Pittsburgh Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era

Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.

Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.

At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.

  • Kevin Colbert has vindicate Rooney’s wisdom time and time again.

But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Colbert Effect

If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.

People expected the Steelers to use the 8th pick overall to draft Chad Pennington, the top quarterback in the draft; Colbert and Cowher instead drafted Plaxico Burress. He also signed Brent Alexander, cut guard Brendan Stai and replaced him with Rich Tylski.

Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.

The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.

  • So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.

The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com

After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.

It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”

After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”

Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.

  • Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.

So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.

  • Run blocking was improving.
  • Jerome Bettis was proving the doubters to be wrong.
  • Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.

And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.

After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.

  • The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!

Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.

Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.

  • It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.

It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.

The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.

With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?

Digging Out from 0-3

The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:

  • Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
  • Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
  • Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
  • Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
  • Begun to watch Hines Ward, and not Plaxico Burress nor Troy Edwards separate himself at wide out

Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.

As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport

Growing Pains

The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.

The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.

  • A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.

The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.

For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.

His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.

  • If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.

Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.

The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.

The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.

Undaunted, the Steelers closed their home season with a rousing 24-3 pasting of the Washington Redskins in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Dieon Sanders shying away from tackling a roaring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers forcing Jeff George from the game, and Myron Cope telling off Daniel Snyder on the open air.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.

His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.

Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.

Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.

While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.

There’s a reason why an entire sub-section earlier in this article is dedicated to one steamy afternoon in Jacksonville and titled “Hinge of Fate.” That’s because a 0-3 team went into hostile territory and trashed a conference-favorite. In doing so they set the tone for not just the season, but the entire decade:

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards
Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to being its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.
Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

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Marty Schottenheimer was a Coach I Hated as a Kid but Respected as a Man

Marty Schottenheimer, one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history, passed away on February 8 at the age of 77.

Schottenheimer won 200 regular-season games over a 20-year career that included stints with four different teams, including the Browns (1984-1988), Chiefs (1989-1998), the now Washington Football Team (2001) and Chargers (2002-2006).

Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher, Steelers

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer. Photo Credit:Charley Gallay, Getty Images

It was Schottenheimer’s tenure in Cleveland in the mid-to-late-’80s that drew the ire of a little Steelers fan in Pittsburgh. I’m talking about yours truly, of course. Right around the time Schottenheimer was turning the Browns into Super Bowl contenders in the mid-’80s, the Steelers, who had won four Lombardi trophies in the previous decade, were firmly in the throes of their post-dynasty malaise that would basically last through the final year of Chuck Noll‘s career in 1991.

It was Schottenheimer who would coach the Browns to their first-ever victory at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. It was those same Browns who would lay to rest whatever slight playoff hopes Pittsburgh had thanks to a 37-31 overtime loss at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the rematch late in the season.

Schottenheimer would go on to coach the Browns to three-straight AFC Central titles from 1985-1987. Meanwhile, the Steelers, following a stunning appearance in the AFC title game in 1984, were about to embark on their ugliest stretch since the pre-Noll days and wouldn’t win another division title until Noll retired and was replaced by Bill Cowher in 1992.

It wasn’t a fun time watching Schottenheimer’s Browns reign supreme in the AFC Central during those aforementioned three seasons, while Pittsburgh could only muster records of 7-9, 6-10 and 8-7, respectively.

  • But time, they say it heals all wounds.

As I got older and learned a bit more about Schottenheimer, I realized he was not only a good and super-positive guy–someone who always got his players to respond to his message — but he was from the Greater Pittsburgh area, namely, Canonsburg, Pa. Furthermore, Schottenheimer was the only coaching boss Cowher ever had, as the fellow Pittsburgh area native cut his teeth on Schottenheimer’s staff in Cleveland as both a special teams coach and then a secondary coach.

Bill Cowher followed Schottenheimer to Kansas City and was the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator from 1989-1991. It was there that Cowher emerged as a bona fide head-coaching candidate and found himself on the Steelers’ radar during their very important search to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Emperor.

Many said Cowher was too much like his coaching mentor, which was to say he was too conservative on offense; instead, relying on defense and a sound running game

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

After several near-misses, Cowher finally got his ring in 2005 when the Steelers vanquished the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Many have said that the key was taking the handcuffs off Ben Roethlisberger, his second-year quarterback who had the “it” factor the organization seemed to be missing at the position since the days of Terry Bradshaw.

