How Key Is Joe Haden to Steelers? He’s the Glue Holding Pittsburgh’s Secondary Together

Is Joe Haden a true shutdown cornerback in today’s NFL?

I don’t know what criteria one needs to be labeled as such, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s what Joe Haden does for the Steelers’ secondary, a unit that has already had more ups and downs through three weeks of the 2018 regular season than a drive through Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.

In a Week 1 tie with the Browns on September 9, the Steelers’ defense yielded just 150 yards through the air and recorded 10 passes defensed.

  • Joe Haden recorded one of  them on a nice break-up in the end zone.

Unfortunately, Joe Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and sat out the Week 2 match-up with the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Haden’s loss wasn’t just unfortunate in theory, it was unfortunate in application, as Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s young quarterback, torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss that dropped the Steelers to 0-1-1.

Joe Haden,

Joe Haden is the glue holding Steelers secondary together. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Totday

Pittsburgh’s secondary looked so helpless in the game, it not only failed to record a single pass defensed (defensive end Stephon Tuitt posted the only one on the day on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage), players like Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds spent the majority of the afternoon either totally confused or mostly out of position.

  • After the Kansas City disaster, the confidence in the Steelers’ defense was perhaps lower than it had been since the departure of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

As I said, however, the early portion of the 2018 campaign has been one crazy roller coaster ride for the  secondary; eight days later, in a Monday night match-up with the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Haden returned and so did his great influence on the pass defense.

No, the unit didn’t necessarily look great, as Artie Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh took turns in the Tampa area burn unit, thanks to the plethora of big plays they allowed. However, there was the first half of the game that included four takeaways on four straight possessions. The secondary was responsible for three of those turnovers, as Mike Hilton tallied a fumble recovery and an interception, respectively, while Terrell Edmunds recorded an interception.

What about Joe Haden, the man with the 4.5 speed tasked mostly with covering receiver DeSean Jackson, he of the 4.3 40 time? The veteran corner not only recorded three of the Steelers’ 13 passes defensed, he limited Jackson, who came into the night with nine receptions for 275 yards on the season, to just three catches for 37 yards.

  • How did Joe Haden limit such a potent threat in DeSean Jackson?

I’m no expert, but I’m guessing great technique and veteran savvy had a lot to do with it. As for the technique part, perhaps Haden can spread his influence to Burns, who is obviously younger and a step or so faster.

Regardless of how Burns influences the individual members of the Steelers’ secondary, again, there’s no question the impact he has on it as a whole.

  • Ryan Shazier is said to have been the most important member of the Steelers’ defense.

And it doesn’t take a football Ph.D to know that the Steelers defense hasn’t fully recovered since he suffered that frightful spinal injury against the Bengals late last season.

But Joe Haden was also lost for several weeks in 2017, and it’s clearly no coincidence that it was during this time that the defense was victimized by the big play to the tune of a 46 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play and this stat comes from before Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion.

So, is Joe Haden a shutdown corner? Who cares? He’s a damn good one, and the Steelers defense is better with him in the lineup.

 

 

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How Steelers Barn Burning win over Buccaneers Reveals Pittsburgh’s Peril and Promise for 2018

It took 3 weeks, but the Steelers 30-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave the Black and Gold its first win of the 2018 season, proving once again that on the field and off the field, Pittsburgh certainly does not lack for drama.

The win was a barn burner, something which Steelers Nation got accustomed to during the latter half of 2017. Moreover, it was a Steelers win that revealed both the limits and perhaps the promise Pittsburgh of the 2018 season.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Stiff Arm Heard Round the World

Week three marks an important milestone in the NFL calendar. Teams that exceeded expectations in the first two weeks either get a reality check or show that they’re really ready for prime time. Teams that have fallen short of expectations in the first two weeks either dig themselves deeper into a statistical hole or they offer hope that the can be better.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had exceeded expectations during the season’s first two weeks, while the Pittsburgh Steelers had fallen short.

