Steelers vs Penguins – Pens May Hoist Stanley Cup, but Men of Steel Still King in Pittsburgh

It seems every time the Penguins experience a run of success, as they are right now–a run that includes back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, following a 2-0 victory in Nashville over the Predators Sunday night–people like to entertain the topic.

What topic am I talking about, you ask?

  • The idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins are about to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers as the number one team in the City of Pittsburgh in terms of popularity.

On talk radio last week, Dejan Kovacevic, filling in for the popular and controversial Mark Madden, threw that thought out there and basically agreed with it.

  • Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering 105.9 the X is the Penguins flagship station.

At this very moment, the Penguins are the number one team in town; how could they not be?

Stanely Cup, Nick Bonino, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguin Nick Bonino hosts the Stanley Cup at the Steelers South Sid facility as Cam Heyward and others look on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Tribune-Review

They boast some of the NHL’s and hockey’s greatest players–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–and, as previously mentioned, Lord Stanley will be paraded around Pittsburgh for a second consecutive summer.

Also, with the drafting of the legendary Mario Lemieux in 1984, the Penguins forever changed the fortunes of their previously downtrodden franchise and have won a total of five Stanley Cups since the summer of 1991.

  • Meanwhile, the Steelers have won just two Super Bowls since 1979, the same year the Pirates claimed their last World Series title.

Over the past three-plus decades, the Penguins have gone from a laughingstock of an organization, to hockey royalty.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a Steelers fan, you obviously know the legacy that was forged in the 1970’s that was jump-started by the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969 and the drafting of defensive stalwart Mean Joe Greene almost immediately afterward.

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Terrible Towel, Black Terrible Towel

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth sport Terrible Towels in Three Rivers Stadium during 70’s Super Bowl.

With the help of nine future Hall of Fame players (Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster), the Steelers went from an also-ran in the early’70’s to the class of the NFL by the end of the decade.

  • And, in Pittsburgh, there was no mistake who reigned supreme in a sports sense.

Here we are, nearly five decades into the Steelers run of football supremacy, and there are no true signs of this love, this passion the fans have for the team dissipating anytime soon.

Sure, it might seem that way, considering the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups since the last time the Steelers hoisted a Lombardi, following their 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, some eight years ago.

But all one needs to do is examine the TV ratings–both locally and nationally–to see that the Penguins have a ways to go before they supplant the Steelers for local sports supremacy.

As USA Today pointed out on Tuesday, NBC, the network with the rights to the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, is doing cartwheels for the ratings the six-game final between Pittsburgh and Nashville drew.

Stanley Cup 2017, Penguins vs. Predators, Ron Hainsey, Juuse, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ron Hainsey shoots puck past Nashville Predators goalie Juuse. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via FanRag.com

What was the average for those six games? A 4.76, or almost two points lower than Last Man Standing, a Tim Allen sitcom that recently made the news after being canceled by ABC. 

  • By contrast, the most recent Super Bowl–SBLI between the Patriots and Falcons–drew a 48.8 share for Fox. That’s almost a difference of almost ten times in case you’re wondering.

OK, yes, I just pointed out that football is still king in America, and that its signature event is watched by almost half the country, while hockey’s marquee series is watched by the same amount of people who would tune in to watch a middling TV show on Friday night.

What about the local ratings for the finals?

  • According to NBC Sports, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final–the clincher–drew a 40.0 rating in Pittsburgh, while the entire series drew a 32.0.
  • Great for Pittsburgh and great for NBC.

But when you examine some of the Steelers’ recent local regular season TV ratings, you may start to get a sense for just how popular they still are.

According to a TribLive article from January of 2014, that came on the heels of a playoff-less and 8-8 2013 season that included starts of 0-4 and 2-6, the Steelers averaged a 38.2 local rating, which was pretty much on par with what the Penguins generated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final this past Sunday.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers playoff rushing record, Jesse James

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record for a 2nd consecutive week in Steelers playoff win over Chiefs. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via Newsday

And when you examine the Steelers most-recent playoff win–an 18-16 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round on January 15–you may wonder if NBC, the network that broadcast the game, has already contacted head coach Mike Tomlin about starring in his very own sitcom: First Down Family…Obviously. 

