Did the Steelers Underutilize Matt Spaeth’s Pass Catching Skills? – No That’s Not a Trick Question Steelers Nation

If news of the Steelers releasing tight end Matt Spaeth surprised, the articles themselves were predictable: Each and every article, at some point, defined Matt Spaeth as a “blocking tight end.”

  • And the tape tells no lies: Matt Spaeth primarily played as a blocking tight end

But is it also fair to ask: Were Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills underutilized? No Steelers Nation, that’s not a rhetorical question, but rather a serious one.

Matt Spaeth, pass catch, touchdown, steelers vs. packers, lambeau field

Matt Spaeth catches a touchdown @ Lambeau Field in 2014. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6’7” 260 pound tight end promised to offer Ben Roethlisberger a tantalizingly tall target. And early on it looked like he would do just that. In his first four career games, Matt Spaeth caught four passes, and three of them were for touchdowns.

  • Despite his strong start, Spaeth’s role as a pass catcher never evolved, as the 6’7” tight end’s pass catching production peaked in 2008 at 17 catches on 26 targets.

Still, when Matt Spaeth was heading towards free agency in 2015, an analysis of his passing stats suggested the Steelers should call his number more:

matt spaeth, career receiving stats, spaeth pass catching, touchdown catches

Do numbers lie? Matt Spaeth caught most of the balls thrown his way.

  • Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley never got the memo.

During 2015, Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones only targeted Matt Spaeth three times. For the record, Spaeth caught 2 out of three of those passes for 10 yards, but honestly that doesn’t tell us much. Nor, honestly speaking, does his career target-to-catch ratio of 63.2% suggest much because the sample is so small.

Still, using analysis done to document Heath Miller’s dependability in the passing game, you can see how Matt Spaeth compares to other Steelers pass catchers since 2005:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

Spaeth’s dependability as a pass catcher is on par with Antwaan Randle El and just below Hines Ward, while better than Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant and Nate Washington.

Matt Spaeth “Just catches Touchdowns….”

While Spaeth’s pass catching production might fail to reach statistical relevance, it does tell us reveal something else:

  • Matt Spaeth excelled at catching touchdowns.

Matt Speath’s catch-to-touchdown ratio is 18.2%. In otherwords, almost one of ever five passes Matth Spaeth caught went for a touchdown. Only Martavis Bryant has been better and only three others have numbers in double digits. Yes, the small sample size perhaps distorts things a bit, but it does prove that when the ball got near Matt Spaeth when things were most important, he generally made a catch.

  • All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers target Matt Spaeth more in the passing game?

The easiest, and most likely correct answer, is that Spaeth dropped a lot of passes in practice. That idea is supported by the fact that Spaeth’s most prolific pass catching spell came during 2010, when he started several games for after Heath Miller suffered a devastating concussion vs. the Ravens. During that season, Speath only caught 9 of the 18 balls thrown his way, and didn’t score any touchdowns.

  • Still, if that is the case, why would the Steelers call Spaeth’s number so frequently in the Red Zone?

Steelers Nation will never know the answer for sure. But the numbers certainly suggest that Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills were underutilized during his time with the Steelers. Even if that is true, that fact would fail to alter one fundamental fact: Matt Spaeth blocked incredibly well.

Although Le’Veon Bell dazzled as a rookie, his performance as pure rusher remained in consistent, and deep into December, Bell had still failed to break the 100 yard rushing mark. That change just before Christmas at Lambeau Field when Bell romped for 124 yards, which was also Matt Spaeth’s 3rd game back from injured reserve.

That’s no coincidence, although if you’re wondering, that Green Bay game also saw Matt Spaeth’s 2nd and final target of the season – which he caught for a touchdown….

…Steel Curtain Rising thanks Matt Speath for his service in Pittsburgh, and wishes him well on his next NFL stop and/or retirement.

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Where to Rank Antwaan Randle El Among Steelers Wide Receivers?

Asked and Answered” is one of Steelers.com’s most popular features which sees Bob Labriola answer questions from Steelers Nation. The feature is the successor to “Overview” page of Steelers Digest, where Labriola would answer questions with equal parts wisdom and sarcasm.

Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth topped the list – no brainers there, followed by Antonio Brown and Hines Ward. Again, two more no brainers, even if it’s a little wired to have an active player on such a list. Then he offered a surprise “…and for the last spot I’m going to go with Louis Lipps over Santonio Holmes and/or Antwaan Randle El.”

Antwaan Randle El, steelers, falcons, steelers wide receiver rankings

Antwaan Randle El stretches for yard in Steelers 2010 season opener vs. Falcons; Photo credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

The choice of Louis Lipps earns the full-throated support of this site. Louis Lipps statistics might be pedestrian by 2016’s standards, but Lipps was an All-Pro Caliber receiver playing in a run-oriented offense and forced to catch most of his balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley as opposed to benefitting from having a Terry Bradshaw or a Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way.

  • Louis Lipps is also the Steelers 4th leading wide out in terms of yards and catches.

Throwing Santonio Holmes name into the conversation for the 5th slot makes sense, not on overall career production as a Steeler, but because he was the Steelers MVP in the 2008 playoffs, and well…

….even if he’d only made that one catch in Super Bowl XLIII, ‘Tone would belong in the discussion.

  • But does Antwaan Randle El belong in this conversation?

Steel Curtain Rising holds Antwaan Randle El in high esteem. Randle El arrived as part of the Steelers 2002 draft class, and made an immediate impact as a wide receiver and kick returner. His skill as a quarterback was Inspector Gadget aka Mike Mularkey’s dream. While most of his time was spent as a number three or slot receiver, when asked to take over the starting role, Randle El was up to it.

And no one in Steelers Nation need be reminded of how Ken Whisenhunt deployed Randle El versatility with lethal effectiveness in Super Bowl XL.

  • But does Randle El deserve consideration as the Steelers 5th, or even 6th best wide receiver of all time?

Respectfully, Steel Curtain Rising argues that there several Steelers wide receivers who should rank ahead of Antwaan Randle El. Who? The first two names that jump to mind are Plaxico Burress and Yancey Thigpen. Burress is 9th on the Steelers All-Time receiving list whereas Randle El is 23rd. Thigpen is 14th on the list and caught 3 times as many touchdowns.

What about Mike Wallace? Wallace career production is actually above ‘Tone’s, but for my money both Santonio Holmes playoff production and perhaps Antwaan Randle El puts them above Wallace.

Then there is one player who played before Chuck Noll’s time who also deserves consideration, Buddy Dial. Matthews.

Buddy Dial played in Pittsburgh from 1959 to 1963, playing 12 and 14 game seasons and in an age when a run first mentality dominated the entire league, yet he still ranks as the Steelers 8th leading receiver. Actually, Dial is sixth if you limit the list to wide receivers.

  • So where to rank Antwaan Randle El among Steelers wide receivers?

Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t honestly know. Numbers don’t like but sometime statistics deceive. Dwight Stone is ahead of Randle El on the Steelers all time receiving list, and if you were picking All-Time Draft Steelers draft, would you pick Stone over Randle El? Neither would I. Charles Johnson also ranks ahead of Randle El but I’d think twice about picking him over Randle El.

At the end of the day, I’m undecided about where Antwaan Randle El ranks among Steelers wide receivers, but I do know that I’d put at least put Plaxico Burress , Yancey Thigpen, Buddy Dial and perhaps Mike Wallace ahead of him.

Where do you think he belongs? Take a moment to leave a comment.

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Todd Haley vs Bruce Arians – Ben Roethlisberger Is Better Under Todd

Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has taken the high road since he was forced out following the Steelers 2011 season. For those whose memories are fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded:

  • Defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.47% of his drop backs or 215 times between 2007 and 2011
  • In 2011, Ben Roethlisberger gave up 40 sacks on 7.8% of his drop backs
  • Arians, aware of the issue, vowed to “Let Ben be Ben
  • After the Steelers Tebowing in Denver, Mike Tomlin said Arians would return
  • Art Rooney II opted not to renew Bruce Arians contract
  • Arians “retired” only to get hired within days
  • Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley as his offensive coordinator

As noted prior to the Steelers victory over the Cardinals, things have worked out well for Arians, Roethlisberger and the Steelers since Todd Haley took the reins of the offense. Arians did however break kayfabe slightly at the NFL owners meeting recently, telling ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, “They are opening it up and not getting fired for it” referring to Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

  • Let’s begin by conceding that Arians does have somewhat of a point.

