4 Keys to the Steelers Success in the 2nd Half of the 2017 Season

The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.

  • While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.

And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.

So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.

Bud Dupree, Alex Smith, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 season

Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports

1. Put It Together on Defense

8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:

  • The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
  • The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
  • That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory

Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.

But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.

2. Get it Done in the Red Zone

Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.

  • Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.

Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.

Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period

3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much

In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.

  • Ok. NFL offenses have changed.

In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).

And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:

Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.

But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.

4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected

OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.

  • Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
  • And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.

But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?

  • Steelers history provides its own examples.

In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.

  • The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.

The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.

The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.

  • Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t  have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.

That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2017: Le’Veon Bell – Time for Pittsburgh to Ring the Bell

The modern NFL Draft is founded upon hyperbole. Even back during the 1988 and 1989 NFL Drafts I can remember watching ESPN and listening in disbelief to Mel Kiper Jr. all but predicted disaster or Super Bowl depending on whether he liked a pick or not.

  • But then there are moments when a draft pick lives up to the hype, the times when the Le’Veon Bells get picked.

Le’Veon Bell has surpassed his draft day hype and now looks to cash in with his first 8 figure contract as he reaches free agency.

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Le’Veon Bell scores the game winning touchdown against San Diego in 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images via antennamag.com

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

A lot of people rolled their eyes during the 2013 NFL Draft when Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers second round pick, as the best running back the draft. Months later, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

Bouchette has been covering the Steelers since the early 70’s, allowing him to see the preseason debuts of first rounders such as Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. Bouchette has seen more than a few training camp sensations flame out. He is not wont to compare rookies to Hall of Famers. But still, the Dean of the Steelers press corps seemed to be going a little over the top.

  • Four years later it is clear that skeptics in Steelers Nation should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

After struggling for 3 years to replace Willie Parker with the likes of Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers selected a blue-chip running back in Le’Veon Bell in 2013.

  • What’s all the more amazing is that it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell began the 2013 season with a lisfranc injury. He ended 2014 unable to play in the post-season. 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse violations, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

Despite those difficulties, with 4045 yards to his name, Le’Veon Bell has passed Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson to become the 4th all-time Steelers leading rusher. In four years, Le’Veon Bell has gone from being a 2nd round pick that left some pundits scratching their heads to a player with the potential to revitalize the concept of franchise running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

A year ago the Steelers 2016 offense was supposed to be the AFC North’s variant of The Greatest Show on Turf. That didn’t happen and for most of the year Ben Roethlisberger had little more than 5th and 6th string wide receivers to throw to other than Antonio Brown. In other words, opposing defenses knew Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball.

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Le’Veon Bell rush for a touchdown in the playoffs against Miami. Photo Credit: Don Wright, FRE via Houston Chronicle

But opposing defenses were powerless to stop Le’Veon Bell as he broke the Steelers single game regular season rushing record. Breaking regular season records is nice, but doing it in January is something else. In his first playoff game Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record. In his second playoff game, Le’Veon Bell broke the record again.

  • Le’Veon Bell did something in two playoff games which Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker couldn’t do in 58.

You don’t often hear the phrase “So and so running back took over the game for such and such team.”

Le’Veon Bell took over several games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 and the franchise would be wise to see that he continues to do so.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

In four years Le’Veon Bell has only appeared in 49 of a possible 68 regular and post-season games (depending on how you count the AFC Championship). The rest he’s missed either because of drug suspensions or injuries.

  • The average NFL career only lasts 4 years, and the average for running backs is lower yet.

He already has 1135 touches on his frame. How many more carries does Le’Veon Bell have before his production curve drops like a rock? The brutal reality of the NFL in the 21st century is that running backs flame out quickly. Hear anyone talk up DeMarco Murray’s Hall of Fame prospects lately? You haven’t, because Dallas has already replaced the man who led the NFL in rushing just two years ago with Ezekiel Elliott. Running backs are disposable commodities.

Is it really wise to invest serious long-term salary cap dollars in a player like Le’Veon Bell who might be suspended at any moment and who all statistical indicators suggest has a short shelf life?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers plans here are clear. Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell back, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin want him back. Ben Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Le’Veon Bell back. Le’Veon Bell wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Le’Veon Bell will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.