  • The game averaged 37.1 viewers and was the most watched non-conference championship game playoff matchup in NFL history.

Wow.

Sure, the game was moved into primetime due to weather concerns in Kansas City, but it doesn’t lessen the impact the Steelers and the NFL have on the country and the City of Pittsburgh.

So, what am I saying?

  • Yes, the Penguins are the hot team in town right now, and probably will be for quite some time.

The organization did a great job years ago by marketing the team to young fans–don’t know how many young millennials are huge Penguins fans.

However, while Pittsburgh started to develop a bit of a hockey culture after the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux 33 years ago, it was almost as if the Pittsburgh of pre-1970, with its blue-collar work-ethic, was a football town waiting for a team to embrace.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became that team in the early-1970’s, and it appears as if no one–not even the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins–will knock them off the top perch anytime soon.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

antonio brown, justin houston, antonio brown vs justin houston, Steelers vs. Chiefs, steelers red zone receiver

Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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Report card for Steelers divisional round victory over Chiefs

Quarterback 

Sunday night wasn’t one of the greatest performances for Ben Roethlisberger (he completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards, no touchdowns and one interception). However, he could have had a better fate, had Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers been able to hold on to touchdown passes. Of course, things could have been better for Roethlisberger, had he not checked out of a running play down at the goal line and had his subsequent pass deflected in the air and intercepted by Eric Berry in the second quarter. It wasn’t a suburb performance for No. 7, but he did find a way to make a spectacular play on the third and three pass to Brown late in the game that sealed the deal. Grade: C

Running Backs 

What more can be said about Le’Veon Bell? After breaking the franchise single-game postseason rushing mark a week earlier against the Dolphins in the wild card game, Bell broke his own record against the Chiefs, by rushing for 170 yards on 30 carries. If he isn’t the most explosive and dangerous offensive weapon in football right now, I don’t know who is. Grade: A+

Wide Receivers 

Aside from Brown’s 108 yards on six catches, there wasn’t much in the way of contributions from the wide-outs on Sunday. While Rogers netted 27 yards on five catches, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers combined for 10 yards on two catches. Still, though, it’s hard to expect much from secondary receivers with little pedigree and even less experience. Grade: B-

Tight Ends 

The Steelers may not have had the still recovering from a concussion Ladarius Green, but Jesse James sure did provide some big catches and yards. All-told, he had five catches for 83 yards–including one for 26. Grade: B

Offensive Line

When your star running back rushes for 170 yards, and your franchise quarterback only gets sacks one time in 31 pass-attempts, it’s hard to criticize the offensive line. I won’t criticize the line, but a suburb performance by the unit could have been even better, had the offense been able to trade a couple of field goals for touchdowns. Grade: A

Defensive Line 

It was mostly a stellar performance for the defense, including just 61 yards against the run. It wasn’t a stand-out night for anyone on the line, but it was workman-like. Grade: B

Linebackers

James Harrison led the team in tackles with six and also notched the only sack of Alex Smith on the night. Harrison also came through by getting himself held by Eric Fisher during the two-point conversion try that could have tied the game late in the game. Ryan Shazier had five sacks and an interception, while Bud Dupree had four and caused the interception by Shazier, but pressuring Smith and hitting him just as he threw the pass. Grade B+

Secondary 

The Chiefs had just 172 passing yards on the night. Not much more can be said about that. Grade: A

Special teams 

The Steelers limited dangerous return man Tyreek Hill to 72 yards on four kickoffs. Also, Chris Boswell netted all the points for the  team by kicking a postseason record six field goals. Grade: A

Coaching

The Steelers were the better team in all three phases of the game, out-gaining the Chiefs 389 yards to 22y and stifling Kansas City’s return game. Again, a few touchdowns would have been perfection, but when you come out of Kansas City’s Arrowhead with a playoff win, that’s saying a lot. Grade: B+

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Chris Boswell kicks the Steelers into the AFC Championship game

The Steelers outlasted the Chiefs, 18-16, in a divisional round match-up at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday night to advance to their first AFC Championship game since the 2010 season.

