Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:
This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.
Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive
Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.
Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.
And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.
For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.
Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports
During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.
While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.
The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.
You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.
Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?
The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images
The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”
But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.
Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.
And so it should, Chris Boswell has proven to be a very accurate kicker and beyond that, a pretty good clutch kicker.
Chris Boswell kicks a for the Steelers vs. the Bengals in October 2015. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via Yahoo! Sports
But Steeles Nation’s collective trepidation is also felt so deeply because past history of Steelers emergency kickers has been pretty dismal. Or it should say, history of “Steelers emergency kicker” because in the modern era, the Steelers have only had to go to their “Spare Parts” list to sign a kicker once.
Steelers Emergency Kickers of Yesteryear
It happened in mid-November 1998, when a Norm Johnson strained calf muscle forced the Steelers to sign Matt George, and it is not an experience Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith or anyone else in Steelers Nation would wish to repeat.
There were red flags around this move even before Matt George’s foot touched the pigskin.
The Steelers had brought Matt George to training camp with them that summer, but cut him in late August. In other words, they’d seen enough of him to know that he wasn’t their first choice of a “in case of emergency break glass” kicker.
The Steelers instead went for it on 4th down, only to have Kordell Stewart stopped. The Titans took the lead on the next drive on an Al Del Greco field goal. In desperation, the Steelers tried to lateral their way to retake the lead with time expiring, but the Oilers ran in a loose ball to score an insurance touchdown.
For the record, the Tennessee Oilers won the game 23 to 10 thereby completing their first (and only, at least as the “Tennessee Oilers”) season sweep of the Steelers. Norm Johnson returned the following week and kicked through the end of the 1999 season. Although Matt George wasn’t the only reason the Steelers lost the game, he never played another down in the NFL.
As Bill Cowher candidly confided after the game, “I now realize how important it is to have a kicker.”
Raise your hand if you’re Steelers fan excited to see Landry Jones start against the New England Patriots. OK. Didn’t think we’d get too many takers. Fair enough. With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from knee surgery and Cameron Heyward also the odds makers have been rather generous in installing the Patriots as 7 points favorites.
Still, should Steelers Nation abandon all hope?
Perhaps, but Steelers backup quarterbacks have a history of delivering some surprising results under duress. Here are six notable Steelers backup quarterback upset wins dating from 1988 to 2012 (no disrespect to Steelers 1976 rookie Mike Kruczek, just not old enough to remember him.)
Charlie Batch won his final start as 2012 Steelers upset Ravens on the road. Photo Credit: Chris Knight, The Patriot-News
1. 1988 – Todd Blackledge Leads Steelers to 39-21 win over Denver Broncos
It had been a bad week for Chuck Noll that began with a 34-14 drubbing in the Astrodome at the hands of arch nemesis Jerry Glanville. Noll cut short his weekly press conference when reporters asked him what it would take for him to step down. Terry Bradshaw called for Noll’s dismissal su
In short, no one expected the explosion that was coming, led by Rodney Carter who took it 64 yards to the house on the game’s third play. Carter rushed for 105 yards, caught a touchdown and completed a pass, as Noll employed uncharacteristic trickery. Merril Hoge ran for another 94 yards, and Rod Woodson set up another score with a 29 yard interception and Gary Anderson kicked 6 field goals.
Todd Blackledge was only 9 of 17 for 129 yards on the day, but that was good enough to give Pittsburgh the win.
2. 1991 – Neil O’Donnell Authors 26-15 Upset of the Houston Oilers
It is also true that perhaps Neil O’Donnell should be considered a backup, having started since relieved Brister 5 weeks earlier against the Giants, but Noll had been coy about designating a “starter.”
The Steelers ability to shut down the “Run ‘N Shoot” offense is one of the reasons why that never “stuck” in the NFL, but that was far from apparent in 1991. Games like this began to change the tune, as Bryan Hinkle, Thomas Everett, and Shawn Vincent picked off Warren Moon 5 times.
Those turnovers set up 3 Gary Anderson field goals, a 43 yard pass from Neil O’Donnell to Dwight Stone, and a Warren Williams touchdown. For the record, Neil O’Donnell went 12 for 29 for 155 yards one touchdown and 1 interception.
3. 1994 – Mike Tomczak Out Guns Dan Marino, Steelers Beat Dolphins 16-13
Perhaps the lead up to this game would have been different in the age of social media, but news that Mike Tomczak got the starting nod over Neal O’Donnell came as a surprise when game day arrived.
Imagine getting to the sports bar to learn that Mike Tomczak would square off against Dan Marino.
But got toe-to-toe Tomczak did, and how! In 1994, 300 yard passing games were relatively rare in the NFL but both quarterbacks broke the 300 yard mark, with Tomczak topping Marino’s yardage total. But for all of that passing, the game represented more of a defensive chess match. Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Joel Steed team to sack Marino 4 times, with Levon Kirkland intercepting him once.
The Steelers held the lead until the Dolphins tied it a 48 yard field goal as time expired.
The Steelers won the toss, but could not score. The Dolphins took over at their 40, but the vaunted Steelers 1994 Blitzburgh defense stopped him cold at Pittsburgh’s 47. Mike Tomzcak excelled in overtime, scrambling twice and completed passes of 27 yards to Barry Foster and 23 yards to John L. Williams to set up Gary Anderson’s game winner.
