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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Byrant & Heyward Lock in Dead Heat in Steelers-Vikings Poll

There wasn’t alot of drama behind the Steelers-Vikings game ball voting, as it came down to a tale of two studs on each side of the ball.

Martavis Bryant, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Broncos,

Martavis Byrant high fives Cam Heyward in the Steelers 2016 playoff loss to Denver. Photo Credit: David Zalubowski, AP via Pro Football Weekly

Cameron Heyward and Martavis Bryant ended the poll deadlocked with 12 votes a piece.Steelers Vikings Game ball results, Martavis Bryant, Cameron Heyward

Credit the citizens of Steelers Nation for being smarter than the proverbial average bear on this one. Support for Martavis Bryant is obvious here, factor in the pass interference penalties and as Bryant’s 3 catch, 91 yard efforts in the Steelers win over the Vikings broaches the level of being dominant.

Things with Cam Heyward aren’t so clear. In an age when the fantasty football mentality dominates too many fans, Heyward’s effort against the Vikings looks rather ho hum, as it is absent “Splash” plays to speak of. But Heyward dominated against the Vikings, stopping several runs at the line of scrimmage, and disrupting their running game consistently by rerouting runners.

  • After that, referee Eddie Morelli was the next highest vote getter with four, followed by 3 for Chris Boswell.

Boswell scored 14 points in the game, giving the Steelers all but 3 of their margin of victory so its a tad bit surprising that he didn’t do better. Ben Roethlisberger also earned 3 votes as did Eli Rogers. Ryan Shazier polled two votes while Bud Dupree got one.

That’s a bit surprising. Tyler Matakevich had his second big special teams play in as many weeks while Vince Williams had a big game on the inside and helped cut off the middle of the field for the Vikings – Williams has come a long way since his first start in the disastrous London Loss to the Vikings.

Mike Hilton, who had a strong game, earned a write-in vote, as did James Harrison who didn’t take a snap. Thanks again to all how voted.

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Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings = A Man Against Boys

If you visit any online box score pertaining to the Steelers 26-9 Week 2 victory over the Vikings at Heinz Field on Sunday, star defensive end Cameron Heyward‘s stats that include six tackles may not stand out to you.

But if you had the pleasure to be in the stands at Heinz Field like I was, you knew Cam Heyward was simply the best defensive player on the field.

If you ever wanted to know how Pittsburgh’s defense, a unit that actually started to play better a season ago, after Cameron Heyward was lost for the rest of 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, could have performed any better down the stretch, it would been with Heyward in the starting lineup dominating.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings was a men among boys @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

In other words, just because the defense actually improved down-the-stretch during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning-streak, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done better.

That’s the thing about difference-makers:

  • You sometimes don’t know how much of a difference they can make until they’re back in the lineup doing  their thing.

And that brings me to the current state of the Steelers defensive line. Sure, it is still a fine unit with veteran Tyson Alualu filling in for an injured Stephon Tuitt and second-year man Javon Hargrave providing quality play, alongside Heyward’s dominance. Yes, L.T. Walton gained some valuable playing time a year ago as part of a rotation that had to make up for the loss of Heyward, and that valuable time should come in handy this year, when Walton has to do what he’s doing now, and that’s provide quality depth in Tuitt’s absence.

  • But what happens when Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave play an entire game together?

Thanks to injury, we haven’t seen that since the game against the Cowboys last November 13, when Heyward was lost for the year.

Can you just imagine how awe-inspiring this unit will be?

As a Steelers fan, I certainly can’t wait, but until Tuitt comes back, at least I have Heyward’s singular dominance to look forward to.

  • Again, if you weren’t at Heinz Field on Sunday, Cam Heyward’s box score does him no justice.

You really had to see that dominance for yourself.

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Key Positive from Steelers 26-9 Win over Vikings? Contributions from New & Unexpected Faces

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings 26-9 in their 2017 home opener in the franchise’s first game in the Steel City without Dan Rooney. Defeating any NFL opponent by a two-touchdown margin represents an important achievement.

But the overall outcome doesn’t change the fact that rustiness remains for the 2017 Steelers to shake off. Nonetheless, a week after their Above the Line but Below Par win over the Browns, the Steelers leave the Vikings game with one decidedly positive take away: The difference makers came from new faces and/or names we haven’t heard in a while.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Vikings, Terence Newman

Martavis Bryant scores his first TD of the season against the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Referee Eddie Morelli for MVP Anyone?

