After 50 Years, Will the Raiders Complaining about the Immaculate Reception Stop?

I just turned 50 years old, an age that, according to studies, is when people begin to grow happier.

  • I’m just an infant in this whole “50-something” experience, but I sure hope those studies are correct.

Speaking of turning 50, the Immaculate Reception, a play that many football historians consider to be the greatest and most unlikely in NFL history, will celebrate its 50th birthday on December 23.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

To commemorate this play, the Steelers and Raiders, the protagonist and antagonist of that incredible play (or antagonist and protagonist, if you consider silver and black to be your favorite colors), will square off in a primetime affair on Christmas Eve — or 50 years plus one day after the divisional-round matchup at old Three Rivers Stadium that proved to be the grand stage for this magnificent moment on December 23, 1972.

It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this article who would need a refresher on the Immaculate Reception, but if for some reason you do, let me explain it to you: With mere seconds left in the game, and the Raiders, who were representing the City of Oakland at the time (and not Las Vegas), leading 7-6, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass on fourth and 10. After avoiding several Raiders’ pass-rushers, Bradshaw, with his howitzer of a right arm, uncorked a pass down the middle of the field that was intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua. Unfortunately, Fuqua was headed for a collision with Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ late, great safety who preferred decapitations over pass breakups. Sure enough, the two players met right as the ball was arriving. “BOOM!” to quote the late, great John Madden, the Raiders head coach at the time.

The ball went ricocheting backward, which seemed to signal the end of the play and the Steelers’ season, a surprisingly magical campaign that included 11 victories and a division title. The Steelers, who were founded in 1933 and had never won a playoff game in their four-decade history, were about to go home again without advancing in the postseason. In fact, the Chief, Art Rooney, the founder and owner, was so sure his team was S.O.S (Same Old Steelers) that he left his suite at TRS before the fourth-down play and hopped on the elevator so he could be there in the locker room to console his fellas after a heartbreaking defeat.

  • But, wait! Out of nowhere came Franco Harris on a white stallion to save the day for the Steelers.

Harris, the very-popular and productive rookie running back, snagged the backend of the football just inches before it reached the old, hard TRS astroturf and galloped down the left sideline for what looked like a miraculous game-winning touchdown with just five seconds left.

I say “looked like,” because even though delirious Steelers players and fans rushed into the end zone to celebrate with Franco, the game-day officials weren’t initially sure what to call the play. Was it a touchdown, or was it an illegal touch?

Believe it or not, there was a rule that existed back then that prohibited an offensive player from catching a pass after it had already been touched by another eligible receiver. Why did this rule exist? I’m sure the NFL had its reasons, but this rule caused the on-field officials to delay the call. In fact, the referee for the game, Ed Swearingen, reportedly called up to the head of NFL officiating at the time, Art McNally, to tell him that he didn’t think there was illegal touching on the play, a determination that McNally said he agreed with.

  • That was six points for Pittsburgh! The Steelers won the game and launched a dynasty in the process.

To reiterate, the play has gone on the become the stuff of legend. Here I am talking about it 50 years later. The NFL still thinks so much of this play that it made sure to honor it on its 50th anniversary.

The Steelers have always been happy with the Immaculate Reception, of course, and didn’t need to wait for it to turn 50 in order to appreciate it.

The Raiders, on the other hand, have never gotten over the possibility that Fuqua touched the football right before Harris did. They’ve always thrown around wild conspiracy theories about the officials and their motives in the immediate aftermath of the play. They sometimes even bring up the fact that Franco Harris may have trapped the football to the turf before pulling it in and galloping for a score.

  • Fact is, none of this stuff can be proven one way or another. (Myron Cope argued to the contrary in Doble Yoi)

I could see if there was clear evidence that the ball hit Fuqua before reaching Harris, but there isn’t. The play has been dissected a zillion times at many different angles, and nobody has ever been able to determine anything definitively. In fact, if I understand the archaic rule correctly, once the ball hit Tatum (and there’s just as much evidence that it hit him as there is of it touching Frenchy), all bets were off regarding illegal touching. As for the football hitting the turf before Franco could catch hit, again, where’s the clear-cut evidence?

