Does Steelers + Pats – Ben & Brady = True Test of Tomlin vs. Belichick? Time to Find Out

When Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers welcome Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots tomorrow at Acrisure Stadium tomorrow it will mark the first Steelers-Pats contest since 1998 without Tom Brady and/or Ben Roethlisberger. 1998. We’ll get to what this means for the coaches in a minute.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin vs. Bill Belichick

Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick at the then Heinz Field in 2010. Photo Credit: Eagle Tribune.

  • But first, let Brady-Roethlisberger factoid sink in.

While that 1998 Steelers squad did feature rookies  like Hines Ward and Alan Faneca who saw action in the Tomlin-era Steelers-Patriots series, it also had players like Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake – who were drafted by Chuck Noll.

  • Yeah, Brady has been tormenting the Steelers for a long time.

But this isn’t a nostalgia piece about Steelers history vs. the Patriots, as we’ve already covered that in detail, but rather one about the interplay between team, individual, and coaching records.

Of Quarterbacks, Records, Rivals and Coaches

As sports fans, we love to talk about So-and-So’s record against Such-and-Such. Numbers don’t lie and sometimes the picture they a cut and dried picture. Tom Brady owned the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those wins were sweet! But if Steelers fans are to take off their Black and Gold tinted glasses, they’ll see that those wins tell us law of averages than about the completive balance between the two teams.

If you dig a little deeper, you could perhaps say that as legitimate franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers had a chance against the GOAT. With Kordell Stewart? Not so much. But what about the coaches?

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Those with short memories are likely to conclude that the record proves that Bill Belichick is also better the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, because he’s shared in Brady’s success against the Steelers.

  • But is that really accurate?

The one time, in 2008, when Bill Belichick bring Tom Brady to his fight against Mike Tomlin, the Steelers creamed him. In contrast, the onetime Mike Tomlin faced off against Billy Belichick with Landry Jones as his standard bearer, Jones kept the Patriots honest until the Steelers got Gronked.

So just how much could you, or should you untether a coach’s ability from the performance of his franchise quarterback? That’s a hard question to answer. Chuck Noll and Mark Malone  beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Twice.

No one in their right minds would argue that those outcomes suggest that Mark Malone was a better quarterback than Joe Montana. It’s hard to even write that denial without snickering.

Yet, on the flip side, I unhesitatingly use the 1984 Steelers and 1987 Steelers wins over the 49ers as proof that, in terms of pure coaching ability Chuck Noll was at least the equal of not the superior of Bill Walsh (heck with that, Noll was the better than Walsh! To show that I’m not biased, I’ll also cite Joe Gibbs’ 3-0 record over Noll as proof of Gibbs’ superiority.)

  • Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick’s record against the Steelers is a rather pedestrian 9-3.

That’s right ladies and gentleman. Remember this for Final Jeopardy:

The Answer – “He’s the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback with a perfect record against Bill Belichick.”
The Question – “Who is Bubby Brister?”

Bubster led the Steelers to victory over Bill Belichick’s Browns Chuck Noll’s final game in 1991, and then for an encore closed Bill Cowher’s ’92 Steelers season by quarterbacking Steelers to another win over Cleveland.

Brister, like Brady, Ben and Bill Cowher, is long gone, giving way to Mike Tomlin and Mitch Trubisky vs.Billy Belichick and  Mac Jones. For the record, going into this game Mike Tomlin is 3-7 against Belichick.

Will this downgrading of quarterbacks for both coaches give us a chance to truly gauged one coach’s talent against the other’s?

  • Objectively, probably not.

But if the T.J. Wattless, crappy offensive line Steelers do beat the Patriots tomorrow, you’d better believe this scribe is gonna say its offers evidence that Tomlin is a better coach than Belichick.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”

  • Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?

Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.

Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.

Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.

Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.

The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.

But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.

 

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T.J. Watt’s Comments about the Steelers QB Situation Were Perfectly Fine

It seems that the Steelers, the media that covers them, and their fans can’t stop talking about the uncertainty at the quarterback position.

