1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Steelers Training Camp Starts Thursday. Unlike the Schedule Release It Will Be a Real “Event”

The Steelers will start “training camp” on Thursday the August 22nd. 

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That will mark 71 days since the last “event” that Steelers have have had the pleasure of enjoying. That prior “event” being the May 12 publication of the NFL’s 2021 regular season schedule. 

  • Believe it or not, publication of the coming season’s “schedule” was considered and “event.”

That’s right, it didn’t matter that fans had known the “who” and “where” for quite some time, the “when” seemed to be even more important to many faithful–including those who root for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I know this shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I was actually blown away by how many people were anxiously awaiting the release of the Steelers’ new schedule as if it were a play at the goal line.

Then, there were the folks who were trying to investigate the leaks and determine which sources were credible and which were not. It was like watching Twitter gather information on Watergate; only, instead of real, high-stakes information, it was the cute and adorable kind.

And I don’t know what was worse: the leakers or the people who were upset at all the leaking, like they just found out the end of the latest Star Wars movie by mistake.

I even got caught up in it. It’s hard not to when a sports entity is as big as the NFL. It’s easy to get sucked in by all the nervous energy and the drama that you didn’t know would accompany the “when.”

When it comes to anticipation of the schedule reveal–an event that happened less than two weeks after the even-more anticipated annual NFL Draft — it just goes to show you how much fans crave the league.

It’s also a testament to marketing and how tight of a grip the NFL has on all of us.

In mid May:

  • The puck was about to drop for the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoff tournament.
  • The NBA playoffs were set to tip off soon.
  • Major League Baseball was nearing the summer portion of its regular season.

None of that seemed to matter on Wednesday the 12th. It still felt like the NFL was the biggest show in town. In fact, I’ll bet if the four major networks and ESPN could choose between airing the NFL’s schedule reveal or an actual game from one of those aforementioned leagues, the schedule reveal would probably win out.

And that’s because — minus all of those pre-reveal leaks that I’m sure would be patched up if a big network contract was involved –i t would likely draw the best ratings.

It’s unreal. We keep waiting for folks to get tired of the NFL. Yet, it’s the one entity that is still in some sort of golden age, where we will happily graze on any product it wants to give us.

  • It’s the NFL’s world, and we’re just living in it.

At the very least, with training camp starting this Thursday, we’ll have real “news” to discuss. Or at least we will after padded practices start on July 28th…

 

 

 

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Can Kevin Dotson Be in Great Shape and Still Have Coaches Mad At Him? Perhaps.

In case you tuned out and are only now starting to tune back in now that Steelers training camp is nearing, the big news out Pittsburgh following OTAs is that Steelers insider Dejan Kovacevic, the founder and editor of DK Pittsburgh Sports, came under fire recently for writing about and then podcasting about the possibility that someone within the Steelers organization was upset with second-year guard Kevin Dotson for a supposed lack of conditioning this offseason.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With the Steelers offensive line in total rebuild mode thanks to the release of guard David DeCastro last week, this has the potential to be a big story, especially when you consider the fact that Kevin Dotson, who had a tremendous rookie season in spot duty in 2020, was penciled in as the new starting left guard the very second Matt Feiler left via free agency in March. 

In fact, according to DK’s source, when Trai Turner was brought in for a visit during the week of mandatory minicamp, it wasn’t in an attempt to find DeCastro’s replacement at right guard; it was to possibly find someone who could play left guard in place of the seemingly undisciplined Dotson. (Turner was ultimately signed to replace DeCastro as the starting right guard for 2021.)

  • Is Kevin Dotson not taking his opportunity seriously, as DK’s source is apparently asserting?

The funny part was how quickly Steelers fans rallied around Kevin Dotson and took to social media to post pictures and videos of the guard hard at work during the offseason. Not only did the fans take up for Dotson, but his trainer —Duke Mayweather –did as well. Even other local reporters scoffed at Kovacevic’s story and said things simply did not add up.