Despite engineering a successful Steelers offensive effort in Super Bowl XLIII, one year later Art Rooney II pressured Mike Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians following the Steelers 2009 that saw Ben Roethlisberger take 50 sacks. Tomlin held is ground, and Arians stayed, but with some strings attached.

  • Art Rooney publicly proclaimed the need for the Steelers running game to improve.

While Rooney later stressed that he was speaking in qualitative and not quantitative terms, Mike Tomlin got the message. Shortly after Arians departed he shared that at certain points in games, Tomlin would give him the green light to do what he wanted. The not too subtle implication was that Arians was free to pass at will.

  • Since Todd Haley was named Steelers offensive coordinator, the question of “run-pass ratios” has largely disappeared from the discourse in Steelers Nation.

That fact alone appears to justify Arians good-hearted needling. It really does seem unfair to Arians. Except there’s a catch as the numbers below reveal:

ben roethlisberger, passing statistics, todd haley, bruce arians, haley vs. arians, ken whisenhunt, roethlisberger offensive coordinator

Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under different offensive coordinators

The first thing that jumps out is that Ben Roethlisberger’s sack numbers have dropped by almost 60%. Given the amount of punishment Roethlisberger has taken, the reduction in and of itself could add a year or two to his career.

To be fair, the offensive line was a liability for much of Bruce Arians tenure as offensive coordinator, whereas it has been a strength under Haley. However, there’s question about whether that was a priority for Arians. Beyond the line, its also true that Ben took a lot of sacks because he held on to the ball too long. Arians knew that, but didn’t want to mess with that.

  • Todd Haley’s job was to get Ben to get the ball out more quickly.

The argument in Arians’ day was, letting Ben hold on the ball is what lets him hit Mike Wallace deep. Haley, however, designed an offense that allows Ben to get the ball out quickly while improving Ben Roethlisberger’s downfield passing game as opposed to hindering it.

To be completely fair to Arians, Ben’s sack % in 2011 was already dropping, and his yards-per game average in 2011 was higher than it was in his first two years under Todd Haley. So any discussion of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under Todd Haley vs. Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under Bruce Arians must concede that there’s some “Nature vs. nurture” at work.

It is also true that under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown in his prime, supported by budding receivers like Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey. Fair enough, but under Arians Roethlisberger had Super Bowl MVP’s Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, Wallace and of course the ever dependable Heath Miller.

  • The one stat that is a little disturbing is Ben Roethlisberger’s 2015 interception % of 3.4

That is well above his career average and was one worrisome sign during the final regular season stretch of 2015. It remains to be seen if Todd Haley can correct that in 2016 or if it becomes a tendency. But until then, the numbers don’t lie: Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under Todd Haley is better than it was under Bruce Arians.

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Remembering Weegie Thompson – One Tough 1980’s Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver

When I was a kid, my grandfather would rattle off obscure names of former Pittsburgh Steelers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. These players obviously weren’t stars, but to him, they were favorites that he had a soft-spot in his heart for.

  • Perhaps today, there are 40-somethings who grew up in the 1980s, telling their kids about this former Steelers receiver named Weegie Thompson.
weegie thompson, steelers, wide receiver,

Weegie Thompson Steelers wide out 1984-89

Willis “Weegie” Thompson played his college football at Florida St., before arriving in Pittsburgh as a fourth round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.  During a three-year college career, Thompson caught just 41 passes for 711 yards and five touchdowns.

  • But 31 of those catches, 502 of those yards and three of those touchdowns occurred during his final year, which probably helped his draft-status immensely.

It also didn’t hurt that Thompson stood at 6′ 6″ and weighed 212 pounds–measurables that would equal the playing field for most unheralded college receivers looking to make it at the pro level.

Thompson was part of the same class that produced Louis Lipps. After a rookie season that included 17 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns, playing behind both Lipps and the legendary John Stallworth, it may have looked like the future was bright for the young Thompson.

  • Unfortunately for Thompson, he never broke through to the top of the depth chart and never caught more than 17 passes in any given season.