That’s fair. Ben Roethlisberger literally just retired, and the Steelers, the folks that cover them and the fans that support them are in uncharted territory–or at least territory that hasn’t been charted since before Roethlisberger’s rookie season nearly 18 years ago.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

This explains the non-stop speculation and thirst for news regarding a decision that Pittsburgh’s brass really can’t make for at least a month when the NFL’s new calendar year begins along with unrestricted free agency.

But it doesn’t explain the media’s obsession with the words of superstar outside linebacker and newly-minted Defensive Player of the Year recipient, T.J. Watt when he appeared on the AP Pro Football Podcast on the eve of Super Bowl LVI.

Of the many subjects broached was the Steelers uncertainty at quarterback heading into the 2022 offseason and what Watt thought about that. Below is a comment that the media took and spent days trying to mine as much controversy out of as possible:

We’ll see what happens at the quarterback position. I trust the guys upstairs to be able to bring a guy in that can win us some games, and I’m gonna do everything in my power to take care of things on the defensive side of the ball.

You talk about making a mountain out of a molehill, which was also what the media did earlier in the offseason when rookie running back Najee Harris appeared on a podcast and named just about every potential quarterback for the Steelers in 2022 except the ones that were already on the roster–including Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In regards to Mason Rudolph, that’s who the media said t.J. Watt threw under the bus when he said he had hope that the Steelers would bring a quarterback in to help them win next year. This was taken as a disrespectful slight at Rudolph, the 2018 third-round draft pick and the team’s backup quarterback since 2019.

First of all, it’s hard to know for sure what T.J. Watt meant by “bring a guy in.” Watt may actually want his bosses to bring a new passer into the fold, but his comment could have also meant that he trusted the team to find the best possible quarterback — even if that’s Rudolph or Haskins.

  • But even if Watt really was throwing shade at Rudolph, can you blame him?

After all, T.J. Watt is now the reigning DPOY, which means he’s considered to be the very best player in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball — or at least in the conversation with the likes of Aaron Donald. Is it so wild and disrespectful that Watt wouldn’t believe in Rudolph’s abilities at this point? Rudolph has appeared in 17 games as the Steelers quarterback and has done virtually nothing — he’s completed 236 of 384 passes for 2,366 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — to make anyone but his mom think, “Wow, this is the Steelers future starting quarterback.”

Like any other player in his prime, Watt wants to win now, as do other Steelers greats–including Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s understandable that there would be concern about the immediate future of their franchise when the franchise quarterback of 18 years just retired.

Speaking of Roethlisberger, this Watt “controversy” takes me back to Roethlisberger’s first year and first start early in the 2004 campaign.

The Steelers were heading into a Week 3 showdown against the Dolphins in Miami and were doing so without Tommy Maddox, their starter the previous two seasons, and Charlie Batch, their primary backup, who were both out with injuries.

The Maddox injury occurred in a Week 2 loss to the Ravens, and with Batch unavailable, Roethlisberger was thrust into action a lot quicker than anyone had anticipated.

Alan Faneca, Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Ravens

Hall of Fame Guard Alan Faneca was forced to play tackle at times during 2003. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, AP via the Athletic

Ben Roethlisberger performed well enough that day at M&T Bank Stadium but viewing things in the context of the time, nobody could have envisioned that No. 7 would go on to be perhaps the greatest quarterback in Steelers history while leading them to three Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi Trophies.

Alan Faneca, a decorated guard in the prime of his career, certainly didn’t think so at the time, and he didn’t mind voicing his opinion to reporters in the days leading up to the game against the Dolphins:

“Exciting?” Faneca said back then in a quote courtesy of 93.7 The Fan.  “No, it’s not exciting.  Do you want to go work with some little young kid who’s just out of college?”

Like Watt and the Steelers, today, Faneca and his veteran teammates probably felt like they were at a crossroads in 2004 in terms of how competitive the organization would be in the coming years. After making it to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, Pittsburgh sunk to 6-10 in 2003.

Now, thanks to an injury suffered by Maddox, the Steelers would likely have to go with an unknown rookie at quarterback for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, Roethlisberger made history that year by winning all of his starts and leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

  • Looking back on Roethlisberger’s career, it’s easy to laugh at Faneca’s remarks 18 years later, but he was right.

