Vote Game Ball Winners from Steelers Win Over Titans

The men in the Steelers locker room might complain about Thursday Night Football games, but if Pittsburgh is going to play like it did in the 40-17 win over the Tennessee Titans, then perhaps Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II should petition the NFL to play on Thursday night every week.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, LeShaun Sims, Steelers Titans Thursday Night Football

Antonio Brown channels his inner Christopher Reeve as LeShaun Sims is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

As we do after every Steelers victory, we invite you the readers to cast your votes for Steelers game ball winners. Here’s a look at the ballot:

Which Steelers should get game balls for the win over the Titans (multiple votes allowed)

Leading the ballot for the obvious reason is Antonio Brown, who after a few quiet weeks on the road, exploded for 10 catches for 144 yards and more importantly, 3 touchdowns including two in the Red Zone. Behind him is Ben Roethlisberger, who played his best football of the season, throwing for just under 300 yards, tossing 4 touchdown passes and not turning over the ball.

Le’Veon Bell also earns a spot on the ballot. Although Le’Veon didn’t have a lot of success running, he was the team’s number 2 pass catcher and that kept the chains moving. We’re also giving a nod to Jesse James, who caught the Steelers “walk off” touchdown and pulled in 5 passes on the night.

  • Finally, we’re giving a ballot slot to Todd Haley.

While Dick LeBeau might not have the talent at his disposal that he had while he was coaching in the Steel City, the Tennessee defense is pretty good, stout against the run and LeBeau knows the how the Steelers offense works. While the ultimate difference may have been more a question of execution rather than game planning, the scoreboard confirms that Haley got the better of LeBeau.

  • One of Haley’s best moves, however, was to take advantage of what the Steelers defense gave him, which was a lot against the Titans.

Cameron Heyward continued to play as one of the league dominante defensive lineman with two sacks, and 2 and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Stephon Tuitt also had a strong night, and gets a ballot slot thanks to his sack. Mike Hilton had the night’s first interception, which set up a Steelers score.

Next we look to Vince Williams and Sean Davis who had a late sack and late interception, respectively. They’re followed by Ryan Shazier and L.T. Walton, with Shazier leading the Steelers in tackles, and L.T. Walton scoring a late sack.

  • Remember, you’re not limited to the choices on the ballot.

If you want to write in, say T.J. Watt for tipping a pass and blocking a field goal, by all means do so. Perhaps you think that JuJu Smith-Schuster deserves a game ball? Then write his name in. Or better yet, write his name in and leave a comment stating your case as to why you think this player deserves a shout out.

The Steelers win over the Titans ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, and the work day looms. So please check back later for our full analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

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

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

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

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

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

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

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

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

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

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

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

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

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

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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

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

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

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

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

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

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

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

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

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Claim Zach Mettenberger Off Waivers, Put Bruce Gradkowski on Injured Reserve

The Pittsburgh Steelers clarified their quarterback depth chart today by making two moves. The first move saw the Steelers claim Zach Mettenberger off of waivers, less than a day after the San Diego Chargers parted ways with the quarterback. The Steelers also placed Bruce Gradkowski on injured reserve, ending his season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh.

steelers vs. titans, zach mettenberger, zach mettenberger steelers, james harrison, vince williams, zach mettenberger vs. Steelers, november 2014

James Harrison and Vince Williams close on in Zach Mettenberger in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

Landry Jones will back up Roethlisberger as his number two, much to the chagrin of much of Steelers Nation. The third slot would appear to be headed to Zach Mettenberger, although the Steelers have previously said they plan to start 4th string quarterback Bryn Renner against Carolina in their 2016 preseason finale.

For most of the preseason, Dustin Vaughan worked as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback, but he broke his thumb in the preseason loss to the Eagles and the Steelers have since placed Vaughan on the injured/waived list.

A Closer Look at Zach Mettenberger

Ken Whisenhunt of Tennessee Titans originally draft Aach Mettenberger by the in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, taking him with the 178th overall pick. In 2014 Mettenberger started weeks 8 through 16.

That span included the Steelers week 10 victory at Tennessee, where Mettenberger went 14 of 25 for 2 touchdowns and one interception. While William Gay did transform one Mettenberger pass into a pick six, Mettenberger also burned the Steelers on an 80 yard touchdown to Nate Washington, and left the Chargers with a 24 to 13 lead in entering the fourth quarter.

In 2015, Mettenberger started weeks 7 and 6 as well as week’s 15 and 16.