And those conspiracy theories about the officials being afraid to call it an illegal play for fear of being mobbed by thousands of angry Steelers fans? That seems like a stretch.

Again, nothing about the Immaculate Reception can be proven or disproven — even 50 years after the fact–and if the Steelers were on the losing end of the officials’ ruling, they could have had just as big of an ax to grind as Oakland — if not bigger.

I don’t know why the Raiders, after 50 years, still can’t let go of a play that has always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery, especially when they went on to have so much success for the next decade and won three Super Bowls by 1983.

Instead of being bitter about a play that happened 50 years ago, the Raiders and their fans should be bitter about how far their organization has fallen over the past two decades due to incompetent ownership and/or living in the past, a la the Cowboys and Commanders.

It’s time to let go of the Immaculate Reception, Raiders.

  • You’ve moved three different times since the early-80s, which means you have no trouble moving on from cities.

It’s now time to move on from the past.

 

 

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A Steelers Fan Salutes John Madden: He Was “What the Game of Football is All About”

My boomer brethren in Steelers Nation will blanch at this, but at one point in my youth, I thought that John Madden had been a player or coach for the Steelers.

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

John Madden interviews Joe Greene before Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Anonymous/AP via the Virginian-Pilot

John Madden, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oakland Raiders head coach, CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC broadcaster and video game entrepreneur passed away on Sunday, December 28th. Here we honor his memory and his life’s work.

Born 4 months before the Immaculate Reception, my understanding of the concept of “Steelers Rival” was the Houston Oilers. My introduction to John Madden came from watching games on CBS. So instead of being associated with the arch-rival evil Oakland Raiders, to me John Madden was simply to “Voice of the NFL.”

  • And what a voice he had.

For 22 years John Madden commentated in tandem with Pat Summerall and together they embodied the absolute best in sports television broadcasting. Summerall with his deep baritone did the play-by-play, while Madden handled the color commentary, with an emphasis on color.

Listening to Summerall, it was easy to imagine him narrating a documentary on say, the Gettysburg Address or the D-Day landings or some other hinge-of-history moment. Listening to Madden, it was easy to imagine him chowing down with truckers at a highway greasy spoon somewhere west of the Mississippi.

  • You wouldn’t think such a pairing would work, but it did – to perfection no less.

Football is a complex sport. As Andy Russell once observed, success or failure in football often comes down to subtle shifts in angles and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fans.

Russell is right which speaks precisely to John Madden’s genius. John Madden had the ability break down the complexities of any given play and explain them to the average viewer. And he could do it in the space of about 20 seconds. He did it hundreds of times each weekend for 3 decades.

But if Madden had an uncanny gift for explaining the science of the angles and alignments of football, he was never a football nerd. Far from it. He knew that the game’s art lay in the elegance that grew from overpowering your opponent in the trenches.

And that’s what Madden loved the most, the big guys, the offensive lineman, the tight ends and the fullbacks . I can remember one 49ers game in the late 80’s where Madden remarked, that if someone came down from Mars and asked to see a football player, you’d show him 49ers fullback Tom Rathman.

And I suppose that love for the working-class, blue collar ethos of the game is what led me as a naive grade schooler to assume he’d been associated with the Steelers, an assumption riddled with irony…

John Madden and the Steelers

John Madden stared down Chuck Noll during all of the franchises’ epic games in the 70’s, from the Immaculate Reception, to the 1974 AFC Championship, to the 1975 rematch at Three Rivers Stadium, and to the AFC Championship loss in 1976 suffered in the absence of both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. When John Madden retired in 1977, his record coaching against Chuck Noll and the Steelers was 6-5, a mark any of his contemporaries would have envied.

