sure.
Still, on January 29th 1974 – the famous 1974 NFL Draft where the Pittsburgh Steelers took a chance on an undersized center from Wisconsin named Mike Webster, the idea that someone with prosthetic legs could run marathons pure science fiction. So was the idea that you could communicate globally with a hand-held communicator. Now, both are realities.
Conclusion on Concussion, the Steelers and CTE
Early in the movie my wife asked me why so many ex-Steelers had CTE. I told her, “It was really just a conscience.” Later, I asked myself, “Was it becauseChuck Noll was such hard driving coach?” After all, the Steelers were one of the last teams to stop live tackling in practice and Webster, Long, and Strzelczyk all played for The Emperor.
If Concussion makes one thing clear, it is that neither of those explanations are valid.
CTE was not discovered in Pittsburgh because football forms fundamental part of the city’s fabric. CTE was discovered in Pittsburgh because fate intervened allowing Webster, Strzelczyk and Long to find their end in a place where Dr. Omalu was practicing medicine and because Dr. Omalu refused to accept the simple answer and insisted on searching for the truth, even if it meant opposing some very powerful interests.
Former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene was elected along side former Steelers defensive back and defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy.
Kevin Greene Shined in Black and Gold
In the spring of 1993 NFL teams literally tripped over themselves to land free agents such as Reggie White. Ticker tape parades were thrown, keys to cities were bestowed, and there was much pomp and circumstance. The Steelers took a low key approach, and one of the signings they made was that of Kevin Greene.
By the time the Steelers signed Greene, he was over 30 years old and had amassed 72.5 sacks. Yet he was little known outside of the NFC West, where he’d played for 8 years for the Los Angeles Rams. That changed in a hurry, as Bill Cowher pared him with Greg Lloyd, and together the tandem terrorized opposing quarterbacks for the next three seasons.
Greene played for the Steelers from 1993 to 1995, with his last game being Super Bowl XXX.
During that time Kevin Greene amassed 35.5 sacks, but the Steelers opted to let him depart via free agency, thinking his best days were behind him. That conclusion was very, very wrong, as Greene would go on to play for 4 more years and register another 52 sacks in the process.
The Steelers drafted Tony Dungy in 1977, and he played as a back up defensive back. His most notable feats were subbing as emergency quarterback as a rookie in 1977 when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek both got hurt. Dungy’s performance was a disaster, but he did complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Dungy also become one of the few modern era players to both record and throw and interception in the same game.
[Editors note, the orginal version of this article had an error, which has been redacted and corrected below.]
Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced a fumble after the Dallas Cowboy’s final on-sides kick which Rocky Bleier recovered.
Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced Randy White fumble which Dennis Winston recovered. One play later, Bradshaw hooked up with Swann in the end zone
Despite that, the Steelers traded Dungy after the 1978 season, and he played another year in San Francisco.
George Gojkovich, Getty Images – In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator
Dungy spent 1980 coaching defensive backs for the University of Minnesota, but a year later Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh, first as a defensive assistant, then as a defensive backs coach. In 1984, Noll promoted Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator at age 29, making him one of the first, if not the first, African American defensive coordinators.
Dungy’s first two years as defensive coordinator were so successful that he was touted as possibly being the NFL’s first African American head coach. The Steelers defense declined in 1986 and 1987, as the full impact of the Steelers mediocre drafting of the early and mid 1980’s was felt. Nonetheless, in 1987 the Steelers defensive touchodowns, and were 5th in take aways.
The Steelers defense fell on hard times in 1988, finishing dead last.
Indeed, the 1988 Steelers finished 5-11, but saw 4th quarter leads evaporate in at least 3 games. Dan Rooney decided to order changes, and in the ensuring scuffle, Tony Dungy opted to resign rather than accept demotion.
In an ironic twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Dungy with Kanas City’s Rod Rust, while Dungy took a position under new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher’s staff….
Dungy of course, never did succeed Chuck Noll as many once expected him to, but he did go on to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he hired and mentored Mike Tomlin has his defensive backs coach.
Tony Dungy rightly wins Hall of Fame induction for his work as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and for becoming the first African American to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he made important contributions while a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in many ways, his influence lives on in the organization.