Kicker Chris Boswell booted a postseason-record six field goals, as he provided the only scoring for Pittsburgh and an offense that moved the ball effectively but could never once reach the end zone against the Chiefs’ very effective red zone defense.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.

Receiver Antonio Brown caught six passes for 108 yards, while running back Le’Veon Bell was once again the star on offense, as he rushed 30 times for 170 yards, breaking the franchise’s single-game postseason mark he set one week earlier in the wild card game against the Dolphins at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh’s defense was mostly stellar, holding the Chiefs to 227 total yards–including just 61 yards on the ground–and all but made Kansas City’s two most dangerous weapons–tight end Travis Kelce and receiver/running back Tyreek Hill–non-factors.

Kelce caught five passes for 77 yards, while Hill totaled 45 yards from scrimmage–including just 27 yards on four receptions.

Speaking of Hill, his skills as a return specialist were also a concern for the Steelers special teams, who had been struggling in kick coverage, but Hill averaged just 18 yards on four kickoff returns, and didn’t have a single punt return the entire night.

Holding a  9-7 lead in the second quarter, outside linebacker Bud Dupree hit Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith just as he was about to release a pass, and Ryan Shazier intercepted the ball at the Chiefs’ 44. However, after quickly marching to the Chiefs five-yard line, a quick Roethlisberger pass intended for Brown was deflected in the air and intercepted by safety Eric Berry in the end zone.

After yet another Kansas City punt, the Steelers added a field by Boswell–his fourth of the day (this time from 45 yards)–to make it 12-7 at the half.

Boswell added two more field goals in the second half, and Pittsburgh had an 18-10 lead midway in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs went on a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and drew to within two points, thanks to a one-yard run by Spencer Ware with 2:43 left.

Kansas City went for two and appeared to tie the game on a pass from Smith to receiver Jeremy Maclin. However, a holding call on Eric Fisher, who was attempting to block the legendary James Harrison, and Smith’s next pass from 10 yards further back was knocked away by rookie safety Sean Davis.

Needing one first down to run out the game, the Steelers did just that, when Roethlisberger rolled to his left and found Brown for a seven-yard gain on third and three.

Next up for the Steelers is a trip Gillette Stadium to take on the Photo credit: chron.com  in the AFC Championship game next Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m. (ET).

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Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Andy Reid ahead of Steelers Divisional Playoff Game Against Chiefs

The Vegas line has the Kansas City Chiefs holding a 2 point edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the AFC Divisional playoff game. The book makers are favoring the Chiefs despite the fact that Steelers hold a 20-11 advantage in the series, including a 10-7 edge in games played at Arrowhead Stadium, a notoriously difficult place to play. But all of those were regular season match ups.

  • The Steelers and Chiefs have played in the playoffs once, with the Steelers losing in overtime.

That game came after the 1993 season, when James Harrison struggling to hold down a practice squad slot…. (Ha! fooled you didn’t I?) That’s a joke about Harrison, but the game was so long ago that it DOES preceed Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell’s time with the team, as Bill Cowher fired Steve Furness after that playoff loss.

  • How have things worked out since that fateful day when a Mark Royals’ blocked punt opened the door to another Joe Montana comeback?

Well, per Dale Lolley, the Chiefs are 0-4 at Arrowhead since that win and 1-9 overall in the playoffs. The Steelers in contrast are 19-12 in the playoffs since that day.

The bottom line is that the Steelers and Chiefs don’t have a lot of playoff history so perhaps the operative metric is Mike Tomlin’s record against Andy Reid.

Mike Tomlin, Andy Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Mike Tomlin's record vs Andy Reid

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with Andy Reid after the Steelers 2014 win over the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: David Eulitt, The Kansas City Star

Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Andy Reid

Not including Steelers and Eagles annual preseason match ups, Mike Tomlin is 3-2 against Andy Reid. Tomlin’s games against Reid came in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 which provides a fairly good cross section of both coaches work.

