Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

You know that whole “He won with Cowher’s players” thing people like to use to diss Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when discussing his team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory following the 2008 season?

  • I doubt many of those Steelers fans thought they’d ever show that kind of reverence for Bill Cowher in early 2001.

Not after three tumultuous seasons that saw his squad miss the playoffs every year between 1998-2000. Bill Cowher was right smack-dab in the middle of a reality-check after a six-year start to his career as the Steelers coach. That six year stretch saw his very talented and playoff-bound squads came oh so close to getting over the Super Bowl hump, only to come up short at the end each time.

Even if the franchise’s 5th Lombardi remained elusive, the playoffs had almost almost automatic for Pittsburgh. Then suddenly they weren’t. As the Steelers said goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium and opened Heinz Field, what “New normal” would 2001 bring?

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

The late-’90s were an ugly time in Steelers’ history.

Thanks to one-too-many free-agent defections, Pittsburgh went from a perennial contender to a level just above doormat status. The Steelers dropped 18 of 24 games during a span that lasted from late-’98 through early-2000.

The “My buddy’s the cop” rumors about his personal life were disturbing and cruel. Nor was Bill Cowher was immune, as rumors of  an extra-marital affair circulated in 1999. Add that as a backdrop to the power struggle between Cowher and Tom Donahoe and by the end of the 1999 season the Steelers were an organization in disarray. 

  • Dan Rooney backed Bill Cowher, but that didn’t mean the fans and media agreed.

In fact, many questioned how the organization could give Cowher a contract extension following the Steelers 2000 season one that saw the Steelers miss the postseason for a third-straight year.

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

Even though the organization was struggling during those years, the roster was slowly being rebuilt and replenished. During these lean times, future core players like Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith were being drafted and developed.

History was made on February 11, 2001, when Three Rivers Stadium, the host of both professional football and baseball since 1970, was imploded to make way for Heinz Field and PNC Park, two state-of-the-art facilities that would be the new digs for the Steelers and Pirates, respectively.

Chuck Noll was never shy about the role that having Three Rivers Stadium played in turning the franchise’s fortunes around, could Heinz Field have the same effort for is successor?

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh native hired replace Tom Donahoe, inked a deal with veteran guard, Jeff Hartings, who came to Pittsburgh after five seasons with the Lions. Hartings may have been a guard by trade, but he was brought to Pittsburgh to take the place of Dermontti Dawson, the legendary center, who retired after an injury-riddled 2000 campaign.

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

Jeff Hartings and Kordell Stewart at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers went into the 2001 NFL Draft needing a Joel Steed-type to be the nose tackle of their 3-4 defense. They found just that and more in Casey Hampton, the man his teammates would affectionately nickname “Big Snack.” Hampton would make an immediate impact, same with Pittsburgh’s second-round pick, Kendrell Bell, an inside linebacker, who would go on to be named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Veteran running back, Jerome Bettis signed a second contract extension stay in Pittsburgh his sixth season.

The Steelers also locked up Hines Ward with a contract extension, after Ward had finally established himself as a starting receiver alongside Plaxico Burress, the team’s number one pick a year earlier.

Make no mistake, though, the Steelers’ chances of being contenders again in 2001 hinged on the talents of Kordell Stewart, the beleaguered and embattled quarterback, a man that had been through the wringer the previous few seasons; he was yanked in and out of the starting lineup, saddled with two offensive coordinators who didn’t know what to do with him, and even banished to the receivers room at one point.

Thankfully, something clicked for Stewart when he won back the starting job midway through the 2000 season and nearly guided Pittsburgh to the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Mike Mularkey, the team’s tight ends coach the previous five years, was promoted to offensive coordinator in ’01 and would ultimately prove to be Stewart’s greatest offensive ally since the days of Chan Gailey.

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the start of their 2001 campaign would be ugly in more ways than one.

Just days after a listless 21-3 Week-1 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, tragedy struck the nation on September 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans lost their lives in a series of terrorist attacks that took place in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., a small town just 80 miles from Pittsburgh, where a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the ground, killing everyone on board.

Obviously, football — any kind of pastime, really — was the last thing on anyone’s mind, as the country tried to find its bearings, process what happened and heal.

  • With that in mind, the NFL postponed its ’01 campaign for three weeks.
Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Bengals

The Steelers defeated the Bengals in their first game at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

The Steelers’ season finally resumed on September 30, with a 20-3 victory over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers made their regular-season debut at Heinz Field the following week and ushered in their new home with a 16-7 victory over Cincinnati.

  • Pittsburgh would continue to roll from there, winning 11 of its next 12 games.