  • Sadly, Cowher’s old boss never did win a ring.

Heck, Schottenheimer never even appeared in a Super Bowl, as many promising seasons in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego ended before they could even reach that coveted grand stage.

Some have called Schottenheimer’s coaching career tragic due to his playoff failures, but I don’t see it that way. If you’ve never seen the A Football Life episode about Schottenheimer’s football career, I highly recommend it. Schottenheimer had a nondescript playing career for both the Bills and Patriots in the 1960s before turning to a life in coaching. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer spent several years trying to get his foot in the door in both the college and professional ranks but struggled to even get an interview.

As he told it, Schottenheimer’s family was struggling financially and pretty close to seeing everything come crashing down when the Giants hired him to be their linebackers coach in 1975. During his A Football Life episode, Schottenheimer broke down in tears when discussing the break that he got in New York. It changed his life. It changed his family’s life.

No, there was nothing tragic about Schottenheimer’s coaching career. Did his teams often come up short on the biggest stages? Yes, but he got to live his dream.

  • He got closer than many ever will to NFL’s Promised Land.

People think life is about the destination, but it’s really about the journey. I’d say Marty Schottenheimer had a great and memorable one.

Thank you, Marty Schottenheimer, not only for preparing Bill Cowher to be the Steelers’ next head coach after Chuck Noll but for being the kind of coach this man would have loved to play for if I had the talent to do so.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Did the 30-23 1985 Steelers Redskins Loss “Officially” Begin 80’s Mediocrity?

[Editors Note:  Tony Defeo expands on Steelers history vs Washington Redskins ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2016 opener on Monday Night Football @ FedEx Field]

Redskins 30, Steelers 23, November 24, 1985, Three Rivers Stadium 

After reaching the AFC Championship game a year earlier, the Steelers were limping along over the first half of the 1985 season, with a 3-5 record.Quarterback Mark Malone literally was limping, after injuring his foot in a loss to the Bengals in Week 8 and would be out of action an indefinite amount of time.

However, Pittsburgh responded behind veteran David Woodley and rattled off three-straight victories to improve to 6-5. Much like a year earlier, when the Steelers won the old AFC Central with a 9-7 record, it wasn’t going to take a double-digit win total to repeat as division champions. Unfortunately, Woodley came down with a stomach virus prior to the Week 12 match-up with the Redskins at Three Rivers Stadium, and third-stringer Scott Campbell was thrust into the spotlight.

 

Mark Malone, David Woodley, Scott Campbell, 1985 Steelers quarterbacks

NFL.com rated the ’85 Steelers quarterbacks as 5th worst trio ever. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Things didn’t start off well, as Ken Jenkins returned the opening kickoff 95 yards down to the Pittsburgh three-yard line. Running back George Rogers finished things off by plunging in from the one-yard line to make it 7-0, Redskins before most in attendance had even found their seats.

After a 22-yard Gary Anderson field goal cut Washington’s deficit to four, the special teams onslaught continued for the visitors, when Otis Wonsley blocked a Harry Newsome punt, and the Redskins took over at the Pittsburgh 19. Moments later, Jay Schroeder, like Campbell, making his first career start, found tight end Clint Didier for an 18-yard touchdown pass to extend Washington’s lead to 14-3.

Pittsburgh trailed 17-3 in the second quarter, when Campbell threw two quick touchdown passes–one to receiver Louis Lipps for five yards, and one to running back Rich Erenberg for nine-yards–to tie the score at 17.

However, an interception by Campbell in the final moments of the first half along with a personal foul on defensive lineman Keith Willis paved the way for a 39-yard field goal for Mosley, and the Redskins led by three at the break.

Running back John Riggins scored on a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the Redskins a 10-point lead. Pittsburgh’s offense could only muster a couple of Anderson field goals in the second half, as Campbell threw two more picks, and Washington held on for a 30-23 victory.

For the day, Campbell completed 15 of 25 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. “Its a tough situation to be thrown in there like that, but you’ve got to be ready to play,” said Campbell of his first career start on very short notice. 

  • The loss dropped the Steelers to 6-6, and they never recovered, finishing out of the playoffs with a 7-9 record (their first losing season in 14 years).

Whenever I think back on the early-to-mid ’80s Steelers who were still trudging along after their Super Bowl years, the 1985 Steelers Redskins loss seems signal the turning-point of the 1980’s Steelers from still competitive team to a team that flirted with being downright abysmal….