By 2012, both the Steelers and Eagles were in re-building phases as the Steelers prevailed at Heinz Field. In 2014 both the Steelers and Chiefs were fighting to establish themselves as playoff contenders. The Steelers got the better of that December 2014 tussle, while the Chiefs stayed home in January.

By 2015 and 2016 both the Steelers and Chiefs had reestablished themselves as contenders. In fact, Tomlin’s last victory against Andy Reid came in October at Heinz Field as Le’Veon Bell, steamrolled the Kansas City to the tune of 43-14.

Tomlin’s last loss to Andy Reid came in October 2015, with Ben Roethlisberger injured and Landry Jones making his first, unsuccessful, start.

  • At the time it was viewed as a “Tomlin Trap Game” but the Chiefs went on to win 11 straight.
Landry Jones, Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard, Steelers vs. Cheifs Arrowhead

Tamba Hali stip sacks Landry Jones as Jaye Howard recovers in the Chiefs 23-13 win over the Steelers at Arrowhead in October 2015. Photo credit: David Eulitt, Kansas City Star

And those two games perhaps, ominously, highlight the operative trend in Mike Tomlin’s record against Andy Reid. Mike Tomlin is 3-0 against Andy Reid at Heinz Field, but Andy Reid has never lost to Mike Tomlin at home.

So either the Steelers are doomed…

…Or it will come down to the Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to do their thing on offense, with Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt playing solid defense.

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4 Random Reflections on 2016 Steelers 4-1 Start + a Shout Out for a Steelers Nation Scribe

he boss is back with 4 random reflections on the 2016 Steelers 4-1 start, plus a shut out for a special Steelers Nation scribe.

Yes, after close to a month on the road my travels have finally brought me back to “home,” namely Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the great ironies of the global economy is that a month long trip TO the United States kept me from writing about the Steelers, save for a rebuttal of Colin Cowherd’s Mike Tomlin bashing and reflections on Le’Veon Bell’s longevity.

Still, this excurision didn’t result in a full Steelers sabbatical, as followed the news as best I could, while taking in a couple of games on the fly.

2016 steelers 4-1 start, Lawrence Timmons, Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, steelers vs. jets

Jordan Dangerfield, Lawrence Timmons, and Artie Burns gang up on Quincy Enunwa to help 2016 Steelers to 4-1 start. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. Stats Mislead in Steelers Victory Over Bengals

The Steelers much anticipated re-match with the Bengals, sans Le’Veon Bell and Vontaze Burfict was easily on of the “Can’t Miss” games when the schedule was announced. Alas, booth set up responsibilities, paired with a corporate event at a baseball game meant there was NO WAY in HELL I was going to see the game.

  • When I finally got to grab lunch at 4:00 pm or so, the headline “Ben Roethlisberger throws 3 touchdowns as Steelers beat Bengals” pleased me.

And of course I thought that Roethlisberger had been on another rampage, similar to the one he led against the Redskins in week 1. Only later did I learn that Ben Roethlisberger had struggled for much of the day, and that the Cincinnati defense has managed to contain Antonio Brown fairly well. A win is a win, but this one reminds you of how misleading stats passed on the ESPN scroll can be.

2. Wife Wins + Steelers Loss = Husband’s Right Call on Philly Game

Week 2 brought my wife’s arrival in the US and by this time I was back in Maryland. And just as fate would have it, the Steelers-Eagles game was on national TV. No need to hike a Steelers bar, giving me my first chance to watch a Steelers game in my home state since 2008 and my first in my parents’ home since, what, 1991?

Ah, but it was a beautiful day, and my wife wanted to hit Georgetown. Good idea.

  • So I relented and slyly taped the Steelers game. Good decision.

Have the Pittsburgh Steelers ever performed so perfectly piss poorly as they did against Philadelphia during the Mike Tomlin era? Perhaps. The 2011 opening day Debacle at Baltimore would make as strong candidate. Outside of that you’d have to really search. The game started with a dropped touchdown pass followed by a blocked field goal. And things got worse from there.