As this site has previously observed, Tomzack’s ’94 wins against the Dolphins and the Raiders marked the shift of the focal point of the Steelers passing attack away from Eric Green and to Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings and Charles Johnson.
4. 2002 – Kordell Stewart Rebounds to Lead Steelers over Bengals 29-13
Time to fess up. Just as Neil O’Donnell wasn’t really the “Steelers backup quarterback” in the 1991 Astrodome upset of the Oilers, the Steelers win over the 1-10 Bengals can hardly fall into the category of an “upset.”
But its author, Kordell Stewart, most certainly was a backup. Less than one year removed from winning the team MVP award, Kordell Stewart found himself on the bench in favor of Tommy Maddox. Raul Alegre of ESPNDeportes had revealed 5 weeks eailer during the Steelers Monday night game vs. the Colts, Bill Cowher had confided in him that he hadn’t wanted to bench Kordell, but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the Steelers locker room.
Expectations don’t get much lower than that.
Nonetheless, Kordell Stewart fearlessly took the reigns after Tommy Maddox’s injury the week before in Tennessee. The Steelers raced to a 17 point lead on a Jerome Bettis touchdown run, a 64 yard bomb from Stewart to Hines Ward, and a Jeff Reed field goal. But the Bengals fought back, scoring 14 points in the second half. The Steelers tacked on another 3 in the third quarter, but midway through the 4th the Bengals took the lead.
Kordell Stewart rallied the Steelers, first bringing Reed into range to boot a field goal, and then rifling a 27 yarder to Hines Ward which set up a 24 yard rumble by Bettis.
Kordell Stewart was flawless that day, going 22 for 26, one touchdown and zero picks.
5. 2005 – Charlie Batch off Bench @ Lambeau as Steelers beat Packers 20-10
2005 was a rough year for Green Bay, who entered the game at 1-10. On the face of it, that might make it difficult to categorize this win as “an upset” but if you’re playing at Lambeau Field, who do you want to be your quarterback Brett Favre or Charlie Batch, a man who hadn’t thrown a non-mop up time pass since 2001.
And did we mention that Jerome Bettis was out and that injuries limited Willie Parker to 5 carries?
The Steelers struggled in this one, as did Batch, but he played well enough to win, as did Duce Staley who saw his last real NFL action, and helped the Steelers win with 76 yards rushing and a touchdown.
And here the Steelers were, traveling to the home of their arch rival, with their 3rd string quarterback, 3rd string wide out, 2nd string outside linebacker. During the game, they would also lose their starting guard.
This was as hard fought game as you get.
The lead changed 5 times. Twice in the second half, Steelers turnovers gave the Ravens a chance to put Pittsburgh away, and twice Pittsburgh clawed back. James Harrison led the Steelers final rally, with one of his patended strip-sacks which came shortly after the Steelers had turned over the ball. Charlie Batch fired a missle to Heath Miller, who then willed himself into the end zone.
The Steelers defense held on the next drive.
Charlie Batch then took over at Pittsburgh 15 and with 6:14 remaining, led the Steelers on 13 play drive where Batch completed 7 straight passes, as Pittsburgh reached the Ravens 24 yard line. Shaun Suisham booted in a 42 yard field goal, and the Steelers had won.
Is Landry the Steelers Next “Legendary” Back Up Quarterback?
So, could Landry Jones author a game worth of inclusion of on this list above? With Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Gilbert and DeAngelo Williams out the odds are against him. But the odds were also once against Todd Blackladge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzcak, Kordell Stewart and Charlie Batch and they proved everyone else wrong.
Let’s hope Landry Jones follows in their footsteps.
NFL defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan passed away this week as the league mourned one of its most create, colorful and cantankerous personalities in a generation. The Pittsburgh Steelers only stood on opposite side lines to Buddy Ryan five times and perhaps Steelers Nation should give thanks for that..
Buddy Ryan’s record vs. the Steelers tells tale of one-sided domination.
This site prefers to celebrate and commemorate Steelers successes, but Buddy Ryan simply had the Pittsburgh Steelers number. Sure, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Bennie Cunningham and Jim Smith might have hung 38 points on Ryan when he was defensive coordinator of the 1980 Chicago Bears. But the Steelers were 4 time Super Bowl Champions and the Bears were 4 years away from a winning record.
Make no mistake about it, Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense owned Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Steelers.
When Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers took their 2-8 record down the Turnpike to face Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan showed no mercy as his defenders sacked Bubby Brister 4 times and intercepted him another for good measure. The Steelers did hold a narrow lead going into the 4th quarter but the Eagles won 24 to 23.
Buddy Ryan Breifly Revives Steelers-Oilers Rivalry
Pittsburgh paid little mind when Houston Oiler’s named Buddy Ryan defensive coordinator early in’93 off season. They should have because Buddy Ryan was about to reignight a revival of the Steelers-Oilers rivalry that was as intense as it was brief.
