Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Fighting to the End: Chiefs Beat Steelers 42-21 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Finale, but Big Ben Gives It His All

The record will reflect that the Ben Roethlisberger Era ended with the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card at Arrowhead Stadium on January 16th 2022.

  • Disappointing? Yes, absolutely. Surprising? Absolutely. Not.

IF the 2021 Steelers’ erratic nature led to eerie feelings about the franchise’s future, the Ben Roethlisberger era appeared destined to end on a bright note. The emotional farewell at Heinz Field against the Browns, the comeback win over the Ravens on the road and the surprise playoff slot all seemed to be building up to something.

The 2021 Steelers believed in themselves. JuJu Smith-Schuster came off of IR adding his momentum. Surely, even if the Steelers couldn’t upset the Chiefs, they’d take Kansas City to the wire, perhaps just falling short on the final play, Friday Night Lights fashion.

  • That didn’t happen.

That didn’t happen because as the game unfolded, it became clear that adrenaline and not belief was the Steelers secret weapon, and when the adrenaline wore off, the Chiefs’ superior talent took over. And it wasn’t pretty.

Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, 2021 AFC Wild Card, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Ben Roethlisberger, fighting to the end. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

Hines Ward once likened the difference in the intensity between the playoffs and the regular season to the difference between the regular and preseason. Things move faster. Hits get harder. Mistakes magnify.

  • While it will quickly be forgotten, the Steelers defense actually started this game strong.

On the Chiefs first series the Steelers forced a punt. Cam Sutton blew up a screen to Mecole Hardman for a loss and Tre Norwood followed by breaking up a pass to Travis Kelce. On the second series Chris Wormley broke up another pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, while Minkah Fitzpatrick stopped Byron Pringle a cold yard short of the 1st down marker, leading to another punt.

Really, if players like Wormley and Norwood could make plays in what Mike Tomlin calls “Situational football” alongside the likes of Minkah and the Cams, the Steelers’ defense could hang with the almighty Chiefs, right?

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card Game, Ben Roethlisberger last game

T.J. Watt returns a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

On the next series, the heavy hitters got into the act, with T.J. Watt tipping a pass which Devin Bush intercepted and returned 10 yards. Sure, the Steelers offense could only do what it had already done all night – punt.

But it didn’t matter. Tacho Charlton and Tre Norwood made key stops to force yet another Chiefs punt as the 1st quarter ended. As the second quarter began, the Steelers offense showed some shades of life – it advanced 20 yards before punting. The defense took its cue.

Cam Heyward forced a fumble which T.J. Watt recovered and returned 26 yards for a touchdown as the Steel Curtain seemed poised to rise….

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

…Alas, T.J. Watt’s touchdown didn’t signal the Steel Curtain’s rapture, but rather its swan song. Watt’s touchdown used up whatever opening quarter adrenaline the Steelers had left, and after that Patrick Mahomes owned the Steelers the rest of the way, and it wasn’t even close.

Mahomes answered with a touchdown drive, that included a 23-yard scramble and some devilishly clever trickery to use T.J. Watt’s aggressiveness against him. Less than a minute later he was at it again, this time taking the Chiefs into the Red Zone and scoring just under the two-minute mark.

  • After yet another Steelers’ one-minute drive, Mahomes was back at it again, and scoring again before the half.

Did the Kansas City Chiefs show that their offense is better than the Steeler defense during those final five minutes of the first half? Yes, it did, but during the same time span the Steelers’ offense showed it had no business being in the playoffs.

Diontae Johnson couldn’t hold on to a 2-yard pass on 3rd and 2. Ben Roethlisberger badly misfired on a deep pass to Chase Claypool. The two failed to connect another time deep, but it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback or wide out was at fault. Perhaps it was both.

One in 381….

One of the few bright spots of the Steelers’ 2021 offense has been Najee Harris. Except for a few games in October, Harris has been basically on his own, rushing the ball with no blocking support and getting hit in the backfield more often than not.