After Pittsburgh and Tampa traded punts, Ben Roethlisberger forced the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Evans made him pay, picking him off at midfield. Ryan Fitzpatrick needed only 5 plays to march 53 yards for a touchdown. For Steelers Nation, it was déjà vu all over again.

Fortunately, the Steelers starting tight end didn’t share the feeling:

With Vance McDonald’s stiff arm and incredible burst of speed, the Steelers declared “We didn’t come here to play. We came to win.”

Steelers Show Promise in First Half vs Buccaneers

Vance McDonald’s touchdown ushered a different Steelers team onto the field at Raymond James Stadium, one very similar to the team that people inside and outside of Pittsburgh thought could contend for a championship.

  • Anthony Chickillo ended the next Buccaneers drive with a sack
  • Artie Burns came off the bench to force a fumble
  • 2 plays later, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown schooled Tampa for a touchdown
  • The Buccaneers marched Pittsburgh’s 12 only to have Jon Bostic tip a pass that Mike Hilton intercept
  • Terrell Edmunds returned an easy interception with Troy Polamalu-like speed
  • After a -7 yard drive Jordan Berry pinned Tampa down at at their 2
  • 2 plays later Bud Dupree took his first interception to the house

The Steelers did give up a field goal on the ensuring drive, but with just a 1:09 remaining, Ben Roethlisberger moved the Steelers 75 yards down the field with Swiss-like precision, hitting Ryan Switzer for a touchdown with 0:06 left to spare.

This was the type of Pittsburgh Steelers team everyone expected: An explosive offense matched with a defense capable of making splash plays to compensate for leaks that it can’t really doesn’t have the talent to plug.

Second Half Reveals Steelers Limits and Potential Ceiling

Twenty point leads lend a lot of confidence to teams heading into the locker room. But any wise fan knew not to take anything for granted. This was after all the Steelers team that had the Cleveland Browns on the ropes with a two touchdown lead in the 4th quarter but managed to tie the game.

  • It would be easy to offer the Steelers second half effort as proof that the Steelers defense is hopeless.

And you’d no doubt, find plenty of takers in the “Fire Everyone” crowd who don’t understand why Art Rooney II didn’t summarily fire Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Kevin Colbert and the water boy after the Kansas City debacle.

  • The truth is that the Steelers defense in general and its secondary specifically secondary left a lot to be desired for much of the 2nd half.

On the upside, tackling was a bit better, but members of the secondary got plenty of tackling practice as Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with receiver after receiver. For all the “Fitzmagic” talk, Ryan Fitzpatrick never should have been allowed to make it so close. But he did, and underlining the fact that the Steelers have some legitimate deficiencies on defense.

  • The Steelers offense also shoulders some of the responsibility.

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still are not on the same page: Ben grossly overthrew Brown on a deep pattern that could have been an easy touchdown, and the two were badly out of sync on another that could have killed the clock.

But those two flaws, while real, should not overshadow two positives from the game’s final five minutes.

  1. James Conner ripped off 27 and then 17 yard gains, when EVERYONE knew he was going get the ball
  2. The Steelers defense pitched a perfect shut out on the Buccaneer’s final drive

In fewer words, both Steelers units found ways to win. Finding the ability to make key plays at critical moments in the NFL is a distinct skill. In the closing moments against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Steelers showed they still have that skill.

Which is good, because they will likely need to call on it throughout the 2018 season.

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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.

This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com

Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?

By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.

  • So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?

Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.

  • Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.

While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.

  • Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.

Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.

  • If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.

Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.

  • For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.

Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.

  • Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.

  • First, football is a results driven business.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?

  • The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.

Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.

  • If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
  • Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.

Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would  tip the scales. Time will tell.

But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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Watch Tower: Tomlin Turns on Charm with the Press; Plus Pleas for More of Moore…

The Steelers heart breaking loss to the lowly Buccaneers sent Steelers Nation reeling, with cries of “Fire Tomlin,” “Fire LeBeau” and/or “Fire Haley” heard from parts near and far. But how Tomlin reacted gives the Watch Tower its first subject. Also on deck Justin Brown vs. Lance Moore, and the case for running the ball.