That’s a good thing. Period. How he gets there isn’t quite clear. The Steelers would like to give him a long-term deal, which is a smart move. The only question is will Bell be reasonable with his salary demands? If he is the deal will be made. If not the Steelers will use the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh in 2017.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

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Terry Bradshaw scrambles in Steelers 1972 AFC Championship loss to the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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Looking @ the Steelers Thanksgiving Record – Can Pittsburgh Break the Turkey Day Curse?

The NFL is “honoring” the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 8th time by putting them in the national spotlight on Thanksgiving Day. Given the Steelers Thanksgiving record, one can imagine Art Rooney II saying a heartfelt “Thanks but no thanks” the next time the NFL offers them a turkey day slot.

Here is a look at the Steelers Thanksgiving record that has made for many a memorable turkey day that most of Steelers Nation Wish they could forget.

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Le’Veon Bell loses his helmet in the Steelers 2013 Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Matt Hafley, Post-Gazette

Pre-Noll Era Steelers Thanksgiving Record 1-2

The Steelers played the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving Day in 1939 and 1940. The Pittsburgh Pirates, as they were still known then, lost to the Eagles on Thanksgiving in 1939 17-14. In 1940 the newly renamed Steelers had no better luck, losing to the Eagles 7-0.

The Steelers would have to wait another ten years, including their World War II stint as the Steagles, before playing on Thanksgiving Day. However, the NFL matched the Steelers up with the Chicago Cardinals on Thanksgiving day in 1950 and Pittsburgh prevailed led by Joe Geri’s 101 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 3 extra points.

1983 – The Thanksgiving Day Massacre

November 24th, 1983 @ The Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 45, Pittsburgh 3

The 1983 Steelers had played the entire season without Terry Bradshaw, but despite that Cliff Stoudt combined with a defense that looked to be Super Bowl caliber had given the Steelers a 9-3 record and command of the AFC Central Division heading into their Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit. Detroit for its part was only 6-6.

As defensive coordinator Woody Widenhoffer admitted later, the Steelers weren’t prepared. And then some:

  • At the time, it was the Steelers worst loss in 36 years.

Cliff Stoudt threw 4 interceptions Mark Malone threw 1, Franco Harris gained 16 yards on 5 carries as both Harris and Walter Abercrombie’s combined totals were less than Frank Pollard’s. Meanwhile, Bill Sims looked like genetic fusion between Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, and Eric Hipple looked like Johnny Unitas.

The Steelers would lose the following week in Cincinnati. The week after it would take the last throws left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm to left them over the Jets as the Steelers stumbled into the playoffs where the LA Raiders quickly eliminated them.

1991 – Joe Walton Fails the Steelers. Again.

November 28th, 1991 @ Texas Stadium
Dallas 20, Pittsburgh 10

Considering that Dallas went to the playoffs and won a game and followed the next season with a Super Bowl Championship, one might wonder why this game was close at all. But it was.

  • And in many ways it symbolized all that was wrong with the Joe Walton era of the Steelers offense.

The Steelers still had a talented defense that had finished number 1 overall in 1990, led by players such as Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. It still had the offensive core that had led the rallies that fueled the 1989 Steelers improbable run. But unfortunately, Chuck Noll’s last hire was his worst one, as he’d name Joe Walton his offensive coordinator and gave him total control.

The Steelers defense kept the Dallas Cowboys to 13 points until late into the third quarter, when Warren Williams narrowed the score to three.

  • Alas, Steve Beuerlein to Michael Irvin pass put the gave the Cowboys a 10 point lead.

And under Joe Walton’s offense, Neil O’Donnell couldn’t muster more than 167 yards, and no other skill player could break the 60 yard mark. In other words, in those days 10 points was far too much to overcome in a quarter.

1998 – The Phil Luckett Coin Flip Thanksgiving Day Fiasco

November 26th @ the Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16

For as bad as 1983’s Thanksgiving Day Massacre was, the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster is standard by which every disappointment on the Steelers Thanksgiving record will be judged because it signified the end of an era.

The 1998 Steelers had had their ups and downs. Without a doubt, this Steelers team was missing something and Kordell Stewart clearly lacked the mojo he’d shown in the season before. But these 1998 Steelers had authored enough Tease Games – convincing wins over serious contenders – to give fans legitimate hope Bill Cowher’s boys could pull it together for a deep playoff run.