Thompson went on to play just six seasons with the Steelers, before getting on with his life’s work following the 1989 Steelers story book season. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out in a story about Thompson in 2003, maybe if he had played 15 years later, he would have been utilized as more of a downfield weapon, instead of primarily as a blocker for the always conservative Chuck Noll.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

But as Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then, he had few regrets about his career:

I don’t dwell on it. I was proud to be a member of the Steelers and of the time I spent in Pittsburgh. I played hard and performed to the best of my abilities when I was there. I gave it my best and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

However, while Thompson had a rather obscure career that included just 79 receptions for 1,377 yards and 11 touchdowns, thanks to his abilities as a blocker, he was able to gain lasting respect from one of the all-time greats, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.

Thompson’s play during the Steelers’ famous upset victory over San Francisco in Week 7 of the 1984 season (the only loss by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers that year and perhaps Noll’s most impressive post-’70s regular season victory) is mentioned in a SFGate article about Lott from 2000.

What follows is a snippet of the article, along with a quote from Lott:

Call it respect–for yourself, for others. It had meaning to Lott. You earned his respect by playing hard and tough, and within the rules. He still fairly gushes when he talks about a journeyman Pittsburgh wide receiver named Weegie Thompson. In Thompson’s rookie season, 1984, the Steelers were the only team to beat the 49ers. One reason they did was by assigning Thompson to block Lott on every play. 

“He blocked my butt all day–and fair,” Lott remembered. “Every play, he came after me. And I respect the hell out of Weegie Thompson to this day. He’s one of the toughest guys I ever played against.”

Some NFL players go on to have Hall of Fame careers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth), some are borderline (Hines Ward). Others have good careers that may have been better in different eras or under different circumstances (Buddy Dial, Roy Jefferson and Louis Lipps), while some never reach their full potential (Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and maybe Martavis Bryant).

But there are countless NFL players who play for a while and end their careers with no legacy.

  • Football doesn’t define them; it’s something they did for a part of their lives.

Weegie Thompson was that kind of football player, but he still left enough of an impression on fans and even peers playing for rivals to be proud of his time with the Steelers and the NFL.

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The REAL Value of the Steelers 6th Round Compensatory Pick in the 2016 NFL Draft

The NFL awarded the Steelers a 6th round compensatory pick for losing Brice McCain in free agency last year. A jaded fan might react: “Woopie an extra pick at the bottom of the 6th round.”

  • Such attitudes would be little more than ignorant bliss.

Steelers.com reminded Steelers Nation that Hines Ward, Mike Vrabel, Amos Zereoue, Willie Colon and William Gay were compensatory picks. They could have added Daniel McCullers, and Kelvin Beachum were compensatory selections (so was Dri Archer, but most people on the South Side would probably rather forget that.)

  • A 6th round pick might sound ho, hum, but Antonio Brown was a 6th round pick.

Vince Williams, Willie Williams, Leroy Thompson, Greg Lloyd and Dwayne Woodruff were all 6th round picks. Those men serve as powerful reminders that good players are on the board in every round, and that no draft picks should be considered “throw aways.”

But that’s not the real value of the Steelers 6th round compensatory pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The Real Value of the Steelers 6th Round Compensatory Pick

The fact that the Steelers got a compensatory pick is good, because before that they were looking at going into the 2016 NFL Draft with only 6 picks, having traded away their 5th pick to get Brandon Boykin and their 6th round pick to get Josh Scobee.

  • By definition, 7 picks is better than 6 picks in any draft.

But the real value that the Steelers 6th round compensatory selection gives Pittsburgh is something else: Flexibility. Ben Roethlisberger is 34 years old. Under Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his life, and his game is not showing any drop off.

Moreover, Ben Roethlisberger has weapons that Terry Bradshaw never dreamed of. And that is no disrespect to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris or Bennie Cunningham.

  • But if Ben’s game isn’t showing any signs of wear and tear, perhaps his body is.

After playing nearly every snap in 2013 and nearly every snap in 2014, Ben Roethlisberger had to be relieved by Michael Vick or Landry Jones on four separate occasions in 2015. This could just be the law of averages at work, or it could be the collective toll of all of the punishment Roethlisberger has taken beginning to make its presence felt.

Either way, the lesson is clear:

  • Ben Roethlisberger is closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it.

Steelers Nation should expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to field a Super Bowl caliber offense in 2016, as for the Steelers defense? Well, that remains a work in progress. As Tony Defeo indicates, Keith Butler deserves praise for his first season.