Just because things don’t add up on the surface, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people within the Steelers’ organization who are upset with Dotson. Dotson could be taking his opportunity to be the next starting left guard very seriously — hitting the gym, hitting the film room, etc.–and yet there still could be at least one person within the Steelers’ organization — a coach, a front-office executive, freaking Art Rooney II–who is unhappy with his desire and dedication.

Think about it, why would Kovacevic, a longtime local sports reporter, want to make his job harder by fabricating a story that’s going to anger the Steelers and possibly cause him to lose access to players and coaches? Heck, Ramon Foster works for DK Pittsburgh Sports. It would be foolish for Kovacevic to make this public if it wasn’t said to him. Mark Madden, the popular and controversial Pittsburgh sports talk radio personality, has had sources within the Steelers’ organization for years. Who were/are they? A good journalist would never reveal such a thing.

Anyway, more often than not, when Madden reports something from his anonymous sources(s), it turns out to be true.

Case in point, Madden was the first person to report that running back Le’Veon Bell would be suspended at the start of the 2016 season for missing several mandatory drug tests. Nobody wanted to buy it at the time. Bell, who was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 campaign, vehemently denied this rumor.

It turned out to be true.

Again, though, I’m not saying that Dotson is out of shape and/or not taking his job as a professional football player seriously. What I am saying is that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is probably unhappy with him for one reason or another.

Football people are weird. Coaches can be unusual birds and are often hard to please. General managers can have strange opinions on players. Even owners are susceptible to placing one of their charges in the dog house and never letting him out.

There could be any number of reasons why someone is unhappy with Dotson. Maybe it’s his draft pedigree. After all, he was a fourth-round pick from Louisiana who wasn’t even invited to the 2020 NFL Combine. Perhaps someone feels Pittsburgh could do better at left guard in terms of talent and ability.

It’s like what Keith Willis once said about making a name for himself as a defensive end in the NFL despite being an undrafted free agent from Northeastern in 1982: “For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that.”

  • It could even be Dotson’s outspoken nature on social media.
  • I know that sounds crazy, but, again, coaches, executives and owners can be strange birds.

They say all it takes is one person to be your champion in order to succeed at something. The opposite can be true, as well. I think the most famous example may be the disdain former Raiders owner Al Davis continuously had for Marcus Allen, a Hall of Fame running back and one of the greatest players to ever don the silver and black. There’s never been any specific reason given as to why the late Davis had it out for his star running back –everything from Allen’s training camp holdouts to his lack of breakaway speed has been mentioned as possibilities –but there’s no question the feud was very real.

If you’re going to have someone within your organization not believe in you, the last person you’d want it to be is the one who signs your checks.

In conclusion, all the workout pictures and videos in the world aren’t going to change the fact that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is likely upset with Kevin Dotson. Is it justified? I can’t answer that. I do know that when it comes to Dejan Kovacevic, instead of killing the messenger, you should probably be asking why a promising young guard is seemingly in the doghouse of a prominent member within the Steelers’ organization.

 

 

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1984: The Year I Decided to Love the Pittsburgh Maulers. Unconditionally

Ah, to be 12-years old again. When you’re 12 and a sports fan, you are more open to new ideas and possibilities. You’re not jaded. You don’t question everything–why you love a team; why you love a specific player; should you love THAT player, or are you too embarrassed by his off-the-field actions to continue to do so? At 12-years old, touchdown celebrations are just fun. Mascots are cool. You don’t complain about a game running too long.

Pittsburgh Maulers, Glenn Carano, Mike Rozier

Glenn Carano steps back as Mike Rozier tries to “get open.” Photo Credit: Pin Interest

You’re just there to take it all in. And if you’re passionate about the teams that represent your city, well, you welcome them all in regardless of the league or sport that they play. Will the competition and talent level of this new league be the highest possible, or is this some minor league garbage? You might ask that as an adult, but you could care less about that when you’re 12.