Despite that, he rushed for 1200 yards with a 3.9 yard-per-carry average that doesn’t even hint at how hard he had to work to earn those yards. He also caught 74 passes in the air, doing plenty of damage there.

So when the Chiefs opened the second half by taking took the half opening kickoff and driving 68 yards for yet another touchdown (this time on Nick Allegretti tackle eligible play) the safest player the Steelers could look to was Najee Harris.

  • Because not only is Harris the offense’s most talented player, he’s their most reliable one.

He touched the ball 381 times in the regular season without a single fumble. Ben Roethlisberger hit Harris with a pass to start the Steelers 2nd half possession, Willie Gay hit him, Harris fumbled, Frank Clark recovered for the Chiefs, and two plays later Tyreek Hill romped 31 yards for a touchdown.

Any chance the Steelers had of making a comeback ended then.

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

Down 35-7 in a playoff game is a grim place to be. But you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Steeler offense responded. For whatever else you want to say about them, and you can say a lot, this group showed no quit.

Ben Roethlisberger last sack, Michael Danna, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card

Michael Danna earns the honor of making the final sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via The Athletic.

Working in the no huddle, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7 straight passes to Claypool, Harris, Smith-Schuster and Pat Freiermuth before finding James Washington for a toe tapping, combat catch for a touchdown.

The Chiefs added another touchdown, and Roethlisberger responded again. This one featured some incompletions as well as an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer call. It also saw Benny Snell make the most of his shot at garbage time glory. After converting a 4th and 2, Diontae Johnson caught another Roethlisberger pass for a touchdown.

The Steelers actually forced the Chiefs to punt thanks to a T.J. Watt sack, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last drive. He made the most of it, converting 3 third downs, taking advantage of the underneath routes to Benny Snell and Ray-Ray McCloud that the Chiefs were giving him.

Finally, with 11 seconds left to go and no time outs, Ben Roethlisberger hit Zach Gentry for an 11- yard pass that would see Gentry tackled 3 yards short of the goal, ending the game.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his career by giving his all to the very last second. What a fitting farewell.

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Regardless of Result, Pittsburgh Right to Prioritize Playoffs Over Draft Picks

In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.

  • But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.

That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.

I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.

  • If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.

That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)

  • Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.

There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.

  • You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.

The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.

You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.

  • Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.

But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.

The Perils of Playing for Draft Position

Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).

Then Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Marvel Smith, and Willie Parker getting old happened. That was a problem because rebuilding around a franchise quarterback is difficult, because a franchise QB gives you a couple of three wins per season.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Switch Ben Roethlisberger for Kordell Stewart on the 1998 and 1999 Steelers squads and they probably both finish at least at 8-8 instead of 7-9 and 6-10.

  • But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.

Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?

  • Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.

Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.

The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.

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

When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”

That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.

Oh, and by the way, Noll also got himself his own Hall of Fame running in 1972. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Franco Harris.

As Jimmy Psihoulis assured us in the Western Pennsylvania Polka, “…Good things come to those who work and wait.”

Jimmy Pol was right. The Steelers face long odds against the Chief and face even longer odds in their quest to win Super Bowl LVI.

But they are damn right to do everything in their power to try.

Go Steelers!

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns for Steelers vs Chiefs! Plus Pittsburgh Must be Cautious with Najee Harris

The Pittsburgh Steelers uphill battle to upset the Kanas City Chiefs tomorrow night just got a little more level. In move that was totally unexpected as recently as five days ago, the Steelers have activated wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuter from the injured reserve list.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith Schuster. Photo Credit: Twittter

On Wednesday JuJu Smith-Schuster suddenly appeared in practice, with teammate Diontae Johnson confirming that he had idea this was coming until he saw JuJu putting on his cleats. Still, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would sit this game out.

The Steelers have confirmed their decision to activate Smith-Schuster from IR while releasing backup punter Corliss Waitman.