The scenario for the 1998 Steelers Thanksgiving Day game had all the trimmings for one of The Chin’s late season surges. The Steelers were fresh off a win at home over the division leading Jacksonville Jaguars and took a 7-4 record to Detroit. Jerome Bettis’ parents even had the entire team over for Thanksgiving dinner the night before.

  • It was not to be.

The Steelers played a sloppy game filled with blown coverages and easily catchable balls that receivers dropped. Nonetheless they opened a 13-3 lead in the third quarter, only to see the Lions kick a field goal, followed by a Charlie Batch to Herman Moore hook up that tied the score. Jacksonville added another 3 and the Steelers had to fight to get into position for a Norm Johnson field goal to tie the game.

  • Carnell Lake and Jerome Bettis approached midfield, called tails, the coin landed on tails but referee Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions as Detroit’s captains struggled to suppress their laughter.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers Thanksgiving Record, steelers thanksgiving coin flip, phil luckett

Jerome Bettis clearly called tails, but Phil Luckett said he heard “heads” in the infamous Thanksgiving Day Coin Flip. Photo Credit: USA Today For the Win

The Lions got into scoring position thanks to another Herman Moore reception that came at Carnell Lake’s expense. A ticky tacky face mask penalty gave Detroit even more yards as they kicked the overtime field goal for the win.

The loss knocked the wind out of the 1998 Steelers sails, who would go on to lose their next 4 games. The Pittsburgh Steelers had been contenders since Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began in 1992, but that era ended on Thanksgiving Day 1998 in Detroit.

2013 – The Tomlin Two-Step and the Failed 2 Pointer

November 28th @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20

Outside of Pittsburgh, everyone remembers this game because of Mike Tomlin’s sideline two-step, but inside Steelers Nation this one was a heart breaker – not because the Steelers played poorly, but because they played so well. The 2013 Steelers had of course started at 0-4 and the 2-6 yet had clawed their way back to 5-6. A win vs. the Ravens would have restored the Steelers record to .500 and put Pittsburgh within striking distance of the AFC North title.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

The Ravens scored a quick touchdown, but the Steelers defense held Baltimore to field goals for the rest of the night. The Steelers offense stalled during the first half, but in the second half Le’Veon Bell and Emmanuel Sanders scored touchdowns, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller 9 times.

With time expiring the Steelers moved into scoring position:

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for 19 yards and an apparent touchdown. Overturned on replay.
    Le’Veon Bell rammed it in from the one. Overturned on replay because his helmet slipped off as he was being concussed.
  • Two plays later Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone…
  • ….but the two point conversion failed.

The Steelers tried an on-sides kick, but failed and the Ravens ran out the clock. While this loss was disappointing, it was Steelers-Ravens slugfest in the truest sense of the word.

Can the Steelers  break their Thanksgiving Day curse vs. the Colts in 2016? Time will tell.

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Remembering Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career – The Unlucky Soul Tapped to Replace Franco Harris

When the Pittsburgh Steelers made running back Walter Abercrombie the 12th overall selection of the 1982 NFL Draft, he left Baylor as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,665 yards over four seasons.  What did the use of such a lofty draft selection of a running back with such a prolific collegiate career really mean? Here’s the simple English translation:

  • There was no way Walter Abercrombie was coming to Pittsburgh to be anything other than Franco Harris‘ eventual replacement.

When Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career began, Franco Harris had been the Steelers workhorse at running back for 10-full seasons, was 32 years old and, while nobody knew it at the  time, had two seasons of tread left on his tires. (The Steelers cut Franco Harris prior to the 1984 campaign during a contract dispute. He then signed with the Seahawks in Week 2 but Seattle cut Franco halfway through the season after he gained just 170 yards. Franco Harris never played again.)

Unfortunately, much like a lot of things involving the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980s, Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career never came close to matching Franco Harris’ or recapturing the magic No. 32 was a part of in the previous decade, when he helped lead the team to four Super Bowl titles.

As the AP pointed out in a story published on October 31, 1984 shortly after the Seahawks cut Harris, Franco retired from the NFL with the most career 1,000-yard  seasons (eight) and rushing attempts (2,949).

  • Therefore, Abercrombie wasn’t just trying to fill some big shoes; he was tasked to fill, perhaps, the biggest shoes on the team, other than the cowboy boots left behind by Terry Bradshaw.