In other words, it was the perfect time to take your wife down to Georgetown to do some shopping and site seeing.

3. Camerony Heyward, Steelers Clobber Kansas City

At some point we’ll have do a “Steelers history vs.” article on the Kansas City Chiefs, because those games often reveal a lot. But for now the Steelers Sunday Night Football victory over the Chiefs will remain something to relish.

Fortunately, I did get to see this one, and a shout out goes to Andrew Kipp who recommended the venue:

The Reservoir did turn out to be a good place to see the Steelers play. OK, it wasn’t the Purple Goose Saloon, but let’s not kid ourselves – they don’t make Steelers Bars like the Goose anymore. But the prices were great, there were plenty of TV’s to watch on, and the Steelers fans were friendly.

Most importantly, the Steelers bounced back from an ugly loss, and it was nice to see Jarvis Jones make a splash play and Markus Wheaton bounce back from a horrendous performance in Philly.

4. Still in NYC, but Can’t See the Steelers

My last weekend in the United States found me still in New York for the Steelers-Jets game, yet I was unable to watch the game! My wife might have been sold on this one (she was more than OK with me watching the KC game), but it was our last full day in Manhattan, and we had a number of things we wanted to do, and also some things we needed to do.

  • The Steelers won, despite an ever lengthening injury list, on a week that saw the Steelers stash not just Senquez Golson but also Ryan Harris on IR.

From what I read, it was a good game even if the Steelers didn’t start particularly strong, they closed out the game with a second half shut out. That got us to 4-1, and I will take a 4-1 start anytime I can get one.

5. Shout Out to a Special Steelers Nation Scribe

Running a truly independent Steelers blog can be a solitary experience. God knows you, my readers, give continue to come in increasing numbers and give me shout outs on Twitter and Facebook, but stark fact is that here in 2016 you can’t have a site go dark for 25% of a season and expect to be taken seriously.

  • Thanks to Tony Defeo, this was a non-issue during my month long trek.

As regular readers know, big Steelers news only breaks when yours truly is unable to write. The correlation has almost been scientifically verified. For the past several off seasons, Tony has been keeping an eye on the back door, and made sure that no important stories fall through the cracks while I’m away.

Earlier this year, Tony started contributing regular features, and I highly suggest you check out his pieces on Calvin Sweeny, Weegie Thompson, David Little, Harry Newsome, Mark Malone and/or Larry Brown. These profiles, in addition to his other features, have enriched this site in ways I could never do on my own.

  • Over the last month Tony has gone into “Above and beyond the call of duty” of a part-time contributor.

That’s to him, the updates kept coming, whether I was putting in 14 hour days at a tradeshow on the West Coast, scrambling to process leads by day and spending quality time with family at night in my stomping grounds in Maryland, or vacationing in the Big Apple.

  • I’ve thanked you in private, and now I’ll do it in public – Thanks Tony for your contributions to Steel Curtain Rising.

Tony will continue to contribute this season here, but he publishes several times a week on Behind the Steel Curtain and Cover 32. Regardless of the locale, Tony’s stuff is must read. Check him out and be sure to follow him on Twitter:

Thanks to you, readers, for continuing to read. The Steelers are off to a good start. Let’s see where they can take it.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Chiefs

Quarterback

Coming off two less than stellar performances (to say the least in the case of the Eagles game), Ben Roethlisberger was simply magnificent, Sunday night. Not to act too over-the-top and hyperbolic in my praise, but if any quarterback has a more impeccable game this season than the 21 of 27 for 300 yards and five touchdowns performance Roethlisberger put on the Chiefs at Heinz Field, I’ll be surprised. For  whatever reason, Kansas City elected to play man-to-man coverage against the Steelers receivers, which played right into Roethlisberger’s hands. Needless to say, if the majority of defenses play that coverage the rest of the season, No. 7 will be a legit MVP candidate. Grade: A+

