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

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

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Report Card for Steelers Week 1 Win over the Bills

Quarterback

Photo credit: USA Today

In his first real game as a 39-year old, Ben Roethlisberger looked a lot like he did in 2020 as a 38-year old. With a young and practically brand-new offensive line in front of him, Roethlisberger seemed hellbent on getting rid of the football as fast as possible against the Bills on Sunday and didn’t appear to be all that interested in standing in the pocket long enough to even attempt a deep pass. That changed a bit in the second half, as Roethlisberger opened things up a bit with slightly deeper throws, primarily to receiver Chase Claypool and tight ends Eric Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth. Roethlisberger looked a bit rusty and “off” at first, but he appeared to improve as the game went along and made some spot-on passes when he had to–including a beautiful back-shoulder toss to Claypool early in the second half and perfect passes to Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the game when Pittsburgh was trying to run out the clock. Roethlisberger also showed good mobility at times and even scampered for an eight-yard gain late in the final period. For the day, Roethlisberger was 18 of 32 for 188 yards and a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: B-

Running Back

It was a rather quiet debut for rookie first-round pick Najee Harris on Sunday, as he carried 16 times for 45 yards to go along with one reception for four yards. Harris was the only back who saw any action on Sunday and, to his credit, he did appear to improve as the game went along, even scampering for 18 yards early in the fourth quarter to help set up Pittsburgh’s lone offensive touchdown. Grade: C-

Tight Ends

No tight ends were targeted at all in the first half. As for the second half? Ebron reeled in one pass for 19 yards, while Freiermuth’s first career reception (and lone catch of the day) went for 24. Zach Gentry contributed one catch in the second half but for minus two yards. Given the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t do a ton on the ground, the tight end group certainly didn’t make up for its lack of production by blocking. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Speaking of people who looked a lot like they did in 2020, no Steelers receiver turned in a big performance on Sunday—Smith-Schuster led the way in yardage with 52. Having said that, the group did have a knack for coming up with some huge plays, including Claypool’s previously mentioned back-shoulder catch for 22 yards. Claypool also drew a 26-yard pass-interference penalty in the second half to set up Pittsburgh’s go-ahead touchdown. The second-year receiver from Notre Dame also added another 25 yards on a jet sweep. Johnson, who led all receivers with five catches, displayed great concentration and footwork by staying with a tipped pass before reeling it in and getting both feet in bounds for a score. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster picked up where he left off a year ago by being more tight end than receiver while pulling in short passes and then bowling over Bills’ defenders to pick up tough yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Steelers went into halftime with 54 measly yards of total offense. Roethlisberger didn’t seem comfortable standing in the pocket for very long, while the ground game barely made a dent. Things did improve as the game went along, but the Steelers new hogs are going to have to perform much better if the offense is going to improve as the season rolls along. Grade: D

Defensive Line

Veteran Cam Heyward recorded four tackles, a sack and two passes defended, while recovering a fumble. Heyward also was credited with a whopping 12 quarterback pressures. It was a great day for an all-time great Steeler. Tyson Alualu looked solid as usual, as did Chris Wormley. Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis also factored into the rotation and reportedly acquitted themselves well. Grade: A

Linebackers

Speaking of all-time Steelers greats, it’s hard to not include outside linebacker T.J. Watt in those discussions in this, just his fourth season. The newly-minted $122 million man had another stellar day on Sunday, collecting two sacks and five quarterback hits, while also forcing the aforementioned fumble that Heyward recovered. Watt was credited with eight quarterback pressures, as was veteran Melvin Ingram III, who seemed almost unblockable in his Steelers debut. The Steelers generated so much pressure with four and five-man fronts, it allowed inside linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert to drop back in coverage most of the day, as Pittsburgh utilized nickel and dime packages in an attempt to slow down Josh Allen and Buffalo’s potent passing attack. Grade: A+