  • The Steelers defense performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.

Even those who thought that things could be better (like this site), lacked the courage to say that the Steelers defense would be better. But if the Steelers defense was better than expected, it still wasn’t Super Bowl caliber. Anyone who saw the Denver Broncos smother the Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers should immediately understand.

  • Kevin Colbert must strengthen the Steelers defense in the 2016 NFL Draft, and he needs players who can deliver fast.

And that’s where the Steelers 6th round compensatory pick comes in. For the first time since the NFL adopted its compensatory draft pick system in 1993, compensatory picks can be traded. Having a 6th round picks gives Kevin Colbert the freedom to consider some wheeling and dealing during the draft.

Sure… the last time two times the Steelers traded up they picked Shamarko Thomas and Alameda Ta’amu. Neither man worked out.

  • But neither Shamarko nor Ta’Mau is indicative of Kevin Colbert’s record in trading up.

Colbert has traded up twice in the first round. The first time he moved up in 2003 and picked Troy Polamalu. The second time it was to pick Santonio Holmes. One is a future Hall of Famer, the other was the Super Bowl XLIII MVP.

Steel Curtain Rising will leave it to the draft nicks to decide if the Steelers “should” or “should not” trade up in the 2016 NFL Draft. But the Steelers 6th compensatory pick makes trading up a much more viable prospect.

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Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Case Study in Dependability and Humility

Heath Miller’s surprising retirement prompted an out pouring of support from Steelers Nation. And so it should. Heath Miller was fundamental to the Steelers success during his 11 years in Pittsburgh, and he played a critical role in the Steelers championships in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Heath Miller’s career also reinforces and important lesson for Steelers Nation.

My first reaction when the Steelers drafted Miller in 2005 was “huh?” That’s not terribly surprising. I’m the polar opposite of a “draft nic” so the fact that Miller lacked a combine or pro day pedigree didn’t factor into my “huh?” Instead, my thoughts were much more pedestrian.

  • The 2004 Steelers had finished 15-1 and lost the AFC Championship essentially because Ben Roethlisberger had begun playing like a rookie.

It is quite common to say, “X Team is a quarterback/running back/edge rusher/shut down corner away from the Super Bowl.” No one ever says “We’re a tight end away from the Super Bowl,” (unless you have Rob Gronkowski on your team, and he’s injured.)

But I was OK with the pick. Pittsburgh’s depth chart at tight end featured Jerame Tuman, Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing, and Walter Rasby, and 1st round draft pick figured to be upgrade.

  • The 2005 Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff upset of the Colts highlighted just how wise Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher were to pick Heath Miller.

The Indianapolis Colts played 2005 as the “Team of Destiny” laying waste to everyone in their path, until Bill Polian ordered Tony Dungy to rest his starters late in the season. Then Tony Dungy’s son tragically took his own life. Anyone with even an ounce of human compassion was rooting for Dungy. On top of that, the Colts had spanked the Steelers on Monday Night Football during the regular season. No one gave the Steelers a chance.

Bill Cowher and the Steelers however, brought a decidedly different game plan when the returned to Indianapolis for the playoffs.

Instead of trying to pound the Colts into submission with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers would hook their hopes to Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Roethlisberger’s missed his first pass to Antwaan Randle El.

  • Roethlisberger completed his next pass to Heath Miller who took it 36 yards.
  • The next time he dropped back, he looked again to Miller for another 18 yards.

That took them to the Colt’s 28. 5 plays later the Steelers were up 7 points in a drive where they threw 7 times out of 10, and Heath Miller accounted for 54 of the team’s 84 yards.

In my memory, probably like those of most Steelers fans, Pittsburgh went up 14-0 on its first two drives. But it didn’t happen that way. The Steelers defense forced a quick punt, but on the next drive, the Roethlisberger threw an interception. But Dick LeBeau’s defense forced another 3 and out. Then the Steelers offense struck again. A 45 yard pass to Hines Ward put the Steelers in the Red Zone at the Colt’s 8. Bettis ran for one.

  • Then Roethlisberger dropped back, and found Heath Miller in the end zone for another touchdown.