Tomlin Shows Savvy with the Press

Unlike his predecessors, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin relationship with the press is difficult to peg.

Chuck Noll never like dealing with the press, but seemed to accept they had a job to do, and by all accounts was friendly and amiable to conversation – as long as it wasn’t about football. Bill Cowher, it is widely acknowledged, made little pretense of trying to get along with the press, whether on or off camera.

  • Eight years into his coaching tenure, Tomlin’s relationship with the press remains much more of an enigma. 

Early on it was clear that Tomlin’s personality jived much more better with the press (in Spanish we’d say, “tenia mucho mejor onda con la prensa” sorry, it communicates the idea better) than Cowher’s. In his first weeks as coach, reporters made comments like “Tomlin actually smiles and says things like ‘hello’ when you pass him in the hall.”

Later on, reporters went at pains to include quotes from Bruce Arians and/or Dick LeBeau glowing about the newfound autonomy they enjoyed. Explicit rebukes of Cowher never surfaced, but the Watch Tower’s hypothesis surmises that this was the press’ way of saying, “We like the new guy better than the old.”

  • Relationships evolve over time of course, and so has Tomlin’s with the press.

Ed Bouchette once commented that Tomlin, like Cowher, had mastered the “art of the informationless press conference.” (Contrast this to his first press conference prior to the 2007 NFL Draft, when Kevin Colbert prevented Tomlin from answering a question, fearing he’d give away too many specifics.”)

And as social media has grown, so has head coaches exposure to the press. Most NFL coaches interact multiple times with the press.

  • Tomlin is not one of those, however.

He gives a post-game press conference and a mid week one and that’s it. During the off season, he doesn’t speak with the press, at least not on the record. Pittsburgh reporters must travel to the NFL’s off season meetings to get face to face time with Tomlin. Ed Bouchette once revealed that he asked Tomlin for more face time, and Tomlin told him point blank, “How does it benefit me?”

  • But Tomlin does know how to work the press when he needs to, as was apparent last season, and again last week.

Regular readers know that the Watch Tower is a devotee of Elliot King and Michael Schudson’s theory that personal relations between the press and a public figure have incredible impact on the coverage those figures receive.  It appears that Tomlin buys into that theory too.

A year ago Tomlin’s interactions with the press were getting testy. He openly complained about the relevance of their questions. And after the New England debacle, when someone asked if he’d begun to doubt Dick LeBeau’s ability, Tomlin snapped back “No. Because he’s Dick LeBeau.”

Contrast that with the approach Tomlin took after the sideline infraction vs. Baltimore, where he enthusiastically invited any and all questions. Joe Starkey went as far as to say it was a “different Tomlin.”

  • Tomlin took a similar approach following the loss to Tampa.

Jim Wexell characterized it as “…one of his most honest press conferences.” Indeed, Tomlin provided detailed insight into both the thinking and execution breakdowns surrounding the Steelers and Panther’s final drive, and the strip sack of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • It appears that Tomlin’s strategy for combating press speculation was to take away the story.

Just how effective the strategy was remains unclear, as Roethlisberger did appear to dispute, at least in part Tomlin’s description of the final play call as “run pass option.” But the “Fire Everyone” talk did die down by week’s end.

Press Wants More Moore

Everyone expected the Steelers defense to struggle, and that was before injuries to Ryan Shazier, Ike Taylor and Jarvis Jones. The Steelers offense played well in the first half vs. Cleveland, but struggled after that (although Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton’s production has been consistently “above the line.”)

Going into the Carolina game, Dale Lolley reflected on the offense’s struggles before adding “But I think the addition of Lance Moore will make a difference for this team this week.”

  • Moore played one snap vs. the Panthers.

The word was that Justin Brown was a better blocker, and that Moore having missed so much time needed to work himself back into the offense. Mark Kaboly for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wasn’t buying it, and suggested outright that Moore had done something to get himself into Tomlin and Todd Haley’s dog house.