  • Overall Mettenberger has logged 10 starts and played 14 games played in his career.

Zach Mettenberger has never won a game as a starter, and he has completed 208 passes for 2,347 yards and 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Following 2015, Mettenberger followed Ken Whisenhunt to San Diego, but could not secure a spot on the Charger’s depth chart behind Philip Rivers.

It is unclear whether the Steelers plan to give Zach Mettenberger a chance to play vs. the Carolina Panthers Thursday night.

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DeAngelo Williams Needs More Carries – For the Sake of Le’Veon Bell’s Durability

In his weekly press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley confirmed that he wants to get DeAngelo Williams the ball more. That is a refreshing sign because DeAngelo Williams needs more carries.

  • That might seem odd given that Le’Veon Bell has close to 300 yards from scrimmage in just two games.

But in this case counter intuition wins the day. DeAngelo Williams needs more carries precisely because Le’Veon Bell is such a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers need to keep him that way. Le’Veon Bell is entering his third year as a starter. While that doesn’t sound like much, the truth is that he he’s already reaching the point where most NFL running backs are done.

Depending on whether you believe the NFLPA or the NFL owners, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years or about 6 years. But the average running back only plays for 3.1 years, by far the shortest in of any NFL position group.

nfl running backs, average career length, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams

The average career of an NFL running back is 3.11 years. Le’Veon Bell is already in his third year….

Those statistics are not encouraging.

The Myth of the Durable Steelers Running Back

While the short self-life of NFL running backs is nothing new, the rise of saber metrics and fantasy football has brought the issue into much closer focus. Art Rooney II once declared that running the football was “the foundation of the franchise.” No team has rushed for more yards since the NFL-AFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • At first glance, it might seem that Pittsburgh bucks the tradition and durable Steelers running backs are the norm.

After all, Hall of Famers Franco Harris played for 12 years and Jerome Bettis played for 10 years in Pittsburgh. Rocky Bleier played for 11 years, Dick Hoak played for 10 years, Frank Pollard played for 9 years and Merril Hoge played for 7 years.

  • Alas, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs are no more durable than the rest of the NFL’s.

In 1992 when Cowher Power was taking the NFL by storm on the back of Barry Foster’s franchise record breaking season, Bill Cowher once joked that they’d run Foster until “parts of his body came falling off.” That’s pretty close to what happened. After rushing for over 2000 yards from scrimmage in 1992, Foster’s productivity dramatically dropped off in 1993 and by 1994 he was done.

  • Willie Parker was a little more durable, rushing for 3 straight 1000 yard seasons before injuries began to take their toll.

One of the differences between the other running backs mentioned here and Willie Parker, is that Harris, Bleier, Hoak, Pollard, Hoge and, to some extent, Bettis, all had strong number two backs to help them split the load.

The Case for Giving DeAngelo Williams 5 Carries a game

The nature of the running back position in the NFL has twisted in turned since the NFL merger. Most people fail to realize that Franco Harris was listed as a fullback on Chuck Noll’s depth chart. The position hardly exists today, but it thrived in Harris day in part because most NFL teams field twin backfield sets where both backs got carries.

  • The trend continued in one form or another during the 80’s, but began to change in the 1990’s.

While this dates me, during the 1990’s it became common to look at the Monday morning box scores and see a single running back getting the lion’s share if not all of a team’s carries. Running back by committee seems to be more in vogue these days as the concept of a “franchise running back” is all but extinct.

  • A player of Le’Veon Bell’s caliber could change that, however.

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

  • The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

This of course sounds nice in theory, but it can be difficult to implement in practice. Last year against the Titans, Bell showed he was capable of taking over a game, and you don’t sit a running back when he’s in the zone.

And there’s no assurance it will work even if the Steelers can find a way to get Williams on the field. Mike Tomlin used Isaac Redman to spell Rashard Mendenhall in 2010 and 2011, but Mendenhall was essentially done after 2012. But the Steelers were right to try then, and they’d be right to ensure DeAngelo gets his carries in 2015.

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Can Pittsburgh Break the Jeff Fisher Jinx? Steelers Record vs Jeff Fisher is Pretty Poor…

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’s™s 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 wasn’t until wasn’t 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. That’s 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 Fisher’s 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.

During those same 16 years the Pittsburgh Steelers amassed a 160-95-1 record for a winning percentage of .625. They also won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and appeared in Super Bowl XXX and Super Bowl XLV.

  • Despite Pittsburgh’s 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?

What’s going on here?

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.