…Over the next three seasons, the Steelers team would finish with records of 6-10, 6-6 and 5-11 in non-strike games over the next three seasons. The slide into mediocrity really did start with the 1985 Steelers Redskins loss.

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RIP Buddy Ryan: Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers Shows Pittsburgh Struggling vs. 46 Defense

NFL defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan passed away this week as the league mourned one of its most creative, colorful and cantankerous personalities in a generation. The Pittsburgh Steelers only stood on opposite side lines to Buddy Ryan five times and perhaps Steelers Nation should give thanks for that..

  • Buddy Ryan’s record vs. the Steelers tells tale of one-sided domination.

This site prefers to celebrate and commemorate Steelers successes, but Buddy Ryan simply had the Pittsburgh Steelers number. Sure, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Bennie Cunningham and Jim Smith might have hung 38 points on Ryan when he was defensive coordinator of the 1980 Chicago Bears. But the Steelers were 4 time Super Bowl Champions and the Bears were 4 years away from a winning record.

  • Make no mistake about it, Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense owned Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Steelers.

When Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers took their 2-8 record down the Turnpike to face Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan showed no mercy as his defenders sacked Bubby Brister 4 times and intercepted him another for good measure. The Steelers did hold a narrow lead going into the 4th quarter but the Eagles won 24 to 23.

Buddy Ryan Breifly Revives Steelers-Oilers Rivalry

Pittsburgh paid little mind when Houston Oiler’s named Buddy Ryan defensive coordinator early in’93 off season. They should have because Buddy Ryan was about to reignite a revival of the Steelers-Oilers rivalry that was as intense as it was brief.

buddy ryan, buddy ryan vs. steelers, 86 defense, 1993 steelers

Buddy Ryan and Michael Barrow during Ryan’s stint as Houston Oilers defensive coordinator; Photo Credit: John Makely, Houston Chronicle

In the late 80’s the Giants, Redskin and Eagles vied for supremacy in NFC East and interesting divisional dynamic emerged. Bill Parcell’s Giants had an edge on the Redskins, the Redskins had an edge on the Eagles, and the Eagles edge on the Giants. In other words, Buddy Ryan knew how to defend against Ron Erhardt, and Ron Erhardt was Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator.

  • The first matchup came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1993 on Sunday Night Football.

The Steelers and Oilers were going toe-to-toe for AFC Central supremacy, and it wasn’t even close. Oiler’s “only” won 23 to 3, but that doesn’t even begin to detail their domination, as the Oilers sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times and Mike Tomczak two more times. Houston limited Steelers running backs Leroy Thompson and Merril Hoge gained 38 yards on the ground.

  • The Steelers in fact pulled O’Donnell, put him back in the game, then pulled him again.

Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, and Dwight Stone dropped multiple passes including one in the end zone that saw Jeff Graham have the ball hit him in the hands, bounce off his face mask, and then slip again through is hands. Late in the game a Houston defender removed Mike Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him.

  • The Steelers rallied behind, “We play them again.”

Play them they did. Perhaps their best effort of the game was Gary Anderson’s deep kickoff. The 26 to 17 final score makes it look like the Steelers were competitive. Those 17 points were pure garbage time glory. The Oilers schooled the Steelers in every sense of the word.

Again Oilers defenders dropped O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow that one-season wonder.

After the game, Buddy Ryan boasted, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Few Can Match Buddy Ryan’s Record vs Steelers

Steelers fans hoped in vain for a third shot at Buddy Ryan in the 1993 playoffs, but the Steelers would tangle with Buddy Ryan one final time in 1994 season on Ryan’s final NFL stop as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Dan Rooney has stated that the Steelers trip to Arizona in 1994 was the first time he noticed an unusual number of Steelers fan in an opposing stadium. At the time however, the game was known for several bizarre plays. One was failed fake field goal that saw Gary Anderson gain his only 3 yards rushing in 23 NFL seasons — it fell short of the first down. Another was Eric Green running out of bounds with a clear shot at the end zone simply because he ran out of gas.

  • Those blunders, pared with some uncanny turnovers led to 20 to 17 Steelers over time loss.

Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense didn’t dominate the Steelers in that final match up as it had a season before, nonetheless, they did drop Neil O’Donnell to the turf 4 times. More importantly, they bettered Buddy Ryan’s lifetime record against the Steelers to 4-1.