Buddy Ryan and Michael Barrow during Ryan’s stint as Houston Oilers defensive coordinator; Photo Credit: John Makely, Houston Chronicle
In the late 80’s the Giants, Redskin and Eagles vied for supremacy in NFC East and interesting divisional dynamic emerged. Bill Parcell’s Giants had an edge on the Redskins, the Redskins had an edge on the Eagles, and the Eagles edge on the Giants. In other words, Buddy Ryan knew how to defend against Ron Erhardt, and Ron Erhardt was Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator.
The first matchup came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1993 on Sunday Night Football.
The Steelers and Oilers were going toe-to-toe for AFC Central supremacy, and it wasn’t even close. Oiler’s “only” won 23 to 3, but that doesn’t even begin to detail their domination, as the Oilers sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times and Mike Tomczak two more times. Houston limited Steelers running backs Leroy Thompson and Merril Hoge gained 38 yards on the ground.
The Steelers in fact pulled O’Donnell, put him back in the game, then pulled him again.
Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, and Dwight Stone dropped multiple passes including one in the end zone that saw Jeff Graham have the ball hit him in the hands, bounce off his face mask, and then slip again through is hands. Late in the game a Houston defender removed Mike Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him.
The Steelers rallied behind, “We play them again.”
Play them they did. Perhaps their best effort of the game was Gary Anderson’s deep kickoff. The 26 to 17 final score makes it look like the Steelers were competitive. Those 17 points were pure garbage time glory. The Oilers schooled the Steelers in every sense of the word.
Again Oilers defenders dropped O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow that one-season wonder.
After the game, Buddy Ryan boasted, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”
Few Can Match Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers
Steelers fans hoped in vain for a third shot at Buddy Ryan in the 1993 playoffs, but the Steelers would tangle with Buddy Ryan one final time in 1994 season on Ryan’s final NFL stop as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Dan Rooney has stated that the Steelers trip to Arizona in 1994 was the first time he noticed an unusual number of Steelers fan in an opposing stadium. At the time however, the game was known for several bizarre plays. One was failed fake field goal that saw Gary Anderson gain his only 3 yards rushing in 23 NFL seasons. Another was Eric Green running out of bounds with a clear shot at the end zone simply because he ran out of gas.
Those blunders, pared with some uncanny turnovers led to 20 to 17 Steelers over time loss.
Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense didn’t dominate the Steelers in that final match up as it had a season before, nonetheless, they did drop Neil O’Donnell to the turf 4 times. More importantly, they bettered Buddy Ryan’s lifetime record against the Steelers to 4-1.
There are not too many coaches who stood opposite Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher who can boast that kind of winning percentage, but Buddy Ryan can.
Buddy Ryan self-assuredness made Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick look humble by comparison. But when it came to confronting the Steelers, Buddy Ryan walked the walk, and talked the talk. May Buddy Ryan rest in peace as Steel Curtain Rising offers his sons Rob and Rex Ryan its sympathy and prayers.
In the movie Invincible, Vince Papale‘s dad, who, like his son, was going through some tough times in his life, mentioned the 1948 NFL Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals. Running back Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to clinch a 7-0 victory for Philadelphia. Vince’s father, a long-time blue-collar worker, said that touchdown served as a touchstone that got him through 30 years at the local factory.
After six Super Bowl titles and countless other postseason victories over the past 44 years, the PittsburghSteelers fans have given their own nation-wide legion of fans their own touchstones.
For some Steelers fans of course, winning the Super Bowl this year and bringing home the seventh Lombardi is the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that mattered last year, the year before that, and every other year since the franchise became the standard-bearer for championship success back in the 1970s. Playoff victories, let along mere playoff appearances, simply don’t cut it.
As a life-long Steelers fan, I’m here to tell you that, for me, personally, you can get a ton of traction out of your favorite football team simply making the playoffs. Take last year, for example. After a Week 16 loss to the lowly Ravens, Pittsburgh was on the outside, looking in at January football. The Jets controlled their own playoff destiny, while the Steelers had to not only take care of business in Cleveland, but rely on a Bills‘ team whose offseason destination included golf courses and resorts having enough motivation to knock off a division rival.
Lo and behold, while the Steelers were dispatching of the Browns, Rex Ryan’s charges knocked off his old team, and Pittsburgh’s postseason ticket was punched.
I called at least two family members to celebrate because it truly felt like the Steelers accomplished something special.
Twenty years ago this past January, the Steelers fell to the heavily-favored Cowboys, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX. Going into the game as a two-touchdown underdog, one would think Steelers fans might feel pride in the team’s effort. However, after falling behind 13-0 in the first half, Pittsburgh dominated the action the rest of the way and had America’s Team on the ropes. Only problem was, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell forever cemented his legacy as one of the biggest goats in Pittsburgh sports history by throwing two second half interceptions that led directly to 14 points for Dallas.
To this day, when you mention the O’Donnell interceptions Steelers, fans bemoan the outcome and what could have been.
However, for me, I’ll always have fond memories of the Steelers run to the Super Bowl, after starting out the 1995 campaign 3-4 and looking totally outclassed at home by both the Vikings and Bengals in two of those four losses. That Bill Cowher inspired rebound gave me a quartet of “Steelers never forget” moments:
the 49-31 triumph in Cincinnati after the team fell behind 31-13 in the second half.