Steelers Nation entered the 2017 season with the expectation that the Black and Gold would dominate, particularly on offense with the return of the four Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

A quick look at the statistics suggest the Steelers did just that:

  • They finished the game with a 14-point advantage
  • Pittsburgh dominated time of possession, 34:22 to 25:38
  • The Steelers closed the day with an almost 100 total yard advantage over the Vikings
  • Danny Smith’s special teams came up with another big play

All of those are positives indeed, but the truth is that twin pass interference penalties fueled the Steelers only two touchdown drives. The Steelers reached the Red Zone on two other occasions, but were forced to settle for Chis Boswell field goals both times, and the rest of the afternoon’s scoring for Pittsburgh came off of longer attempts made by Boswell.

  • Capitalizing on inopportune penalties is as important as executing on any the other fundamentals of football.

The Steelers did that, to their credit. But as the second half progressed, and Minnesota’s secondary stopped making such costly downfield gaffes, it was hard to escape feeling that, where it not for those two first half penalties, we would have been watching another afternoon where the Steelers need Chris Boswell to save the day as he did on the road against the Bengals and in the playoffs against the Chiefs.

  • That was understandable, perhaps even excusable last season when Ben Roethlisberger was throwing to his numbers 4, 5 and 6 wide receivers.

But 2017 was supposed to be different. Thus far, it has not been. It is easy to point the finger at Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, and he clearly hasn’t gotten back into the groove he was in a year ago. But to be fair to Bell, the Steelers run blocking hasn’t been as sharp as it was during the latter half of 2016.

Steelers Defense Rises to Occasion Against Vikings

While far from flawless, the play of the Steelers defense was far more consistent. To be certain, the Steelers didn’t have to face the hot hand of Sam Bradford, but Keith Butler has no choice over who unit plays, they can only respond.

And against Case Keenum, Butler’s boys responded in the affirmative:

  • T.J. Watt defended a pass, helping force a punt
  • Bud Dupree disrupted by getting his first sack of the season and defending another pass
  • Vince Williams helped end another drive late in the game with a sack
  • Cam Heyward and Artie Burns also dropped ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage
  • The Steelers held the Vikings to 0-3 on fourth down conversion attempts

To be clear, this wasn’t the type of Steel Curtain or Blitzburgh dominating performance of yesteryear. The Vikings did make it look a little too easy on their one scoring drive. But to be fair, save for that Minnesota touchdown series, the Steelers defense essentially shut down the Vikings ground attack.

Key Positive Take Away? New Faces Step up for Steelers

Two games into the 2017 season sees the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at 2-0, but both “Above the line” performances leave the feeling that the men in Black and Gold left a little something on the field, particularly on offense. That was true in the Steeles win over the Browns, and its is still true after their home win against the Vikings.

  • But the Steelers made some important strides this weekend.

A week ago, the story of the Steelers offense was the Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown rampage through the Brown’s secondary (with assists from Jesse James in the Red Zone.) This week the Vikings managed to keep Brown contained at least until Ben Roethlisberger found a way to get Brown the ball in the second half.

  • But the Steelers showed that when that happens, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Byrant can and will make teams pay.

They did so twice, and both times the drives ended in touchdowns for the Steelers. And if the Steelers 50/50 performance in the Red Zone left a little to be desired, for the second straight week Todd Haley showed that he can still score touchdowns with his secondary weapons, with this week’s strike coming JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • Against the Vikings, the Steelers defense told a similar, if not quite as dramatic story.

Did anyone notice the absence of Stephon Tuitt? No, and that’s because Tyson Alualu has stepped in and delivered. Likewise, everyone assumed that should something happen to T.J. Watt, James Harrison would step in. Word is that Watt suffered a groin injury, but it wasn’t Deebo off the bench, but Anthony Chickillo who came in on the right side.

  • Be honest, when the Vikings mounted their final shot at contesting the game’s outcome, you begged to see James Harrison in the game, didn’t you?

Yours truly certainly did. But the Steelers stuck with Anthony Chickillo and while Chickillo might not have made any Splash plays, the Steelers defense held the Vikings, and won the day.

Bill Cowher used to argue that the NFL season is akin to a 16-round fight. That’s an apt analogy (perhaps too apt given what we now know about CTE) except that, at least in September and October, there’s no such thing as a knockout punch.