As Steel Curtain Rising noted on the day Steve McNair died, McNair’™s record against the Steelers was 11-5.

  • 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 Sunday’s 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.

It says here that the Steelers match up vs. the Rams will come down to how well the Steelers offensive line can stand up against Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, and Chris Long to give Ben Roethlisberger time to throw and Le’Veon Bell room to run.

But Jeff Fisher is certainly one NFL coach who is no stranger to putting his players in position to succeed against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Bud Dupree Learning Steelers Way, Mike Tomlin Way

“…the guys know that the playing field is level. We don’t care by what means guys get here. Capable guys, guys that prove that they can be positive competitors to our efforts will be given an opportunity to play.” – Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, following the 2015 NFL Draft.

Steelers first round pick Bud Dupree is quickly learning that Mike Tomlin means what he says and says what he means, especially when it comes to rookies.

  • Mike Tomlin’s philosophy on rookies is simple: He does not believe in anointing them.

He went so far as to create a faux competition between Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott to avoid the appearance of “handing” the starting job to Maurkice Pouncey when Pouncey was a rookie.

It’s true that he immediately installed Ryan Shazier as that starter during Steelers 2014 OTA’s, but that experiment left Tomlin with a bit of buyer’s remorse, as pointedly did not get his starting job back when he returned to health late in 2014 and found himself vying for snaps with Vince Williams and Sean Spence.

Just how serious does Mike Tomlin take his philosophy on rookies? Some of you might remember this little play:

For those of you taking notes, that play came in week 2 when the Steelers upset the Titans in 2010. The play is all the more remarkable because it was Antonio Brown’s first touch of an NFL football.

  • How did Tomlin reward the rookie for his efforts?

He kept Brown inactive for 6 of the next 9 weeks, reminding people that Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were “Two dogs” competing for one bone.

Now fast forward to the Hall of Fame Game. Mike Tomlin held many veterans out. Among those were James Harrison and Jarvis Jones. So naturally you’d think Mike Tomlin’s choice to accompany Arthur Moats at outside linebacker with the first unit would be his first round pick, Bud Dupree?

  • It’s a logical choice. Give your rookie exposure vs. the Viking’s first string.

Guess again. Instead the preseason start when to Shayon Green, who was an undrafted rookie free agent last year with the Miami Dolphins. When the Steelers signed Shayon Green, 1 month prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, it appeared that Green was just “a body.” Someone to fill out the training camp roster.

  • Green has been playing well in camp, and played well in the Hall of Fame game, per Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com.

Bud Dupree didn’t see any action until the 2nd quarter, and by many accounts his performance was uneven – at best. Still, give the Steelers 2015 1st round draft choice some credit – he knows how to say the right things. When asked about his playing time, Dupree admitted “We’ve got good players on the team already. Nothing is going to be given to you, I just have to go out there and take it.”

That is exactly the type of attitude you want to hear from a rookie at St. Vincents.

Dupree’s Debut Draw Mixed Reviews

Once he got into the game, Bud Dupree played almost until the end, and drew mixed reviews from the press. Fowler credited Dupree for showing good speed but described it as a “quiet night.” Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wasn’t so kind.

In Bouchette’s eyes, Dupree “looked completely lost” and lacked football instincts, asserting that “…he did not look like a natural football player out there.” A day later, however, Bouchette cautioned a reader not to get concerned about Dupree yet.

The Dale Lolley, flat out asserted that Dupree needed to learn to get off blocks, something he struggled with in college. Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider noted that Dupree failed to shed the tight end who was blocking him on an 18 yard run that resulted in a Vikings touchdown, but repeatedly cautioned his readers against judging Dupree too harshly.

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review perhaps provided the most positive assessment of Dupree, crediting him with getting stronger against the run and generally being in position. Paulk however got Dupree on the record complaining (or at least noting) that he was being held more in the NFL than in college.

  • As Dupree explained to Paulk “Once you get held, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That attitude is slightly more worrisome. As James Harrison can testify, NFL officials are more than ready to look the other way when offensive lineman hold Steelers pass rushers.

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Steelers Vote Le’Veon Bell MVP for 2014

Christmas came two days early on the South Side and in the end it was a mere formality as the Pittsburgh Steelers voted Le’Veon Bell as the MVP for 2014.

With one game to go, Bell has already broken the Steelers franchise record for total yards from scrimmage, which currently stands at 2,115. In games vs. the Titans, Bengals, and Saints, Bell racked up over 200 yards from scrimmage, a feat that only Walter Payton has accomplished.