  • And this was before the loss to Tampa.

Since then the criticism has only increased. Dale Lolley made note of it after the Tampa disaster. Later in the week Lolley praised Brown’s potential, but pointed to Moore’s ability to help with production, and took aim at the blocking argument saying, “But the position is called wide receiver, not wide blocker.”

Scott Brown of ESPN took it a step further, flatly stating the Brown was hardly the “second coming of Hines Ward” as a blocker. He continued “I’m at a complete loss to explain why Brown has played over Moore” sharing that Todd Haley has made it clear that Brown is still above Moore in the pecking order.

  • While the football issues are of most interest to the fans, the question of what is going on with the press is equally fascinating.

While reporters access to Tomlin and the coordinators is limited to once a week interactions, they seldom get to speak, on the record, to assistant coaches. Yet these reporters work in the same building as the coaches, see them in the hallways, lunch room, and even in the john.

  • And now you have 3 reporters from separate publications following the same story.

It could very well be the case that the press is in the dark about why Moore has dropped to number 4 on the depth chart. But it could also be that some assistant coach is quietly letting them know that there’s more to the story that Haley is letting on.

It’s unlikely anyone outside of the South Side will know anything in detail for some time. But the Watch Tower will keep an eye on social media as the backside of stories like this have a way of surfacing. (Case in point, if memory serves, it was Jim Wexell has said on Twitter that Bruce Arians had no interest in rebuilding the offensive line.)

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower.
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When Steelers Record Breaking Sparks No Celebration

Records are made to be broken.John Stallworth, during the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game

John Stallworth’s was responding to a question about whether he felt jealous about Hines Ward  breaking all of his receiving records with the Steelers. Stallworth admitted he’d sent Hines a letter. “What did you say?” the reporter inquired,

Antonio Brown, Record, 1st 5 catch yards 20 games

“Stop breaking my records young man!” Stallworth joked, and then went on to talk about how great it was to have is record broken by Hines.

The Steelers 75th Anniversary Game gave cause for celebration in Steelers Nation as did the night less than two years earlier when a pass from Antwaan Randle El pushed Ward beyond Stallworth in the total receptions category. Aside from the record, the Steelers defeated the Browns 34-21 and improved to 7-2.

How times change.

Individual Pittsburgh Steelers are still breaking records, but the stars can’t seem to line up to make it cause for celebration. In 2011 Ward crossed another threshold when he reached the elusive 1,000 receptions mark. Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette said 1,000 catches should cement Ward’s status as a great.

  • Yet, the catch actually lost three yards and the play itself had been designed to simply get the ball to Ward for the sake of him getting it.

While it was a triumphant moment, the milestone also marked how far Ward had fallen. Browns fans have even taken to mocking it on YouTube.

Last year Ben Roethlisberger did some record breaking of his own, breaking Terry Bradshaw’s career touchdown passing record. Unfortunately, the event happened as the Steelers were getting embarrassed by a Miami Dolphins team quarterbacked by a player who’d never seen snow.

But he did break an NFL record last week by becoming the NFL’s first player to have at least 5 receptions for 50 yards in 20 straight games.

  • He was not the only Pittsburgh player to pass a milestone. 

Heath Miller passed Lynn Swann as the Steelers 4th all time receiver. The Pittsburgh Steelers even went as far as to tweet the infographic above. Which is fine, but its also safe to say that no one in Steelers Nation feels like celebrating after a loss as bad as the Tampa loss.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Tampa @ Heniz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the manic-depressive performance of his star pupil doesn’t simply indicate that the said student is destined to be mired in mediocrity for yet another year, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report for the embarrassing loss at Heinz to Tampa Bay.

steelers report card, tampa bay, buccaneers

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes and for 314 yards, without an interception. Yes he was sacked 5 times, but all of those came in the first half. The one that really hurt was the one where he put the ball on the ground. Combine that with a couple of other missed receivers and his grade comes down. Grade:  B+