The Steelers started 2017 2-0, they’ve done it without suffering any major injuries and they’ve gotten contributions from both familiar and new faces. Two games into the season, you can’t ask for much more than that.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Victory over Vikings

Its that time again Steelers Nation. While they might not have earned any style points, the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a 26 to 9 win over the Minnesota Vikings, giving themselves 2-0 start to the 2017 season, and a victory in their home opener on a day that was dedicated to the late Dan Rooney.

Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers game balls vikings, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo

Bud Dupree celebrates his first sack of 2017 as Anthony Chickillo looks on. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Here’s how the results panned out:

Steelers Vikings Game ball results, Martavis Bryant, Cameron Heyward

Martavis Bryant, who scored the Steelers first touchdown and authored its biggest play of the day wins the first slot on the ball, followed by Chris Boswell, who accounted for all of the Steelers offense following Pittsburgh’s 14-0 start. Referee Eddie Morelli’s also gets a (sort of) tongue and cheek nod, given that two pass interference calls set up the Steelers only two touchdowns, while they were generally penalizing someone on every other play.

Ben Roethlisberger also earns a slot. While this wasn’t a marquee game for Number 7 by any stretch of the imagination he did settle down in the second half and got the chains moving, although he wasn’t able to direct the Steelers into the end zone. Antonio Brown also gets a nod, because well, because he made some tough catches.

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster scored a touchdown on his first NFL touch — you can’t argue for a much better start than that.

On defense, Vince Williams leads the ballot, for recording a sack and being around the ball. Bud Dupree, who also registered a sack also gets a nod, as does Cam Heyward, who might not have made any fantasy owners happy, but was his usual disruptive self. Ryan Shazier wins a ballot slot, after another strong afternoon, as does Tyler Matakevich who made his second big special teams play in as many weeks.

  • Remember, however, this is YOUR Steelers game ball poll, and you are by no means limited to these choices.

Think that Le’Veon Bell deserves a game ball? Write his name in. Ditto Jesse James. Think that Sean Davis and/or Mike Hilton, T.J. Watt or perhaps Anthony Chickillo deserve deserve game balls? Then write their names in, or better yet, write their names in and state your case in the comments section.

Thanks  for voting. Be sure and check out Steel Curtain Rising’s full analysis of the Steelers win over the Vikings.

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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Remembering Steelers Punter Harry Newsome, Punter Extraordinaire and Former Rookie of the Year

It’s safe to say you probably don’t remember Harry Newsome, who punted for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1985-1989. I don’t blame you. After all, who remembers punters? Other than Josh Miller and Daniel Sepulveda, can you name another guy who has punted for the team over the last 15 years or so?

Heck, at least when it comes to Pittsburgh, there’s no correlation between the Steelers enjoying quality punting and successful seasons (yes, remember Steelers Nation, Mitch Berger owns a Super Bowl ring for Super Bowl XLIII.)

If placekickers are the redheaded stepchildren of professional football, punters are the dishwashers. Oh, it’s not that washing dishes is a horrible job or anything, but nobody goes to a restaurant to see a dishwasher; they go to eat food off of the dishes.

  • Chances are, if a person sees the dishwasher, it’s because they are helping him or her wash dishes as punishment for failure to pay a tab.

Which bring us back to Harry Newsome. If you’re looking for information on him, that might he difficult to find. Even his Wikipedia page is short and includes a disclaimer about lack of references and sources. 

But I can assure you, Newsome was a really good punter during his time in Pittsburgh.

steelers, steelers punters, harry newsome

The t-shirt says it all….

In-fact, in 1985, the year the Steelers drafted him in the eighth round out of Wake Forest, Newsome won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, an annual honor handed out to the team’s rookie of the year. Yes, along side the names of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Louis Lipps and Carnell Lake as Steelers rookie of the year award winners, you’ll also see Harry Newsome’s.

Of course, given that ’85 would also mark the Steelers first losing season in 14 years and usher in a period of turmoil for the franchise, perhaps it was an indictment of head coach Chuck Noll’s post-Super Bowl struggles with regards to the draft that a punter was his top rookie.

Newsome was around to be named the rookie of the year after beating out Craig Colquitt, who was the team’s punter for seven seasons and played in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

Newsome averaged 39.6 yards per punt in ’85 and got better from there.

The only true “where are they now” kind of story I could find on Newsome is courtesy of a Bleacher Report article written in 2009. 