Neil O’Donnell hitting Ernie Millsfor 37 yards down the right sideline to the one-yard line in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium causing my two uncles embrace in our living room.
Colts’ quarterback Jim Harbaugh‘s Hail Mary pass falling to the turf in the end zone as time ran out
the euphoria that Sunday night when it finally sunk in that my Steelers, the team I had been watching for 15 years, was actually going to the Super Bowl.
I’ll never forget the celebratory feeling I had over the course of the next two weeks, as I took in everything about Super Bowl XXX and all things Pittsburgh and Dallas.
Was Super Bowl XXX’s ending sour? Yes. But sometimes, as Chuck Noll would likely remind us, it’s about the journey and not just the destination.
As a kid in the 1980s, I had very little memory of the 1970s. Therefore, those four Super Bowls and the heroes that brought them to Pittsburgh seemed almost mythical to me.
Thanks to NFL Films, I received a nice little education on the previous decade, and all those legends who dominated the football landscape every Sunday afternoon. But the reality for me in the ’80s was mediocre talent and mediocre records.
So, when I look back on Super Bowl XXX, I don’t get depressed or feel like ‘O Donnell cheated me out of a title. I cherish that time, because I never thought I’d actually witness my favorite football team play on the game’s biggest stage in-front of a world-wide audience.
But there was one final domino that needed to fall on Christmas night: The Vikings had to knock off the Bengals on Monday Night Football.
After falling behind 19-0, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions, had crawled back to within 22-21 and looked poised to indirectly ruin Pittsburgh’s holiday. But believe it or not, some guy named Brent Novoselsky eased everyone’s fears when he pulled in a one-yard touchdown pass from Wade Wilson in the closing moments to make it 29-21 and clinch a postseason berth for not only the Vikings, but the Steelers, as well.
I can still see Dwayne Woodruff, Pittsburgh’s veteran cornerback, who the ABC network had been corresponding with throughout the game from a remote location, throwing his hands up in victory, after Novoselsky’s score. Speaking of hands, I can still feel the nervous tingle in mine as I watched the end of that Vikings/Bengals match-up that night.
Unfortunately, my Steelers playoff-clinching celebration took a bit of a backseat to family unrest during the remainder of my high school Christmas break.
For a 17-year old with no where to escape the drama, my only release was dreaming about Pittsburgh’s wildcard match-up with the hated Oilers in the Astrodome on December 31, 1989.
Gary Anderson splitting the uprights @ the Houston Astrodome; Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
You can read the specifics of the Steelers upset victory at the Astrodome here, but after legendary kicker Gary Anderson nailed a 50-yard field goal in overtime to give the Steelers a 26-23 victory, all the tension and drama I had been feeling that week was suddenly washed away.
As I walked around my neighborhood that night, thoughts of family strife were non-existent.
Here we are, some 27 years later, and I still have fond memories of that season and that single moment when I jumped out of my living room chair after Gary Anderson‘s over time field goal sailed through the uprights.
Gary Anderson’s overtime game winner in 1989 at the Astrodome didn’t secure a championship for the Steelers, but it instantly turned a bad time in my life into one that I still cherish to this day.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season has been over for several weeks, and one of the few real bits of news to come out during the 2016 off season is that was Art Rooney II’s confirmation that Antonio Brown has cleared NFL concussion protocols.
In a word, Antonio Brown is not in a forgiving mood. In an interview with KDKA FM Brown pulled no punches regarding his feelings about the hit that cost him a chance to play in the Steelers loss to Denver:
Guys don’t want to stop me anymore. They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me, but we’re not gonna let them. What we are gonna do is win more.
Brown cleared up any confusion over the conflicting reports over whether he had a chance to play. National reporters quickly reported that Brown would miss the game, while Pittsburgh reporters insisted their was a possibility Brown would suit up. As it was, Brown confirmed that he had zero chance of playing.
Brown also confirmed that Adam “Pacman” Jones, who had accused Brown of faking his injury, had apologized to him. Brown did not respond, and questioned why the media gave Adam “Pacman” Jones such a platform.
Cincinnati Bengals the New Jerry Glanville Oilers?
Glanville’s Oilers were the bad boys of the AFC Central in the late 1980’s, everyone hated them.
Yours truly can remember one interview where a Bengals player admitted that he almost wished injuries on the Glanville’s players, who was reputed to encourage his men to injury to opposition. Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche once went so far as to call an on-sides kick with the Bengals leading 45-0 in the third quarter. The Bengals recovered, and Wyche went for it on fourth down at mid field.
With Vontaze Burfict leading the way, the Cincinnati Bengals of this decade appear to be mimicking their former rivals.
Burfict reportedly celebrated after a tackle he made on Le’Veon Bell that ended his season. Video tape suggests that he attempted to injure Ben Roethlisberger. For those of you keeping score, those are three hits which, deliberately or not, injured the top three Steelers offensive starters.
Kudos to Antonio Brown for not forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones. Football is a physical game and a violent game, but playing with the intent to injury should never be part of that game.