Running Backs

Many wondered how head coach Mike Tomlin would use Le’Veon Bell in his first game back after serving a three-week suspension. The answer: almost exclusively. Bell carried 18 times for 144 yards, while adding another 34 yards on five receptions. He showed the world why he is considered maybe the best running back in the entire league. Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Cris Collinsworth said it best when speaking of second-year receiver Sammie Coates: “He’s becoming a bit of a star for the Steelers.” On his very first pass of the evening, Roethlisberger connected with Coates for 48 yards (the youngster’s fifth reception of at least 40 yards so far this season). After that, Coates caught just another five passes for 31 yards, but it was clear that he’s becoming more comfortable working with his quarterback and learning how to adjust and ad-lib with one of the best improv passers in the business. As for Antonio Brown, he was Antonio Brown. I’m sure he probably wanted more production than the four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns, but considering five of Roethlisberger’s 21 completions went for scores, there simply was no need for more production. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton only caught one pass each, but sticking with the theme of Roethlisberger’s crazy efficiency, they went for scores of 31 and 30 yards, respectively. Grade: A

Tight Ends 

Much like the Bengals match-up in Week 2, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble didn’t have many opportunities in the passing game, but they sure made the most of the ones they had. Grimble caught one pass, but it went for 19 yards, while one of James two receptions was an eight-yard touchdown late in the first half. Even David Johnson got in on the act, catching one pass for 26 yards. Throw in their contributions in the blocking department (Pittsburgh rushed for 149 yards), and it was a respectable night for the tight ends not named Ladarius Green. Grade: B

Offensive Line

Roethlisberger was taken to the turf twice, but considering B.J. Finney was filling in at left guard for the veteran Ramon Foster, and that Marcus Gilbert suffered an ankle injury and was replaced by Ryan Harris, the hogs up front had a truly exceptional night. Roethlisberger mostly had a clean pocket and, again, the running game was supreme. And to see Maurkice Pouncey leading Bell all the way down the field on that 44 -yard run late in the game was to see a true superstar center in action. Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Steelers came into Week 4 with just one sack, but they left with five, thanks mostly to defensive end Cameron Heyward, who had three in one of the best performances of his career. In addition to his three sacks, Heyward also tipped a pass from Alex Smith that was intercepted by Jarvis Jones and set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown. Speaking of forcing turnovers, Stephon Tuitt may have only recorded one tackle on the night, but it came against Chiefs running back Spencer Ware and also forced a fumble. Along with making Smith’s life miserable most of the night, the Steelers defensive line did a great job in stuffing the run, as Kansas City finished with just 87 yards on 18 carries. Grade: A

Linebackers 

The Steelers were without their most dynamic defensive player, in one Ryan Shazier, who missed Sunday night’s game with a knee injury. Reserve Vince Williams filled in at inside linebacker and, well, was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic defensive player. Williams recorded 16 tackles (14 solo), two tackles for loss and one sack. As for fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, he played his best game of the young season, totaling eight tackles–including one tackle for loss. Outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats were very active on the night, even if they didn’t get to Smith. And what can you say about the 38-year old James Harrison? He didn’t get a sack, but it was not for lack of effort. Grade: A

Secondary 

Missing starting strong safety Robert Golden and slot corner Sean Davis, Sunday night could have been a disaster for a Steelers defense that started the game ranked 31st against the pass. However, thanks in-part to a more aggressive and effective pass-rush, the defensive backs collectively enjoyed perhaps their finest 60 minutes of the season, thus far. Smith passed for 287 yards and two touchdowns, but a great deal of his “damage” came late in the game, when the outcome was long-since decided. Fact is, the biggest passing play allowed on the night was a 20-yarder to Jeremy Maclin, and the tackling on all fronts–especially the defensive backs–was superb. Furthermore, while he certainly has room to grow, first round pick Artie Burns continued to show flashes of why Pittsburgh drafted him so high, when he broke up a deep pass late in the game that looked like it was destined for a big gain. Grade: A

Special Teams

Following Pittsburgh’s first two touchdowns, the Chiefs’ Knile Davis attempted to return the ensuing kickoffs, only to be stopped at the 12 and four-yard line, respectively. In a driving rain, things could have gotten ugly trying to contain extraordinarily fast punt-returner Tyreek Hill. And while he did return one for a score, it was brought back by a penalty. Officially, Hill only totaled 20 yards on two returns.