  • There are not too many coaches who stood opposite Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher who can boast that kind of winning percentage, but Buddy Ryan can.

Buddy Ryan self-assuredness made Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick look humble by comparison. But when it came to confronting the Steelers, Buddy Ryan walked the walk, and talked the talk. May Buddy Ryan rest in peace as Steel Curtain Rising offers his sons Rob and Rex Ryan its sympathy and prayers.

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Steelers Antonio Brown Not Forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season has been over for several weeks, and one of the few real bits of news to come out during the 2016 off season is that was Art Rooney II’s confirmation that Antonio Brown has cleared NFL concussion protocols.

In a word, Antonio Brown is not in a forgiving mood. In an interview with KDKA FM Brown pulled no punches regarding his feelings about the hit that cost him a chance to play in the Steelers loss to Denver:

Guys don’t want to stop me anymore. They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me, but we’re not gonna let them. What we are gonna do is win more.

Brown cleared up any confusion over the conflicting reports over whether he had a chance to play. National reporters quickly reported that Brown would miss the game, while Pittsburgh reporters insisted their was a possibility Brown would suit up. As it was, Brown confirmed that he had zero chance of playing.

Brown also confirmed that Adam “Pacman” Jones, who had accused Brown of faking his injury, had apologized to him. Brown did not respond, and questioned why the media gave Adam “Pacman” Jones such a platform.

Cincinnati Bengals the New Jerry Glanville Oilers?

Bad blood in division rivalries is nothing new to the Pittsburgh Steelers in either the AFC North or its processor division, the old AFC Central. In 1976, with Terry Bradshaw already out injured, the Cleveland Browns dumped Mike Kruczek on his head in a late hit and Jack Lambert ran the length of the bench to “Deliver the punishment.” A decade later Chuck Noll would openly call out Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville.

  • Glanville’s Oilers were the bad boys of the AFC Central in the late 1980’s, everyone hated them.

Yours truly can remember one interview where a Bengals player admitted that he almost wished injuries on the Glanville’s players, who was reputed to encourage his men to injury to opposition. Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche once went so far as to call an on-sides kick with the Bengals leading 45-0 in the third quarter. The Bengals recovered, and Wyche went for it on fourth down at mid field.

  • With Vontaze Burfict leading the way, the Cincinnati Bengals of this decade appear to be mimicking their former rivals.

Burfict reportedly celebrated after a tackle he made on Le’Veon Bell that ended his season. Video tape suggests that he attempted to injure Ben Roethlisberger. For those of you keeping score, those are three hits which, deliberately or not, injured the top three Steelers offensive starters.

Kudos to Antonio Brown for not forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones. Football is a physical game and a violent game, but playing with the intent to injury should never be part of that game.

And Kudos to Antoion Brown for focusing on what’s most important, revenge through victory on the score board, not through cheap shots.

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Chuck Noll vs Jerry Glanville Revisited

Bill Cowher won the affection of Steelers Nation because the fist-pumping, Chin Out, spit in your face coach acted out what every fan felt.

Chuck Noll personified stoicism. Noll neither ranted nor raved, didn’t high five, and rarely raised his voice. His glare, however, could melt iron.

The news of the NFL in mid October 2011 was of course the post-game handshake fracas between Jim (don’t call him John) Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz.

Nice little bit of three-penny theater no doubt, but seriously, is this the best you can do guys?

  • Back in the old AFC Central, head coaches knew how to call one another out.

On December 20th 1987 the Steelers traveled to the Houston Astrodome in a must-win game vs. the Oilers. The Steelers of course lost that day 24-16.

But that’s not what angered Chuck Noll. Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville was new the league, and made little pretension about being one of the league’s bad boys.

Glanville, it was accused, not only encouraged his men to hit hard, but to attempt to injure. After the game, Noll let him know what he thought about it (available as of 5/24/15):

It took a lot to get a rise out of Chuck Noll, but Jerry Glanville did it. It’s hard to know what he said, but one can almost discern “go after your as_.”

The Post-Gazette ran an AP article at the time which reported that Noll said such “tactics “will come back to haunt you. I’m serious.’” The Post-Gazette as reorted that Noll had also apparently issued a challenge via Oilers cornerback Steve Brown to go toe-to-toe with Glanville on the slide lines.