Faneca Must Wait
The Hall of Fame candidate with the strongest ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization will have to wait another year. Former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca was a candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame, but did not receive the necessary votes.
This was Faneca’s first year of eligibility, and it is not unusual for offensive lineman, who lack statistics and other high-profile measures of success, to wait several years to get induction.
Joining Greene on the Hall of Fame dias are Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.
Super Bowl 52 is almost here. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing Super Bowl 52, but Steelers Nation can take pride because the Black and Gold still own more Lombardi Trophies than any other franchise.
With that in mind, Steel Curtain Rising gives you the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays.
Lynn Swann’s belief-defying Super Bowl X catch over Dalllas Mark Washington. Photo Credit: AP, via NY Daily News
Super Bowl IX – Dwight White Spearheads Defensive Dominance
Sometimes plays symbolize an era, other times it is a player. When the two converge , something special happens. It is fitting then that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would author the first score in their first Super Bowl.
That only tells half the story.
Steel Curtain linemanDwight White got pneumonia the week before Super Bowl IX. He’d lost 18 pounds in the hospital. Chuck Noll and George Perless told Steve Furness to get ready to play. The morning of the Super Bowl, White called Ralph Berlin, the Steelers head trainer, and begged him to pick him up, as White was determined to be introduced.
After talking with Steelers Dr. John Best, they relented, and when they saw White struggling to even put on his jersey, they figured he’d pass out in warm ups and let him play.
White started, and the Minnesota Vikings attacked him immediately. They handed off to Dave Osborn on three straight plays, and Osborn ran directly to White. The results:
A loss, no gain, and a one-yard gain.
The game remained scoreless in the second quarter when the Vikings found themselves backed up against their own end zone. A bad snap left Fran Tarkenton scrambling for the ball. It rolled in the end zone. Tarkenton fell on it. Dwight White landed on him.
A safety might only be 2 points, but scoring one sends a message that a defense is imposing its will. The message of Dwight White’s safety in Super Bowl IX was loud and clear: The Steel Curtain had risen.
Lynn Swann never caught more than 60 passes in a season and retired with 336 catches to his name
For years, naysayers like Peter King used those statics to block his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Super Bowl X reveals why the likes of King were so sorely mistaken. Lynn Swann’s stat line from Super Bowl X reads 4-161 and one TD. Not bad, but it suggests nothing spectacular. (Tweet w/ embedded video available as of 2/6/16):
But it was the quality of the catches that Swann made that earned him the Super Bowl MVP Award. His acrobatic catches were works of sheer beauty and displayed such grace that decades after he retired fans who weren’t even born when Swann was playing were still saying, “That was a Lynn Swann Catch.”
Super Bowl XIII – Rocky Bleier Overcomes the Odds
Wounded while serving his country, in Vietnam Rocky Bleier wasn’t even supposed to walk again, let alone play football. Yet Bleier defied the odds, not only making the game, but earning a starting spot.
Even then, Rocky was low man on the totem pole of a Super Bowl offense that featured no fewer than 5 Hall of Famers.
26 seconds remained in the first half with the score tied at 14. Franco Harris had given the Steelers a 3rd and 1 at the Dallas Cowboys 7. Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass and this is what happened (available as of 2/5/16 – watch it now before Roger Goodell’s YouTube police have it taken down):
Rocky Bleier would not be denied the touchdown, and added 7 points to the Steelers tally in a game they would ultimately win by 4….
Super Bowl XIV – Bradshaw, Stallworth & 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go
History tends to paint the Super Steelers as an unstoppable juggernaut that authored an unbroken string of super-human plays en route to four Super Bowls in six years. The Steelers of the 70’s were good, but what made them great wasn’t their ability to blow everyone out of the water, but rather their ability to make plays when the game was on the line.
No Super Bowl showcases that ability better than Super Bowl XIV vs. the LA Rams
The 4th quarter had begun, and the Steelers trailed the Los Angeles Rams 19-17. Lynn Swann was out of the game, as was Theo Bell, the Steelers 3rd receiver. Everyone on the Rams staff, most of all former Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson, knew Terry Bradshaw would try to get the ball to John Stallworth. And on third and 8 at the Pittsburgh 27, Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to do that.