The rookie quarterback had to prove himself to his veteran teammates, which he did in the best way possible.

Of course, I’m not trying to say that Rudolph has the talent to have the same kind of career as Roethlisberger. What I am saying is that he has a lot to prove to not only his coaches and the fans, but to his teammates. He has to earn their trust. He has to prove to them — more than anyone else–that he has what it takes to be their new leader and help them win games and get to where they want to be.

T.J. Watt has earned the right to voice his concerns about the Steelers’ future at quarterback, and if that hurts Mason Rudolph’s psyche, well, he’s just going to have to do something about it and prove himself once and for all.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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Steelers Nation Matured with Bill Cowher as He Validated Mom’s Wisdom

Today, Bill Cowher enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame 29 years after becoming Steelers coach in January 1992.

“Passionate” “Inspiring” “Intense” “Daring” “Emotional” “Intimidating” “Fiery” “Boisterous” “Balanced” are all excellent words that describe Bill Cowher. Yet most Steelers fans could have applied these adjectives to The Chin before he’d even coached a half season’s worth of games.

Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 16 years. As we observed in the intro to “The Cowher Years” the series, the world changed tremendously during his time. And it is through change that we learn the most.

To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them and to re-experience all of the change wrought by them.

  • So what did Steelers Nation learn and what did it gain from Bill Cowher’s time in Pittsburgh?

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via Daily Record

Vindicating Faith

Generation X occupies a curious spot within Steelers Nation. Unlike the our Depression Era grandparents and our War Baby/Boomer parents, we never experienced the perpetual losing SOS (Same Old Steelers.)

  • But unlike the millennials, we did live through the 80’s, when the Steelers muddled through mediocrity.

Yet, as children of the ’70’s we had been young enough to actually believe that “We Are the Champions” really was written for Steelers. And this instilled in us an unshakable faith that someday, I daresay, the Steel Curtain would Rise Again.

Chalk some of that up to naiveté of youth, says the writer who scoffed at winning “The Aikman Derby” because, “The Steelers don’t need to draft Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister!

But the 1989 Steelers breathed new life into those hopes. And if 1990 disappointed, the logic behind Bob Labriola’s favorable position-by-position post-season comparison between the Steelers and the surprise Super Bowl Champion Giants was sound.

The Steelers had the pieces needed to be champions. Chuck Noll felt so himself, but admitted to his wife during the 1991 season that he couldn’t coach them up to that level.

And in writing about the early Cowher years, it occurred to me that during the early 1990’s, Steelers Nation experienced what it was like in the 70’s when the team was on the rise. Winning was novel. Winning was fun. And it was pure.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

I’ll never forget answering the door 2 days after Christmas at my grandma’s house in Baldwin, moments after the 1992 Steelers closed with a win over the Browns. I greeted a teenage paper boy sporting a Steelers hat, Steelers jacket and Steelers T-shirt and huge simile tattooed across his face. I’d been to Pittsburgh scores of times through the 80’s, but I hadn’t seen that enthusiasm since the late 70’s.

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

Not only were the Steelers finally playing the Championship Caliber football that they could have and should have been playing before, but they were playing the Championship Caliber football that we fans felt we deserved to see them play.

That feeling reached its peak when Yancey Thigpen took out his Terrible Towel in the end zone 1994 AFC playoff win the Browns.

A generation of Steelers fans felt like we were were finally claiming our birthright!

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

As we know too well, a week later Alfred Pupunu broke the magic spell that Thigpen’s Terrible Towel twirl had cast. That loss, ugly as it was, fostered a transition in how Steelers Nation perceived its beloved team.

The Steelers of the 70’s might not have been the Greek gods that NFL Films portrays them as, but they were modern day Epic heroes, Goliaths, if you will. In contrast, the Steelers of the 1990’s, ever struggling against the salary cap, played the role of Davids.

  • And that perception was grounded in a bit of reality.

The Steelers Digest once ran covers of Rod Woodson dressed as Superman and another of Greg Lloyd posing with a Darth Vader helmet. Both motifs were appropriate.

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

But I’ll simply observe, with my heart full of love for Number 26 and Number 95, that Jack Lambert never needed costume department props to stage his iconic photo.