And Kudos to Antoion Brown for focusing on what’s most important, revenge through victory on the score board, not through cheap shots.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers look to their Wild Card game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, the Watch Tower looks back at their last game in the Queen City and the “they fined me, they fined me not” controversy over Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier’s emergence as signal caller, plus odds and sods on ex-Steelers and the Steelers evaluation processes.
Perhaps Two for Flinching for Steelers Sports Writers?
Back in junior high, if you flinched when someone pretend to hit, they got to claim “Two for flinching” and then hit you (sort of) for real twice. Perhaps something similar is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered Vontaze Burfict’s fine or seeming lack thereof.
As Steelers Nation knows, Vontaze Burfict made a blatantly illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger that the officials chose not to flag.
The early word was that Roger Goodell’s suits at the NFL’s corporate office also declined to fine Vontaze Burfict for his dirty play.
The news that the NFL was turning its head the other way on yet another illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger came with a peculiar twist – the story broke on Wednesday. That’s odd, because NFL fans are used to hearing how “FedEx envelops carrying fines arrive on Thursday.” But on Wednesday Vontaze Burfict’s agent Audie Attar told told the rest of the world that his client faced no fine.
The blogesphere erupted, and credentialed Steelers writers followed suit.
In an article published that morning, Mark Kaboly, Ralph N. Paulk and Chris Adamski of the Tribune Review opined: “the NFL fined a player as the result of an incident during Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals game. It wasn’t whom the Steelers might have hoped, though.” They then discussed the Steelers who were fined, and communicated that Vontaze Burfict wasn’t.
Later that day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo simply stated “The NFL has decided against fining Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict…” and then reported various player comments about the issue. A day later, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler restated that “Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was not fined for a helmet shot to Ben Roethlisberger’s ankles.”
Then a funny thing happened.
Vontaze Burfict got a FedEx package from Roger Goodell with a fine in it.
The Steelers sports writers quickly issued updated stories informing that Burfict had been fined, along with Michael Mitchell, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Brandon Boykin, William Gay and Marcus Gilbert.
But almost no one stopped to do any self-examination as to why the word of an agent was taken as Gospel.
Seriously. Agents plant stories about their clients all of the time. Sometimes there is even some truth to them. Other times? Not so much. Agents don’t exactly carry the same credibility as Pope Francis.
It would seem like the following is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered the Vontaze Burfict saga:
Or is it?
Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo raised some very relevant points. After indicating that fine amounts would be known on Friday of that week, Fittipaldo vented to his readers:
So we’ll get this all cleared up about 48 hours after the first report that Burfict would not be fined. There has to be a better way for the NFL to handle its business.
Surely someone from the NFL office monitors what people like Adam Schefter of ESPN and Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network report from agents. The NFL sends players fines via Fed Ex by Wednesday so the NFL surely knew the reports were false.
Why not get the word out sooner to avoid a whole lot of confusion and bad publicity for the league?
The smartalec in the Watch Tower wants to say, “Sure Ray, you could have called the league office to confirm.” But in all fairness to Fittipaldo, maybe he didtry to confirm the report and got stonewalled and hence he’s frustrated.
When asked about that, Mike Tomlin simply said there had been communication issues. Miscommunication forms a part of every football game, but the public only finds out about them when the consequences are evident on the field.
Thanks to Jim Wexell, Steelers Nation has a potential explanation for the root cause of some of the Steelers defensive miscommunications.
During much, if not all of 2015, Ryan Shazier and not Lawrence Timmons has worn the “helmet with the green dot,” or in other words, its Shazier and not Timmons who has the microphone in his helmet and makes the calls on the field.
Wexell first broke the news on a message board chat on December 11th on his Steel City Insider site, and then expanded on the Shazier signal caller story after the Denver game. To the best of the Watch Tower’s knowledge, no other reporter has brought this information to the public. (If they have, their work isn’t indexed very well by Google.)
While this factoid is hardly ground shaking, but Jim Wexell’s ability to uncover nuggets like this come from the time and energy he’s invested in building relationships in the locker room. Once again, Wexell wins Watch Tower Kudos.
SteelersWire on former Steeler Jon Witman
When fans think of great Pittsburgh Steelers running backs, the name Jon Witman usually does not jump to mind. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe picked Jon Witman out of Penn State in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and by 1999 Witman was the starting fullback, leading the way for Jerome Bettis.
Neal Coolong of the SteelersWire brought that information to the attention of his readers, as Witman served as an example of someone whom the Gene UpshawPlayers Assistance Trust was able to help, as Witman battled addiction, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.
While Jon Witman’s story is hardly encouraging, sturggles of post-NFL life, either with or without CTE, need to be told, and SteelersWire was the only Steelers site or Pittsburgh publication to pickup the story. Watch Tower Kudos are in order for Coolong.
In a blurb on who the NFL’s best athlete might be, Fowler offered this about Martavis Bryant:
But what makes him the Steelers’ best athlete is his quick-burst ability. The Steelers track short-burst speed through GPS monitors, and I’m told Bryant often has the fastest times, despite his lanky frame.
That’s an interesting piece of information to have about both Bryant and the Steelers.
Like any NFL team, the Steelers collect reams and reams of information on players prior to the draft, but little is known about if or how those evaluations continue once they reach the South Side.