As for Steelers punter Jordan Berry, it wasn’t his best of nights, as he averaged 42.4 yards per boot. But, again, he did have to work in a pretty steady rainstorm, and maybe a pre-ordained avoidance of Hill had something to do with his low average.

Kicker Chris Boswell didn’t attempt a field goal on the night, but he did make five extra points; considering that they’re 33-yards now and, again, the rain, that was pretty impressive. Grade: B+

Coaching

According to the NBC announcers, Mike Tomlin challenged his team after its abysmal performance against the Eagles a week earlier, and his team met that challenge and then some. To say his players were prepared to play would be an understatement.

The Chiefs defense was said to have a secondary ripe for exploitation, and Todd Haley sure did devise a game plan to take advantage of it. When your quarterback averages 11.1 yards per pass attempt, and when five of his 21 completions go for scores, that’s the epitome of a perfect game plan.

Kudos to defensive coordinator Keith Butler for deciding to be more aggressive in the face of a weakened secondary. Also, credit to him for taking advantage of a Chiefs offensive line that wasn’t nearly as talented as the previous three his charges faced.

They say coaches get all the blame after a loss and none of the credit after a win, well, here’s some major credit for the entire coaching staff. Grade: A+

Unsung Hero 

Starting in place of Ramon Foster at left guard, B.J. Finney performed so well, he was pointed out by NBC’s Cris Collinsworth numerous times.

 

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Steelers Show Chiefs Who is Boss Heinz Field, As Pittsburgh Beats Kansas City 43-14

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 27 passes for 300 yards and five touchdowns, as the Steelers improved to 3-1 with a 43-14 rout of the Chiefs at Heinz Field Sunday night.

  • Pittsburgh punted on its first offensive series but scored touchdowns on its next two, thanks to Keith Butler‘s opportunistic defense.

On the first play of Kansas City’s second series, running back Spencer Ware fumbled while being tackled by Stephon Tuitt, and cornerback Ross Cockrell recovered at the Chiefs’ 32.

pittsburgh beats kansas city 43-14, le'veon bell

Le’Veon Blasts through Chiefs secondary as Pittsburgh Beats Kansas City, 43-14

Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Darrius Heyward-Bey wide-open for a 31-yard score to make it 6-0. Pittsburgh elected to go for two and made it 8-0, when Roethlisberger connected with receiver Markus Wheaton.

On the fourth play of the Chiefs’ next series, a short pass from quarterback Alex Smith was deflected by defensive end Cameron Heyward and intercepted by linebacker Jarvis Jones, who advanced the ball to the four-yard line. One play later, Roethlisberger found receiver Antonio Brown coming across the middle and, just like that, it was 15-0.

Pittsburgh started its next offensive possession from the Chiefs 40-yard line, following a 23-yard punt from Dustin Colquitt, and quickly made it 22-0, when Roethlisberger and Brown hooked up for a second score–this time from 38 yards away.

  • The 22 points were the most any Steelers team has ever scored in the first quarter in the franchise’s rich 89-year history.

Pittsburgh effectively put the game away late in the first half, when Roethlisberger ended a 10-play, 80-yard drive by hooking up with tight end Jesse James for an eight-yard score.

The rout was effectively on, when the Steelers started the third quarter and marched 75 yards on six plays and made it 36-0, after Roethlisberger found Wheaton from 30 yards away for the quarterback’s fifth touchdown of the night.

It was the fifth time Roethlisberger has thrown for five touchdowns in a game, and it was sorely needed, following his abysmal performance against the Eagles in a 34-3 loss a week earlier.

  • After serving a three-game suspension, running back Le’Veon Bell made his 2016 debut Sunday night, and carried  18 times for 144 yards.