  • The “David” role suited the Steelers and Steelers Nation well.

But it also confronted some hard realities. In Super Bowl XXX team “David” came far closer to slaying team “Goliath” than anyone expected. But when David’s sling is quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Goliath has Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman as his sword, Goliath is going to win most of time, especially if David’s sling fires at the wrong team, twice.

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

Let’s be honest. The “David” complex led to a bit of self-righteousness on the part of Steelers Nation. Who didn’t snicker when Tom Donahoe waived off Eric Green and Woodson’s requests to return with his “Salvation Army” comment? I know I did.

Well, they defied gravity until they couldn’t. The Cowher-Donahoe dispute proved that, even if the Steelers do run one of the better, more people-friendly organizations in the NFL, they are not immune from the poisons of petty personnel disputes and ego clashes.

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

The fact that the Steelers were able to return to contender status so fast after the dark days of 1998 and 1999, attests to how well the organization was run. Yet, before the 21st century was even a half decade old, the Steelers had played two more AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh and lost both of them.

Players who could have, and should have helped bring One for the Thumb back to Pittsburgh, guys like Mark Bruener, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake gave way to players like Heath Miller, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, and yet the Super Bowl remained distant. To repeat:

  • To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them.

With passing article in the Cowher Years series, the feelings generated by those inopportune interceptions, blocked kicks, free agent departures, blown calls and those lost AFC Championships grew more acute.

And it reminded me of something my mother told me in 1980 when I was a 3rd grader complaining that the Steelers weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Here is her response:

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Ben Roethlisberger and Bill Cowher in the final moments of Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey, AP via The Athletic.

“If the Steelers won the Super Bowl every year, it wouldn’t be special.”

Mom was right, as she (almost) always is. By the mid 00s, instead of expecting a Super Bowl, many Steelers fans feared they’d never see one. Of course Dan Rooney steered Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And while Big Ben didn’t deliver in his first season, he did in his second.

Bill Cowher could finally make good on his promise to Dan Rooney. He brought home the 5th Lombardi.

And when it finally happened, one Steelers scribe had the maturity to appreciate just how special it was.

Thank you Bill. May your bust in Canton shine forever!

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

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

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

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

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

Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Chad Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

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

The quick answer: no.

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

Rodney Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Marvel Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2003 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Final Chapter of a Strange Era

Coming off back-to-back playoff runs that ended short of the crown, both Steelers Nation and the Steelers organization entered 2003 re-energized. Bill Cowher had weathered a turbulent three-year period from 1998-2000 and rebuilt his team into the same bona fide contender it had been in the early-to-late-’90s.

  • But of course the goal is to be a champion, not a contender.

Hope that the Steelers could finally do that in 2003 had been given new life thanks to Tommy Maddox. Maddox had come out out of nowhere to help rescue a 2002 Steelers season that was quickly imploding. “Tommy Gun” was the toast of the town for his guts, his bravado and his ability to lead a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t really been seen in Pittsburgh since Terry Bradshaw’s time.

With Kordell Stewart‘s departure in the offseason, there was no doubt who the Steelers starting signal-caller would be in 2003.

The Steelers had thrown that lot in with Maddox, and the season would rise and fall with his success.

Tommy Maddox, Ed Hartwell, Steelers vs Ravens

Ed Hartwell brings Tommy Maddox down. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

Critical Seeds Planted During the 2003 Off Season

Other than Stewart, there weren’t any notable departures. Outside of adding tight end Jay Riemersma, you could say the same for free-agent acquisitions, as Pittsburgh would be entering the ’03 campaign with the roster that won back-to-back division titles mostly intact.

Troy Polamalu draft

Troy Polamalu. Photo Credit: WTAE.com

The 2003 NFL Draft was noteworthy for the fact that the Steelers, in a rare move for the organization, took a huge gamble and traded up 11 spots from 27 in order to select USC safety Troy Polamalu with the 16th pick. Polamalu appeared to be the prototypical strong safety for the Steelers 3/4 zone-blitz defense, so trading up seemed like a calculated risk worth taking.