The Chuck Noll vs Jerry Glanville feud would rage on for three more seasons, with Glanville’s Oiler’s delivering some bitter beatings at Three Rivers Stadium in ’88 and ’89, and Noll striking back with stunning upsets in 1988 and of course in the 1989 Steelers Divisional Playoff victory over the Oilers at the Astrodome which cost Glanville his job.

It Harbaugh vs. Schwarts made for good television, no doubt.

But those guys were amateurs.

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Reflections on the Steelers-Ravens Rivalry

Tuesday: Mike Tomlin declares the Steelers-Ravens rivalry to be the “Best in the NFL.”

Wednesday: Ravens All-Star linebacker Ray Lewis reveals that he’s been texting Ben Roethlisberger offering his support.

Contradiction? The way most NFL fans like to imagine things, almost certainly.

A product of changing times? Another possibility, but maybe this has more to do with the collective memory preferences of NFL fans above a certain age.

Division rivalries, it seems, are like memories. They’re real, but instead of being something that you can put your hands on, they’re something to be experienced.

All of which makes them so difficult to define. Here’s a shot at it anyway.

Division Rivalries of Yesteryear

Upon reading Ed Bouchette’s story that Ray Lewis was offering support to Ben Roethlisberger my first thought was, “They don’t make division rivalries like they used to.”

Fans above, say 30, remember an age when things were different, or at least portrayed differently. Yours truly falls into both categories, as Steel Curtain Rising’s tribute to the 1989 Steelers testifies.

A year ago, in writing about the Steelers-Browns rivalry I had this to say:

Division rivalries are not what they used to be.

Certainly the bitterness between Baltimore and Pittsburgh runs deep. But the intensity of the Steelers modern day rivalry with the Ravens arises from the reality these two teams have been the biggest boys on the block in the AFC Central/North for a decade.

In 1989, it was different.

The hatred between the Steelers and the Browns wasn’t so much part of the job description; it was hardwired into the men’s DNA.

And that only scratches the surface. Who can forget the Browns blatant late, out of bounds hit on Mike Kruczek, and Jack Lambert’s furious reprisal?

Ah, those were the days, right?

Division Rivalries at Point-Blank Range

During this week’s chat on PG Plus with Gerry Dulac, Steel Curtain Rising probed the veteran Steeler journalist for his reaction to the apparent contradiction between Tomlin’s pronouncement and Ray Lewis’ support for Ben Roethlisberger.

Dulac’s response was surprising to say the least (apologies for the quality of the screen shot):

On the one-hand, it is hard to argue with someone who has been covering the Steelers since the 70’s. Logic demands that we accept that Gerry Dulac is in a far better position to know than you or I.

Still, part of me longs to resist this latent reality.

After all, isn’t this the same division (under a different name) that saw the normally unflappable Chuck Noll call out Jerry Glanville on the floor of the AstroDome?

Didn’t Sam Wyche once admonish fans in Cincinnati for throwing things on the field by comparing them to Cleveland Browns fans? The same Sam Wyche who a few weeks later ordered an on-sides kick against Glanville’s Oilers while leading 45-0?

Shifting sports, the news about Lewis and Roethlisberger calls to mind an interview with Kevin McHale before his final season with the Celtics, where he lamented, “You know, I liked it when we hated the Lakers… Now everyone has the same agent and hugs and kisses before and after the games.”

Sorry Gerry, but I can’t accept you word. They don’t make division rivalries like they used to….

…Or Do they?

It Was Never As Good As It Was in the Good Old Days

Reminiscing about how good things were in the Good Old Days dates back to Greek Mythology and probably beyond that.

And that brings me back to Gerry Dulac’s final statement.

“Just because you now know that Lewis and Big Ben have been texting, do you think those past games between the teams were any less nasty or violent??”

Free agency might have take a slight edge off of division rivalries overall, and technology has probably weakened the façade that they once presented.

But no one in his right mind would dispute Dulac’s statement about the intensity of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry on the field.

I will not predict what will happen on the scoreboard Sunday at Heinz Field, but I say this with certainty.

  • The hits will be hard. The play will be intense. And the final outcome will likely remain in doubt until the final gun.

In other words, on Sunday afternoon the banks of Pittsburgh’s North Shore will feature the very the essence of a division rivalry.

Just like it did in days long gone bye, and just like it will in days to come.