Not only did Abercrombie fail to fill Harris’ shoes, he was never the team’s leading-rusher in any given year. In six seasons with the Steelers, Abercrombie rushed for 3,343 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he often took a backseat to big, bruising fullback Frank Pollard, a 1980 11th round pick out of Baylor, ironically enough, who was Pittsburgh’s leading-rusher in the ’80s with 3,989 yards. 

Indeed, early in the Steelers 1986 season, Chuck Noll did something he was not wont to do – he picked up Earnest Jackson off of waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jackson actually ended up getting two more carries than Abercrombie, despite starting 3 fewer games.

However, Abercrombie was a decent-to-great receiver out of the backfield, and caught 139 passes during his career–including 47 for 395 yards in 1986. You can see some of Walter Abercrombie’s receiving exploits for yourself (available as of 7/15/16):

In-fact, Abercrombie had such good hands there were some fans who clamored for him to move to receiver (and not necessarily out of love), so Rich Erenberg, a ninth round pick out of Colgate in 1984, could get a chance to start at tailback.

After six years in Pittsburgh, Abercrombie, bothered by knee injuries and with younger players like Merril Hoge on the rise, was released prior to the 1988 season and finished up his career with the Philadelphia Eagles one year later.

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career Highlights

No, Abercrombie couldn’t replace Franco, and he clearly wasn’t a fan-favorite, but as he indicated to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he understood what he was up against:

“It didn’t bother me,” Abercrombie said of not living up to fan expectations. “I had some big shoes to fill, and there wasn’t any way I was going to make the fans forget about Franco.”

Abercrombie did have some decent years, however. He rushed for 851 yards in 1985. One year later, he added another 877 yards on the ground, which, coupled with those aforementioned 395 receiving yards, gave him 1,272 yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, Abercrombie’s two best years coincided with back-to-back losing seasons, which hadn’t occurred during Chuck Noll‘s regime since 1970 and 1971– not so coincidentally the last two years before Harris arrived on the scene in 1972.

But Abercrombie did have some crucial performances for the Steelers in high stakes situations. As the aforementioned Post-Gazette article pointed out, No. 34 rushed for 75 yards and added another 18 receiving yards in a Steelers 24-17 upset of the Broncos in a 1984 divisional playoff game at Mile High Stadium.

Walter Abercrombie, Sports Illustrated, Steelers, Broncos, Steelers upset Broncos Mile High, 1984

Steelers Walter Abercrombie in 1984 AFC Divisional Playoff upset of Denver; Photo Credit Sports Illustrated

Abercrombie acquitted himself so well in that playoff game, that he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  However, two weeks earlier, in the final regular season game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Raiders in Los Angeles on December 16, 1984, Abercrombie had perhaps the best day of his career–and right when the Steelers needed it most.

When the Steelers (8-7) took the field at 4 p.m. EST, they did so with the knowledge that they needed to win in-order to capture the AFC Central Division title. Earlier in the day, the Bengals wiped out the Bills, 52-21, to finish at 8-8. Cincinnati held the tiebreaker, and a Steelers loss would mean missing the postseason for the third time in five years.

Thankfully, Abercrombie came through with 111 yards on the ground and another 72 through the air–including a 59-yard catch-and-run late in the game that set-up Pollard’s one-yard touchdown plunge.

  • Pittsburgh won, 13-7, and advanced to Denver where Abercrombie and Co. pulled off the incredible playoff upset two weeks later.

Today, Abercrombie remains Baylor’s all-time leading rusher, and he’s also heavily involved with his alma mater; since 2004, he’s acted as executive director of the Baylor “B” Association.

“I had one of the best collegiate football experiences a player could have,” said Abercrombie, in a story published by Baylor Lariot in May.  “Aside from the individual honors I earned as a player, I had outstanding coaches and dedicated teammates. Also, we won a conference championship and went to two bowl games.”

According to a 1997 Sports Illustrated article featuring Abercrombie, when he came into the NFL in 1982, he was part of a rookie group of running backs that had the potential to be the best in the history of the draft (think the 1983 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks that produced Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and of course Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason, and Todd Blackledge.)

Unfortunately, other than the legendary Marcus Allen, ’82’s class of running backs failed to live up to the hype. Said Abercrombie in ’97: “You have a window of opportunity for greatness. I didn’t step through that.”

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career may have fallen short of filling the shoes left by Franco Harris, and he certainly didn’t leave behind much of a Steelers legacy. But the love and respect he has at Baylor shows that, well, maybe a Steelers legacy isn’t the only one that matters.

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