Thanks to Fowler, now Steelers Nation knows a little more.
Interesting Tidbit on Tony Dungy’s Quarterbacking Stint
Injuries to quarterbacks have been big news in the NFL this year, and with both Mike Vick and Landry Jones getting starts for the Steelers, Pittsburgh is no exception. Studious Steelers fans know Tony Dungy, a former college cornerback who played defensive back for the Steelers, threw 8 passes for Pittsburgh in 1977. But the story of why is not well known.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert changed that with a story on Tony Dungy’s fourth quarter quarterbacking career effort vs. the Houston Oilers after Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek left the game injured.
Dungy’s performance was dismal.
But he did do complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth while earning himself the distinction of being the only modern-era player to both throw and make an interception in a single game.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has been around the NFL a long time.
When Jeff Fisher got his first head coaching job, the Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers, the St. Louis Rams played in Los Angeles alongside the Raiders, Art Model’ss Cleveland Browns were still in Cleveland while professional football fans in Baltimore rooted for the CFL’s Stallions.
A lot has changed since late November 1994 when Bud Adams fired Jack Pardee and Kevin Gilbride and named Jeff Fisher as head coach of the Houston Oilers.
For the record, by that time the 1994 Steelers had already beaten the Houston Oilers twice. Once in a Monday night blowout where Cody Carlson completed 3 of 7 passes before getting knocked out of the game, and another where Rod Woodson and Gary Anderson did a redux of their forced-fumble, game overtime winning field goal from the 1989 Steelers Astrodome playoff win. So it wasnât until wasnât until the 1995 season that Jeff Fisher first faced the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For 16 years Jeff Fisher coached the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers, and Tennessee Titans. Thatâs a long time to be an NFL coach, and one of the benefits of such a long coaching tenure is that it gives you a deep pool of data to draw conclusions from.
Jeff Fisherâs record in Houston and Tennessee was 141-115 for a winning percentage of .551, and included a heart breaking loss in Super Bowl XXXIV. He also coached against the Steeler 21 times, including the playoffs.
Despite Pittsburghâs superior performance over those sixteen years, the Steelers record vs Jeff Fisher is only 9-12.
In other words, the Steelers had a .625 winning percentage against the rest of the NFL, but only managed a measly .428 vs. Jeff Fisher. Interpreted literally, the Steelers were almost 20% worse against Jeff Fisher than the rest of the NFL.
Why is the Pittsburgh Steelers record vs Jeff Fisher so poor?
First, let’s give Jeff Fisher his due. He is a disciple of Buddy Ryan, than man whom Bud Adams brought in to run Buddy Ryan’s defense after Buddy Ryan left to coach the Arizona Cardinals. Ron Erhardt was the Steelers offensive coordinator then, and his troubles vs. Buddy Ryan’s defenses dated back to their battles in the NFC East during the 1980’s, when Buddy Ryan’s Eagles routinely gave Bill Parcell’s Giants fits.
While Chan Gailey, Kevin Gilbride, Mike Mularkey, and Ken Whisenhunt made modifications, Ron Erhardt served as the Steelers offensive base during that time.
While that’s an important factor, Pittsburgh’s poor record vs. Jeff Fisher is probably better explained by a Tomlinism.
“Players play, coaches coach.” At the end of the day, the best scheme in the world won’t matter if the players on the field fail to execute it. And during the majority of his tenure in Houston and Tennesse, Jeff Fisher had one player who executed to near perfection: Steve McNair.
To put that into context, the Steelers record in seasons where McNair started against them was .594.
Without McNair, the Jeff Fisher hasn’t done quite so well against the Steelers. He does however, have another tendency going his way in this Sundayâs match up. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-11-1 vs. the Cleveland, Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams on the road.
However, the Steelers lone road win against the Rams came during Mike Tomlin’s rookie season in 2007.
As the franchise retires Number 75, it’s time to review just what Greene’s legacy with the Pittsburgh Steelers means.
From Dan Rooney down, commentators regularly single out Chuck Noll’s selection of Joe Greene as the pivotal moment in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Joe Greene’s arrival certainly did certainly signal a sea shift for the franchise. But Joe Greene’s Steelers legacy runs far deeper, and neatly divides into six key contributions. Click on the gold links below or scroll down.
Mean Joe Greene closes in on Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: Kickoff Coverage.com
Joe Greene Challenges a Culture of Losing
This story has been told before and it will be told again. And so it should be because for 40 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers had known nothing but losing. Nothing.
Joe Greene began changing that the moment he arrived at St. Vincent’s.
After the Steelers drafted him, Greene held out for more money. Draft picks holding out was unheard of before 1969. Joe did it anyway. He didn’t care. Dan Rooney agreed to his terms, and Greene reported to camp where Steelers veterans eagerly licked their chops for a shot at testing the upstart young rookie.
Ray Mansfield recounted, “To me, he’s just another big, fast-butted defensive tackle.” Mansfield winked at the other veterans as he took his spot in Noll’s famous Oklahoma Drill, which pitted an offensive lineman and a running back against a defender.
At the whistle, Greene tossed Mansfield aside like a rag doll with his left arm and pulverized the running back with his right.
Stunned, the veterans stared at each other in silence.