As for the defense, it looked about as dominant as it has in quite some time. After only recording one sack during the first three games, Pittsburgh notched four against the Chiefs–including three by Heyward.

Reserve linebacker Vince Williams, filling in for an injured Ryan Shazier, tallied 16 tackles (14 solo), one quarterback pressure and one sack.

While it was a great win, the news wasn’t all rosy Sunday night, as several players–including tackles Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris; receiver Heyward-Bey; and linebackers Anthony Chickillo and Jones–left the game with injuries.

Next up for the Steelers is a 1 p.m. date with the Jets next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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The Steelers Offensive Line Must Step It Up

Coming into the 2016 regular season, there was no doubt about the Pittsburgh Steelers talent on offense.

  • And we’re not just talking about the skill-position players, either; the offensive line was regarded by many as solid-to-outstanding.

And, it is a really good line, highlighted by Maurkice Pouncey, the perennial Pro Bowl center who returned to the lineup this season after missing all of 2015 with a leg injury, and right guard David DeCastro, the 2012 first round pick who made his first Pro Bowl a year ago.

steelers offensive line, david decastro, steelers vs. Colts

Although the 2016 season is still young, the Steelers Offensive line must step it up. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, US Presswire, used on Bleacher Report

When a unit is as talented and highly-regarded as Pittsburgh’s offensive line, you’d expect it to win its share of individual and collective battles. However, after three weeks of the 2016 regular season, you’d have to say that, while the Steelers have an official record of 2-1, their hogs up front, entrusted with protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and opening holes for DeAngelo Williams, have a record of 1-2.

After looking mighty impressive while paving the way for 437 total yards against the Redskins in Week 1–including 290 through the air and 147 on the ground–the line has looked anything but since.

  • Yes, it’s true that both the Bengals and Eagles–Pittsburgh’s opponents in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively–have formidable-to-dominant front sevens.

But to steal from former Pirates manager Jim Leyland when he would get sick of the media suggesting his team’s ongoing struggles in the hitting department had to do with facing a run of hot pitchers: yeah, Cincinnati and Philadelphia have great front sevens, but bleep it, we have a good offensive line! Sometimes you have to bleepin beat a great front seven!

While Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, he was under constant pressure, and his total may have increased by about 75 percent, if he wasn’t so talented at getting rid of the football with defenders trying to pull him to the ground. As for the running game, sure 124 yards looks decent enough, but not when it requires 36 carries to achieve (that’s 3.4 yards per rush–a half a yard below the average that kept Jerome Bettis out of the Hall of Fame for almost a decade).

Make no mistake, the offensive line’s performance this past Sunday against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field wasn’t a stalemate; in-fact, if it was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight by the third round–and awarded the decision to Fletcher Cox and Co.

Alejandro Villaneuva looked over-matched at times, which may be understandable, given that he didn’t become a starter until the mid-way point of last season. But what about the constant battles that DeCastro and accomplished right tackle Marcus Gilbert lost all afternoon and evening?

It’s fair to point out that Ramon Foster, the solid veteran left guard, exited the Eagles’ game fairly quickly with a chest injury and was replaced by B.J. Finney. On the Steelers official depth chart, Finney is listed as fourth-string at both guard positions. Why that’s noteworthy is because Cody Wallace and Chris Hubbard were both injured last week and couldn’t play. Therefore, that might explain the problems Pittsburgh was having up front this past Sunday.

  • But that’s not going to do anyone any good, if Foster, who was described as ‘very questionable’ by head coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, can’t go against the Chiefs this week.

If Wallace, who has missed the first three games with a knee injury, can return as soon as this week and fill in for a possibly absent Foster, that might go a long way in keeping the line stable. Wallace did an admirable job filling in for Pouncey at center a year ago, and there’s no reason he can’t do the same at left guard if Foster has to miss a game or three.

The Chiefs invade Heinz Field this week, and while they don’t have quite the dominant front seven as recent opponents, it’s still pretty formidable and includes names like Derrick Johnson, Dontari Poe and Tamba Hali.

It would be nice if the Steelers offensive line rose to the challenge and won this next battle.

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