  • Yet after that, Madden seldom crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Steel City Star, during their 22-year run at CBS, Madden and Summerall never called a Steelers game. At FOX they only called three, the Steelers 1994 and 1997 opening day blowout losses to the Cowboys and the 1996 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

That shows you just how fundamental John Madden was to the game, given that my football attention is almost singularly focused on the Steelers.

John Madden did of course called Super Bowl XL and later Super Bowl XLIII, famously assuring viewers after Ben Roethlisberger’s hookup with Santonio Holmes that he got both feet in bounds, had control of the football and, most importantly, scored a touchdown.

But by that point, he was already a Living Legend and one who’d found yet another way to grow his footprint on the game on the field

John Madden Football

Without a doubt the best Christmas present I ever got as an adolescent was one that came for Christmas of 1989 – John Madden Football for the Apple II. As mentioned many here many times, although both of my parents are Pittsburghers to the core, neither are into sports.

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

Without a doubt, the BEST Christmas present I EVER got as a kid.

My big brother handled that part of my education early on, but by the mid-80’s he was off to college. So I was on my own. Watching shows like NFL PrimeTime and reading the Washington Post sports page helped.

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

Before Madden , words like “slot,” “stunt,” “weakside,” “sweep,” and “nickleback” were little more than noise uttered between the cacophony of plays. Playing John Madden Football did more than breathe life into those terms – it added a new dimension to the game. Suddenly I could not only recognize formations in real time, but I understood why coaches were making their choices. .

How many hours did I spend playing John Madden Football on the Apple IIc my parents got me to help with school work?

  • Far, far too many to count.

I do know that I played it enough to prove that the Steelers of the 70’s could whip the tails off of the 49ers of the 80’s. I played enough to build my own All Time Steelers team featuring a QB depth chart of Terry Bradshaw, Bubby Brister and Bobby Layne throwing to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner playing in front of Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Dwayne Woodruff (apologies to Jack Butler for my youthful ignorance.)

Obituary after obituary for John Madden tells of how generations of fans learned the game by playing John Madden. I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon. Countless Argentine football fans, when asked how they learned the game before the days of NFL GamePass and/or free illegal game streaming sites, would simply respond, “Madden.”

Indeed, when asked to explain the opening scene of Friday Night Lights, the one featuring Frank Winchel’s grandmother quizzing him on his playbook, I went to the book case and showed my wife the playbook that came with John Madden Football back in 1989.

What the Game of Football is All About

John Madden brought the game of football into people’s living rooms in ways few have done before or since. One anecdote suffices.

On opening day 1993 CBS carried the Bears vs the Giants as a national telecast. As the game came down to the wire, and the opposing teams lined up at the goal line for one final play, I told my roommates, “Watch. Madden is going to tell us ‘This is what the game of football is all about.’” 10 seconds later, as if he’d been listening to me, Madden declared, “This is what the game of football is all about!”

  • How fitting. Because John Madden himself is what the game of football is all about.

Thank you, John, for your contributions to the game we all love. I’m sure you and Summerall are already calling games together again now that you’re both on the other side.

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Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Mike Tomlin’s Mistake? Trusting His Defense Too Much

Trust forms the lifeblood of human relationships. Without trust, society, let alone football teams would function. Yet if trust is essential to a football team’s success, trust, as Mike Tomlin is finding out, can get you into trouble.

  • The phrase “trust can get you into trouble” conjures images of lies, deceit and betrayal.

Anyone of those can scuttle the fortunes of a football team. But there are other ways that trust can fail. Think of the parent who instills sound study habits in their children, proctors nightly homework sessions, tutors intensively before tests only to see their child try their damndest yet fall flat on their faces when exam time arrives.

And therein lies Mike Tomlin’s biggest mistake from last Sunday – he placed too much trust in his defense.

Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin talks with Cam Heyward in Steelers loss to Radiers. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Let’s be clear: This site harshly criticized Mike Tomlin after the loss to the Raiders. I stand by those criticisms. By Tomlin’s own admission, medically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger could have entered the game one series earlier than he did.