Secondary

The concern about the Steelers secondary was great heading into Week 1, but the revamped unit more than picked up where the 2020 version left off. Rookie Tre Norwood, a seventh-round pick from Oklahoma, was practically a starter in his very first game. He played the slot and also free safety in dime situations, allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick and his lethal skill-set to roam free. Norwood was credited with six tackles and didn’t seem out of place at all, while Fitzpatrick collected 10 to go along with one pass defense. Youngster James Pierre, who played outside corner in some sub-packages, had seven tackles and an impressive pass defense. As for veteran Joe Haden, you didn’t even notice him all day, which I believe is a good thing for any defensive back. The star of the secondary on Sunday, however, was Cameron Sutton, who played outside in base formations and in the slot in sub-packages. Week 1 was Sutton’s coming-out party, as he collected five tackles, including perhaps the most important one of the day when he stopped running back Matt Breida for a seven-yard loss on fourth and one. Sutton also added two very important passes defensed. Sutton was responsible for the Bills’ lone touchdown, but his coverage on receiver Gabriel Davis was so good, it was hard to do anything but tip your cap to Buffalo on that play. The Bills receivers may have tallied some receiving yards on the day–270–but they weren’t the difference-makers Buffalo needed them to be. Grade: A+

Special Teams

It was a troubling debut to the season for Pittsburgh’s coverage teams, as Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards. But the coverage unit settled down from there, and McKenzie wasn’t much of a factor the rest of the day. The coverage unit more than made up for it early in the fourth quarter went it went into attack mode. Miles Killebrew blocked a Matt Haak punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped it up and scored a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead.

Chris Boswell was five for five on attempts–including three for three on field goals–and effectively iced the game with a 45-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 10-point lead with less than three minutes left.

As for rookie punter Pressley Harvin III, he struggled a bit punting in the often windy conditions of Highmark Stadium. He averaged 41.4 yards per kick and shanked one off the side of his foot while punting out of his own end zone. It wasn’t all bad for the rookie, as he downed two of his five punts inside the 20. Grade: B+

Coaching

The fact that Pittsburgh won this game on the road as a 6.5 point underdog should shock nobody who knows anything about head coach Mike Tomlin. Nobody circles the wagon like Tomlin when his team is the underdog. It wasn’t always pretty, but that may have had to do with the fact that so many rookies not only played for the first time on Sunday but were being counted on to contribute heavily. It was also the NFL debut for offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who looked more like Randy Fichtner in the first half before finding the intestinal fortitude to adjust as the game went along.

I thought it was a masterful game-plan by defensive coordinator Keith Butler, as his charges generated a ton of quarterback pressure while blitzing so very little. Grade: A

Unsung hero

It’s hard to call Haden an unsung hero but as previously mentioned, he was barely noticed on Sunday. If that doesn’t scream “lockdown corner,” I don’t know what does.

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Steelers Overcome Slow Start to Defeat the Bills, 23-16, in 2021 Regular-Season Debut


The Steelers bounced back from a very anemic first-half offensive performance and a 10-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Buffalo Bills, 23-16, at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, on Sunday afternoon to kick off their 2021 regular season.

Photo credit: Yahoo sports

As far as Week 1 victories are concerned, this one had to rank up there for head coach Mike Tomlin, his players and certainly Steelers fans. Pittsburgh entered the game as a 6.5 point underdog, pretty long odds for a team that just won 12 games and the AFC North title one year earlier. But the Bills were considered to be one of the legit Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, while the Steelers were written off as pretenders long before the season even started.

As far as the game was concerned, it actually was a rather ominous start for Pittsburgh, as the Bills’ Isaiah McKenzie returned the game’s opening kickoff 75 yards down to the Pittsburgh 24. Fortunately for the Steelers, their defense, one of the best in the NFL the past two seasons, let it be known right away that it would likely be a force again in 2021 and forced a quick three-and-out. Buffalo placekicker Tyler Bass came on to kick a 37-yard field goal to give the home team a quick 3-0 lead.

It was a defensive battle from there, as the two teams traded punts on their next seven possessions.

With Pittsburgh’s offense struggling mightily to produce much in the way of yards, let alone points, the defense tried to shift the momentum midway through the second quarter when T.J. Watt, he of the recently-inked mega-deal, chased down Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen from behind and stripped him of the football. Cameron Heyward pounced on the fumble, setting the Steelers offense up at its own 45. Unfortunately, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Co. could not take advantage of the present, and Pittsburgh was forced to punt for the fifth time in as many offensive series.