Because Pittsburgh had to give up a few picks in the trade with the Chiefs–in addition to the Steelers’ first-round pick, Kansas City also received a 2003 third and sixth-round pick–the 2003 draft class consisted of just five players, with other notable members being outside linebacker Alonzo Jackson (second round, Florida State) and cornerback Ike Taylor (fourth round, Louisiana-Lafayette).

In training camp news, Amos Zereoue, in a development that seemed to be inevitable based on the previous season, beat out the very popular Jerome Bettis in a battle for the starting running back spot. It was certainly a great opportunity for Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in 1999, and perhaps signified the beginning of the end for the 31-year old Bettis, who had been battling injuries the previous few seasons.

Tragedy nearly struck the organization at the tail-end of training camp, when outside linebacker Joey Porter was shot outside a Denver nightclub while in town to watch his alma mater, Colorado State, take on rival Colorado in an early-season college matchup. Fortunately, Porter wasn’t critically wounded, as the bullet entered his buttock and lodged in his thigh. Porter’s recovery time was brief, and he actually appeared in 14 games in ’03.

Steelers Open 2003 with “Ominous” Win

With the Porter incident behind them, the Steelers opened up the season with an impressive 34-15 victory over the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field. Tommy Maddox passed for 260 yards and three touchdowns on the day –including two to receiver Hines Ward — as the offense, specifically the passing attack, appeared to pick right up where it left off the previous season.

  • 2003 marked the first opening day win for the Steelers since the 1999 season.

Both the 1999 and 1998 seasons had opened with wins but ended with ugly implosions. Could and opening day win be an ominous sign? 

After splitting their next two games on the road — including a 41-20 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium that was a little closer than the final score indicated and a win over the Cincinnati Bengals — the Steelers were sitting at 2-1.

With both victories coming against AFC North foes, Pittsburgh looked poised to win its third-straight division title.

Injuries and Miscalculations Doom 2003 Steelers

Then the wheels fell off.

The Steelers lost their next five games to fall to 2-6 at the halfway mark of the season. Perhaps the most noteworthy losses during this streak were the two that started it — back-to-back blowout home defeats at the hands of the Titans and Browns, respectively.

Andre Davis, Chad Scott, Steelers vs Browns 2003

Andre Davis scores a touchdown as Chad Scott is too late. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP, Via USA Today

The offense wasn’t clicking. The defense was failing. This included the rookie Troy Polamalu, who certainly wasn’t the phenom he would one day become, as he struggled to grasp the Steelers’ very complicated zone-blitz scheme.

As for Amos Zereoue and his starting opportunity, it was an epic fail; he started just six games and rushed for a total of 433 yards. Bettis won back his starting job by season’s end and tallied 811 yards, while also eclipsing the 12,000-yard mark for his legendary career.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Steelers’ failures in ’03 had to do with a sudden love affair with the passing game.

While Tommy Maddox wasn’t necessarily horrible in his first full year as a starter–he passed for 3,414 yards while throwing 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — he clearly wasn’t capable of carrying an offense, especially one that would go on to finish 31st in rushing — a result that seemed inexplicable for a Cowher coached team.

Jerome Bettis, Nick Ferguson, Steelers vs Broncos

Nick Ferguson forces a Jerome Bettis fumble. Photo Credit: Michael Martin, Getty Images, via the Denver Post.

  • This result was inexplicable even if you factor in the injuries decimated the offensive line. 

A neck injury cost left tackle Marvel Smith most of the season. During training camp Kendall Simmons experienced a sudden weight loss and was diagnosed with diabetes which disrupted his ability to play. Things got so bad that by mid season, Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle for a few games, and in a few other contests Faneca was rotating between the two positions depending on which down it was. 

But even if injuries made the Steelers offensive line into a liability, the team simply lacked a commitment to the run, as evidenced by Mike Mularkey’s decision to call 38 pass plays on the in near blizzard like conditions in a road game against the New York Jets — which the Steelers lost 6 to 0.

A False Shot at the Playoffs and a False Prophecy

Even as the Steelers languished near the bottom of the AFC North, there was hope. Hope because the AFC North was one of the NFL’s worst divisions that year. After a thrilling 13-6 road victory over the Browns on November 23,  The Steelers sat at 4-7 and were just two games behind the Ravens, with a Week 17 matchup between the two rivals still on the horizon.