The only loss during that stretch was a home defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens, a game in which struggling kicker, Kris Brown, missed four field goals — including one at the end of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime.

The Steelers got their revenge many weeks later with a 26-21 road victory over the Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Not only did Pittsburgh exact revenge over its division rival, it clinched its 15th and final AFC Central crown (the division was rechristined the AFC North the following season after realignment).

Despite an upset road loss to the Bengals two weeks later, the Steelers clinched the number one seed and would go on to finish with a 13-3 record — their best regular season record since 1978.

2001 Banner Year for Stewart, Bettis, Ward and Steelers Defense

Kordell Stewart finished the regular season with 3,109 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also contributed with his legs to the tune of 537 rushing yards and five touchdowns. For his efforts, Stewart was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was voted team MVP.

2001 was the year Hines Ward became a star and the leader of the wide-outs, as he caught 94 passes for 1,003 yards and four touchdowns. Plaxico Burress added 66 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, elevating this receiving duo to one of the most potent in the NFL.

It was another productive year for Jerome Bettis, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth-straight year (1,072), even though he missed the final five games with a groin injury.

  • With The Bus leading the way, the Steelers  ground attack finished first in the NFL with 2,774 yards.

As for the defense, it was lights out. It was dominant. It was Super Bowl-ready. The unit finished first in yards allowed and was the most stout against the run. With 12 sacks, outside linebacker Jason Gildon led a pass-rush that would tally a whopping 55 sacks on the season.

The Steelers headed into the postseason with the look of a team that was ready to get over the hump and capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi trophy. Could Stewart, Bettis, Ward and a retooled defense accomplish what O’Donnell, Foster, Thigpen and Blitzburgh had tried and failed to do a half decade earlier? It was time to find out.

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

First up for Pittsburgh was an AFC Central rematch, as the Ravens came to town for a divisional round  in Heinz Field’s first ever playoff game. There was a bit of fear that Baltimore, a team that proved to be a fierce road warrior a year earlier on the way to a Super Bowl title, would march into town with its swaggar turned up at full blast after a resounding road victory over the Dolphins on Wildcard Weekend.

Hines Ward, Rod Woodson, Jerame Tuman, Steelers vs Ravens, First playoff game Heinz Field

Jerame Tuman gives Rod Woodson a warm “welcome” back to Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers got some disturbing news right out of gate when it was reported that Bettis would have to miss the game due to complications from a pain-killling injection to help him manage his nagging groin issue.

Thankfully, Amos Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in the 1999 NFL Draft, was up to the task, rushing for 63 yards on 24 carries.

  • Zereoue scored two one-yard touchdowns to help Pittsburgh jump out to a 17-0 first-half lead.

Jermaine Lewis gave the home folks a reason for concern when he returned a Josh Miller punt 88 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to make the score 20-10. Fortunately, Kordell Stewart and Plaxico Burress quickly put those fears to rest when they connected on a 32-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to basically put the game out of reach.

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

It was on to the AFC title game for the first time in four seasons and a home matchup against an upstart Patriots team led by some coach named Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by some guy named Tom Brady, who was starting in place of the veteran Drew Bledsoe after he suffered an early-season injury and never got back in the lineup.

The Steelers were favored by 10 points, and nobody outside of New England gave the visitors much of a chance. That may seem funny now, but Bill Cowher owned Bill Belichick when the latter was coach of the Browns in the early 1990’s.

  • But there’s a reason why we play game.
Troy Brown, Steelers vs Patriots, 2001 AFC Championship Game

Troy Brown smokes the Steelers for a 55 yard 1st quarter touchdown punt return. Photo Credit: SBnation.com

Special teams had been a thorn in the Steelers’ side dating back to the 2000 season, and that thorn would feel quite painful late in the first quarter when Troy Brown returned a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for a score. Making matters worse was the fact that Miller was re-kicking thanks to an illegal procedure penalty on receiver Troy Edwards that nullified the previous one.

Tom Brady got injured late in the second quarter, but the Patriots didn’t miss a beat as Bledsoe entered the game helped to further stun the home crowd with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to put Pittsburgh in a 14-3 hole at the half.

Things got even worse early in the third quarter when Kris Brown’s 34-yard field goal was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and returned for a touchdown by Troy Brown to make it 21-3.

Pittsburgh mounted a furious comeback and cut the lead to four thanks to touchdowns by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Steelers would get no closer, as Stewart threw interceptions on successive drives with the team trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter.

  • It was the third home loss in the AFC title game for Bill Cowher, and the second where his team was a huge favorite.