JuJu also shared this Tweet with followers:

It is huge move by JuJu Smith-Schuster. He could have very easily opted out of playing, eyeing the calendar and his next contract and no one would have thought any less of him. Instead, JuJu opted to prove his commitment to winning.

One might ask, with the emergence of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and to a lesser extent Ray-Ray McCloud, can JuJu Smith-Schuster, who only had 15 catches for 129 yards before injury, really help the Steelers after not taking a snap in over a month?

The answer is yes, he can.

As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly explained:

His return would be most noticeable on third downs. With Smith-Schuster in the lineup, the Steelers converted 46 percent of their third downs. Without him, they fell to 36 percent. A year ago, he was tied for second behind Keenan Allen with 24 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.

Defenses will be forced to respect Smith-Schuster and even if that doesn’t directly translate in to catches for Number 19, it will allow Ben Roethlisberger to hit targets like Pat Freiermuth

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return also yields intangible benefits. Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver, as Vontaze Burfict found out when JuJu decked him as a rookie, forcing him from the field on a gurney.

While Smith-Schuster isn’t going to transform this team’s running game into well-oiled, road-grading machine, his physicality will help set the tone for blocking at the second level.

Harris Expected to Play, Steelers Must be Cautious

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return isn’t the only bit of good injury news coming out of the South Side. It was also announced that Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were both…

…Got you, didn’t I? Alas, the Steelers aren’t getting either defensive lineman back this week, although Lord knows either man would be an instant upgrade alongside Cam Heyward.

The good news that the Steelers did get comes on the other side of the ball and involves Najee Harris. Harris of course injured his right elbow in the Steelers 2021 season finale against the Ravens. His participation was limited throughout the week and when asked about his status for the game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted he was “Concerned.”

As of Friday Harris was listed as questionable, but the Steelers have removed him from the injury list and will play him against the Chiefs.

The reality is simple – with Harris, the Steelers have a chance against the Chiefs, without him they do not. Najee Harris is clearly the most talented player on the Steelers offense and his 188 yard performance against the Browns in Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field signified a changing of the guard.

  • Still, the Steelers need to be careful here.

A decade ago RGIII led Washington to the playoffs en route to earning rookie of the year honors. However he was injured during that first playoff contest, but was put back in the game. Whether this was due to Mike Shanahan’s mistake or Daniel Snyder’s meddling the world will never know. It matters little now, as RGIII never the same.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff must avoid a similar mistake at all costs.

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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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It is Fitting that Big Ben Will Strike Midnight in the Playoffs

And you thought Week 17, following the Steelers 26-14 victory over the Browns at Heinz Field, was going to be the retirement party for long-time Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

Sure, Pittsburgh still had one more game to play in order to complete its 2021/2022 campaign, but that would be at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final game M&T Bank Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger after throwing a go ahead touchdown Photo Credit: AP, Evan Vucci via WKBN.

The Steelers still had playoff hope as they prepared for Week 18, but it sure didn’t seem like things would fall into place in yet another win-and-get-help regular-season curtain jerker.

But they obviously did, and when Chris Boswell connected on a game-winning field goal in overtime, Roethlisberger walked across the field as if he already knew he still had more football left to play.

Roethlisberger may have had to say goodbye to Heinz Field, his work home, a place that included thousands of vocal and emotional “work” friends who were eager to express their love for him, but saying goodbye to Heinz didn’t mean saying “Hello” to his “Life’s Work.” At least not just yet.

Judging by his decline in abilities over the past few years, it’s obvious that it’s time for Roethlisberger, the old cowboy, to ride off into the sunset.

But I think it’s fitting that Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback who has never truly gotten his just respect when compared to other all-time greats at his position, will end his illustrious 18-year career in the postseason. After all, that’s where the great ones usually shine, and while Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t always been perfect in the playoffs, he’s had more ups than downs — including three trips to the Super Bowl and two Lombardi trophies.