After the Bills got the ball back, they subsequently drove 91 yards on 13 plays and took a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter when Allen found receiver Gabriel Davis in the back of the end zone for a three-yard touchdown pass. Cameron Sutton had great coverage on the play, but Allen made a perfect throw, while Davis displayed great concentration to get both feet in bounds.

Despite the defense’s stout play in the first half, the Steelers as a whole had to be feeling pretty deflated as they headed to the locker room down by 10 points.

While the defense was mostly dominant over the first 30 minutes, the offense was abysmal, tallying just 54 yards on six possessions.

Would the team respond? Would Matt Canada, the team’s new offensive coordinator, make the necessary adjustments that his predecessor, Randy Fichtner, was not known for?

The answer to both questions was yes.

The Steelers took the second-half kickoff and immediately began to move the ball, as rookie running back Najee Harris, the team’s most recent first-round pick, ran for nine yards on the first play. Moments later, Roethlisberger connected with tight end Eric Ebron for 19 yards down to the Buffalo 34. One play later, Roethlisberger connected with receiver Chase Claypool on a beautiful back-shoulder pass down to the Bills’ 12. Unfortunately, the drive stalled from there, and Chris Boswell came on to kick a 24-yard field goal to give the Steelers their first points of the 2021 campaign.

The defense came up big again on the following possession when the Bills decided to go for it on fourth and five from Pittsburgh’s 35, and Sutton broke up a pass intended for Davis.

Roethlisberger connected with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth for 24 yards on the next possession, as the Steelers drove 62 yards on 11 plays. Again, though, the drive stalled inside the red zone–this time, the two-yard line–and Boswell came on to kick a 20-yard field goal to bring the Steelers to within four points.

The Bills again turned the ball over on downs on their next offensive possession when they attempted a weird-looking backward lateral from Allen to running back Matt Breida on fourth and one from the Pittsburgh 41; Sutton came through, again, tackling Breida for a seven-yard loss.

The Steelers offense finally reached pay-dirt on its next possession. Facing a third and seven from the Buffalo 49, Pittsburgh got a fresh set of downs, thanks to a 26-yard defensive interference penalty on cornerback Levi Wallace on a pass intended for Claypool. Harris raced 18 yards down to the Bills’ five on the very next play to set up a first-and-goal situation. One play later, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson in the back corner of the end zone, and the third-year receiver displayed great concentration by first bobbling the pass and then catching it and keeping both feet in bounds for a five-yard touchdown to make it 13-10, visitors. After trailing for three-plus quarters, the Steelers finally had their first lead with 11:19 left in regulation.

The lead would balloon to 10 moments later. After the Steelers defense forced a quick three-and-out, Miles Killebrew raced through to block Buffalo’s punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped up the loose football and scored a touchdown to make it 20-10.

The Bills immediately answered with a field goal to pull to within a touchdown with 5:23 remaining, but Pittsburgh responded with a field goal of its own, as Boswell connected from 45 yards away to re-establish the 10-point lead with 2:42 remaining.

Bass kicked another field goal to pull the Bills to within seven points with 42 seconds remaining, but JuJu Smith-Schuster recovered the subsequent onside kick to secure the Steelers first victory of the season.

Next up for the Steelers is a date with the Las Vegas Raiders next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, as the team kicks off its home schedule in front of what figures to be a loud and raucous crowd.

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Long-time Steelers Player and Broadcaster, Tunch Ilkin, Passes Away After Battle with ALS

Tunch Ilkin, a long-time Steelers offensive tackle and broadcaster, passed away on Saturday due to complications from ALS.

Photo credit: WTAJ

It was a very brief battle for Ilkin, who was just diagnosed with the disease in September of 2020 before going public with his illness a month later.

Ilkin, who was born in Turkey in 1957 before his family moved to the United States when he was a small child, was a sixth-round pick out of Indiana State in the 1980 NFL Draft. Ilkin, who played right tackle, didn’t become a full-time starter until 1983; it was the final game of that ’83 campaign–a 38-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs–when Ilkin first came known to a national audience, thanks to being repeatedly victimized by the legendary Lyle Alzado.