While the loss was deeply deeply disappointing end to a promising 2001 campaign, it was clear that Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert had rebuilt a roster that would be able to compete for a Super Bowl title for many for years to come.

After a three-year stretch of chaos and uncertainty, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers were contenders again.

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

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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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Do Steelers Playoff Hopes Hinge on Alex Highsmith Imitating Ziggy Hood? Actually, They Might!

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to surprise the skeptics and make a serious Super Bowl run they’re going to need players like Alex Highsmith to find a little something extra during the playoffs. There are signs that Highsmith might already being doing that.

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

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

Highsmith’s pressure helped force Mike Hilton’s interception. Later, Highsmith helped pressure Rivers into throwing incomplete on 4th down. Against the Browns, Highsmith’s sack of Baker Mayfield helped stop Cleveland’s 2 minute drill cold.

These trends are encouraging and Alex Highsmith must build on this in the playoffs by following in the footsteps of Ziggy Hood

…Yep, you read that right!

Ziggy Hood Teases at Becoming the “Special Man”

Ziggy Hood was of course the Steelers 1st round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, number 32 overall due to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It is both unfair and incorrect to hang the label “bust” on Ziggy Hood (if you really think he was a bust, I invite you to Google Keith Gary, Daryl Simms or Aaron Jones).

  • But if that’s true, its also true that Ziggy Hood disappointed.

Just as Walter Abercrombie had the ignominious fate to replace Franco Harris, Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith, one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Ziggy Hood wasn’t up to the task.

  • However, for a time it seemed like he might be the time Ziggy “…Became the special man”

When injuries ended Aaron Smith’s 2010 season, this site declared that Ziggy Hood’s moment had arrived, leading off the post with the quote ““When the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band” from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The idea was Smith’s injury signaled the end of an era on the Steelers defensive line, and that a torch was being passed

With 20/20 hindsight, it would seem like Ziggy Hood fumbled the moment and then it was gone. But that’s not true. Ziggy Hood just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle.

But Ziggy Hood enjoyed one great flash in his career and that flash came right when the Steelers needed it the most.

  • Hood took over from Aaron Smith at the end of October and authored a pretty ho-hum November.

But he came alive in December, sacking Joe Flacco in the Steelers AFC North Division clinching win over the Ravens. He followed that with sacks in the Steelers win over the Panthers two weeks later and in the 2010 season finale win over the Browns. And if you’re tempted to write off that as garbage time glory in meaningless games then consider what Hood did in the playoffs.

Ziggy Hood, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Super Bowl XLV

Ziggy Hood sacks Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

In the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens, Hood sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 10 with 1:15 left to play, setting up a 4th and 18 which Baltimore failed to convert. In Super Bowl XLV he sacked Aaron Rodgers on Green Bay’s final drive.

For those of you counting at home, that’s 5 Ziggy Hood sacks, several coming at critical moments during 8 must-win games for the Steelers.

Never would Ziggy Hood broach that level of production again.

The Playoffs Can Prime Players to Step Up

Long term, if Alex Highsmith succeeds in Bud Dupree his career ceiling will need to be higher than Ziggy Hood’s. But the take away from Hood’s story is that the playoffs can coax the best out certain players.

During the Steelers 2010 playoff run offensive tackle Jonathan Scott also enjoyed his career peak as had as offensive guard Darnell Stapleton during the Steelers 2008 run to Super Bowl XLIII.

Go back further, and you’ll find that that a good regular-season Merril Hoge became playoff great with 100 yard games for the 1989 Steelers in their upset Wild Card win over the Oilers and heartbreaking loss to the Broncos.

  • It doesn’t always work this way of course as we’ll detail in a future story.

But if Alex Highsmith can step it up and help T.J. Watt give the Steelers defense the 1-2 punch on the edge that they enjoyed with Bud Dupree healthy, Pittsburgh’s road to Super Bowl glory will become much more plausible.

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Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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Sometimes 15.8 Million Isn’t Enough. Bud Dupree Files Franchise Tag Grievance

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is filing a grievance over the franchise tag, requesting that he be considered a defensive end as opposed to an outside linebacker. As a franchised outside linebacker the only thing standing between Bud Dupree and 15.8 million dollar payday is COVID-19.

  • But apparently, 15.8 million dollars for a year’s work just isn’t enough.

Per Joe Rutter’s reporting at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the 2020 franchise tender for a defensive end is $17.788 million or 1.988 million more.

As Rutter reports, Shaq Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has filed a similar grievance.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Evolution of Edge Rusher in the Age of the Salary Cap

As this column’s snarky headline suggests, this author doesn’t start with great sympathy for Bud Dupree. For the vast majority Terrible Towel twirlers, 1.988 million dollars represents a lifetime of income, and then some. In that light, it is easy to write this off as another example of a greedy, out of touch pro athlete.