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell only managed 63 yards on the ground, but it was not all his fault. LeGarrette Blount had a better average with limited carries. Will Johnson got nothing on his single attempt. Bell did his damage as a pass catcher, converting several “should have been” short gains into long ones. Dri Archer had 1 catch for 1 yard. Grade:  B

Tight Ends
Heath Miller started slow and suffered a drop early on. But he fought back with a vengeance, and arguably had his best game since injuring his ACL. Heath made ever catch count, and in the process he passed Lynn Swann on the team’s overall receivers list. Matt Spaeth did not get a catch but did some in on blocking downs. Grade:  B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and another record breaking performance, and added two touchdowns to his total. He even completed a pass for 17 yards. But he had a drop on a sure touchdown which hurt. Markus Wheaton helped spark the Steelers by making an incredible catch, but was quiet the rest of the day. He also got stuffed on a reverse. Justin Brown dropped a touchdown. Lance Moore got his first catch as a Steeler. A strong showing by the receivers, but the drops hurt.  Grade:  B-

Offensive Line
After the Panthers game, BTSC editor Neal Coolong quibbed that Cody Wallace might have Wally Pipped Ramon Foster out of a job. That’s not happening, as Wallace was completely dominated. Kelvin Beachum also struggled. Marcus Gilbert also had a strong game. The line did a better job in pass protection than 5 sacks indicate, but the Steelers still failed to control the line of scrimmage. Grade:  C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward started the game like a house of fire, tackling people in the backfield, sacking Mike Glennon but then disappeared. He also drew a penalty for arguing a non-holding call with an official. Cam Thomas got a QB hit in but his facemask penalty essentially gave Tampa its first field goal. Brett Keisel recorded no stats. The line held Tampa’s rushing attack in check, but overall the unit was too uneven. Grade: C

Linebackers
Arthur Moats and James Harrison alternated series and both drew holding calls but did little else. Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles and was solid, but he did get beaten on a couple of key throws. Jason Worilds has yet to show anyone why he’s worth what he’s making. Sean Spence got his first start was fairly non-descript. The linebackers failed to generate sufficient pressure in the second half, and had too many errors in the second half. Grade:  D

Secondary
Troy Polamalu played closer to the line of scrimmage and made some plays. He also got hit with some penalties. Cortez Allen got his first interception, but then almost looked like he didn’t know what to do with it. William Gay made some good plays, but was out of position on the final touchdown catch. Mike Mitchell made a lot of tackles, but has yet to really show much. The Steelers secondary probably did better than the stat sheet indicates, given the absence of a pass rush. But they were still below the line. Grade: D

Special Teams
This group must share in the blame as well. Too many penalties. Miscommunication between the kick return team. A 29 yard punt in a situation that calls for the punter to boom one off. Don’t look now, but Tampa had a decent day returning punts. Shaun Sushiam missed a 50 yarder which proved to be costly. Grade:  D

Coaching
it’s now a simple fact. Mike Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games. The opening drive is a perfect example of the types of lapses that have hit his team in these games, lapses with leave Pittsburgh in a hole which it then cannot come out of.

  • Tomlin has proven himself to be an excellent coach, but trap games remain his Achilles heel until proven otherwise.

While the fire “Dick LeBeau” brimstone will not be found here, the truth is that Tampa Bay, like Cleveland, found a way to effectively adjust to his defense in the second half. Perhaps this is simply a case of LeBeau using smoke and mirrors to milk all he can out of his talent, but it does not bode particularly well here.

Todd Haley earned a firestorm of his own for his play calling on the Steelers final drive. Honestly, if there is no penalty and the Steelers rush their way to a first down, Haley’s play calling quickly becomes the work of a genius. Haley’s play calling was sound throughout, although RedZone efficiency could have been better.