Joe Greene repeated the process with each offensive lineman who challenged him. Dick Hoak recalls overhearing Pittsburgh’s incumbent defensive tackles openly discussing packing their bags. No one had ever seen anything like it.
Andy Russell later told Dan Rooney that “everything changed” with that one drill.
No one here will question Russell’s wisdom. But if Greene’s arrival signaled a pivot in the Steeler’s direction, Pittsburgh still needed to make progress. And Joe Greene fashioned a place for himself at the center of it.
Establishing the Will to Win
Chuck Noll tolerated no nonsense. He didn’t bat an eye at trading the only offensive Pro Bowler he inherited, Roy Jefferson, when Jefferson tested him. Yet when Joe Greene began picking fights with Dick Butkus or grabbing a pair of scissors and heading for the Minnesota Vikings bench, Noll said nothing.
Years later, when the official refused to call holding on a pair of Philadelphia Eagles tackles despite repeated pleas from Greene, Mean Joe responded by lobbing the ball into the stands at Franklin Field.
Again, Noll said nothing.
The reason, many have speculated, is that Noll knew he had a truly gifted player in his hands, and one who refused to accept losing. Noll understood that the rest of his team must embrace Greene’s attitude, and The Emperor was wise enough not to tamper with that process.
There’s a difference, however, between rejecting losing, and actually winning.
Winning on the championship level at least, always requires something extra. The Immaculate Reception officially ushered the Pittsburgh Steelers into the era of winning. What made the play special wasn’t its improbability, but that, Franco Harris was in position to take advantage because “he hustled on every play.”
Watch the replay and you’ll see Joe Greene is one of the first person on the field to congratulate Harris.
Greene deserved to be there because he almost single handedly set the stage for the most momentous day in Steelers history.
The Immaculate Reception gave the Pittsburgh Steelers their first playoff victory in history, but first they had to get to the playoffs. A victory over Cleveland in week 12 gave the Steelers a 10-3 record, but they still had not clinched the AFC Central crown. To do that they needed to beat the 1-11 Houston Oilers in the Astrodome, which wasn’t as simple as it sounded.
L.C. Greenwood and Sam Davis were out to start. Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins had the flu, and Mullins only lasted to the 3rd quarter. Bruce Van Dyke, another starting guard, pulled his calf and was gone in the first quarter, and his replacement Jim Clack hurt his ankle and was gone. Craig Hanneman, LC’s understudy, reinjured a knee and was done. Terry Bradshaw dislocated a finger in the 2nd quarter. Dwight White injured a knee and Steve Furness sprained an ankle. Things got so bad that Larry Brown, a tight end who’d finish his days playing tackle, had to play wide out.
To quote Dan Rooney from his self-titled autobiography, “In this situation a great player steps up, and that’s exactly what Joe Greene did.”
Joe Greene sacked Dan Pastorini five times. He blocked a field goal. He recovered a fumble and forced another, both of which set up Steelers’ field goals. At the end of the day, Pittsburgh prevailed 9-3, with Greene personally causing a 9 point swing.
Winning, on the championship level always requires players to dig for something, and Joe Greene delivered when called.
Pittsburgh’s defense had carried the team throughout the 1974 season, as Noll alternated between Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam, and Terry Hanratty.
Few gave the Steelers much chance when the playoffs started: their first game was against the Buffalo Bills and OJ Simpson.
Simpson had already logged his 2,000 yard rushing season in ’73, and rooked the Steel Curtain Defense in ’72 for 189 yards. The Steelers simply didn’t have the offensive fire power to keep pace should Simpson turn in a repeat performance.
But defensive coach George Perles had an ace up his sleeve.
Prior to the playoffs, he deployed the Stunt 4-3, which had Greene line up at an angle between the guard and center while Holmes lined in the other gap. Stunt 4-3 had a threefold impact:
It completely plugged the middle on every play.
It got L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White into one-on-ones.
It prevented opposing guards from pulling.
The “downside” was that Joe Greene sacrificed opportunities to get to the quarterback. But the scheme worked. The Steelers held OJ Simpson under 50 yards in the AFC Divisional playoff game, and of course went on to win Super Bowl IX.
All of this was facilitated by Greene’s unhesitating willingness to put his team first.
Suffice to say, number 75 would find little in common with modern-day prima donnas such as Keyshawn aka Meshaw “Will you just give me the damn ball!” Johnson.
“Hey Kid, Catch!” — Cementing Bonds via Popular Culture
By the late 70’s injuries had robbed Joe Greene of some of his dominance, but he got his first chance to make a contribution to his legacy off of the field.
Coca Cola was looking to make a commercial, and they came right to Greene. Watch it for yourself here:
With the simple phrase “Hey kid, catch!” “Mean” Joe Greene became a friend to every kid who ever wore a Steelers hat to school, including those growing up in suburban Maryland who wore hand- made Steelers’ scarves to Harmony Hills Elementary school.
In a moment, Joe Greene created a cultural icon and in doing so cemented a bond with a generation of Steelers fans too young to really appreciate his greatness on the field.