When Ben did enter the game, he moved the offense at will, opening with a completion to Antonio Brown, then he hit Jaylen Samuels before connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster on four straight passes.

There’s no reason to think that things would have been any different if Ben would have replaced Joshua Dobbs one series sooner. And holding Ben out was game changing, and perhaps season ruining decision.

But part of the reason why Mike Tomlin held Ben out is also similar to the reason why he saved his time outs:

  • He was trusting his defense to make a play.

It is easy to scoff at such a notion given the way the Steelers defense has given up easy touchdown drives all season long, and particularly at the end of halves.

But remember that the Steelers defense is fielding 4 first round picks, 2 second round picks, 1 third round pick, and two major free agent signings. And that doesn’t count Cam Sutton and Artie Burns who weren’t playing.

  • Invest that type of NFL personnel capital in your defense and you should expect them to deliver.

And if “Heinzsight’s” film reviews over on Steelers 247 are to be trusted (and they should) then it is pretty clear that the Steelers defenders have been in the correct coverages and executing those coverages fairly well, but have been failing to make plays.

Consider the catch that Seth Roberts made in between Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Slam both of them for failing to make a play, but the men were where they needed to be.

Throughout his career, when the game is on the line, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly put its outcome in the hands of his players. Think of handing off to Le’Veon Bell with no time left against San Diego in 2015, or having Ben Roethlisberger throw to Antonio Brown on Christmas in 2016.

Against the Raiders, Mike Tomlin placed a similar trust in his defense, but unfortunately the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Raiders: Sobering Reality of Stumbling into Mediocrity Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher struggling with the sobering sight of once star students stumbling toward mediocrity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the (latest) loss to the Raiders in Oakland’s Black Hole.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was 25 for 29 for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, although he had some close calls. But Ben moved the offense at will in the 4th quarter and did well in the first half. Joshua Dobbs saw his first extensive work, and he disappointed. While his passes weren’t wild they were also a little off. Dobbs best play was a run, which is never good for a quarterback. Dobbs led the offense to two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. Not good enough. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin can claim that rushing the ball is an 11 man job, but we know that neither Jaylen Samuels or Stevan Ridley will be a threat on the ground anytime soon. As a positive, Roosevelt Nix made a great block and Ridley hit the hole perfectly for the first TD, Jaylen Samuels looked really good coming out of the backfield. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Jesse James made a number of key catches up the middle on an afternoon where Steelers offense put a premium on those short and medium passes. McDonald, however could not convert on the 4th and one, and he missed his block on Darrius Heyward-Bey’s reverse. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a slow afternoon but still caught 5 of 7 balls thrown his way. But one of those set up a score and another sparked the 4th quarter rally. The real star of the Steelers offense was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who literally is budding into a super star before our very eyes with 8 catches for 130 yards. James Washington caught two passes for 28 yards. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Raiders only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and kept the Steelers quarterbacks clean, but Oakland’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the league, yet the Steelers offensive line could do nothing to take advantage of them. Even a smidgen of rushing offense could have made a difference in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made another splash play, while Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns stoning Raiders runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. This was nice, but the Steelers really needed someone to make a stop on 4th and 1. That’s not all on the line’s shoulders, but it starts with them. Grade: D

Stephon Tuitt, Derek Carr, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Stephon Tuitt sacks Derek Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
T.J. Watt tipped a pass and looked stout in run support as did Bud Dupree who added a sack. L.J. Fort saw extensive time at inside linebacker, and most frequently the back of his jersey was seen chasing down wide receivers or tight ends. The fact is that Oakland was able to complete passes down the middle when it needed to, and while that’s not all on the linebackers they must do their part. Again, where was the drive-ending 4th quarter splash play? Grade: D

Secondary
Mike Hilton came up with a key sack and recovered a fumble. However, he had his hands on a pick that got away, as did Sean Davis. Mike Hilton also blew the coverage on the game winning touchdown. Morgan Burnett came up with a nice pass deflection in the end zone, but that was only after he and Terrell Edmunds got burned for the Raider’s 39 yard pass that set up their final score. The Steelers played the Raiders tight at times, but when it counted, in the 4th quarter, Oakland sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary as if it were Swiss cheese. Grade: F

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had some decent punt and kick returns, and the Steelers return coverage was solid. None of Jordan Berry’s punts were returnable. All positives.