Sadly, the name of the article is Year of Hell, and it focuses on the record-setting six blocked punts Newsome endured in 1988, the year the Steelers finished 5-11 (after which Chuck Noll FINALLY relented and hired a full time special teams coach.)

As the author pointed out in the story, Noll had little time for special teams during his career (all one has to do is watch highlights of those famous ’70s Super Bowls to see one special teams mistake after another–especially by kicker Roy Gerela and punter Bobby Walden–to know that was true), and in ’88, Newsome had to deal with four, count’em, four long-snappers.

“A good time of snapping the ball, handling the punt, then getting it away was 6.7 to 6.8 seconds,” related Newsome in ’09:

The handle  time of the punter himself should be somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 seconds. I spent my time in Pittsburgh always trying to hurry my punts because the ball took so long to get to me. I even went from a three step punter to two steps. It didn’t help because the extra tenths of seconds on the snap, along with protection problems, left us often exposed. It would amp up the opponents even more knowing this.

As a bit of a cruel paradox, while Newsome was setting the Steelers record for punts blocked in ’88, he was also one of the few bright spots on the team, as he led the league with an average of 45.4 yards per punt.

In-fact, in Week 15, when the 4-10 Steelers traveled to face the 4-10 Chargers, the NBC announcer opened up the broadcast by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The two best punters in the league are set to square-off this afternoon…..” You see, San Diego’s punter, Ralf Mojsiejenko, was hot on Newsome’s tail but ultimately finished with an average of 44.1 for the season.

Newsome would go on to play one more season in Pittsburgh, before leaving as a Plan B Free Agent after the 1989 Steelers storybook season. During his five years with the Steelers, Newsome averaged a respectable 41.4 yards per punt.

But he also had an incredible 12 punts blocked, and when he suffered two more during his four seasons with the Vikings, the sum-total of 14 tied him with Herman Weaver for an NFL record that still stands to this day.

In researching that aforementioned Bleacher Report article, I was mildly surprised to find out Newsome, who was a great athlete in his youth, was Pittsburgh’s emergency quarterback in-addition to the holder on field goals. This came in handy in 1986, when, following a botched field goal snap, Newsome threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Preston Gothard in a game against the Bears.

There’s another surprising Harry Newsome factoid:  Newsome had the longest punt in the history of Three Rivers Stadium when he booted one 84 yards in December of 1992 as a member of the Vikings.

In a lot of ways, a punter’s legacy is defined by the team he plays for. Harry Newsome’s career in Pittsburgh is a forgotten one, largely because of the struggles of the Steelers in the mid-to-late ’80s.

But not everything is blocked from memory (pardon the pun).

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Mike Tomlin Right to Ban End Zone Somersault

Prelude – January 2, 2000, Three Rivers Stadium – The 6-9 Pittsburgh Steelers are en route to becoming the 6-10 Pittsburgh Steelers in a meaningless game vs. the Tennessee Titans. 

The game is sloppy. 

Both teams return fumbles for touchdowns. But it also features such low lights as Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell, Wayne Gandy giving up yet another safety, and that of Bobby Shaw basking in garbage time glory by lifting his jersey to reveal a Superman shirt. Reflecting on the  erosion of discipline inherent in Shaw’s escapade  Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest remarks, “This must never be repeated.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers have come a long way since then. And while it remains to be seen if the ’13 Steelers can improve on the ’99 Steelers mark for futility, they are exhibiting some similarities.

Witness Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown during the loss in London (available as of 10/18/13):

Never let it be said that wide receivers conceded the spot light to running backs on the Steelers, and Emmanuel Sanders seemed intent on proving vs. the Jets (available as of 10/18/13):

There are a number of things wrong with these end zone somersaults:

  • At the very best, they’re a sign of excessive showboating the Steelers Nation loathes
  • In the middle, they create an unnecessary risk of an end zone fumble
  • At the worst, players are exposing themselves to potentially life altering injuries

Shaw’s Superman stint happened during the last game of the season, so their was no way to immediately address it. But, as Jerome Bettis often remarked, Bill Cowher reacted to that ’99 season by becoming more demanding. Such lapses of discipline disappeared during the Cowher-Colbert era.

Mike Tomlin said nothing publically about Bell’s end zone backflip after London. But he responded swiftly to Sanders’ imitation by banning such displays.

Tomlin made the right move.

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Levi Brown to Steelers as Roster Shuffles Continues

The Steelers have not started 0-4 since Bill Austin was coach, and likely made a move that has decidedly been uncommon since Austin’s days on the sidelines:  They made an in season trade for a player.