“What the Hell is Going On?” — Stabilizing a Legend’s Legacy
After Super Bowl XIV, Joe Greene’s dream was to get “One for the Thumb.” He continued playing in 1980 and 1981, but the Steelers came up short and out of the playoffs in both seasons. Greene opted to retire and begin his life’s work.
He opened 3 restaurants in Texas, all of which failed. He tried his hand as a commentator, but his gig with CBS only lasted a year. He didn’t finish his degree, nor did ventures in real estate or insurance sales pan out.
As he told Gary Pomerantz, his heart wasn’t in it.
In 1987, Chuck Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh as a defensive line coach. Great players seldom make great coaches, although Washington DC’s WMAL’s Ken Beatrice insisted that Joe Greene could be the exception. Unfortunately, the Steelers defensive lines of ’87 to ’91 were nothing special.
In fairness, the material Greene had to work with was, in a word, limited….
But that hardly means Greene’s tenure as an assistant coach was a failure.
No, Joe Greene did something that perhaps no other individual could have done and he did it by walking into Dan Rooney’s office and bluntly asking:
“What the hell is going on?”
The 1988 Steelers finished 5-11 and looked as bad as their record suggests. Chuck Noll quipped during the season that the Steelers would have difficulty with a grade school team. At one point during the season Dan Rooney, uncharacteristically labeled the play calling “stupid.”
At the end of the season, Dan Rooney demanded that Chuck Noll fire some assistants.
No one had ever dared dictate who would or would not be on Noll’s staff.
Noll called his assistants together and detonated a bomb: he was quitting. Several of the assistants hit the phone seeking jobs. Others, including Dick Hoak, offered to resign to save Noll’s job. Per Ed Bouchette in Dawn of a New Steel Age, Noll quipped “No, you’re not the ones they want.”
Joe Greene walked down to Dan Rooney’s office and asked “What the hell is going on?” Dan immediately called Chuck Noll, asked him not to make a rash decision, and got him to agree to talk with him after Christmas.
The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers would astound the critics and make the playoffs after a disastrous start. On New Year’s Eve, in the playoffs Noll would upset Jerry Glanville in overtime at the Astrodome, costing his arch nemesis his job. The Emperor got his Last Hurrah.
It’s true that the 1990 and 1991 seasons which followed ended in disappointment. But Noll left as he should – on his own time and own terms, thanks at least in part to Joe Greene’s intervention.
Joe Greene: Ensuring Continuity Across Eras
Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe interviewed Joe Greene for the Steelers head coaching job after Chuck Noll retired but ultimately settled on Bill Cowher. Greene later admitted he was disappointed by the decision, and moved on to coach for Don Shula in Miami and then for the Arizona Cardinals.
In the interim, he inducted Dan Rooney into the NFL Hall of Fame with no hard feelings at not getting Noll’s job.
In 2004, when a coaching change cost Greene his job in Phoenix, he’d decided coaching wasn’t for him. But he still needed to work. Dan Rooney and Kevin Colbert named him Special Assistant for Pro and College Personnel focusing on scouting in the Southwest in addition to pro evaluations.
When Greene retired, I privately asked a member of the Steelers press corps. “Did Joe Greene actually do anything?”
Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene
The response I got was, “I don’t know. That’s something we often talked about. But we’d see him at team headquarters all the time, and he was always working out one player or another, sort of as a coach emeritus or something.”
Art Rooney II himself observed that without Joe Greene, the Steelers couldn’t manage to win a Super Bowl. But they did win Super Bowl XL the year after he returned, and then Super Bowl XLII three years later.
Coincidence? Don’t count on it.
One for The Thumb, and Then Some….
At the end of the day, Joe Greene got his One for the Thumb, and then he added another for Super Bowl XLIII another, making him one of a few select Steelers with 6 Super Bowl rings.
In every way, Joe Greene was, is, and always will remain the perfect portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Regardless of whether that report is correct or not, someone on the South Side has a severe case of egg on their face, as Jonathan Dwyer is returning to the Steelers in light of the season ending injury to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Dwyer, however, doesn’t seem to be taking his waiver personally, per his Twitter account:
Dwyer will rejoin Isaac Redman and Felix Jones, adding to the irony of the situation. Dwyer’s propensity to fumble made him expendable yet it was Redman who coughed up the ball twice, while Jones did not see a single carry.
Another Shayne to Give the Steelers a Kicking Edge?
The Steelers loss vs. the Titans was really costly for the Steelers. When the game ended, fans didn’t know the half of it. After the game it was revealed that Larry Foote should torn a biceps and will miss the season.
And the poor kick that resulted in the Steelers safety? Well, Shaun Suisham injured his hamstring in pre game warm ups. To occupy pregame kicking duties and to take Foote’s spot on the roster, the Steelers have signed kicker Shayne Graham.
Graham is a veteran kicker who has kicked in the NFL since 2001 for the Bills, Panthers, Bengals, Patriots, Giants, Dolphins, Ravens and Texans.
The Steelers have had good luck with replacement kickers named “Shayne.”
During 1996 the Steelers punter Josh Miller got injured and the team brought in CFL punter Shayne Edge. Edge’s punting wasn’t quite NFL quality, but he got fined for getting into a fight with the then Houston Oilers….
…You’ve got to love a punter that gets fined for fighting!