That’s three targets to Heath Miller and three completions to Heath Miller and a touchdown to put the Steelers up by 14 in a game no one gave them a chance for winning. As it turned out, the 2004 had been “A tight end away from the Super Bowl” because throwing the ball to Heath Miller was one of the best bets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had.

Heath Miller an Incredibly Reliable Pass Catcher

Just how much will Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and the rest of the Steelers offense miss Heath Miller? To answer that question, let’s look at just who Heath Miller has had to “compete” with to get Ben Roethlisberger to throw to him:

  • Hines Ward, a Super Bowl MVP and just 1 of 13 players to break the 1,000 reception barrier
  • Santonio Holmes, another Super Bowl MVP
  • Antonio Brown, who is easily the best wide receiver in the game today
  • Mike Wallace, one player who truly “could go all the way” on any given play
  • Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, two freakishly talent players

An those are just the “major receiving threats” during Heath Miller’s time in Pittsburgh. Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Antwaan Randle El, Nate Washington and even Willie Parker were more than capable of doing damage when the ball was thrown their way. So just how did Miller stack up?

The numbers paint a pretty impressive picture:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

In 11 years, Heath Miller proved to be an incredibly reliable receiving target.

Thanks to saber metrics, we now not only know how many times a player has caught the ball, but we can also track how many times the quarterback tried to get it to him. To be fair, the ratio of catches to targets can be a little miss leading – if Ben Roethlisberger overthrows or underthrows Martavis Bryant 35 yards down the field, that counts as a target. But it’s a fairly reliable metric, and with each receiver having over 100 targets, the sample is fairly representative.

  • Heath Miller weighs in a number 2.

It might be tempting to suggest because, as a tight end Miller’s ran shorter routes and was less likely to be overthrown, but his yards-per-catch number is only one less than Hines Ward and not much further behind Sanders and Randle El

In a word, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger an incredibly reliable target.

Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Study in Dependability & Humility

Those statistics create a pretty accurate picture of Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers offense, but mere numbers always fail to do Heath Miller justice. What made Heath Miller special was the effort, dedication, and concentration that it took to create the catches that those numbers represent.

Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire offered this video to explain why Miller is so beloved in Pittsburgh.

Miller made an incredibly difficult catch, knowing he was going to be KOed. He took a vicious hit that drew a penalty, and simply handed the ball to the official, without any jaw boning. Oh yeah, the catch also secured first down. If Lynn Swann set the standard in Super Bowl X for acrobatic “Lynn Swann” catches then perhaps tough, short-to-medium yardage receptions that convert third downs should be known as “Heath Miller catches.”

  • Even that, however, fails Heath Miller’s legacy.

Unlike the fullback, the tight end will not disappear from today’s game. However, “true tight ends,” ones that can both block like lineman and catch like backs or receivers are increasingly rare. Miller excelled at both.

  • It’s tempting to look at some of Miller’s lower-production games from 2015 and say, “Ah, see, he’s was losing a step.”

Heath Miller’s play was dropping off gradually, but Miller’s 3 catch game in the regular season vs. Denver and 2 catch effort in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati were more indicative of his primary role as a blocker in those games rather than as a receiver.

  • Blocking form the NFL’s invisible cadre, they generate no statistics to measure their accomplishments.

But as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminded Steelers Nation, it was Heath Miller who held off Ray Lewis in the 2008 AFC Championship game just long enough to allow Roethlisberger to connect with Holmes and then Miller blocked for Holmes as he reversed field and took it 65 yards to the house.

  • A video tape review of similar “Big Plays” during the second Super Bowl era will doubtlessly reveal similar anonymous blocking assists by Miller.

You’ve got to figure that Heath Miller would have been a perfect fit for Chuck Noll’s Super Steelers, because anonymous is exactly how Miller would want it. And that’s what made Heath Miller a perfect fit for Pittsburgh in any era: Heath Miller’s Steelers career was a study in quiet competencies of reliability, dedication, and humility.

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Steelers Tight End Heath Miller Retires – Pittsburgh Will Never See Another Like Him

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller retires in a move that comes as a total shock both inside and outside of the South Side. The Steelers drafted Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft and, although he became and instant starter, he remained one of the most consistent yet underrated players at his position.

  • It is a testament to Heath Miller’s greatness that even in the most hostile of environments, a catch by 83 resulted in chats of “Heath!”

It is ironic that he would garner such fan fair, because Miiller never sought the attention or the limelight for himself. Heath Miller is the classic defenition of a player who came to work, buckled his chin strap, and simply made plays.

  • As the Steelers 2016 off season began, there was speculation that Miller would become a cap casualty.

Some argued that Miller was losing a step, and no longer warranted his nearly 8 million dollar salary cap value. Such talk was little more than nonsense. It is true that Miller’s yard’s per catch were down in 2015, but that may have been due as much to Le’Veon Bell’s absence and the need for Miller to work closer to the line of scrimmage.

Heath Miller, a Model of Consistency

As Jim Wexell reports on Steel City Insider, Heath Miller started 167 of 168 regular season games and 15 of 15 post season contests. He has played the most games of any Steelers tight end. Heath Miller retires as the Steelers leading tight end in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

  • But numbers cannot capture Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers in 2015 or any other year.

The 2015 Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland illustrates why. Miller’s stat line for the game was 3-18 for 1 touchdown. On the surface that looks pretty pedestrian. But the truth is that Miller out muscled defenders to get to the ball both on the touchdown, and on another key 11 yard pass.

Under both Bruce Arians and Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger has made no secret of his desire for a vertical, gun slinging style offense and that tendency has served both him and the Steelers well. But when whenever Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton or Martavis Bryant couldn’t get open downfield, Heath Miller was there in the middle.

  • Miller might have been the least vocal member of the Steelers offense, but he was very much a leader.

As Dale Lolley reported, it was Miller who quietly took Antonio Brown aside and dressed him down for not giving Landry Jones the proper respect he deserved. And as Lolley recounts, it was Brown who shared the story about Miller.

Heath Miller’s Retirement Leaves Gaping Hole in Steelers Offense

Looking towards the 2016 season the Steelers offense figured to be unstoppable. Now that equation changes. The Steelers knew Heath Miller was nearing the end, but had not attempted to groom a replacement. Heath Miller’s retirement leaves a gaping hold in the Steelers offense that the team will now struggle to fill.

The Steeler will now have to find a new tight end via the 2016 NFL Draft or free agency.
Expect the Steelers to make some sort of move. But don’t expect the Steelers to find a replacement for Heath Miller. They don’t make players like Heath Miller any more.

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Celebrating the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays

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, Mark Washington, Super Bowl X, 8 greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays, Super Bowl 10, Lynn Swann Super Bowl X, Lynn Swann Super Bowl 10

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 lineman Dwight 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.

Super Bowl X – Lynn Swann Shines

Super Bowl X provides the perfect example of how numbers might not lie, but they often fail to paint an accurate picture. Compared to some of the receiving feats of the 1980’s, let alone to the numbers NFL wide receivers put up today, Lynn Swann’s receiving numbers appear rather pedestrian.

  • 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.

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Steelers Trade Lawrence Timmons to Dolphins for 14th Pick

Editor’s Note: This article ran and April Fools Day special in 2015. Click here for news on Lawrence Timmons’ free agent defection to the Miami Dolphins.

In a move that is as uncharacteristic as it is bold, the Pittsburgh Steelers are trading standout inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for the Dolphin’s first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Although complete details of the trade have yet to emerge, reports indicate that the Steelers will send Timmons to Miami along with their first round pick in 2015 and their 3rd round pick in 2016 in exchange for Miami’s 2015 1st round pick and a conditional 4th or 5th round pick in 2016.

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Lawrence Timmons was not available for comment, although sources close to the inside linebacker described him as “shocked.” While he did not address the press, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin issued the following statement:

Lawrence Timmons was the first player drafted under my tenure so it’s been a little extra special to see him grow and develop on a daily basis. Since then he’s earned my utmost respect both as a player and as a person. When you consider what he’s put on tape, we obviously did not make the decision to move on lightly. But we live in our hopes not in our fears, and Vince, Sean and Ryan now have their own record on tape, we’re obviously more than confident about how we stand at the inside linebacker position. Obviously we’re excited at the doors we open with this trade. I wish Lawrence nothing but the best in Miami.

Veterans with large contracts to be traded, but Miami has ample cap space with the 12th most in the league, per Over the Cap. Timmons however, has arguably been the Steelers most consistent if not its best defender for the past 3 seasons, leading to speculation as to why Pittsburgh would part ways with Mr. Dependable.