The other outstanding issue is of course penalties. The Steelers have a legit shot at the NFL record, having suffered 125 yards of them. You can’t spot a team 75 extra yards in the NFL, just as you can’t spot them 10 extra points, which the Steelers essentially did.

Ultimately, it comes down to discipline, as Mike Tomlin has admitted. It needs to improve as foolish mistakes cost Pittsburgh a game. Grade:  D

Unsung Hero Award
For obvious reasons, this moment will quickly be forgotten, but when the Steelers defense walked off the field with 1:44 left and Tampa turning over on downs at Pittsburgh’s 14, the game looked to be sealed. The player who helped defend the final pass was someone whose name was seldom heard during the first 3 weeks, and he was one of the Steelers basement bargain hunts. The player who defended that pass didn’t just do it then, but had played a solid if imperfect game, and certainly couldn’t have been pin-pointed as Pittsburgh’s weak link, and for that Brice McCain win the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to Tampa.

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Steelers Systematically Self Destruct, Lose to Tampa 27-24

At its most basic level, winning and losing in football comes down to who runs, catches, throws, blocks and tackles better. Go a level higher and winning and losing comes down to opportunity – taking advantage of them, creating them and avoiding creating them for your opponents.

  • And that’s what makes the Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so disheartening.

The Pittsburgh Steelers created plenty of opportunities for themselves to win; unfortunately, the created more opportunities for Tampa to do the same, and the Buccaneers took full advantage.

First Half – Steelers React Instead of Dictating

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost underachieved their way to the 0-3 record they brought to Heinz Field. They also benefited from 10 full days to prepare, and arrived as a team with something to prove.

The last thing you can do against a team like that is to give them a quick confidence builder and the consecutive sacks which led to Tampa’s quick touchdown did just that. 6 plays later the Steelers did it again when a Cam Thomas face mask gave Tampa all but 3 of the yards it needed to knock in a field goal.

  • With only 5 minutes elapsed, the Steelers found themselves down 10-0 at home vs. an 0-3 team.

Instead of setting the tempo of the game, Pittsburgh was forced to react to it. For the record, the Steelers responded well, first with a field goal, and then taking the lead on two Antonio Brown touchdowns while the defense forced 3 straight Tampa punts.

Yet the late in the second half a sack of Ben Roethlisberger forced Shaun Suisham to kick it from 50 into Heinz Field’s open end; he missed it, and the Steelers lost the chance to firmly establish control at the half.

Don’t Blame this One on Dick….

The “Fire Dick LeBeau” lynch mobs will find no voice here.

  • Yes, his defense was below the line in the second half
  • Yes, offensive coordinators are making the famed “second half adjustments” with a little too much ease
  • Yes, his pass rushers disappeared in the second half

However, the blunt truth is that the Steelers made enough plays in the second half to overcome all of that, where it not for a few “buts.”

To those of you rolling your eyes consider some of the individual performances of the Steelers in the second half:

  • Heath Miller had 5 catches for 56 yards, including a touchdown and a 19 yard catch on 2nd and 17
  • Le’Veon Bell delivered in the clutch, ripping off a 10 yard gain on 3rd and 2, and a 14 yard catch in 3rd and 13
  • The Steelers defense did managed to stop Tampa on 4 straight attempts to convert on from Pittsburgh’s 14

While none of above qualifies as “heroic” they were performances of a team that has players who were both willing and able to make the plays necessary to win. And those feats would have been enough, if not for the “Buts….” Such as:

  • Cortez Allen (gasp) made an interception late in the third quarter, yet the Steelers failed to convert
  • Troy Polamalu’s facemask penalty aided the Buccaneers field goal drive
  • Antonio Brown, who had an otherwise excellent game, dropped a bomb if not sure touchdown
  • When trying to burn out the clock Maurkice Pouncey committed a false start penalty, costing Pittsburgh precious real-estate
  • Brad Wing, who has average 44.8 yards punting, chose to make his first piss poor punt of the season with :50 remaining while standing at Pittsburgh’s 17

Yes, Dick LeBeau’s secondary stumbled badly on Tampa’s game winning drive, but the fault from the loss is far from theirs alone. The Steelers defense was expected to struggle early in the season, and playing without 3 starters certainly did not help.