Heck, there was a time when I rooted for the Pittsburgh Spirit, an MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) soccer team that played at the old Civic Arena from 1978-1986. Was the MISL really major indoor soccer? What was the true level of play compared to the rest of the world? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. I didn’t even know the players.

  • I just knew they were Pittsburgh’s soccer team, and I wanted them to win.

Would I do that today? Probably not, considering the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, an outdoor soccer team, have been playing games right down the road for years, and I have yet to care.

  • Again, there’s something to be said for being 12-years old.

Speaking of 1984, it was the year that the Pittsburgh Maulers came into existence as an expansion team of the USFL, a spring American football league that operated from 1983-1985. I didn’t know much about the Maulers at the time. I still don’t, actually. I just knew they were going to play their games at Three Rivers Stadium. I also knew that Mike Rozier was going to be the face of their organization. That’s right, Mike Rozier, the Nebraska running back who won the 1983 Heisman Trophy, had shunned the NFL in favor of this upstart spring football league. I can still remember the awe I felt when I learned that Rozier would be playing for the Maulers.

I mean, I watched this guy in college! I had been following the Steelers for about four or five years up to that point, and I could never recall them drafting a college player I had ever even heard of.

It was amazing to me.

Anyway, it wasn’t a great year for the Maulers, who were founded by Ed Debartolo Sr., the very same person who owned the Spirit and, oh yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. Pittsburgh’s first head coach was some guy named Joe Pendry. He quit after 10 games and was replaced by the offensive line coach, Ellis Rainsberger.

The Maulers finished the season with a 3-15 record, but the home-opener, played on March 11, 1984, was memorable in that it took place before a sellout crowd at TRS and featured a matchup against Cliff Stoudt, the Steelers’ starting quarterback in 1983. Stoudt led his new team, the Birmingham Stallions, to a 30-18 victory. However, the fans in attendance didn’t let Stoudt’s defection to a new team and league slide and pelted him with snowballs all throughout the game.

After ending the 1984 season tied for the worst record in the USFL, the Maulers decided to fold when the league announced that it would be competing head-to-head with the NFL every fall, starting in 1986.

Who knows what may have happened with the Maulers and the USFL if not for this seemingly inexplicable decision to go up against the biggest dogs in American professional sports.

  • All I know is I quickly fell in love with the Maulers during their lone campaign.

They didn’t have many stars outside of Rozier, but they did have a few players who would go on to have decent careers in the NFL, including offensive lineman Don Maggs and former Pitt basketball star, Sam Clancy. When I think of the USFL, I think of that ’84 season. I didn’t watch it much before that year or much the following season. 1984 was the year the L.A. Express decided to give BYU quarterback, Steve Young, the richest contract in the history of American sports. 1984 was the year that Jim Kelly, a Pittsburgh-area native, decided to shun the Buffalo Bills and sign with the Houston Gamblers.

Kelly set USFL marks that season for passing yards (5,219) and touchdown passes (44) and was voted Rookie of the Year and league MVP. Later that year, Dan Marino, like Kelly, from Pittsburgh, set NFL single-season records for passing yards (5,084) and touchdown passes (48) while leading the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. He was, of course, voted league MVP.

That’s right, for one season, two Pittsburgh kids played the position of quarterback better than anyone ever had before and did so for two different leagues.

As someone who just turned 49, I don’t know how I’d respond today to a new Pittsburgh Maulers. It was recently announced that the USFL would be returning in 2022. I don’t know if Pittsburgh will be awarded a team of its own again, but if it is, I’ll bet some 12-year old kid will love it unconditionally.

That’s just what you do when you’re 12.

 

 

 

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News Flash Steelers Nation: Players Staying in Shape During Off Season Isn’t “News”

It appears we’ve reached the point of the Steelers offseason that I like to refer to as “Putting in the Work.”