  • While those numbers are impressive, they don’t tell the full story.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed on Thanksgiving, the Tennessee game marked Bell’s passage into the status of the elite. The Steelers were behind in the third quarter by two scores, and they turned the game over to Bell, and Bell delivered.

The Steelers team MVP is voted on by the players in the locker room. They don’t release vote totals, although Mark Kabloy got Michael Mitchell on the record saying that the choice was between Bell and Antonio Brown. Either would have been a good choice, as would have Ben Roethlisberger, the third member of the Steelers “Killer Bees” trio.

Bell is the first Steelers running back to win the team MVP award since Willie Parker won it in 2006. Jerome Bettis won the award in 2000, 1997, and 1996. Barry Foster won it in 1992, and Franco Harris won it in 1972.

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Watch Tower: Bleacher Report & Roethlisberger’s Non-Injured Wrist, Belichick’s Machinations in the Spotlight

The Steelers slip to 7-5 certainly did create a buzz, but it is the off the field issues which give the Watch Tower its material, highlighting the divide between the old and new press.

Roethlisberger’s Wrist

As any Pittsburgh resident can tell you, stories about Ben Roethlisberger’s generate attention. Traffic on Post-Gazette.com the day of Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident exceeded that of Super Bowl XL.

  • The slightest hint of a Roethlisberger injury is enough to prompt the local news to interrupt programing to preview a story about the signal callers issues with hang nails.

So the Bleacher Report made news with their sport medicine writer Will Carroll broke the story that Ben Roethlisberger had in fact broken an bone in his wrist in the loss to the Saints. The fact that he was held out of practice only seemed to add credence.

  • All of which provides a window into how press coverage of the Steelers works.

Yours truly learned of the news during a quick scan of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC on occasion.) Site editor Neal Coolong wrote a quick article referencing the story, and then publishing a tweet from Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola.

Publishing such an article makes sound business sense, even if, on this occasion, Coolong (who does have sources on the South Side) did not have any new information to add. Any report of a Roethlisberger injury is going to generate Google searches, and a big part of the SB Nation business model is to capture those.

  • Interestingly enough, the BTSC article was titled: Ben Roethlisberger injury: Steelers QB didn’t practice Wednesday but it wasn’t injury-related.

Leading with the key word “Roethlisberger injury” both in the title and the URL kind of reminds you of the Kevin Nealon Saturday Night Live character, “Mr. Subliminal,” but the Watch Tower can’t quite bring itself to criticize our esteemed colleague and friend, as both moves represented smart business decisions, even if journalism purists might demure.

The traditional press quickly attacked the report.

Bouchette’s tweet was backed by a story with quotes from Roethlisberger himself. Dale Lolley slammed the report too, comparing it to the Roethlisberger trade rumors of a year ago (something which the Watch Tower unfortunately never had a chance to cover….), and citing multiple sources in the organization which discredited it.

At the end of the day, it looked to be much to do about nothing. But it does show the power that one reporter with a national media outlet has to set the Steelers news cycle for least for a day.

Blount’s Departure Revisited

The previous edition of the Watch Tower discussed how coverage of LeGarrette Blount’s going AWOL at the end of the Titan’s game drew contrasting coverage from Steelers beat writers, with Ed Bouchette effectively signaling is departure.

  • The story thickened when Blount was quickly signed by the New England Patriots.

The quickness of the move raised eyebrows. Dale Lolley was one of the first in the Steelers press corps to address the issue sharing:

Some people within the Steelers organization feel that Blount made a calculated move by leaving the field prior to the end of regulation in the team’s 27-24 win over Tennessee Monday night because he wanted out of Pittsburgh.

Lolley also made it clear that he doesn’t buy into such reports. Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette also weighed in on the issue, issuing the following tweet:

The tweet was backed up by a story. Bouchette did not cite any indirect sources the way Lolley did, but he did explore the hypothetical ways in which Blount and the Patriots could have colluded to secure his release. (He also chided the Steelers for not doing more to punish Blount.)

From a media analysis stand point these stories tell us a number of things:

1. There are people in the Steelers organization who at least suspect that Bill Belichick under handed ways at work
2. This kind of thing is plausible

Bouchette made a point of telling his readers that contact between players and opposing teams happens all of the time. Agents do it all the time, and often times let reporters in on the story.

Assuming Le’Veon stays healthy for the balance of the season (God willing) this is a story that will die, but it’s interesting to discuss in the here and now.

 

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