No, borrow the words of Behind the Steel Curtain’s Jack Finn, this loss was a total team failure and a failure that could have been avoided, were it not for a few “but’s.”

And that’s what makes this one hurt so badly.

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Harrison Hold Count Stands at 5

Steel Curtain Rising is working to promote Neal Coolong’s effort to document incidents of blatant holding of James Harrison with no flag thrown.

Once again, as documented by Coolong on Behind the Steel Curtain’s Pre Game Zone Blitz, the official called a pretty clean game last week. None the less, in the first quarter Donald Penn held Harrison with no flag being thrown.

You can find the season-long tally below. “Harrison Holds” = a hold on Harrison not called.

Number times James Harrison was held last week: 2
Number of “Harrison Holds:” 1
Total “Harrison Holds” for 2010: 5

Spread the Word

This is where you come in. Spread the word!

“Harrison Holds” have been down so far this season, but perhaps this is because of Neal’s work an everyone’s efforts to spread it.

So, if you have your own site or blog please link to it (meaning link to Neal’s article). ReTweet it. Facebook share it, Digg it. Do whatever MySpace users do to share articles.

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Report Card: Steelers vs. Buccaneers

Each week Steel Curtain Rising grades the performance of the Steelers individual units. (We offer scouts honor that neither Gerry DuLac’s grades nor any other grades have been consulted. ) Here are the grades for the Steelers performance against the Buccanners.

Quarterback

Charlie Batch did not look like a man who had not started a game since 2007. He was far from flawless, throwing two picks which could have been costly, plus another should have been pick. But those blemishes do not obscure a brilliant performance. Batch went 12-17-186, but beyond the numbers, Batch had a commanding precense in the huddle and in the pocket. Grade: B+

Running Back

Mendenhall ripped off 6 double-digit runs en route to 143 yards and 1 TD. Redman also broke double digits in his five runs for 31 yards. Power rush’s return to Pittsburgh was welcome, at least for one Sunday. Grade: A

Receivers and Tight Ends

Combined, Wallace, Ward, Miller and El only totaled 7 catches, but each man made his catch count. Grade: B+

Offensive line

The Steelers were substituting almost as much against Tampa as they had in Tennessee. But you wouldn’t have know it. They gave Batch time and opened the lanes for Mendenhall and Redman to move the chains. Grade: A

Defensive Line

When your opponents’ leading rusher gained 27 yards you know it’s a good day for the defensive line. Ziggy Hood also had a pass defense. And of course, Brett Kesiel took one to the house. Can’t ask for much more. Grade: A

Linebackers

This group didn’t make the splash plays that it made against the Titans, but it didn’t need to. They got pressure when necessary, made plays in coverage, and in general stuff the run. Jason Worilds got his first sack. Grade: B+

Secondary

William Gay nabbed a sack and while the Steelers did give up a long gain of 46 yards, that is as much on the linebacking and the line corps as it was the secondary. Ryan Clark recovered a key fumble. Grade: B+

Special Teams

Brown didn’t break a big one but he looked like he could have. Reeds kickoffs have been getting deeper, and Sepulveda boomed on for 62 yards. A very good day. Grade: A-

Coaching

It looked like the Steelers might succumb to the dreaded trap game – for about a quarter, but no one will remember that come December. Charlie Batch was ready. About the only negative was the coaches decision to keep so many starters in late in the game. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero: The offensive line.

Batch, Wallace, Ward, and Kesiel took all the headlines, even the television crew failed to point out the regular substitutions as their colleagues had done the week before.

But Batch’s pocket poise and Redman & Rashard’s room to run only happen if the line does its job. It did it, and it did it well. Granted, no one will confuse this front seven with the 85 Bears front seven, but the offensive line dominated an opponent it should have dominated, and that’s where championships start.

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