Curtis Martin, Ike Taylor, Steelers vs Jets

Ike Taylor tries to tackle Curtis Martin. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images and JetsFactor.com

  • In other words, believe it or not, the Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs. 

Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed thanks to losses in two of the next three games — including a last-second defeat against the Bengals at Heinz Field the following week and the fore-mentioned infamous 6-0 loss to the Jets at Giants Stadium on December 14.

The Steelers and Ravens still met on Sunday Night Football to close the season. And although neither team had anything to play for, both teams fought as if a playoff berth were on the line. In fact, Bill Cowher opened the 2nd half by calling a fake punt, which tied the score, and then the Steelers went ahead late in the fourth.

  • The Ravens tied the game with a 46 yard field goal and then one it in over time with another 47.

The Steelers would ultimately finish third in the division with a 6-10 record, as Baltimore captured the North with a 10-6 mark.

For Bill Cowher, it was his fourth playoff-less season in six years and the second time his teams finished 6-10 since 1999. In many ways, the 2003 campaign felt like the final chapter of a wacky, unstable and topsy turvy era that began with the five-game losing streak that closed out the 1998 season.

Indeed, in the pages of the Steelers Digest Bob Labriola cautioned fans to look at 2003’s disappointments the way one would view someone with a weight problem — who didn’t gain that weight over night, nor would they lose it overnight.

Sure, the 6-10 finish earned Pittsburgh the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but its not the Steelers were only one player away from re-opening their Super Bowl window, were they? 

Yes, the Steelers 2003 season felt like an end to an era. That feeling turned out to be true. 

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2002 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rise Of Tommy Gun

Coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, coupled with yet another disappointing home loss in the AFC title game — this time, to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New England PatriotsBill Cowher and the Steelers entered the 2002 campaign in the old familiar position of trying to take it one or two steps further and finally capture the Super Bowl title that had proven to be so elusive during the 1990s.

  • Cowher and company had been down that road before.

Yet during the 2002 season the path that Bill Cowher would lead the Steelers on would take twists and turns that few, if any, could have anticipated.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season

Free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh had been a huge part of the Steelers story in the 1990s. Dan Rooney and Steelers management argued taht the team simply lacked the finances without a new stadium. Fans simply called the Rooney’s “cheap.”

  • However, when Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Rooneys kept their word and invested those new revenues into the roster. 

In fact, the only notable departures of the Steelers 2002 offseason were receiver Troy Edwards, who was traded to the Rams after three rather disappointing seasons for 13th overall pick of the 1999 NFL Draft; and kicker Kris Brown, another member of the 1999 draft class, who mysteriously lost his touch after the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001.

Earl Holmes, a linebacker taken by the Steelers during the 1996 NFL Draft also departed. But it was his departure that paved the way for one of the most important free agency signings in franchise history.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Browns

James Farrior in the Steelers September 2002 overtime win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers had wanted to retain Holmes and made him a generous offer. But when Holmes decided to shop that offer, Dan Rooney was not happy and told Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to “Sign the other guy.”  That other guy was James Farrior, a former first-round pick of the Jets, who would switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and is easily one of the franchise’s best free agency signings.

Other free agent pick ups included kicker Todd Peterson, receiver Terance Mathis and quarterback Charlie Batch, a Pittsburgh native, were some of the most notable signings.

The 2002 NFL Draft was a rather successful one for the Steelers, even if it wouldn’t prove to be totally fruitful for a few more years. Some members did make immediate impacts, however. First-round pick, Kendall Simmons, a guard from LSU, started 14 games, while second-round pick, Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who played quarterback at Indiana, was a major contributor right away on offense, with 47 receptions.

Randle El even completed seven of eight passes when called upon to play quarterback in specialty packages. Randle El was also a dynamic return specialist, averaging nearly seven yards per punt return and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Bengals on October 13.

To reiterate, the 2002 Steelers were mostly the same team from the previous season and one looking to get over the hump. In order to do so, they would need quarterback Kordell Stewart, an embattled player who had a bit of a career resurgence in 2001, to up his game a little more after struggling mightily in the title game loss to New England.