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Steelers Defeat Titans 19-11, in Tennesse

Regardless of our demise being reported, we expect to win…. We’re a little bit annoyed to be quite honest about our premature reporting of our death.Mike Tomlin

Raise your hands, raise them high where everyone can see them. How many people penciled in a big “L” for today when the schedule was released?

How many people thought, with a 1-8 record in Nashville, and without Roethlisberger, that the Steelers didn’t stand a chance?

Come on, raise those hands, I know I’ve raised mine.

They’d never admit it, but there are probably several people in the Steelers organization who also wrote this one off as an “L,” although there’s no way to be certain.

One thing, however, is certain,

  • Mike Tomlin wasn’t one of them.

Play of the Game

The Steelers set the tone early and decisively by calling a reverse on the opening kick off which rookie Antonio Brown took 83 yards for the game’s only touchdown.

Those seven points proved to be vital down the stretch but, beyond the points, the message implicit was equally important, “We are not conceding this game.”

Once the special teams established the tone, the defense simply dominated.

The Spirit of Shayne Edge Lives On

The Steelers and the Titans used to be Division rivals dating back to the Titan’s days as the Houston Oilers in the old AFC Central.

The animosity between the two teams heated up a notch when the Oilers moved to Tennessee. How do we know?

In their first game after the move to the Volunteer State had been announced, Shayne Edge, the Steelers backup punter, got ejected from the game for fighting – you know things are bitter when your punter gets tossed from the game for mixing it up.

Today’s game lacked nothing for intensity, with the sideline scuffles and hard hits. It was everything a game with the Titans should be.

Defense Delivers, Defense Dominates

So sometimes when people write that we’re not going to be very good or maybe they’ll go 2-2 or 1-3 when Ben out, that’s a lot of the stuff that pisses us off.” – Chris Hoke

Everyone knew that the Steelers would need to lean on their defense and lean on them hard. What no one could be quite sure about, was whether the unit would deliver.

Today we have that answer, and as a result the Roethlisbergerless Steelers are 2-0.

Any adjective attached to Chris Johnson’s name will fail to do him justice. Not only did he run for 2000 plus yards in his sophomore season, he entered today’s game with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average.

Emmit Smith’s was lower at a comparable point in his career, and Johnson’s average even best’s Barry Sanders’ by a hair. The Bus? Not even close.

When you face a player of Johnson’s caliber the old ESPN NFL PrimeTime adage is, “You can’t hope to stop him, you can only hope to contain him.”

  • Don’t tell that to Dick LeBeau’s defense, who stopped Johnson cold.

And they did it missing their starting nose tackle and while rotating in Nick Eason, Ziggy Hood, and Steve McClendon.

The Steel Curtain, 2010 edition played a flawless game, led by Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Troy Polamalu. This group of players were relentless. Relentless in containing Johnson, relentless in pounding receivers, relentless in tormenting Titans quarterbacks Vince Neil and Kerry Collins.

The scoreboard might show 11 points, but in truth, the Steelers defense pitched a near shutout.

Given that it came so early in the season, against a team of undefined quality, it may never get recognized as such, but this may have very well been one of the finest defensive performances in franchise history.

Offense, Half Full or Half Empty?

Man, I don’t know who we had in there for a spell there.” – Mike Tomlin on the injuries to the offensive line.

When your defense causes 7 turnovers, you have the right to expect your team to score 30 or more points. Instead, the Steelers offense put up 12, all off of Jeff Reed’s foot.

The numbers behind those points look even more grim, as the Steelers:

  • Went 2-15 on third downs (that’s 13%),
  • Gave up 4 sacks,
  • averaged a collective 2.65 yards a carry when you take out Dennis Dixon’s 21 yards scramble

Steelers Nation should not ignore the warning signs implicit in these stats, but nor should they be taken with undue alarm.

Mendenhall ground out 23 carries and earned a respectable 3.0 yard average against a very tough front seven that knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.

Charlie Batch might have only gone 5 for 11, but he has seen little time with the first unit, and was playing, at times, with 3rd and 4th string tackles Tony Hills and Jonathan Scott. And while their play left a lot to be desired, Tony Hills has made tremendous strides, and could have done worse in his first real NFL action.

Above all, the offense avoided any costly mistakes.

The offense is going to need to do more in the future, but against the Titans it was enough to carry the day.

It is good to be 2-0.

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