  • But would that be fair to Bud Dupree? Perhaps not.

Football players have short careers, and after deducting taxes and agent commissions, the difference between two franchise tags could amount to nearly 1 million dollars more in Dupree’s pocket. If you could give yourself a shot at getting an extra million dollars by filling out paperwork would you do it?

  • Whether Bud Dupree deserves to be considered a defensive end is another question.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

Two generations ago, the idea that Jack Ham, Andy Russell or Robin Cole arguing that they play the same position as L.C. Greenwood or Dwight White would be laughable. Neither would anyone confuse the responsibilities of Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter with those of Ray Seals or Aaron Smith in Dick LeBeau’s defenses of the ‘90’s or the ‘00’s.

  • But the game has changed.

Cam Heyward entered the league as a defensive end in the Steelers system. A few seasons ago, his position was changed to that of tackle. The Steelers had Javon Hargrave budding into a very good (if not great) nose tackle and let him go because they only use their “base” defense.

  • Bud Dupree might not start snaps with his hand in the dirt, but his primary responsibility is to rush the passer.

And in 2019 Bud Dupree did that to great effect, registering 11.5 sacks, forcing 4 fumbles and recovering 2. For the first time since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Bud Dupree made difference making plays as an “Edge Rusher.”

  • Its the “Edge Rusher” status which clouds the situation, and that’s where Dupree’s grievance gets a tad bit ironic.

Bud Dupree took a long time to get to this level, and to counter the “Bud the Bust” story line, leaks about Dupree’s pass coverage prowess found their way into the press. This scribe always assumed that they came from Steelers coaches because the leaks sounded awfully similar to the ones that praised Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run.

  • But Bud Dupree’s agent could have also been the source of the leaks.

If it was Dupree’s agent, and this is most certainly an IF, then his agent has made a pretty deft pivot from extolling his client’s ability to cover passes downfield to arguing that he should now be considered a defensive end.

But I guess that’s why Bud pays him the big bucks.

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Painful? Yes. But Steelers Make Right Decision to Move on from Antonio Brown

All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Steelers to trade Antonio Brown

Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter

If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.

  • Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.

This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)

It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision

There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.

  • As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.

While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.

  • One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.

That could happen.

  • But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.

Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.

But it takes two to tango, and nothing Brown has done since walking out on the Steelers prior to the Bengals game indicates he’s willing to do his part of the dance.

Make No Mistake About It: Losing Brown Will Hurt

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. Losing him will hurt. A lot.

Rarely can a team make a one-for-one replacement for a Hall of Famer as the Steelers did when they transitioned from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson. More often than not, you end up with situations akin to what the Steelers found themselves in the 80s when they replaced Lynn Swann with Louis Lipps or Jack Lambert with David Little.

  • Lipps and Little only sins as Steelers were to be merely good instead of great.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger still has JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as weapons. God willing James Washington will develop and James Conner will stay healthy. And, as it has been noted, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and Super Bowl XLIII with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

Just in case you forgot.

Nonetheless, Art Rooney II has made the right decision.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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One Lesson From Jaguars Game? Steelers Need to Play Javon Hargrave More

We have some lessons to learn.”
Mike Tomlin following the Steelers come from behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s right. And here’s one lesson the Steelers should learn form the Jacksonville game: Javon Hargrave needs to play more.

To say the least, Over the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. Dramatic in the form of Ben Roethlisberger 4th quarter, or perhaps more accurately, two minute warning comebacks.

It took the Steelers 4 attempts from the two yard line to score the go ahead touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh never led until the final five seconds of the game arrived.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The truth is that the inability of Ben Roethlisberger to get in sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and the inability of the offensive line to get rushing lanes open for James Conner is the biggest reason why such late heroics were again needed.

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

But, and few could have imagined saying this in September, the Steelers have a good defense too, and one that could be better by finding a way to give more playing time to Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers of course drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the third defensive pick after taking Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Hargrave quickly assumed Steve McLendon’s starting role and his play in the 2nd half of 2016 was a big reason for the team’s turn around.

  • But Javon Hargrave plays nose tackle, and the Steelers play their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

So be it. In many ways sub packages define Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense and far be it for me to criticize them.

But regardless of which subpackage they deploy, the Steelers coaches need to find a way to get Javon Hargrave on the field more. During the first half it looked like Leonard Fournette was going to lead the Jaguars on steamroll the Steelers defense similar to what they had done in the playoffs.