Ilkin went on to survive that bit of baptism by fire and would remain a fixture on the Steelers offensive line for a decade. Despite the Steelers’ post-Super Bowl dip into mediocrity (and worse) by the mid-to-late-’80s, Ilkin emerged as a team leader and one of the best right tackles in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in both 1988 and 1989.

Ilkin started 143 games for the Steelers in 13 seasons before signing a free-agent deal with the Packers in 1993.

Not long after retiring from football following the ’93 season, Ilkin began his broadcasting career. Ilkin did color commentary for NBC in 1995, but his real broadcasting career began in 1998 when he joined the Steelers Radio Network, alongside Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

Cope retired following the 2004 season and Ilkin became the lone color analyst in the booth, a role he would hold through the 2020 season before announcing his retirement this past June.

Ilkin became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community during his career as both a player and especially as a broadcaster. His work with local charities, including Light of Life, was well known, as was his relationship with the Christian community.

His close friendship with Craig Wolfley, a fellow Steelers offensive lineman and 1980 draft choice, was also a big part of Ilkin’s broadcasting career, as the two often seemed inseparable, both during broadcasts of Steelers games–Wolfley was the team’s sideline reporter for many years before being promoted to the booth this summer–and away from the field when they hosted the radio show, In the Locker room with Tunch and Wolf.

  • Ilkin’s first wife, Sharon, passed away from breast cancer in 2012, and he re-married the following year.

When Ilkin’s death was reported on Saturday, the news was met with an outpouring of love from the Steelers, their players–both past and present–the fans and the local media.

Tunch Ilkin was 63.

 

 

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Screw Seinfeld: When it Comes to Steelers Legends I Cheer Players, Not Clothes

Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that cheering for sports teams was essentially like cheering for laundry.

Seinfeld, a huge baseball fan and a diehard supporter of the New York Mets, was talking about the changing landscape of sports in the 1980s and 1990s due to the realities brought about by free agency. To Seinfeld, it boiled down to “Cheering Clothes.” Don’t remember? Here’s a refresher:

That’s why comedians are comedians, while the rest of us are mere mortals: they have a way of seeing things differently.

  • I can tell you that I’ve become a bit hardened as a sports fan over the years.

I’ve grown a bit jaded. When a player is drafted by the Steelers, for example, I immediately start the clock and begin counting down the time until he becomes a free agent. The closer the Steelers and the player get to that contract year, the more I start to prepare myself for his departure.

A lot of fans have taken a more clinical and almost business-like approach to sports fandom in the free-agent and salary cap era we’ve been living in for decades. “What can they get for him?” is a question only general managers used to ask when discussing players headed into their contract years. If the player was deemed too expensive, past his prime or simply not worth keeping around, a gm may have strongly considered flipping said player for either another player or a draft choice.

  • Now it’s common for most fans to be concerned about such things.
  • They’ve been trained to think that way, to have a more business-like mindset.

Occasionally, however, you’ll see a fan base and city truly embrace a star player and give him nothing but love. There is just something about seeing that player in that uniform and doing the things that make him so great.

Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, AFC Championship

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Troy Polmalu after the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis used to be that for me.

There was just something about watching The Bus score a touchdown; it had more weight to it than when anyone else did it (no pun intended). It gave you that special feeling, like an iconic character from a famous movie franchise. Bettis just had a special way about him, an aura that made you root for him harder than other Steelers’ players. That’s what made Bettis the face of the franchise.

It’s rare to have that feeling, but I got it during the Steelers’ dress rehearsal preseason game while watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger make his preseason debut against the Lions at Heinz Field and subsequently do his thing like only he could. Much like with the running back position after Bettis, it’s going to take me a long time to “trust” another Steelers quarterback once Roethlisberger retires.

I still don’t have the same faith in Minkah Fitzpatrick that I once had in Troy Polamalu at the safety position. True, Fitzpatrick is a free safety, while Polamalu played strong safety.

But you know what I mean. Fitzpatrick is now THAT guy in Pittsburgh’s secondary; he’s the defensive chess piece that Steelers’ coaches use to make life a living heck for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Fitzpatrick is also world-class and a First-Team All-Pro.