That’s two missed field goals in a game decided by 3 points. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers offense was bound to be one dimensional, and yet Randy Fitchner came up with a solid game plan given the limitations and his players executed it well enough.

  • As for Keith Butler’s defense, 13 games into the 2018 season what you see is what you get.

When the Steelers get pressure on the quarterback this defense is capable of playing with just about any offense in the league. And, as compared to a year ago, the Steelers defense isn’t giving up big plays in droves the way they were.

But the Steelers pass rush is only solid when it needs to be relentless. And that reality, along with coverage lapses and inconsistencies against the run adds up to a brutal truth:

  • This is a defense that simply cannot be counted on to salt a game away.

While a lot of fans are ready to scapegoat Keith Butler, it is entirely possible that Butler is doing well with the talent he has at hand. Hum, “The talent he has on hand” that’s an interesting concept to take into account when evaluating Mike Tomlin’s performance in this game.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin is taking heat for his use of time outs when the Raiders were in the Red Zone, but this scribe strongly suspects that Tomlin was giving his defense a chance to “Grow up” so to speak. If that’s the case, then its hard to fault his motive, even if his defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • The same cannot be said about Mike Tomlin’s other gamble, namely keeping Joshua Dobbs in the game.

Per Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger was “medically cleared to play” when he reached the sideline. Tomlin also conceded that Ben could have come back in the game a series earlier.

Who knows why Mike Tomlin kept Joshua Dobbs in when Ben was ready to return? Really, it doesn’t matter because it was the wrong choice, a choice that will carry consequences far beyond dooming the Steelers to a loss to a 2-10 team. Grade: F-

Unsung Hero Award
Being asked to step into James Conner’s shoes cannot be easy, but that is what the Steelers asked of Jaylen Samuels. And while Samuels struggled running the ball, he did quite well as a pass catcher, and really impressed with his second efforts and determination to grind out extra yards. And for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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Shoring Up Secondary, Steelers Sign Ross Cockrell to 1 Year Contract

Pittsburgh took its first step towards shoring up its secondary in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ross Cockrell to a one year contract. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of the Steelers exclusive rights free agents, meaning he couldn’t negotiate with any other team, but the Steelers still needed to make him an offer.

If the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had one unquestionable weakness, it was in their secondary. For starters, the 2015 Steelers fielded an accidental secondary, as no one, save for Mike Mitchell, played in the role envisioned for him when he was acquired.

That might seem like a tautology but the Steelers secondaries from 2011-2013 were far from dominant, but played better without much of a pass rush to speak of. While Ross Cockrell might not be close to being a “shutdown corner,” bringing him back to Pittsburgh is a smart move.

Ross Cockrell 2015 Retrospective

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin turned a lot of heads when the Steelers claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers after the first wave of mandatory cuts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo saw the move as sufficiently puzzling enough to question whether the Steelers coaches and scouting teams were not on the same page, much as they had been over offensive line in general and Max Starks in particular in 2007 and 2008.

  • While not speaking directly to Ray Fittipaldo’s point, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola boosted the level of debate on the subject.

Responding to a reader’s question, Labriola cited legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who instructed younger scouts not to put too much faith into the performance of defensive backs on other teams, because you had no way of knowing what those DB’s had been instructed to do.

  • Enter Ross Cockrell, the 2014 4th rounder that Rex Ryan and company couldn’t wait to get rid of.