The reason I say that is because of the endless amount of videos that pop up on social media in May, June and July of Steelers players hard at work at the gym and/or at some high school field. They’re squatting, lifting, sprinting, doing those cone drills, etc., etc.

  • The fans eat it up and post comments such as, “Get some!” “My man!” and, of course, “(Insert player here) is putting in the work!”

 

James Harrison, James Harrison workout, James Harrison weight room

Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Photo Credit: Stack.com

 

Just in the past few weeks or so, we’ve learned that second-year player, Alex Highsmith, has added a few pounds of muscle during the offseason in an effort to, among other things, rise to the occasion and capitalize on his great opportunity to win the starting job at outside linebacker, opposite T.J. Watt. Also, Marcus Allen, the former Penn State safety, has been hard at work at the gym, bulking up for his now seemingly permanent role as an inside linebacker.

I can go on and on with these examples; they’re endless and everywhere. Just about every player has some version of “Putting in the work” posted on some social media platform.

I could be wrong, but I believe Antonio Brown was one of the first well-known professional athletes to promote his workouts on social media.

Nobody seemed to be more dedicated to his craft than Brown, but maybe that was just the perception that we got thanks to him being such a tireless self-promoter. I obviously can’t speak on the dedication of all Steelers players, but I think it’s safe to assume that most have always been serious about “putting in the work.” Much like a lot of things in life, these days–including what your friends just had for dinner — we are more aware of the dedication of professional athletes thanks to the advent of social media.

Speaking of social media, the non-football activities of Steelers players often come under great scrutiny the moment they either screw up in a game or their team simply loses one. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a social media self-promoter if there ever was one, has come under fire in recent years for his “lack of focus and/or discipline” due to supposedly worrying more about furthering his brand and TikTok dancing than being dedicated to his craft. However, this was the same man who hired a trainer last offseason and put himself through hell, training twice a day for six days a week in preparation for the 2020 regular season.

  • Smith-Schuster transformed his body and looked more linebacker than receiver by the time the season started.

Yet, by the end of the year, the only thing people wanted to focus on was his logo dancing and TikTok videos, as if they were totally sapping his ability to concentrate on the football field.

Do you think anyone who can add about 10 pounds of muscle is going to let his off-the-field “playtime” distract him during a game? Furthermore, do you think his teammates, players who, like Smith-Schuster, dedicate hours to conditioning their bodies for the rigors of professional football, are going to allow themselves to be distracted by some tweet or a reporter’s question about said tweet?

  • That was a rhetorical question.

The NFL is a serious business (often too serious, in my opinion), and if a player isn’t “putting in the work” at the gym, the high school field or even the meeting room, it’s going to show up during a game. These are the elite of the elite. Even the guy sitting at the end of the bench must totally dedicate himself to his craft if he wants to keep earning a paycheck every week.

I don’t know when it became a thing that a player must focus on football 24/7/365 in order to succeed (certainly the days of Ray Mansfield taking a job as a substitute teacher to make ends meet in the off season are long gone), but that’s apparently what many fans and even a lot of media members think. It’s obviously impossible to commit yourself to your profession every second of every day, but you better believe the vast majority of athletes devote more than enough time to theirs.

Do a lot of them play video games and have fun on social media? Of course. Does it mean they’re not committed to what they do for a living? Of course not.

If you truly think that you can step on an NFL field without the proper amount of dedication and preparation, perhaps you should be committed…to an institution.

 

 

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Troy Polamalu Picking Dick LeBeau as His Hall of Fame Presenter = Pittsburgh Perfection

Legendary Steelers safety, Troy Polamalu, took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce that he has selected another legend, his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to present him at his Hall of Fame induction this August in Canton, Ohio.

  • Of course, Polamalu chose LeBeau.

I wish I would have been smart enough to see this coming, but it just goes to show you how stupid I am for not spotting the obvious this whole time.