I’m glad that Polamalu played his entire career in Pittsburgh. I’m glad that he received such a heartwarming outpouring of love from Steelers fans when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early August.

It gave me butterflies.

  • Watching Ben Roethlisberger do his thing in his lone preseason action gave me that same warm and fuzzy feeling.

To repeat: there’s just something about certain Steelers players doing their thing on the football field.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s not just about rooting for laundry, even as I approach my 50s. It’s not just about contract stuff, analytics and the salary cap.

  • There’s still room to be a fan of individual players.

They say no player is ever bigger than a team. While that might be true in theory, it’s really not when it comes to certain ones.

  • Some players transcend their teams because of their importance and their aura.

Players like Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are the kinds of Steelers legends who make you root harder for them than others. You want them to succeed because of who and what they are and what they represent.

Laundry isn’t capable of giving you that.

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The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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Steelers Fans Should Always Embrace History, Not Just When Players Make it to Canton

t was a magical weekend in Steeler Nation, as five former members of the Steelers organization–including players Donnie Shell, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, as well as head coach Bill Cowher and legendary scout, the late, great Bill Nunn–were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That’s right, in a rare instance of the COVID-19 virus bringing about something cool, Shell, Polamalu and Cowher–members of the 2020 class who had to wait a year because of the worldwide pandemic–joined Faneca–who, along with the deceased Nunn, was inducted in 2021–for a tremendous weekend of fun and celebration.

Memories were shared. Speeches were given. Tears were shed. Lots of tears were shed by Steelers fans, in fact, as they honored their heroes from the past and endlessly thanked them for serving their favorite football team well.

It was nice to see Steelers fans honor the past. It was cool to see them pay homage to people who created so many awesome moments in their lives.

  • In my opinion, fans just don’t do much of that, these days.

I’m not sure if they ever did, but they certainly don’t seem to appreciate the history of the NFL in 2021, not when the acquisition of a fourth-string tight end garners way more “clicks” and discussion than the passing of a legendary head coach, such as Don Shula, who died in 2020 at the age of 90. Few seemed to notice or take the time to honor a career that included two Super Bowls, an undefeated season and the most wins by a head coach in NFL history (347.)

Truthfully, it may be unfair to expect Steelers fans, especially those under the age of 40, to even know who Shula is, let alone honor his passing. Also, Shula coached the Colts and Dolphins, not the Steelers. Duh! I get that, but I have always had great respect for the history of the NFL, a history that includes more than just the black and gold, btw.

I grew up on NFL Films. I gained so much knowledge about the players, the rules, the history of the game, etc. Heck, just hearing John Facenda, the voice of so many NFL Films features before his sudden passing in 1984, still gives me chills. Same for the awesome NFL Films scores, such as The Autumn Wind. That score and accompanying Facenda narration honors the Raiders, an old rival of the Steelers. So, again, why should I expect the black-and-gold faithful to care about that? Fine, I’ll give you that.

However, fans should appreciate the past just a little more. And if they don’t want to appreciate and honor it, they should at least know it. I’ve often joked that newer Steelers fans sometimes refer to Chuck Noll, the team’s legendary former head coach who helped to transform the franchise into the NFL juggernaut it is today, as “Knoll” or even “Knox.”

  • Unfortunately, I’m not stretching the truth much when I make that joke.

I think it’s important to know the NFL’s/Steelers’ past. No, you don’t have to appreciate, respect or honor it — as an 11-year old, I certainly didn’t shed a tear when George Halas passed away in 1983.

But knowing the Steelers’ past allows you to gain a better perspective on things that are happening today. The world, the NFL and the Steelers existed before “now,” before social media. For example, did you know that Jack Lambert was the first training camp holdout in franchise history? That happened in 1977, the same year that Mel Blount also held out of camp and even threatened to sue Noll over Noll’s testimony in the “criminal element” lawsuit filed by Raiders’ defensive back, George Atkinson.

Steelers players got arrested in the past. They had pastimes outside of football. Terry Bradshaw recorded country albums and starred in movies. He even flirted with leaving football full time to focus on music (can you imagine a story like that in the age of social media?) Frenchy Fuqua used to show up to the stadium wearing funky and fly outfits, complete with shoes that had goldfish floating in the heels.

Mean Joe Greene once threatened to quit the Steelers over a perceived lack of commitment by the organization to win a championship.

Fans spent the vast majority of Bill Cowher’s career thinking he was merely an okay head coach that didn’t have what it took to win a title. The Chin would never “Win the Big One” fans insisted. 

Chuck Noll once walked out of a press conference when reporters asked him if he would ever consider stepping down as head coach of the Steelers.

Dan Rooney, the transformative team president, had to fire his brother, Art Jr., the chief scout and one of the architects of those legendary 1970s Super Bowl teams.

Oh well, that’s my lecture for the day. As the Steelers continue to prepare for their 2021 campaign, remember that they will face challenges during the season, but these challenges likely won’t be unique or original.

  • Knowing Steelers’ history doesn’t make you a better fan.

It does however make you a fan who’s perhaps capable of taking more things in stride.

 

 

 

 

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2006 Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl Hangover, The Chin Hangs It Up

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw the 2005 Steelers become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University.

Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming. Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion.

The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near Pittsburgh’s Armstrong Tunnels, Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.

Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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Steelers 2006 Season Record and Summary

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw Pittsburgh become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University. Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming.

Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion. The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near the Armstrong Tunnels in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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2004 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins (Need we say more?)

As Bill Cowher prepared for his 13th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did so coming off one of the most disappointing campaigns in recent memory. When you consider the fact that the Steelers looked like legit Super Bowl contenders in both 2001 and 2002, the way things unfolded in 2003 could only be described as a disappointment.

The Steelers headed into the 2003 season thinking they had finally found the quarterback to put them over the top. Tommy Maddox, a journeyman, who re-started his NFL career after stints in both the XFL and Arena Football League, was thrust into the starting lineup early in the ’02 campaign and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the Steel City since the Blonde Bomber had been parked in the hanger.

The 2002 Steelers narrowly missed making it to the AFC title game for a second-straight year. Unfortunately, the 2003 campaign unraveled rather quickly, and once it did, there was no stop to it. When all was said and done, the Steelers finished 6-10 and looked about as far away from being contenders as they had in 1999 when they finished with the same mark.

In the Steelers Digest, no less than Bob Labriola himself reminded the Steelers faithful not to expect any “quick fixes.” 

Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

Off Season: Suprises Moves in Coaching, Free Agency & the 2004 NFL Draft

In coaching moves during the 2004 offseason, Dick LeBeau, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s, returned in the same role following the firing of Tim Lewis.

In terms of free-agent news, there wasn’t a ton of anticipation for anything huge, at least early on. However, some veterans were given the ax, including cornerback Dewayne Washington and outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who departed as the team’s all-time sack leader with 77. Washington and Gildon were cap casualties.

Maybe those cuts were made to pave the way for the signing of veteran running back Duce Staley, who inked a five-year, $14 million deal on March 9, 2004, a development that aroused the passions of a fan base that needed something to be excited about.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Despite a history of injuries, Staley, 29, was brought in to not only replace the recently-departed Amos Zereoue on the running back depth chart but also continue the team’s apparent desire to supplant veteran Jerome Bettis as the bell cow back.

In rather bizarre free-agent news, Pittsburgh released veteran punter Josh Miller, who often had a frosty relationship with Cowher, and signed Chris Gardocki to a five-year, $6.5 million contract.

  • As for the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers would have the 11th pick.

There was speculation that the team was interested in nabbing a quarterback, something the organization hadn’t used a first-round pick on since 1980 (Mark Malone).

NC State’s Philip Rivers and Miami of Ohio’s Ben Roethlisberger were the two most likely targets, with the former, who played his college ball at Bill Cowher’s alma mater, gaining a lot of traction as the draft approached. Ben Roethlisberger had been tied to Pittsburgh for many months heading into the draft; with Rivers going off the board three spots after Eli Manning was taken number one, it became a question as to whether or not Pittsburgh would pull the trigger if Roethlisberger was still there at 11. Would Roethlisberger slide all the way down to the Steelers, or would another team take him?

  • No other team drafted a quarterback before Pittsburgh’s turn.

According to Dan Rooney, the late, great former team chairman, the Steelers were seriously considering taking Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews. Fortunately for everyone involved, Rooney, an influential figure if there ever was one, stepped in and persuaded Cowher and general manager Kevin Colbert to go with Roethlisberger.

  • The rest, as they say, is history.

Nobody would know that at the time, of course, and as the 2004 campaign approached, Roethlisberger seemed destined to spend his rookie year as the third-string quarterback behind Tommy Maddox, who retained his starting job from the year before, and veteran backup Charlie Batch

  • Charlie Batch would get injured in training camp, offering the first sign that this plan might go awry. 

Still, as the summer ended and focus shifted to the regular season, Steelers Digest edtior Bob Labriola assured readers that while Ben Roethlisberger was the team’s future, 2004 was all about Tommy Maddox….

An Opening Day Win, While Bettis “Just Scores Touchdowns”

The Steelers began their season with a Week-1 showdown with the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.

The Steelers won, 24-21, on a Jeff Reed field goal with seconds remaining. But perhaps what that game is known for more than anything was the bizarre box score numbers put up by Jerome Bettis, who was made the goal line and short-yardage back by Cowher, perhaps as a way to give his popular running back an important role in the offense.

Jerome Bettis wasn’t popular on this day, however, as he was booed repeatedly when he was inserted into the lineup in place of Staley in goal-line situations. Staley would go on to finish with 91 yards on 24 carries and zero touchdowns. As for Bettis, he gained just one yard on five carries but scored three touchdowns.

While Jerome Bettis would shoulder a critical load for the offense before the end of the 2004 season, his role of “Designated touchdown scorer” continued throughout September and October, and fans didn’t quite know what to make of it and it is one the seasons more unorthodox side stories.

Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Chad Williams

Chad Williams sacks Ben Roethlisberger in his first NFL game. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.

The Steelers Week-2 loss to the Ravens at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, a 30-13 drubbing, would have been just another road beatdown, if not for the fact that Roethlisberger made his professional debut late in the third quarter following an arm injury suffered by Maddox.

  • Ben Roethlisberger would get his NFL introduction earlier than he or anyone else expected.

Roethlisberger completed 12 of 20 passes for two touchdowns–his first career touchdown pass was a three-yard strike to Antwaan Randle El — and two interceptions, one of which was returned 51 yards for a score by cornerback Chris McAlister.

Tommy Maddox’s injury would force him to miss several weeks. In the meantime, Roethlisberger made his first start the following game in a Week-3 road matchup against the Dolphins. When news broke that the rookie quarterback would make his first start, veteran guard Alan Faneca made headlines by sarcastically telling reporters that he was “excited” that the offense would be in the hands of a rookie passer. The game in Miami, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. EST on a Sunday afternoon, was ultimately delayed over seven hours thanks to Hurricane Jeanne. Roethlisberger completed 12 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception, as the Steelers won a defensive battle in the rain, 13-3.

Pittsburgh was 2-1 and now appeared content to ride with its rookie quarterback. Just how far could he take him?

Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins

The Steelers won their next three games — including a last-second road victory over the Cowboys — and sat at 5-1. Were they the real deal? That question was quickly answered, thanks to back-to-back blowout victories at Heinz Field over the Patriots and Eagles, respectively.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Eagles, Troy Polamalu, Clark Haggans

James Farrior intercepts Donavan McNabb. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, came to town on Halloween night riding a record 21-game winning streak; the Patriots left with no candy, following a 34-20 beatdown that wasn’t nearly that close, as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead.

One week later, Philadelphia, like the Patriots, a team that strolled into Heinz Field with zero losses, suffered its first one, thanks to a 27-3 thrashing. Jerome Bettis would get the start in place of an injured Staley; The Bus showed that he still had something left in the tank, as he rushed for 149 yards on 33 carries.

The Steelers were 7-1 at the halfway mark and appeared to find just the right formula for success that included a game-managing rookie quarterback with a penchant for the occasional big play; a running game that returned to prominence after finishing 31st the season before; and a dominant defense, led by safety Troy Polamalu, who would go on to make his first of eight Pro Bowls for his career, and inside linebacker James Farrior, who would be a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate by season’s end.

The Steelers continued to win week in and week out and eventually captured the AFC North crown and the number one seed in the conference. In Week 17, Pittsburgh headed to Buffalo with nothing to play for. The Bills needed to win in order to make the playoffs, while the Steelers sat several key starters, including Roethlisberger and Bettis.

Tommy Maddox got the start and completed 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Running back Willie Parker, a 2004 undrafted free agent from North Carolina, rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries, while outside linebacker James Harrison, a 2002 undrafted free agent from Kent State who finally found a permanent home after bouncing around the league and even NFL Europe, returned a fumble 18 yards for a score.

The Steelers won, 29-24, denying Buffalo a ticket to the postseason in the process.

Steelers Win Regular Season “Team of Destiny” Honors. Again.

The Steelers became the first AFC squad to finish 15-1. Roethlisberger passed for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his rookie season and finished 13-0 as a starter. Jerome Bettis paced a ground game that ranked first with 2,464 yards. Despite only starting six games, Bettis was the team’s leading rusher with 941 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Duce Staley tallied a healthy 830 yards before succumbing to yet another injury bug.

Pundits had been pleading with the Steelers to permanently park The Bus since at least 2002, if not sooner. As it turns out, Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert where wise to keep their own counsel.

  • The Steelers headed into the playoffs looking like a “Team of Destiny.”

But both Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large had seen the movie Team of Destiny many, many times before only to walk away disappointed. Would Ben Roethlisberger be the difference maker in 2004? 

Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely

The fifth-seeded Jets arrived at Heinz Field for a divisional-round matchup on January 15, 2005. The home team got off to a hot start and took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. Unfortunately, the visitors scored 17 unanswered points with the help of a Santana Moss 75-yard punt return and an 86-yard pick-six by Reggie Tongue.

The Steelers trailed, 17-10, and looked all but dead following a fumble by Bettis deep in Jets territory early in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh would get another chance, thankfully, and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Hines Ward with 6:04 remaining.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dan Kreider, Steelers vs Jets

Behind Alan Faneca’s blocking Jerome Bettis runs over the Jets. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The Jets subsequently drove 68 yards and were in position to take the lead just before the two-minute warning.

However, kicker Doug Brien missed from 47 yards out, and the young Roethlisberger now had a chance to engineer his first game-winning postseason drive. But just one play after Brien’s miss, Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback David Barrett, who returned the pick 24 yards to the Pittsburgh 37 with 1:46 left in regulation. Moments later, Brien had yet another chance to send the Jets to the AFC title game but again missed — this time from 43 yards away–and the contest went into overtime.

The Jets won the overtime coin toss but were ultimately forced to punt. With Jerome Bettis out of the lineup with a cramp issue, the Steelers mostly hopped on Duce Staley’s back on a 13-play drive that culminated in a 33-yard game-winning field goal by Reed to send Pittsburgh to the penultimate round of the postseason.

Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily in his postseason debut, and the Steelers were lucky to escape with a win.

Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

To the surprise of no one, the Patriots would be the opponent for an AFC Championship showdown at Heinz Field. Would the Steelers dominate as they did months earlier on Halloween?

The quick answer: no.

Tom Brady was hot, Roethlisberger was not, and New England jumped out to a stunning 24-3 halftime lead, a score that was topped off by safety Rodney Harrison, who returned a Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning.

Rodney Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Marvel Smith

Rodney Harrison takes it to the house. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers rallied a bit in the second half, but it was too little, too late, as Pittsburgh fell, 41-27. It was the second time in four seasons that the Steelers lost at home to New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

  • The next day, Bettis addressed his teammates in the locker room about his future.

Moments later, an emotional Hines Ward addressed the media regarding the possibility that his teammate and friend may have played his last game in Pittsburgh.

In the end, the 2004 campaign was yet another one in which a Bill Cowher-coached team came up short at home with the AFC title on the line. There was hope for the future, however, in the form of the big, athletic rookie quarterback nicknamed Big Ben.

Bill Cowher often said that there was a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. That was never more true for the Crafton native than the time his boss persuaded him to draft the quarterback that would ultimately help shape his coaching legacy.

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