The odds are long that the Steelers’ and Roethlisberger’s postseason journey will extend beyond this coming Sunday evening and the wildcard date with the two-time AFC-champion Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City recently spent the allotted 60 minutes of regulation wiping the floor with the Steelers in a Week 16 matchup at the same venue, which may explain why the home team has already been established as a 13-point favorite.

  • That sounds about right to the logical, rational football fan in me.

But that die-hard fan in me, the same person who feels like he will cause the team to lose if he changes his routine even a little bit during “Playoff Week,” wonders if the Big Ben that we all remember has one final great game left in that aging right arm.

That would be glorious, wouldn’t it, Roethlisberger going toe-to-toe — and throw-for-throw — with Patrick Mahomes, the young gunslinger and, according to many, the very best in the game right now, for four full quarters?

A win would be ideal, but even in a loss, I think most Steelers fans would feel proud that Roethlisberger showed the football world one final time just how special he’s always been.

  • Then again, maybe Roethlisberger can help the Steelers shock the football world.

I think that would be a much better story.

Either way, Roethlisberger will end his career in the best possible place for him — the playoffs.

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Steelers Report Card for Overtime Win over Ravens: Ben in a Blaze of Glory Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher beaming that his star pupil is going out in a blaze of glory, here is the Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Baltimore in Ben Roethlisberger’s last game at M&T Stadium.

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt sack record. Tyler Huntley, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt ties the NFL sack record. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had a 49.2 passer rating for the first three quarters. By the end of overtime, it was 80.1. So it’s a glass half full, glass half empty situation right? Wrong. Five 3rd or 4th down conversions, one lead scoring 4th quarter drive and another overtime score fill the glass every time. Grade: A+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 56 yards total yards from scrimmage, to the horror of Fantasy Football fans. To the delight of Reality Football fans, he started overtime off with a one handed catch – with his left hand – and finished it with a 15-yard romp that made the final field goal a gimmie — while carrying the ball with his left arm. (Still wonder why we drafted him?) Benny Snell better than his numbers but the drop off was noticeable. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth missed a 3rd down conversion in regulation, but boy did he make up for it in overtime. He also did well blocking. Zach Gentry quietly caught 4 balls on 5 targets while blocking well. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool might have had his best day as a Steeler, and this is for a guy who had 3 TDs as a rookie. No, Claypool didn’t score a lot of points for Fantasy Football owners (see the trend), but he made hard gritty plays on the ground, catching the ball and blocking. Diontae Johnson had a good day catching 7 of 51 passes. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 4-37 might not seem like much, but boy, those catches counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked once – when can you say that after a Ravens game. While that was good, the run blocking wasn’t quite as solid has it had been against Cleveland. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward lead the team in tackles had a sack and another tackle for a loss. Chris Wormley got a sack and batted down a ball. Yet the Ravens still gained over 150 yards rushing with a 45 yard run and two plus 20 yard runs. Grade: B-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a hand in another that he wasn’t credited with. However, highly amateur film analysis suggests that linebacking lapses were at fault for the run defense woes. Grade: C+

Secondary
The Ravens were 3-14 on third downs and Tyler Huntly completed no passes in overtime. Cam Sutton’s interception in the end zone was a game changer, and Terrell Edmund’s pick, lucky though it was, positioned Pittsburgh for its first points. Arthur Maulet continues to come up strong in run support. Minkah Fitzpatrick pass defense of Marquise Brown with 31 seconds remaining is the season’s most underrated play. Grade: A

Coaching
Again, the Steelers offense remained stuck in third gear for 3 quarters and again did not find away out until Ben Roethlisberger took over. Is Roethlisberger just an adrenaline junkie? Have his skills eroded to the point where it takes a pressure cooker for him to deliver? Or is Matt Canada’s offense not suited for him? Or do the Steelers simply lack too many people in the trenches? Or is Canada just in over his head?

Outside of a few exceptions in October, the Steelers offense has only ever been effective late in games. Sixteen points in 5 quarters isn’t going to win you a lot of post season games in the NFL, but it was good enough to get Ben Roethlisberger to the playoffs.