Polamalu is the first inductee out of a group of Steelers’ defenders that helped the organization win its fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But Dick LeBeau was going to be the presenter regardless of who made it into Canton first.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame, Larry Foote

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu in December 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today.

In fact, even though most are long-shots to join Polamalu, if any or all of the players that took LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense and made it famous were to get that call for football immortality — including James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Ike Taylor — there’s no doubt that every single one of them would pick LeBeau to be their presenter. Heck, by the time he got through doing all that presenting, LeBeau would have enough training for a second career as a motivational speaker.

It’s amazing how much universal love there is for Dick LeBeau, who was already a popular figure with his players during his first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s under head coach Bill Cowher.

  • The late Kevin Greene, a big and tough football player if there ever was one, wasn’t shy about expressing his love for LeBeau.
Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

But it was during LeBeau’s second stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 2004-2014 when the love affair between him and his players really became a sight to behold.

It became a tradition around the holidays for LeBeau to read the classic, “The Night Before Christmas” to his players–and those big, tough football players sat there and listened like little kids!

The next time you hear a former player say anything bad about LeBeau, it will be the first time. And if word ever got back to the likes of Harrison and Brett Keisel, I’d hate to be that former player.

Speaking of Harrison, perhaps the biggest, baddest defender LeBeau ever coached, he once broke down in tears on national television while talking about his former defensive coordinator. This was back in 2013, months after Harrison was released by Pittsburgh and then signed with the Bengals. No player ever forgets LeBeau, the man they affectionately called Coach Dad during his second stay in Pittsburgh.

In the lead-up to the 2005 regular-season finale against the team that he spent his playing days with–the Detroit Lions–every single one of his defenders bought and wore a No. 44 throwback Lions jersey in LeBeau’s honor.

The kind of connection LeBeau often developed with his much-younger players was rare then and it’s rare now. I guess that’s because LeBeau treated his players like men and genuinely cared about them. He didn’t command respect through words and a presence; he earned it through his actions and the ability to teach them.

In typical Troy Polamalu fashion, he couldn’t have been more humble when he revealed the name of his presenter, Tweeting, “Can you please tell them that all I did was follow you…#eachoneteachone

Sure, LeBeau was a great leader, but in my opinion, it wasn’t because he got people to follow him; he was a great leader because he got his players to believe in the same defensive philosophies that he did.

Maybe it’s fitting that this kind, gentle man once described his zone-blitz scheme as “Tweaking someone’s nose while you go behind them and kick them in the tail.”

The zone-blitz scheme was all about deception, but it was still a rough and tough defense, one that allowed his players to wreak havoc on opponents week in and week out.

I’ll leave you with one more quote about LeBeau courtesy of a 2006 ESPN.com article and courtesy of another player who deeply admired him, Kimo von Oelhoffen:

“Probably the best man, and not just one of the best coaches, I’ve ever met in my life. The things I’ve learned from him about football and about life, I’ll cherish forever, really. Every minute you’re around him, believe me, is a minute where you’ve benefited in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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Should the Steelers Avoid Drafting Players Who Opted Out?

During his annual pre-draft press conference on Monday that co-starred head coach Mike Tomlin, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert did was he usually does: He said a whole lot of nothing and did so quite well.

 

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

Don’t get me wrong, Colbert enlightened the media and fans with a lot of his answers, but he didn’t necessarily shed more light on any particular topic that folks were interested in.

For example, will the Steelers trade up or back? He said some stuff, mostly about Pittsburgh probably not trading up, but what else was he supposed to say? Why would a general manager tip his or her hand about the team’s desire to trade in any direction in the days leading up to the NFL Draft? The second a gm seems eager to make a trade, that gm loses a ton of leverage. Colbert said a bunch of other stuff, including his thoughts on the draft depth at various positions. For example, inside linebacker is deep, but defensive line is not.

  • I believe even the casual draft fans already knew that.

Colbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of the Steelers drafting a running back in the first round and that the team, despite the popular opinion out there that the position has severely slipped in value over the years, will pick the player that it thinks is the best one at 24 regardless of the position. Ah, yes, the old Colbert pre-draft standby: “We recognize the serious need at (insert position here), but we’re going to pick the best player on our board (Best Player Available).”

However, there was a particular nugget from Monday’s presser that I found extremely interesting, and that had to do with Colbert’s thoughts on players who opted out for the 2020 college football season due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Below is a quote from Colbert, courtesy of NFL.com:

As I stated in the summer, if a player chooses to opt-out for whatever reason, that’s their decision and we will respect it. However, if a player played in 2020 and those players are of equal value, the one that didn’t play and the one that played, we’ll take the one that played because we don’t know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football.

“We believe it’s hard to sit this game out,” Colbert continued. “Sometimes it happens because of injury, but this time it was pandemic-related for the most part. But we will take the players, again if they’re close. It’s not to say we’re not gonna draft somebody that opted out. I couldn’t say that. But if I have a choice and we have a choice, we’ll take the one that played if their value is close.”

If true, that’s pretty revealing. I realize the game of football is complex, even at the collegiate level, and if a player isn’t constantly honing his skills and developing as a prospect, it will make it that much harder to evolve and master the game at the professional level.

However, even Colbert indicated that players miss entire collegiate seasons all the time due to injury. Don’t a lot of those players not only get drafted but go on to have decent-to-great careers?

  • That was a rhetorical question, because they do.

This is just my opinion, but I’d be much more concerned about a serious injury than I would an opt-out due to a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. I know a lot of old-school football people are just–old-school–including Colbert, but I don’t think I’d evaluate a player who opted out of 2020 any differently than one who played.

If a team likes a prospect who opted out even slightly more than one who played, I think that team should go with its gut and pick the player it wants more.

  • Take Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, for example.

He opted out of the 2020 season but is still considered one of the top defensive prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons is likely going to go in the top 10 but could slide based on team needs and, of course, the always interesting quarterback class and which passers go where.

It’s doubtful Parsons, who turned in one heck of a performance at Penn State’s Pro Day, slides to the Steelers at 24, but what if he does? Would Pittsburgh have a seriously hard time picking him if he and, say, Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins were both there? I realize Colbert said the opt-out situation would only come into consideration if two players were close in terms of draft grades, but who’s to say what the Steelers are thinking? What if they assumed Parsons was never going to slide to 24 and spent so much time evaluating Collins, it has now given them a false sense of who he is as a prospect?

Obviously, the annual draft is a crapshoot, but maybe that’s why over-thinking things is often the biggest mistake teams make.

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about a draft prospect. A healthy and productive player who opted out of his final collegiate season shouldn’t be one of them.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Safety – Depth Unsafe beyond Minkah, Edmunds

The Steelers spent countless years trying to shore up their secondary. So many years, in fact, it seemed like it would never happen.

  • That all changed in 2019 when the Steelers added the final piece to their complicated puzzle.

Unfortunately, after two seasons of some of the best secondary play the team had seen in a long time, there are now questions at cornerback, following the free-agent departure of Mike Hilton and the seemingly sudden release of Steven Nelson. But what about the safety position? Are there some questions that need to be answered in the form of a premium draft choice or two? We shall find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

 

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

While he was certainly a surprise first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (28th, overall), that hasn’t kept Terrell Edmunds out of the starting lineup. In-fact, Edmunds has started a total of 43 games at strong safety since his rookie season. While his production and progress haven’t always impressed, he’s been reliable, and it appears that he has steadily improved each and every season.