The play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go” and the Steelers had failed miserably executing the play in practice, and neither Bradshaw nor Stallworth thought the play would work. Chuck Noll knew better. (Available as of 2/4/16):
As Art Rooney Jr. observed in his book Ruanadh, this is the result when you when you pair a Hall of Fame quarterback, with a Hall of Fame Wide Receiver and a Hall of Fame Coach.
Super Bowl XXX – Steelers Surprise Onsides Kick
The Steelers opened the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXX down 7-10. Nine plays into the game’s final period, a Norm Johnson field goal narrowed the Steelers deficit to 10. On the side lines, special teams coach Bobby April came up to Bill Cowher, next NFL Films captured Bill Cowher into his head set, “Chan? Chan, I’m going with the surprise on sides. I’m not leaving anything in the bag.”
Norm Johnson executed the surprise on-sides kick perfectly, and Deon Figures recovered.
Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field, and a Bam Morris touchdown made it 17-20 with the momentum decidedly in the Steelers favor… Of course, Steelers Nation would like to forget what happened after the Steelers defense forced a punt, but alas that too is part of history.
But so is Bill Cowher’s decision to call the surprise on sides. In terms of X’s and O’s, it may not have been the best play call in Steelers Super Bowl history, but it was certainly the boldest.
Super Bowl XL – Ike Taylor’s Interception
If Steelers Nation rightly remembers Bill Cowher’s first Super Bowl for its missed opportunities, it also must honor his final Super Bowl as the occasion where Cowher’s Steelers seized their own opportunities. The two scoring plays – Willie Parker’s 75 yard run and Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward stand out.
But those touchdowns bookended an even bigger play that ensured their relevance.
The Steelers were leading 14-3 in the middle of the third quarter when a Ben Roethlisberger interception gave the Seattle Seahawks new life. The Seahawks scored a touchdown. Seattle began the fourth quarter by marching down to the Steelers 19 where they threatened to take the lead. On 3rd and 18 Matt Hasselbeck got greedy and tried to hit Darrell Jackson deep.
The knock on Ike Taylor was that he couldn’t hold on to the interceptions. In his entire career, he picked off NFL quarterbacks 17 times. But three of those came in the post season, and none was more important than his interception of Matt Hasselbeck.
The play grounded the Seahawks rally, and set up the Steelers insurance touchdown that secured One for the Thumb with the Steelers win in Super Bowl XL.
Super Bowl XLIII – James Harrison’s Pick Six
Super Bowl XLIII will forever be remember for Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, the drive that preceded it, and Larry Fitzgerald’s touchdown that made such heroics necessary. Fair enough. Both Fitzgerald and Holmes touchdowns could easily make “Top 10 Super Bowl Touchdown lists.”
But it says here that James Harrison authored an even bigger touchdown (available as of 2/4/16):
Why does Steel Curtain Rising rank James Harrison’s touchdown higher than Holmes?
Simply math settles the question.
Aside from James Harrison running the length of the field, the Cardinals were at least going to score 3 points on that drive. Looked at in that light, Harrison’s touchdown amounted to a 10 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game the Steelers won by four.
The play also revealed Silverback’s incredible discipline, instincts and sheer will power.
Super Bowl XLV – Alejandra’s Return to Health
Steel Curtain Rising missed Super Bowl XLV because it wasn’t shown in Porto Galinhas, Brazil. But by game time that was a secondary consideration. You can read the full story of the tremendous generosity of the staff at the Tabapitanga here, but in a nutshell, my wife suffered a herniated disc, experienced intense pain, and could barely walk. The trip back to Buenos Aires was a harrowing affair, and was followed by three trips to the ER and two hospitalizations.
Fortunately, Alejandra made a complete recovery – or at least as close to a complete recovery as one can make from back injuries, and is doing extremely well.
I even forgot to record the game, and never saw Super Bowl XLV. Some things are not meant to be.
Sure, the Steelers loss disappointed, but my wife’s injury and recovery serves as a reminder that the outcome of a football game pales in comparison to what is really important in life, which is why it makes this list of the greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays.