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

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

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

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

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

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

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

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

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

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

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

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

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s unfortunate.

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

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

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Steelers Didn’t Draft Emmitt Smith in ’90 Because of Tim Worley… But It Actually Worked Out

Steelers fans always like to play the “what if?” game.

For example, what if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier weren’t injured for the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders in 1976? What if the Steelers had actually drafted Dan Marino back in 1983? What if Pittsburgh’s coaches had recognized the talent they had in this Johnny Unitas fella, a ninth-round pick out of Louisville in 1955, instead of cutting him in training camp without letting him take a snap that summer?

  • The reason I put Unitas last in those aforementioned examples is because I want to prove a point.

Sure, the ending may have been different for those ’76 Steelers had Franco and Rocky been healthy for that conference title game against those hated Raiders. And, obviously, had Pittsburgh selected Marino in ’83, how could that have possibly been a bad thing for a franchise whose 1970s Super Bowl dynasty was running on fumes and about to come to a complete stop?

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

As for keeping Johnny Unitas around, on the other hand? Sure, it may have led to championship success much sooner than anyone would have imagined. But would it have led to Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, those four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the franchise’s rise to one of the marquee teams in all of professional sports?

It just doesn’t seem possible that all those dots would have still connected the exact same way and led us to where we are today with regards to the Steelers iconic status.

And that brings me to the 1990 NFL Draft, and the Steelers decision to trade their first-round pick to the Cowboys (17th, overall) and move back four slots.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

With the pick the Cowboys secured from Pittsburgh, they selected running back Emmitt Smith from Florida. And with the 21st pick the Steelers acquired from Dallas, they drafted tight end Eric Green from Liberty University.

  • Even if you’re a casual fan of the NFL and its history, you no doubt know that the Cowboys won that deal with a bullet.

Yes, Eric Green stormed onto the scene and was a bit ahead of his time for the position with his size, speed and athleticism. After a lengthy holdout, Eric Green went on to have a fairly sensational rookie campaign that included seven touchdown catches.

Eric Green played five seasons in Pittsburgh, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994, before leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

In the end, Eric Green wasn’t the one that got away. After signing a huge free agent contract with the Dolphins, Green bounced around the NFL through the 1999 season before calling it a career.

  • Overall, Eric Green’s 10-year career, it was merely okay. It was one of unfulfilled potential, due mainly to his weight issues, drug problems and a lack of a great work ethic.

As for Emmitt Smith, he couldn’t have fulfilled his potential any better if he were a fictional running back created by some Hollywood writer.

Not only did Emmitt Smith quickly become one of the cornerstones of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, when he finally hung up his cleats following the 2004 season, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 18,355 yards, a record that still stands today.

And that’s why you’ll often see those “What if?” articles pop up around draft time regarding that 1990 trade with Dallas, and how the Steelers really screwed up.

  • They obviously did, but that’s still revisionist history.
Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

If you look at that 1990 draft in context, there was no way the Steelers were going to select Smith or any other running back, not after spending the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on Tim Worley, running back, Georgia.

And while Tim Worley’s NFL career made Green’s look downright Hall of Fame-worthy (drug issues quickly derailed Worley’s career, and he was out of football following the ’93 season), he showed great promise in his rookie season with the 1989 Steelers, rushing for 770 yards and scoring five touchdowns.

Besides, while the Steelers didn’t find their franchise back in Worley, they thought they’d discovered one in Barry Foster in 1992, when he set a single-season team record for rushing yards with 1,690. And while Foster didn’t have the hunger to be a workhorse running back over the long haul (he left football after the 1994 campaign), the Steelers long search for a long-term franchise running back ended during the 1996 NFL Draft, when they traded a second-round pick to the Rams for the services of Jerome Bettis.

  • Need I say more?

With his size, willingness to punish tacklers and desire to be the workhorse, was there a more perfect running back for the Steelers and the City of Pittsburgh than Jerome Bettis, the man the late, great Myron Cope quickly dubbed The Bus?

In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards. By the time Bettis retired after the 2005 season, not only was he fifth all-time in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, he left Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown, with the Steelers’ fifth Lombardi trophy in hand, following a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring, Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring,

Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Think about the kind of career Jerome Bettis had in Pittsburgh, and how it never would have happened if the selection of Worley in 1989 hadn’t prevented the Steelers from drafting Smith one year later.

  • Would you trade the actual story of Jerome Bettis as a Steeler for a hypothetical one involving Emmitt Smith?

If you’re all about the numbers and Super Bowl titles, maybe you would. But there’s no predicting how Smith would have fit in with Pittsburgh, a team that was suffering from a great malaise in 1990 and about to go through a massive transition at head coach, from the legendary Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher in 1992.

And there certainly is no way to predict with any certainty that Emmitt Smith would have been able to lead the likes of Neil O’Donnell (Larry Brown’s best friend, no, not that Larry Brown) to even one Super Bowl title, let alone three.

  • Nope, I can’t imagine a Steelers history without a chapter that includes Jerome Bettis.

Like Bill Cowher told him on the sidelines at old Three Rivers Stadium back in ’96:

“This is your bleepin city. And you’re my bleepin guy.”

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

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

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

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

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit:

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Kelvin Beachum’s ACL Tear Eerily Reminiscent of Jerry Olsavsky Knee Injury, Lost Opportunity

The Steelers 25 to 13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals did not come without its costs. Michael Vick’s hamstring injury might have very well cost him his status as QB number 2, but Kelvin Beachum’s torn ACL could prove even more costly.

“Next Man Up” is a phrase that’s getting all too familiar in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. According The Steelers Wire, the Steelers have already missed 65 starter games due to injury. Per ESPN the Steelers are only second to the Green Bay Packers in terms of injuries.

As a fourth year rookie, Kelvin Beachum was scheduled to become a free agent and looked to cash in big time. He will of course still become a

free agent, but his value on the free agent market, but Beachum’s ACL injury will put a considerable dent into his market value.

it is unfortunate too because the Steelers offered Beachum a long-term contract prior to the beginning of the season, but Beachum offered to take his chances. No one knows how far the Steelers and Beachum were in terms of numbers, but he’d have done well to have talked to Steelers inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky.

Olsavsky and Beachum Have a Lot in Common

It might seem odd to suggest that an offensive lineman take advice from an outside linebackers coach, but Jerry Olsavsky and Kelvin Beachum have a lot in common. When the Steelers drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL draft, he was hardly the prototypical NFL inside linebacker. One commentator described him as “Not big enough, not strong enough, not fast enough, but simply good enough.”

  • Like Kelvin Beachum, Jerry Olsavsky defied the odds and made the Steelers opening day roster.

Like Beachum, injuries created an opportunity for Jerry Olsavsky to not only play, but to start as a rookie. Like Beachum, Jerry Olsavsky impressed coaches and skeptics a like, filling in for Hardy Nickerson so well that he earned AP All rookie team honors.

There their paths diverged. Kelvin Beachum became as starter in his second year, first getting forced into action at center after Maurkice Pouncey’s injury on opening day 2013 vs. the Titans, and then at left tackle when Mike Adams proved to be woefully inadequate.

In contrast, a healthy Hardy Nickerson kept Jerry Olsavsky on the bench though much of 1990, 1991, and 1992. There was no free agency then, so Olsavsky had little choice but accept his lot as a special teamer. In 1992 it was clear that Nickerson would not be back due to a contract dispute, and David Little’s skills were on the decline.

Even before the 1992 season was over, Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest was openly suggesting that Levon Kirkland and Jerry Olsavsky would be the Steelers starting inside linebacking tandem in 1993.

The Glory, Agony, and Lost Opportunity of Jerry Olsavsky’s 1993 Season

Kirkland and Olsavsky did take over the inside linebacking starting slots in 1993, and everything seemed to be falling into place for the unheralded draft pick from Pitt. The Steelers defense improved from 13th in the league to 3rd (in total yardage) and the Freeman McNeil verdict had ushered free agency into the NFL. And Olsavsky was in the final year of his contract….

The Steelers signed Rod Woodson and Barry Foster to lucrative deals in September, and made offers to a number of other players. Jerry Olsavsky was one of them. However, squabbles over contracts caused tension and distraction in the lockeroom, and the Steelers abruptly cut off all negotiations until the end of the season.

Jerry Olsavsky had decline an offer from the Steelers. The number are not available on the internet, but the $800,000 sticks in my memory, whether that was a signing bonus or an annual average is unknown. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was good money in 1993.

  • Seven games into the season, Jerry Olsavsky suffered a devastating injury vs. the Cleveland Browns.

Again, the exact extent of the injury isn’t available on the internet, but if memory serves, Jerry Olsavsky blew out 3 of 4 ligaments in one of his knees. Olsavsky made a miraculous comeback, and was resigned to the Steelers active roster in the middle of 1994, and became a part time starter when a “high ankle sprain” marred Chad Brown’s 1994 season.

But the Jerry Olsavsky knee injury cost him his big payday in Pittsburgh.

Kelvin Beachum’s Free Agency Fortunes Unknown

Kelvin Beachum’s ACL injury isn’t nearly as devastating as the Jerry Olsavsky knee injury was. He will find interest on the free agent market, likely finding suitors in both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the rest of the league. But whatever offer he gets, it will certainly be less than whatever the Steelers had on the table last summer.

Beachum’s attitude is healthy, as he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review:

That stuff will take care of itself when it is time to, and I said that from the get-go. I am a football player and this is one of the things that happen when you play football. It’s part of the game.

Good for him. But you can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t regret not talking to Olsavsky before turning the Steelers down.

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Tim Worley Speaks Out on

No team in the modern NFL era has run for more yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have never drafted a running back higher than they did when they selected Tim Worley with the number 6 overall pick in 1989.

Unfortunately, Tim Worley was to be part of the fools gold that came along with a few gems that the Steelers snatched in the 1989 NFL Draft.

Worley recovered from an awful debut vs. Cleveland to post a strong rookie season, including impressive performances in the 1989 Steelers playoff games vs. Houston and Denver.

Drugs and brushes with the law derailed Worley’s career. Teressa Varley of the Steelers Digest caught up with Tim Worley, who was quite candid about the pressures of being an NFL number one draft pick, what it was like to play for Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, and the mistakes he made on and off the field.

You can click here to check out the full interview on

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Steelers Interview Carnell Lake for Defensive Backs Coach Position

The Steelers missed out on a chance to bring Rod Woodson back as a coach, but they could very well end up with the franchise’s second best defensive back of the 1990’s.

Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers interviewed 1990’s all-star defensive back Carnell Lake for the defensive backs position vacated by Ray Horton’s exodus for Pittsburgh West.

After playing linebacker at UCLA, Carnell Lake was picked in the second round of the Steelers 1989 draft and moved on to become a fixture in the defensive backfield for a decade.

Lake’s natural position with the Steelers was strong safety.

However, on two occasions, Lake sacrificed personal glory and saved the Steelers seasons by moving to corner back. The first time was in 1995, when Rod Woodson’s ACL injury left the Alvoid Mays open to regular and frequent torchings at the hands of opposing quarterbacks.

The second time came in 1997, when Donnell Wolford proved to be woefully inadequate as a replacement for the departed Woodson.

In both season’s Lake’s position shift had a dramatic impact. The Steelers made it to Super Bowl XXX in 1995 and to the AFC Championship and (two bad calls by Chain Gailey some might argue) one game away from another Super Bowl in 1997.

Lake coached the UCLA defensive backs in 2009.

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1989 Steelers Shock NFL, Vikings 27-14

Either we just played the two best teams in football, or it is going to be a long season.”
– Chuck Noll, reflecting on his team’s 92-10 start to the 1989 season.
The third week of the Steelers 1989 season brought the Minnesota Vikings to Three Rivers Stadium.

I can still [almost] quote from memory an article I read the Monday article on the game:

This game went exactly as it was scripted. A disgruntled teammate getting revenge against his former team. Dominating defense matched with effective, if not explosive offense….

The Steelers had lost their first two contests by a score of 92-10. If possible, the numbers behind that lopsided score were worse.

  • Collectively their rushers were averaging less than three yards a carry
  • Opponents had sacked Bubby Brister 12 times
  • Greg Lloyd owned the entire Steelers sack total, which stood at one
  • Injuries forced John Rienstra, a life long guard, to switch to tackle, while rookie Tom Ricketts, a life long tackle, sifted to guard
  • Starting linebacker Bryan Hinkle was out. Unable to reclaim no-name linebacker Darren Jordan from the waiver wire, the Steelers would start a rookie in his place.

And the Vikings, although 1-1, still stood as Super Bowl contenders. They’d also brought Mike Merriweather with them, the Steelers 1987 team MVP, whose bitter contract dispute with Dan Rooney resulted in a hold out that spanned the entire 1988 season.

The game unfolded as scripted. Except, as the Washington Post pointed the next day out, this script had a surprise ending.

Bubby Brister, Merril Hoge, Steelers vs Vikings, 1989 Steelers upset vikings

Bubby Brister and Merril Hoge led the 1989 Steelers over the Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota, Myron and Mularkey in Route to Maryland on the PA Turnpike

Yours truly was actually in Pittsburgh the weekend of the game, and listened to the game’s first half on WTAE driving home on the turnpike. During the early going Mike Mularkey and a Viking, I believe it was Mike Merriweather, got into a scuffle… you KNOW Myron Cope couldn’t, wouldn’t and of course didn’t resist.

“And there’s Mularkey saying, ‘now don’t you give me any of that Mularkey’” boomed through the speakers in the backseat. One more classic Myron memory to cherish.

Scuffles are one thing, but scoring wins games, and quickly thereafter Mulakery drew first blood on a 15 yard pass from Bubby Brister. Minnesota scored on its next drive, but the Steelers answered with an eight yard touchdown run by Tim Worley.

On the next series, it looked like things took a turn for the worse, when a Vikings defender sacked-stripped Brister and returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. For the third time in just six quarters at Three Rivers Stadium, an opposing defending was advancing a fumble into the end zone.

Faced with a perfect opportunity to fold… the Steelers marched straight down the field and just as WTAE’s signal began to fade, Jack Flemming’s voice boomed, “Merrill Hoge scores the go ahead touchdown.”

My folks tried to pick up the second half but the signals of the Altoona and Johnstown stations simply weren’t strong enough. An unfortunate occurrence.

The Steel Curtain is Robust with Rust

Entering the second half protecting a 21-14 lead to start the second half, Steelers unleashed the defense.
Revitalized by new defensive coordinator Rod Rust, the Steel Curtain decimated the Vikings. Hardy Nickerson, Tim Johnson, and yes, Jeroll Williams, that rookie standing in for Bryan Hinkle, collected four of their five sacks. Steelers also picked off Wade Wilson twice, and held Anthony Carter to 5 catches.

When the dust cleared, the Steelers had completely shut out the Vikings in the second half.

You bet.

Some Players You Remember, Some Players You Forget

It might seem strange now, but in 1989 many regarded Minnesota’s offense as second only to the 49ers in terms fire power.

Although not an elite quarterback, Wade Wilson was nonetheless a Pro Bowler, as was tight end Steve Jordan. Hassan Jones was likewise considered a top number 2 receiver, and Anthony Carter was seen as on the verge of greatness.

Save for Wade Wilson, few remember their names now, and that’s in part because they couldn’t get the better of players like of Lloyd, Nickerson, Lake, and Woodson. Names the NFL remembers 20 years later.

The NFL noted the Steelers upset, but generally waited to see if it meant something or if it was just another case of On Any Given Sunday. Time would prove those league pundits wise, as the roller coster ride that was the Steelers 1989 season was just getting revved up…

You can read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire season-long tribute to the 1989 Steelers by clicking here.

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The Steelers 1989 Draft: Gems Amidst the Fools Gold

16 days to training camp… To help fill the void, Steel Curtain Rising begins what will be a season-long series commemorating the Steelers 1989 playoff season.

Of all the Steelers non-Super Bowl seasons their 1989 playoff run was the most special.

Pittsburgh’s 1989 season ended with the Steelers in the once-unthinkable spot of playing a divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos. During the game, NBC’s Dick Enberg and Bill Walsh reported Chuck Noll had told them that the Steelers 1989 draft was a prime reason for Pittsburgh’s surprising success.

Another commentator agreed, comparing the ‘89 draft to the Steelers 1974 draft.

With 20 years hindsight, the idea that the Steelers 1989 draft even deserves mention with the 1974 Hall of Fame haul draft is laughable.

  • But in January 1990, the idea was far from outlandish.

9 months after the fact it looked like the Steelers had had a very, very good draft. The 1989 draft certainly delivered Pittsburgh a few prize gems, but a lot of fools gold accompanied those precious stones.

The 1989 Draft – The First Six

It is supposed to happen this way. The first six picks of the 1989 draft were: Troy Aikman, Tony Mandarich, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deon Sanders, and Borerick Thomas.

Three are already Hall of Famers, with Deon Sanders soon to follow. Four busts in Canton heavily outweigh the other 2 busts on the field.

The Steelers were drafting seventh, their highest position since 1971. Dare they dream of making it five Hall of Famers?

The Steelers 1989 Draft – Pittsburgh’s Picks

1. Tim Worley, Running Back, Georgia
1b. Tom Ricketts, Offensive Tackle, Pitt
2. Carnell Lake, Strong Saftey, UCLA
3. Derek Hill, Wide Receiver, Arizona
4. Jorrell Williams, Outside Linebacker, Purdue
5. David Arnold, Cornerback, Michigan
6. Mark Stock, Wide Receiver, Virginia Military Institute
7. David Johnson, Cornerback, Kentucky
8. Chris Asbeck, Nose Tackle, University of Cincinnati
9. A.J. Jenkins, Defensive End, Cal State Fullerton
10. Jerry Olsavsky, Inside Linebacker, Pitt
11. Brian Slater, Wide Reciever, Washington
12. Carlton Haselrig, Nose Tackle (later moved to Offensive Guard), Pitt-Johnstown (wrestling team)

The Outright Busts

Chris Asbeck and Brian Slatter got cut in training camp. David Arnold played some special teams in 1989 and then was out of football.

The Fools Gold

Tim Worley

Modern-era Pittsburgh has never had a running back taken higher. Not Franco, not Rocky, not, Hoge, not Foster, not Bettis, not Mendenhall.

Tim Worley was supposed to be that good. Ken Beatrice, long time WMAL/WTEM Washington-area sports radio voice, used to say “If I had my choice between Worley, Barry Sanders, and Bobby Humphrey, I would take Worley every time. Worley is simply the superior athlete.”

Things did not start smoothly for Tim Worley. He fumbled three times in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, and was generally ineffective early in the season.

Fools Gold Glitter: Worley exploded at the end of the season, cranking out two one hundred yard games and totaling 770 yards, and made a respectable showing in the 1989 playoffs.

Alas, Not Gold… But Brass: Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose. He ran afoul of Chuck Noll in ‘90 and Noll cut his playing time drastically. Drug suspensions followed in 1991 and 1992. He came back strong in 1993, but the Steelers had had enough and traded him to Chicago, where he played one more year.

Tom Ricketts

To this day, Tom Ricketts holds the distinction of being the Steelers only number 1b. first round draft pick, thanks to the Mike Merriweather trade.

Pyrite Promises: Rickets cracked the starting lineup on opening day as injuries forced Chuck Noll to have Ricketts swap positions with guard John Rinestra. Both men played their new positions played well under such trying circumstances.

From Illusion to Disillusion: That was Rickett’s high point, he never matured into a full time starter, peaking at eight starts in 1991. By then, he had eaten himself out of the league, moving on to play in Indy and Kansas City.

Derek Hill

Pittsburgh had high hopes that Derek Hill would do for Louis Lipps what Lipps had done for John Stallworth.

The Mirage’s Gleam: As a rookie, Hill was poised to realize his promise, starting eight games, catching 28 balls for 433 yards. Sound pedestrian? Well, that dwarfs Limas Sweed’s 2008 production.

Reality Check: Hill had issues. Starting 3 more games in 1990, he caught three fewer balls, and no touchdowns. He left after 1990 as a Plan B free agent, and was out of football by opening day 1991.

Jorrell Williams

As a rookie, Jerroll Willams gave every indication that he was a fourth round steal.

The Leprechaun’s Allure: Thrust unexpectedly into the starting line up in week three, Williams made an immediate impact with 5 tackles and two sacks. Williams contributed heavily as a part-time player throughout the rest of the year and in ‘90 and led the team in sacks in ‘91 despite not starting.

Fool’s Gold, or Just a Fool?: Jerrol Williams’ failure to start puzzled. After making the first team under Bill Cowher and playing well, he immediately bolted as a free agent complaining that stars like Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson denied him the spotlight he needed to showcase his talents. He “showcased” in San Diego, Kansas City, and Baltimore over the next four years, never starting more than six games in a year.

Mark Stock

The Chimera’s Cadence: Mark Stock played in 8 games, made four catches averaging 18.7 yards per catch, plus two grabs for 37 yards in the playoffs….

Crashing Down to Earth: …But Mark Stock was most famous for the catch he didn’t make, dropping a go ahead touchdown pass against Denver in the waning moments the divisional playoffs.

He got cut in training camp the following year. But then Stock’s career took an interesting turn, 1990 saw him serve in Operation Desert Storm, he played for the Washington Redskins in 1993 and then Indianapolis Colts in 1996. In between, he also played for the World League of American Football and the CFL.

A.J. Jenkins
Visiting the Potemkin Village: Jenkins played in all sixteen games as a rookie, and began working himself into the lineup during his second year, netting two sacks by mid-season.

Rough Break: Alas, A.J. Jenkins also got injured at mid-season, and he was out of football by 1991.

From Coal to Diamond to Lead – Carlton Haselrig

We can only describe Carlton Haselrig by mixing our mineral and metal metaphors. You cannot impossible label this man as a bust or write off his accomplishments as flashes of fools gold. Haselrig never played football in college, wrestling at Pitt-Johnstown and winning multiple NCAA Divison II and Division I titles. Drafted in the 12th round, he played on the Steelers practice squad as a nose tackle before moving to guard in 1990.

Starting by 1991, he made the Pro Bowl in 1992. Substance abuse problems began in 1993, which caused him to miss the entire 1994 season. Dick Haley brought him to the Jets in 1995, but Haselrig was out of football after that.

The Gems

David DJ Johnson

Not to be confused with the man the Steelers picked this year, David Johnson (not yet known as “DJ”) played sparingly at first, saw his playing time increase as the year continued, and established himself as a full-time starter beginning in 1990.

Starting opposite of Rod Woodson, Johnson was a frequent target, but Johnson more than held his own. He picked off one pass as a rookie and tied for second place in special teams tackles. In his next year he intercepted two passes for 60 yards and returned one for a touchdown. He would net nine more in his next three seasons as a starter, and never failed to turn in more than 50 tackles a season.

    • In an early 1990 Sunday night game against Houston, Johnson returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown, providing a much needed boost during a one-month stretch where the offense failed to score a touchdown.

The pick of Johnson paid handsome gains in his last game regular season game as a Steelers. Defending a 16 to 9 lead, Johnson hung tough in the end zone, defending several would-be Vinny Testaverde touchdown passes.

Jerry Olsavsky

Not big enough, not strong enough, not fast enough. Simply good enough.

The NFL may have had a more accomplished 10th round draft pick, but I would have no idea who that person is (well, OK L.C. Greenwood would be one, and now that I just checked, Merrill Hoge was also a 10th round pick. My Bad.) Olsavsky started eight games as a rookie in 1989 due to injuries to Hardy Nickerson. Made the first team of the UPI’s 1989 All Rookie Team.

All of that would suffice to make an inspirational underdog story, but there’s more.

The Steelers 1990 media guide described Olsavsky this way:

An exteremly intelligent player who is rarely out of position. He makes up for relative lack of size with hustle and anticipation.

Yes, Jerry O. had an on the field presence that put him in the right place at opportune moments. He made the most of those opportunities.

Pancaking the Nigerian Nightmare – With Pittsburgh defending its goal line and protecting a narrow lead, 221 lb. Jerry O was all that stood between the 260 lb. NFL leading rusher “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye and the Chief’s go ahead touchdown.

    • Olsavsky blew Okoye off the goal line and stopping him cold on 4th down.

Drawing First Blood in “the House of Pain” (aka the Astrodome) – In their first playoff game in five years, the Steelers struck first against Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers.

    • Jerry O set it up when he secured the 1980’s final blocked punt to set up Tim Worley’s 9 yard score.

Rising from the Dead – October 24, 1993 – Pittsburgh totally dominated the Browns in Cleveland Stadium, yet still fell to Eric Metcalf. But it was also the day that Jerry Olsavsky, in his first full year as a starter, blew out all four ligaments in his knee. He had one repaired and three more replaced with ligaments from a cadaver.

    • 14 months later, Jerry O was back on the roster.

Stepping up in 1995 – When Jerry O returned in 1995, many chalked it up to sentimentality. But Chad Brown had one of those infamous “high ankle sprains” early in 1995.

  • Olsavsky started four games, but took plenty of snaps and helped shore up a defense forced to compensate for the loss of Rod Woodson.

Filling the Void Left in the Absence of Lloyd – A year later, Greg Lloyd’s injury forced Chad Brown to move to outside linebacker, and Jerry O was ready to step up again.

    • Olsavsky started 14 games at inside linebacker making solo 46 tackles, recording half a sack, forcing one fumble and intercepting a pass.

Carnell Lake

Carnell Lake may not have garnered the ink and attention that Woodson and Lloyd did, but Lake’s contributions were every bit as important to the dominance of Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of the 1990’s.

After playing linebacker at UCLA, Lake made the transition to Strong Safety and started as a rookie, and becoming a mainstay for the defense for a decade. Lake started 15 games as a rookie, finishing as the 6th leading tackler in the regular season, making one sack, defending 13 passes, recovering 5 fumbles, forcing two fumbles, and intercepting one pass.

For an encore, Lake led the team in solo and total tackles in the 1989 post season.

Living Up to his Namesake – Torrential rains had transformed large parts of Joe Robbie Stadium into swamp land, so it is fitting that the man named Lake was the MVP.

    • Lake struck early, nailing Dan Marino and injuring his shoulder. We don’t applaud injury, but Mario was forced to stand and watch as the Steelers erupted for 24 points in the second and third quarters.
    • Lake also paved the way for the Steelers second touchdown when he recovered a fumble when he lateral to Dwayne Woodruff who returned it 21 yards for a touchdown.

Saving the Season I – It was 1995, and things were not going according to plan. Stopped three yards shy of a trip to the Super Bowl, the Steelers were coming apart at the seams. The Steelers had lost Rod Woodson for the year on opening day. Dieon Figures was playing, but still recovering from a gun shot wound.

The Steelers had dropped one to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, and then followed it up by losing to Cincinnati at home, as Jeff Blake, looking more like Kurt Warner, torched Alvoid Mayes for touchdown after touchdown.

Bill Cowher knew he had to shake up the team, and shake it up in a big way. He moved Lake, a man who had only ever played corner for a few series during the 1991 preseason, to cornerback.

  • While Lake may not have transformed himself into a true shut down corner, his selflessness is what began the turn around for the Steelers.

The Steelers went on to win 8 out of 9 and came within two Neil O’Donnell interceptions of upsetting the Dallas Cowboy’s in Super Bowl XXX.

Saving the Season II – It was 1997, and the Steelers had just lost their top three cornerbacks to free agency. Chad Scott was holding his own as a rookie, but when Donell Wolford wasn’t getting beaten, he was getting burnt.

  • Shortly before a week 14 show down with the Denver Broncos, Lake again put the team ahead of himself and moved to corner.

The defense improved, and the Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship, coming a few untimely interceptions away from a Super Bowl.

The Steelers 1989 Draft, 20 Years Later

Looking back, the Steelers 1989 draft turns the old adage of “it takes 5 years to judge a draft” on its head. Normally that maxim serves to cool the jets of overly reactionary fans who’re ready to declare a high round draft pick a bust before his rookie year is over.

Pick-for-pick the Steelers 1989 draft class did more to help the team win in the present than in the future. By 1993 Lake, Haselrig, and Johnson were the group’s only starters, with Jerry O on IR. But Johnson was to leave in free agency, and Haselrig’s substance abuse issues were getting the best of him.

At the end of the day, Lake was the only true diamond in the group, with Jerry O and David Johnson as sapphires and rubies, and the rest turned out to be little more than fools gold.

Steel Curtain Rising will honor the Steelers 1989 team all season long. Please feel free to share your thoughts or memories by leaving a comment.

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