But Javon Hargrave arguably began the defensive rally by sacking Blake Bortles on third down to force a field goal when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone. He followed it up with another sack on the next series helped get the ball back (although the Steelers would turn it over quickly.)

While snap counts by quarter are not available, it seemed like early in the game there was a lot of Daniel McCullers Number 93 on the field and a lot less of Javon Hargrave. However, in the second half Hargrave 79 was on the field a plenty, which is when the Steelers defense went into shut down mode.

  • On the day, Hargrave tackled two Jaguar ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, got two more licks in on Blake Bortles and helped force a 3 and out by deflecting a Bortles pass on third down.

Cam Heyward leads all Steelers defensive lineman having been on the field for 78% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He’s followed by Stephon Tuitt who clocks in at 68%. Javon Hargrave is next, at 38%, meaning his snap count is only 7% higher than Tyson Alualu.

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh and speculation still abounded that he might shift the Steelers to a 3-4 defense, Mike Tomlin explained that a players like Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton were going to be good whether they played in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.

Tomlin’s logic was sound, even if it trying to apply to every good player would be an oversimplification (see the Steelers moving “bust” 1st rounder James Farrior from the outside to inside linebacker.)

Well, Javon Hargrave might officially carry the title of nose tackle, but he’s shown he can be an impact player, and it would wise for Karl Dunbar, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to figure out how to get him on the field more frequently.

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How Mike Tomlin Strengthens His Locker Room Credibility by Keeping Joshua Dobbs Over Landry Jones

With the dust settling on the Steelers 2018 roster it has become apparent Pittsburgh has permanently parted ways with Landry Jones.

But now that Joshua Dobbs is officially the Steelers new QB Number 2 behind Ben Roethlisberger that doesn’t seem likely to happen. As someone who both advocated for keeping Joshua Dobbs AND who’s a little nervous about the Steelers cutting Landry Jones, one thing is immediately clear about this choice:

  • Mike Tomlin has strengthened his locker room credibility in with his decision.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“The best 22 players will start. The best 53 men will earn roster spots. The next best 10 will join the practice squad. Everyone else had best prepare for ‘Life’s Work.'” All NFL coaches say it, all of the time. And most of them really do want to mean it.

  • But the realities of the modern NFL often make it hard for coaches to truly put their money where their mouths are.

Sometimes salary cap realities dictate that a player who otherwise might be cut stay on the roster. The reverse is also true, hence the term “salary cap casualty.” Other times it is draft status. The last time the Steelers cut a rookie 4th round draft pick, Bill Clinton was President (no, sorry Doran Grant in 2015 doesn’t count.)

A coach can preach his “Keep the best 53” sermon without losing credibility because NFL players understand all of the above.

  • Sometimes NFL coaches keep a player because cutting him falls a little too far outside his comfort zone.

Those are the choices that lead to coaches causing trouble for themselves. Most outsiders thought that Chuck Noll was as unsentimental as Bill Belichick when it came to parting ways with old players. He wasn’t.

Keeping an aging Dwight White over Dwaine Board serves as the best example, but if you sat down with someone like Dick Hoak, Dick Haley or even Art Rooney Jr. they’d probably supply a good half dozen similar examples without breaking a sweat. Moving to more modern times, Bill Cowher’s decision to keep Duce Staley on the 2006 roster provides another example.

  • And that brings us to Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones.

During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have made personnel mistakes (see Shamarko Thomas), but they’ve rarely been guilty of hanging on to a player who is ready for “Life’s Work.” Perhaps keeping Aaron Smith into 2011 serves as one example, and certainly there are others but not many.

Nonetheless, the Steelers 2018 roster certainly has taken the franchise out of its comfort zone.

Tomlin Takes Steelers Out of Their Quarterback Depth Chart Comfort Zone

The last time the Steelers started a season without a veteran back up quarterback on its depth chart was in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger and Brian St. Pierre backed up Tommy Maddox.

  • And that situation only arose because Charlie Batch got injured in training camp.

To find a time when the Steelers voluntarily opted not to staff a veteran back up quarterback must go back to 1990 when Rick Strom and rookie Neil O’Donnell backed up Bubby Brister (although the picky purists in Pittsburgh will point out that Strom had thrown one incompletion in 1989 – keep that fact handy should you ever reach the Who Wants to be a Millionaire finals.)

In the Steelers preseason win over the Panthers, Joshua Dobbs didn’t simply “lean into the tape.” His play was exceptional enough to convince Mike Tomlin to disregard 28 years of franchise Quarterback depth chart policy.

So next time a player hears Mike Tomlin insist that “The best 53 will make it,” they’ll know he means it.

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Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

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