Steelers Bracing for Ben Roethlisberger’s Salary Cap Hit?

When asked about the Steelers trading Lawrence Timmons, ESPN Draft Analyst Mel Kipper Jr. explained, “€œThis is a shocking move, but a bold move. The Steelers have 4 starter-capable inside linebackers, they’ve got a huge cap it coming with Ben Roethlisberger, and they’re desperate at outside linebacker and corner. Getting the 14th pick from Miami gives Pittsburgh a number of prospects at either position. I think this is a shrewd deal on Kevin Colbert’s part.”

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Prior to announcing this trade, the Steelers biggest move this off season was to resign starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Both Art Rooney II and Roethlisberger described the move as “€œwin-win.”€

  • Yet Roethlisberger’s 2016 cap value sky rockets from 17.5 million to 26 million.

By trading Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers gain between close to 5.7 million dollars in cap space, which will make it much easier to manage their salary cap in 2016. By trading Timmons the Steelers will eat a tremendous 8 million dollar hit in salary cap dead money, but the upside to the deal is that the Steelers will get four productive players, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier and the new draft pick, for less than they would have paid Timmons.

Does Timmons Departure Open the Door to a 4-3

The question on everyone’s mind since Dick LeBeau’s departure and Keith Butler’s promotion is whether the Steelers will abandon the 3-4 defense which has served as their base since 1983. While Mike Tomlin has discouraged such rumors, he hasn’t denied them and the Steelers have been linked to Randall Gregory, Shane Ray, Alvin Dupree, and Arik Armstead all college defensive ends and linebackers, some of whom don’t necessarily project to outside linebackers in the NFL.

The Steelers glut of talent at inside linebacker has been one of the strongest arguments against a 4-3 switch.

  • Removing Timmons from the equation now makes it easier shuffle pieces around the rest of the depth chart.

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert, the mastermind behind the train, has traded up twice in the first round of the NFL draft. The first time was in 2003 when he moved up to get Troy Polamalu. The second time was in 2006 when he moved to get Santonio Holmes.

If moving up in the first round isn’€™t terribly out of character for Colbert, the timing of the move is, as most trades like this occur during the draft itself.

Colbert refused to comment on the specifics of the deal, but when asked about his timing he simply responded, “œMiami was interested in Lawrence Timmons and we were interested in Miami’s pick. All the pieces were in place so why wait? What better day to announce a trade than April 1st?”€

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Mike Tomlin’s Player Discipline Philosophy Continues to Evolve – In the Right Direction

Mike Tomlin’s player discipline philosophy continues to evolve and in the right direction.

  • Sure, LeGarrette Blount’s 12 carry, 78 yard, 2 touchdown performance in New England might suggest otherwise.

But don’t be fooled Steelers Nation. Tomlin made the right decision by cutting LeGarrette Blount in the blink of an eye, as the move marked departure from past practice.

Compared to say, the Marv Lewis of the Bengals, Tomlin has had to deal with relatively few discipline issues. Some such as the decisions on James Harrison and Cedric Wilson or to trade Santonio Holmes, weren’t his to make alone.

However, decisions which, at least one the outside, do appear to have been Tomlins:

Most of what goes on in NFL locker rooms stays out of the public eye, even in this age of social media and the never ending news cycle. Case in point, Joey Porter tirade against Ben Roethlisberger in 2006 didn’t reach the light of day until the word “Midgeville” entered the vernacular in Steelers Nation.

But Blount had had public issues, and by Ed Bouchette’s account, had become “a problem” in the Steelers locker room. While declining talent has been a the heart of the Steelers recent back-to-back 8-8 seasons, a leadership deficit contributed too.

  • Absent Hines Ward, “Young Money” looked to have all the value of a “sub-prime mortgage” by the end of 2012.

There is perhaps no bigger sin than abandoning your teammates. After the Steelers 2010 playoff win over the Ravens, Ben Roethlsiberger shared how Flozell Adams picked himself up off a gurney in the 4th quarter, attempting to go back in. That’s the type of closeness that wins championships, (even if the Steelers fell short in Super Bowl XLV).

Such selfish attitudes should not and cannot be tolerated, and Mike Tomin made that clear when he cut Blount.

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