Fortunately for Stewart, he would have help in the form of a receiving corps that included Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, along with a ground attack led by veteran running back, Jerome Bettis, and fourth-year man, Amos Zereoue. As for the defense, it was expected to be its usual dominant self, following an ’01 campaign where it finished first in total yards and registered 55 sacks.

Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts

Unfortunately, things couldn’t have started off worse for the Steelers, Stewart and even the defense.

Pittsburgh opened its ’02 campaign with a blowout road loss to the defending champions, a Patriots team that christened its new home, Gillette Stadium, with a 30-14 victory. Stewart struggled, sure, but so did a defense that had no answers for Tom Brady and New England’s passing attack.

In the second-to-last game of the 2001 season, an overtime road loss to the Bengals, former Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau and former Steelers wide recievers coach Bob Bartowski successfully exploited their old team’s zone-blitz defense — one that he helped to develop–by spreading it out and utilizing quick passes.

The Patriots used this blueprint to frustrate Pittsburgh’s defense all night long. The following week, in the team’s home-opener vs. the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, quarterback Rich Gannon took it a step further by completing 43 of 64 passes for 403 yards in a 27-17 victory. While Stewart wasn’t totally horrible in this game, he did turn the ball over twice — including an interception and a fumble.

  • All-in-all, Pittsburgh committed five turnovers on the night, as the team dropped to 0-2.

With the Steelers already heading into their bye, they now had two weeks to stew in their nightmarish start.

The Tommy Gun Era Begins

How would Stewart and the team respond when the Browns came to Heinz Field in Week 4? Much the same — at least for Stewart. While the defense managed to have its best game to date, Stewart struggled to get much of anything going, and the team trailed, 13-6, late in the fourth quarter.

It was at this point that Cowher decided to insert Tommy Maddox, a veteran signed to be the backup the year before, into the starting lineup. Maddox immediately ignited the offense and produced the game-tying touchdown on a 10-yard strike to Burress with 2:05 remaining. The game ultimately went into overtime, where Peterson gave the Steelers their first win with a 31-yard field goal. In under a quarter of action, Maddox completed 11 of 13 passes for 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Cowher decided to go with Maddox, the former first-round pick by the Broncos who was getting another chance in the NFL after re-starting his football career in the XFL and Arena Football League, as his starter the following week and never looked back. Unfortunately, the defense struggled again in a 32-29 loss to the Saints, and Pittsburgh sat at 1-3 after four games.

Thankfully, the newly-christened AFC North Division was a rather mediocre one, and the Steelers still had a chance to get back into the race, which they did thanks to a four-game winning streak — including three victories over divisional rivals.

Terry Bradshaw Heinz Field

Terry Bradshaw embraced at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

After feuding with his old coach, Chuck Noll, as well as the fans of Pittsburgh for nearly two decades following his retirement, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was honored at halftime of a 28-10 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football. The folks in attendance at Heinz Field gave Bradshaw a standing ovation and let him know that they loved and appreciated him more than he ever realized.

It was a fitting night to honor Bradshaw, because Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” helped to change the offense’s identity and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since perhaps the Blond Bomber’s heyday of the late-’70s.

One week after a surreal 34-34 home tie against the Falcons in a game in which Pittsburgh led, 34-17, in the fourth quarter, Maddox was seriously injured in a 31-23 loss to the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum. Maddox was temporarily paralyzed following a hit and had to be taken to a nearby hospital.

Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Titans

Tommy Maddox suffers a spinal contusion in 2002. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Thankfully for Maddox, the injury turned out to be a spinal contusion; he would be okay and would ultimately miss just two games.

  • In the meantime, the Steelers stood at 5-4-1, and their season was clearly at a crossroads.

The Steelers would have to turn back to Kordell Stewart, the quarterback the fans had completely divorced themselves from emotionally, to get their season back on track. Muddying the waters, even more, were the struggles of Peterson, who had only connected on 12 of 21 field goals through 10 games and was cut after missing two attempts against the Titans. The Steelers had to hold kicking tryouts right in the middle of a season that looked to be spiraling out of control.