Apparently, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coaches have seen enough. During the Steelers loss in London to the Vikings, Jared Allen almost literally ran circles around Mike Adams.

The Steelers had planned to rotate Adams with Kelvin Beachum, but Beachum’s services were needed at guard, and could be needed at any of the other 4 positions on the line.

  • Hence, the Steelers dealt a conditional draft pick to Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals, for offensive tackle Levi Brown.

Brown was of course the man whom the Cardinals picked over Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft, but has fallen woefully short of the expectations that came with his 5th overall pick status.

Nonetheless, he could and most certainly should represent an upgrade over Mike Adams, who has graded out as one of the worst tackles in the league (as if Steelers Nation needed statistical analysis to know that.)

Green Gone, Again

The good news about the move is that it is salary cap friendly. The Cardinals will pay the balance of his salary for the 2013 season, minus the veteran minimum. The move also signals that the Steelers really have decided to part ways with Max Starks. In the space of a month Starks has been cut by San Diego and St. Louis.

  • That will leave the Steelers with some salary cap space to work with, should they need to make additional moves.

The loser in this deal is Isaiah Green, who just rejoined the active roster last week. Green made the final roster cut, only to be released before the season. Presumptively the Steelers will add him to the practice squad, but that move has not happened yet.

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Tomlin’s Options at Tackle Appear Thin…. But Max Starks Just Became Available Again….

I have great patience. We’ll continue to work and get better as long as I see belief and effort and continued improvement in detail because that’s what’s going to change the outcome of these games. Those who don’t, they won’t be a part of it, whoever it may be. It’s just that simple. – Mike Tomlin after the Vikings loss

Those are strong but hardly surprising words from an 0-4 NFL head coach.

While there are a number of players to whom this might apply, none seems more obvious than beleaguered left tackle Mike Adams. Adams has not played well all season, and looked hopelessly lost vs. Jared Allen. On the Steelers first goal line sack Adams almost appeared to get out of Allen’s way.
That’s not what happened, but it looked that way.

  • But here’s the problem:  Tomlin has an itchy trigger finger, a clear target… but does not have any ammunition.

Kelvin Beachum would be the obvious replacement. But there are two problems there. First, he’s the primary backup across the line. Second, he may need to continue to play for Ramon Foster, while Foster recovers from a sprained pectorial muscle injury he sustained in the loss to Chicago and worsened vs. the Vikings.

Guy Whimper? The Steelers tried to move heaven and earth to replace him during training camp and preseason. Joe Long? Are you really going to activate a guy from the practice squad and start him at left tackle?

  • The Steelers have been here before.

It happened in during the dark days of 1999. At right tackle Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad alternated starts in a quest to see who was worse.

Late in the season the Steelers secondary became a sieve. Bill Cowher promised change unless he saw improvement. The problem was that rookie Scott Shields was as bad if not worse than starter Travis Davis, who stunk.

  • Tomlin’s threat is seemingly made an empty one by the fact that you can’t just go out and find a starter-capable (or even back up capable) offensive tackle walking the streets.

Or can you?

Could Starks Return to Steelers for One Final Swan Song?

There is one out there, one who has even started and won Super Bowls at right and left tackle.
What’s more the Steelers are familiar with him.

The Steelers have tried, and tried, and tried to part ways with Starks. Yet they kept getting back together like that couple you knew in high school.

The Steelers appeared ready to end things for good by letting Starks go in the spring and then passing on the opportunity to bring him back after he got cut by San Diego. That door appeared to close for good when the St. Louis Rams signed him in mid-September, but now Starks has been cut again….

  • So Starks is out of a job again and his wife is from Pittsburgh….

Will it happen? Who knows?

Starks bailed out the Steelers in 2008 and then bailed them out again in 2011. But he’s two years older now and no one ever confused him with Anthony Munoz when he was in his prime. Bringing Starks back would be another step backward of sorts for the organization – similar to the decision to cut and then bring back Jonathan Dwyer.

The fact that Starks best days are behind him is pretty much established. He’s now been cut by two teams in less than a month.

  • But the key questions are: Is Max Starks is he better than Mike Adams at this point, and can the Steelers afford him even at the veteran minimum?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then the Steelers strongly need to consider bringing him back because Ben Roethlisberger’s body can’t absorb too many more 5 sack games….

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