With that said, credit Canada for using Chase Claypool to get the offense moving, which was critical on the touchdown drive.

  • On defense the Steelers played solid football.

Yes, the run defense lapses were real, but the Steelers coaches managed to make the right adjustments to neutralize that advantage down the stretch.

Beyond the X’s and O’s the attitude and the resiliency of this group of players is phenomenal. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was the one throwing those 3rd and 4th down passes, but it takes a focused and ready receiver to catch them.

Ray-Ray McCloud, Steelers vs Ravens, Ray-Ray McCloud 4th down catch Ravens

Ray-Ray McCloud comes down with it on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It doesn’t just take special talent to learn how to carry — and catch — with your left arm in the middle of a season finale with the playoffs on the line, it takes a special attitude. The Steelers “smiled in the face of adversity” to use Mike Tomlin’s words, and he deserves the credit for setting that tone. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
How did the Steelers rally start? With a big Ben Roethlisberger pass? No. With a defensive “Splash play?” No. With a running back ripping off a run? No. It was actually Ray-Ray McCloud’s 23-yard punt return that set the Steelers up at midfield. Steelers special teams also defended a fake punt attempt early that could have been a game changer. And of course Chris Boswell went 3 for 3 and for that the Steelers Special teams win the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Playoff Bound! Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads Overtime Comeback

Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.

  • Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.

The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form

If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap,  a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.

A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure  penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.

The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.

  • But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.

The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

That four point differential would come in handy later on….

Run Defense? What Run Defense?

One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.

  • Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.

The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.

  • By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.

In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.

A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback

Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.

But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.

Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.

  • But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.

Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.

Overtime Atonement

The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:

  • Author a game winning drive at the gun.

 

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.

Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.

  • This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.

The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.

  • Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.

One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!

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King of the North? With 1 Win, Ben Roethlisberger can Boost His Record in Baltimore to .500

The moment has arrived. It is time for Ben Roethlisberger to retire and being his “Life’s Work.”

Roethlisberger taking a knee to close Steelers 26-14 win on Monday Night Football over the Cleveland Browns couldn’t have been a more picture perfect ending for his time in Pittsburgh. But Big Ben is set to strike midnight in Baltimore, not in Pittsburgh. Which is also perfect.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger M&T Bank Stadiu

Ben Roethlisberger calling plays @ M&T Bank Stadium. Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan, USA Today via the Athletic.

  • Because Ben Roethlisberger can end his career by completing the circuit.

The last game before the Ben Roethlisberger, the finale to the Steelers 2003 Season, was played in Baltimore. The first game of the Ben Roethlisberger era began in M&T Bank Stadium on September 19, 2004 with 6:45 left in the third quarter when Roethlisberger tried to target Plaxico Burress after going in for an injured Tommy Maddox.

His next pass was intended for Hines Ward, but got picked off by Adalius Thomas and his last pass on the as the afternoon would end with a 30 to 13 decision in Baltimore’s favor. But that was the last time Ben Roethlisberger would lose in his rookie year until the AFC Championship.

  • So the incentive for Ben to finish where he started is strong. But this goes beyond that.

Since that day Ben Roethlisberger has played in Baltimore 11 more times, having missed a surprising number of games due to injury or sitting out season finales.

But going into the final game of his career, Roethlisberger’s record in Baltimore is 5-6. Roethlisberger didn’t win his first game in Charm City until 2008, the year the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. And although he’s had some rough sledding and a few embarrassing losses in Baltimore, Ben hasn’t lost there since 2016.

Ben Roethlisberger has owned the AFC North for 18 years. For a long time he was the winningest quarterback in Cleveland since the Browns return to the NFL in 1999 and he’s done quite well in Paul Brown Stadium.

  • With one final win on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger can improve his career record in Baltimore to an even .500.

Let’s do it Ben! Let’s close with one last win over the Ravens in Baltimore to officially go out King of the North!

 

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