As a wavier wire pickups go, Ross Cockrell’s 2015 season alone makes him a success. Per the Steelers rendering, Cockrell started 7 games and suited up for 15, the only game he missed was the season opener at New England. While Ross Cockrell’s 2015 performance doesn’t project him as another Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, he did give the Steelers secondary something it sorely needed – turnovers.

The fumble recover shows some particularly good concentration and execution (available as of 1/23/16 — watch it now before Roger Goodell’s You Tube police have it taken down):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GPk3MghFHA

And without question, Cockrell’s most important play of the year came in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals. It took Jarvis Jones to stop Jeremy Hill, Ryan Shazier to strip the ball and Ross Cockrell to recover it.

The Steelers secondary needs help. Ross Cockrell might not be “The Answer” to the Steelers defensive backfield woes, but he is certainly part of the equation.

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15 Key Dates that Defined the Steelers 2015 Calendar Year

Regardless of whether the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a little help from Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills, can salvage their 2015 Season, the year 2015 will always be bookended by twin losses to the arch rival Baltimore Ravens.

Here are 15 moments that defined the Steelers 2015 calendar year

1 – January 5th 2015 – Ravens Bounce Steelers from Playoffs

No this isn’t important because the Ravens got their Heinz Field monkey off their back, it is important in how they did it. Joe Flacco exposed the Steelers corners, and the Steelers were surprisingly unable to generate any pass rush – twin themes who would go hand-in-hand throughout 2015

2 – January 10, 2015 – Dick LeBeau “Resigns”

In a move that shocked both Steelers Nation and LeBeau himself, Mike Tomlin informs LeBeau that he will not be back in 2015. LeBeau is allowed to “resign.” Later, rumors that Keith Butler’s impending departure more or less forced Tomlin to make a decision are confirmed. Regardless of the wisdom of the move, LeBeau’s legacy of excellence remains intact.

3 – March 9th 2015 – Steelers release Brett Keisel

Although Brett Keisel played extremely well for the Steelers in 2014, his injury vs. New Orleans apparently sealed his fate. Brett Keisel’s release ends an era on defensive line for the Steelers, one that started in September 2000 when Aaron Smith broke the starting lineup.

4 – March 11th 2015 – Jason Worilds Retires

All season long, the question of whether the Steelers would or should resign Jason Worilds and whether they should resign him dominates the debate in Steelers Nation. Worilds takes the decision out of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s hands, by announcing his retirement lieu of a contract with potentially 8 figures worth of guaranteed money.

5 – March 15th 2015 – Steelers Resign Ben Roethlisberger and Sign DeAngelo Williams

When the Steelers resign Ben Roethlisberger to a contract, they also sign a free agent backup running back . That’s the way it worked in 2008 (Mewelde Moore was the free agent in 2008, for those of you taking notes), and that’s the way it worked in 2015. The decision to extend Ben Roethlisberger’s contract was almost pro forma, but more ignorant parties in the press and Steelers Nation kept suggesting the deal would not get done.

At the same time it looks like the Steelers are simply taking out an insurance policy, and a risky one at that given DeAngelo Williams age, as Le’Veon Bell is slated to make a full recovery. As it turns out, suspensions and injuries ruin Bell’s 2015 season, and DeAngelo Williams performs above almost everyone’s wildest expectations.

6 – March 22nd 2015 – Steelers Resign James Harrison

Deciding the James Harrison most certainly has something left in the tank and not wanting to see him finish out his days as a Tennessee Titan, the Steelers bring back James Harrison, both for the value he will offer on and off the field.

7 – April 10th, 2015 – Troy Polamalu Retires

This move is not quite a surprise as all accounts indicate that Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Keith Butler want Polamalu to retire. Still, the Steelers do not want to cut him and see a repeat of Franco Harris in Seattle.

Moreover, the fact that they resign Will Allen the next day shows that either Art Rooney II or perhaps Dan Rooney left the door ajar for Polmalu’s return in 2015. Troy Polamlau takes umbrage to being pushed out, but the Steelers legend’s decision to retire allows him to go out quietly, on his own terms.