  • Jeff Reed, an unknown who played his college ball at North Carolina, won the job and was the Steelers new kicker.

Kordell Stewart quietly guided the Steelers to two late-season victories over the Bengals and Jaguars, respectively (Reed, in just his second game, kicked a 50-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that provided the winning points in the win over Jacksonville), and had them sitting at 7-4-1 for Maddox’s return to the lineup in a home date vs. the expansion Houston Texans on December 8. In a surreal turn of events the Steelers outgained Houston on the day, 422-47, but lost, 24-6, thanks to three turnovers by Maddox — including a fumble and two interceptions–that were returned for scores.

The Steelers rebounded from what could have been a devastating December home loss and won their last three regular-season games to capture the first  AFC North title with a 10-5-1 record.

Maddox passed for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions after being inserted into the lineup, numbers that helped earn him the nickname, Tommy Gun.

Plaxico Burress, Steelers vs Browns

Plaxico Burress scores the game trying touchdown in the Steelers OT win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Hines Ward became the first receiver in franchise history to catch 100 passes when he reeled in 112 for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Plaxcio Burress added 1,325 receiving yards on 78 catches, as Pittsburgh finished eighth in the league in passing.

Despite taking a backseat to the passing attack, Pittsburgh’s ground game still managed to produce, finishing ninth in the league with 2,120 yards. Amos Zereoue actually paced the rushing attack with 762 yards, while Jerome Bettis added 666.

  • The defense rebounded from that horrific start, finishing seventh in total yards and recording another 50 sacks.

The defense did struggle on third down all season long, however –something that would haunt it in the playoffs–and finished 27th in that category.

The Steelers didn’t capture the first or even the second seed. Instead, they would begin their postseason journey on Wildcard Weekend as the third seed in a matchup against Cleveland at Heinz Field.

Wild Card: Steelers Browns Fight in Barn Burner at Heinz Field

Things looked bleak for most of the game, as the sixth-seeded Browns opened up a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter and led, 33-21, late into the final period. With Heinz Field mostly empty, however, Maddox led an historic comeback.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Not long after finding Hines Ward for a five-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining, Maddox and the offense were back on the field, as Cleveland failed to pick up a first down that would have iced the game. With just 54 seconds left in the game, reserve running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, scored from three yards out to give Pittsburgh a 34-33 lead. Randle El then hit tight end Jerame Tuman for the two-point conversion to make it 36-33. The Browns desperately tried to drive down the field to get in position for a game-tying field goal but ultimately ran out of time.

Divisoinal Playoffs: “…And the Oscar Goes to Joe Needley

Six days later, it was onto Tennessee to take on a Titans squad that had given Pittsburgh fits over the years.

This was mainly due to quarterback Steve McNair, a man who was a bit of a precursor to Brady, in that he had a knack for making Pittsburgh’s defense look foolish.

Sure enough, the defense struggled, so did Maddox, as Tennessee jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. The Steelers fought back, however, and scored 20 unanswered points and finally took the lead early in the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Amos Zereoue.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with Pittsburgh taking a 31-28 lead on a 40-yard field goal by Reed midway through the final period.

After the Titans soon tied the score on a field goal by Joe Nedney, it looked like the Steelers were in prime position to complete another comeback when an unnecessary roughness penalty set them up at the Tennessee 40 yard line with less than two minutes left in regulation. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t advance another inch and ultimately needed a Nedney missed field goal from 48 yards out to send the game into overtime.

Dwyane Washington, Joe Nedney, Steelers vs Titans

Dwayne Washington in the act of “roughing the kicker.” Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.

After driving deep into Pittsburgh territory, the Titans sent Nedney out to end things from 31 yards away. He missed. Only problem was, cornerback Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker. The call was questionable, but Nedney got another chance from five yards closer. He didn’t miss this one, and the Steelers fell, 34-31.

  • It was an emotional end to one of the most up-and-down seasons of Bill Cowher’s coaching career.

Despite its soul-crushing conclusion, however, the Steelers ’02 campaign will always be remembered as the year a journeyman quarterback came out of nowhere to save a season that may have otherwise ended long before the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

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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.

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