  • 2020 may have been Edmunds’ finest campaign, as he tallied two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Maybe Edmunds’ progress can be attributed to the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety. It’s no stretch to say that Fitzpatrick, a former first-round pick who was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins early in the 2019 season, is the Steelers’ most dynamic defensive back since Troy Polamalu. That’s certainly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence in the secondary forces opposing offenses to account for him on every play–just like they once did with Polamalu. Fitzpatrick has back-to-back First-Team All-Pro honors under his belt and is heading into his fourth season with the look of a man who will earn a huge payday sooner rather than later.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

Veteran Sean Davis recently signed with the Colts, while 2020 special teams captain, Jordan Dangerfield, remains unsigned. Pittsburgh inked a deal with Miles Killebrew, who spent his first five seasons with the Lions. Much like Dangerfield, Killebrew was more special teams contributor than he was safety in Detroit and registered zero defensive snaps in two of his past three seasons — including none a year ago. The Steelers also list Kilebrew as a linebacker.

Antoine Brooks  a sixth-round pick out of Maryland a season ago, only appeared in four games in 2020 and didn’t make much of an impression.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThis one is a bit tricky. Obviously, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are locked in as starters for 2021. However, both have reached the points of their rookie deals where the Steelers must decide if they will pick up their fifth-year options. It seems likely that Pittsburgh will pick up both — that is almost a certainty with Fitzpatrick — but as of this writing, no announcement has been made about either player. 

  • Again, Fitzpatrick is destined for a huge, multi-year deal, and the Steelers will have a lot of work to do to get one done.

As for Edmunds, he isn’t going to cost them as much, but he’s not going to be cheap, either. I don’t think it’s a done deal that either or both will be Steelers through their second contracts. With Killebrew and Brooks mostly unknowns, and with former Penn State safety Marcus Allen playing more inside linebacker, these days, there could be room on the roster for another young safety. Draft need: Moderate

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Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Needs @ Outside Linebackers, Thin Depth Behind Watt & Highsmith

The Steelers boasted one of the best outside-linebacker duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, as both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 49 quarterback sacks. With But Dupree departing for the Titans as a much-sought-after free agent, where do the Steelers stand at the position in terms of starters and depth heading into the 2021 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in and find out.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, heads into his fifth season as not only the Steelers best linebacker; he’s their best player and most valuable asset. Furthermore, he’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, despite coming up short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons.

With 49.5 career sacks to his name, Watt is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ all-time mark of 84.5 set by the legendary James Harrison. But Watt’s pass-rush prowess can’t just be measured in sacks; the pressure he puts on opposing linemen and quarterbacks is non-stop game-in and game-out. In fact, some credited Watt’s presence with the sudden career uptick experienced by Bud Dupree starting in 2019. Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, struggled with injuries and consistency through four seasons before coming on strong to close out his Steelers’ career.

With that in mind, maybe Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte a year ago and the presumed replacement for Dupree as the weak-side starting outside linebacker can also benefit from playing alongside Watt. Alex Highsmith started five games in 2020 and recorded 48 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. Highsmith also notched a game-changing interception in an important road win vs. the Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium.

Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Backups

To say the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker is sparse would be an understatement. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi left as a free agent, leaving the newly acquired Cassius Marsh, a 28-year old journeyman originally drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks back in 2014, as the top backup.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart is Christian Kuntz, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of nearby Duquesne University.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftI believe there is optimism that Highsmith can continue to improve and make a huge enough leap from his first to his second year that Pittsburgh should have itself a fine replacement for Dupree in 2021.

  • But, again, the lack of depth has to be a major concern heading into the draft.

While it didn’t draw much discussion, in a normal year, the Steelers likely would have found a way to keep Ola Adeniyi, who if nothing else would have secured a proven special teams contributor who was familiar with the Steelers defense. 

As the Steelers depth chart at outside linebackers stands now, one has to wonder if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin won’t be tempted to hold Invincible like open tryouts just to fill out the roster.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Pittsburgh does need to improve depth and perhaps do it with someone who can develop into a future starter so the priority of outside linebacker for the Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be: Moderate

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