8 – July 23rd & 25th 2015 – Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert Contracts

To the disappointment of many in Steelers Nation, Art Rooney II decides to extend the contracts of both head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, quashing any speculation about whether the two men will enter 2015 on the hot seat.

9 – August 10th, 2015 – Jerome Bettis Enters Hall of Fame

After several years of frustration, legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis takes his rightful place in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the face of the Steelers franchise. Bettis is the first Steeler of the second Super Bowl era to enter the Hall of Fame.

10 – September 10th 2015 – Missed Opportunities Cost Steelers vs. Patriots

Beyond headsetgate, the Steelers defensive struggles to stop Tom Brady, but the team is surprisingly competitive in a 28-21 loss to the Patriots. Although the Steelers last touchdown is of the garbage time variety, the Steelers did miss two field goals, which teases that the Steelers could have been competitive against the defending Super Bowl Champions.

11 – October 3rd 2015 – Steelers Lose in OT to Ravens

A shaky performance by Michael Vick (and that’s being generous) and two missed field goals by Josh Scobee cost the Steelers an overtime decision to the Baltimore Ravens. Not only do the Steelers lose their first AFC North game, but it also gives them another AFC loss. These twin realities will haunt the Steelers later.

12 – October 19th 2015 – Landry Jones Leads Steelers Over Cardinals

Never in the history of Steelers football has the third string quarterback position aroused so much passion in Steelers Nation has it has with the case of Landry Jones.

Even after a strong preseason in 2015, fans continued to question Landry Jones roster spot. The idea of “Landry Jones to the Rescue” was laughable to many. Yet Jones came off the bench to help the Steelers beat the Cardinals after an injury to Michael Vick.

13 – November 1st, 2015 – Steelers Lose to Bengals

The loss drops the Steelers to 4-4 and costs the Steelers the services of Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear. It’s also the first game in which Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Bell play together. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 offense power quartet’s total time on the field together last just over 1 quarter….

14 – November 5th 2015 – Cortez Allen’s Goes on IR

Really, Cortez Allen going on IR this is a culmination of a series of disappointing events, from Senquez Golson’s season-ending surgery to Shamarko Thomas’ benching to the acquisitions of Ross Cockrell and Brandon Boykin showing that essentially nothing has gone according to plan in the Steelers secondary in 2015.

15 – December 27th 2015 – Steelers lose to Ravens

With a clear shot at the playoffs, against a 4-10 team playing its backup quarterback, another Mike Tomlin team gets tripped up by a trap game.

And that’s the way it was for the Pittsburgh Steelers year two thousand fifteen. What will 2016 bring? Mike Tomlin and the Steelers will begin answering that on Sunday vs. the Cleveland Browns on the shores of Lake Eire.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Raiders Win @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders how long his absentee list can grow before classroom performance takes a permanent hit, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.

Quarterbacksteelers, report card, grades, Raiders
During the early portions of the game, Ben Roethlisberger looked to be misfiring almost as badly has he had done during the Bengals game, although he got little help from receivers not named “Brown.” He did however get a LOT of help from Brown, and when he left the field injured the Steelers were holding on to a 14 point lead in the 4th quarter. Landry Jones entered the game late and helped the Steelers regain the lead. Grade: B+

Running Back
32 year old running backs are not supposed to look this good. They’re not supposed to be threats to go the length of the field. They’re not supposed to get tough yards when the opponent knows a run is coming. Fortunately, no one told DeAngelo Williams that, as he ran for 170 yards against the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense. Jordan Todman ran for once for 3 yards. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
It was the best of times it was the worst of times. The Steelers wide receiving corps struggled early, with key drops from Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Bryant of course redeemed himself with a late touchdown run, but the other recievers were non-factors….

…Then there was Antonio Brown. Antonio Brown broke’ both Courtney Hawkins record of 14 receptions and Plaxico Burress’s 253 yards. For those of you keeping notes at home, Brown also ran for 22 yards. For as impressive as Brown was, his totals would have been higher had Roethilsberger been more on target early in the game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers report card grades on results and the Brown’s performance brings up the grade for the rest of the group considerably.  Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only caught 3 passes on 3 targets but helped in the run blocking game. As did Jesse James, who made his NFL debut with one touchdown catch and another block of not one, but two players to spring Martavis Bryant into the end zone. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger relatively upright, his injury not withstanding. And the managed to open up some pretty impressive holes for DeAngelo Williams against a defense that does not give up much against the run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
For the first game in recent memory the Steelers failed to pressure the passer AND gave up a lot of yardage on the ground. Although the Steelers did clamp down the Raiders rushing lanes, the Raiders had games of 12, 19, and 44 yards on the grounds. That’s way too many. Cameron Heyward led the unit with one tackle, while Stephon Tuitt was less effective with 3 tackles. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Raiders game was hardly a banner day for the Steelers linebackers, as the unit failed to get in David Carr’s face, and also must shoulder responsibility for Raiders early success rushing the ball. Ryan Shazier led the group with seven tackles, followed by Lawrence Timmons who had 5, with James Harrison, recording two, while Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams clocked in at 1 a piece. Grade: C-

Secondary
Antown Blake led the team in tackles and has taken a lot of heat for his role in pass coverage, but he only gave up 74 yards in reception by one count. He also forced the first fumble, which he kicked out of bounds. argely because he was unable to cover Armani Cooper. Will Allen quietly defensed 3 passes in his return. Michael Mitchell forced the game’s first turnover with a devastating hit on Latavius Murray while Ross Cockrell made another end zone interception. The Steelers secondary gave up a lot of yards and a 4th quarter lead. However, their hard hitting helped set the tone for the day. Grade: C

Special Teams
Once the NFL’s trading deadline passed, the Steelers ended their Dri Archer experiment in favor of bringing in veteran Jacoby Jones. Jones fared worse than Archer as a kick returner, and was a non-factor as a punt returner. Which is better than Antonio Brown, who fumbled away a punt with the game on the line.

Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but made two more, including the game winner. Bud Dupree blocked a punt although the Steelers were not able to take advantage, the Steelers did however take advantage of the fumble that Roosevelt Nix forced.

Like it was for the rest of the team, it was an up and down day for the Steelers special teams. Grade: C+

Coaching
Never let it be said that Todd Haley keeps Ben Roethlisberger from connecting with Antonio Brown. Credit Haley for devising a game plan that allowed the Steelers to rush for close to 200 yards against one of the NFL’s stingiest run defenses.

The Steelers are 9 games into the season and Keith Butler’s defense has generally exceeded expectations. However, they struggled at times first the Raiders and allowed a 14 point 4th quarter lead to evaporate. Credit Butler with make the necessary adjustment to shut down the Raiders running game, but he was never able to get pressure on David Carr and, as a consequence, the Raiders almost-comeback looked easy.

Since the day he arrived in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin has vowed that injuries will not be an excuse. After the game reporters gave him a chance to feel sorry for himself again. Tomlin minced no words:

Injuries are as much a part of the game of football as blocking and tackling. It’s unfortunate, we don’t like it, but we embrace the challenge that comes with it. We’re not looking for excuses.

The Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger yet again, but didn’t bat and eye and closed out the game with a win. It’s very easy to say the words, but Mike Tomlin has his team living them. Grade: B-

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that “Sometimes the ball just bounces your way.” And that’s true. But a loose ball is an opportunity and players who are both attentive and hustle can ensure that they bounce the way of the ball. The Steelers margin of victory over the Raiders was very narrow, and they needed all three of fumble recoveries they secured, and that’s why Jarvis Jones, Anthony Chickillo and Vince Williams are the Unsung Heroes for the Steelers win over the Raiders at Heinz Field.

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