Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Steelers 3-7 Start = “Gut Check” Time for Steelers Nation

Right now it is tough to be a citizen of Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-7. They just got their tails kicked by the Bengals in a game that got flexed out of Prime Time and are heading into a Monday Night Football matchup up with the Colts.

Steelers Nation

Steelers Nation at a Steelers playoff rally in 2017. Photo Credit: Stephanie Strasburg, Post-Gazette Interactive

Playing MNF used to be a “get to,” as in “we GET TO watch the Steelers on Monday Night!” Now it’s a “gotta,” as in “We gotta watch the Steelers this Monday…” (and this “gotta” sensation is even more pronouced for those of us who live in parts of the world where the game will end at 2:30 am.)

So be it. Rebuilding is a tough thing for a franchise to go through and it can be agonizing for the fans to watch. If you didn’t understand before why Art Rooney II resisted the urge to “Tear off the Band Aid” and instead hung on to Ben Roethlisberger as long as he could, the last 10 games should have enlightened you.

Yes, these last 10 games have shown just how much of a difference a franchise quarterback, even an aging one whose lost his mobility and his ability to throw deep, can make. But of course the Steelers struggles this season go far beyond Kenny Pickett’s growing pains.

It is clear that there’s no a single spot on the depth chart that couldn’t benefit from an immediate injection of talent. And that’s tough to watch.

  • In fact, the Steelers 2022 season is forcing a gut check for a lot of Steelers fans, which is a good thing.

This gut check calls to mind something I learned in the classroom of someone who was one of my formative influences as a Steelers fan. On the first day of school in the fall of 1986 at suburban Maryland’s Parkland Junior High School (yes, we still had “Jr. High” then), my Honors NSL Government teacher Dave Walzak, introduced himself and after talking about his educational background related, “…What else do you need to know about me? Well, I’m from Pittsburgh originally. I root for the Steelers and I HATE the Redskins.”

  • My thought? “Man, this is my kind of guy.”

And it was during Mr. Walzak’s that we learned about Thomas Paine, one of the intellectual architects for US revolution, who wrote in American Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country….

Dare we suggest that “THESE are times that try fan’s souls. The summer Steelers fan and the sunshine patriot of Steelers Nation will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their team….” A little exaggerated to apply that to Steelers fans during this 3-7 start?

Yes, I suppose it is exaggerated. Just as some of the reactions to the Steelers first losing season since 2003 are exaggerated.

Kenny Pickett, Haason Reddick, Steelers vs Eagles

Haason Reddick hits Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: John Geibeiler, Eagles.com

Look, losing sucks. And there are times when Pittsburgh has played piss poorly this season. But rebuilding is a process albeit a painful one. And as the old adage goes, “No pain, no gain.”

  • So it’s time to not only understand that, but to embrace it.

I may not actually have been born in Pittsburgh, but my brother and sister were, my parents were, as were all four of my grandparents, and the only two of my great-grandparents that weren’t born there emigrated to Pittsburgh from Germany and Italy.

Heck, St. Joe’s and St. George’s cemetery off of Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver is the final resting place of all four of my grandparents, my dad’s biological mother, 7 great aunts and uncles, 4 great grandparents and two cousins who were taken from us far, far too soon.

So no matter how long this rebuilding process goes on, the Pittsburgh Steelers are my team. Period.

  • Steelers Nation is of course a global phenomenon.
Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

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

Many fans don’t share these family ties to the Steel City. Fair enough. Sticking with the Steelers during down times like these is what makes moments like Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL or Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII all the more special.

And if that doesn’t quite seal the deal for you, then think of the example Mr. Walzak set. He was a re-located Pittsburgher who remained loyal to his team in an era when it was difficult to follow, let alone watch an out of town franchise. And he made his “I love the Steelers. I hate the Redskins” declaration in 1986, when the Steelers started 3-7 and finished 6-10. Mr. Walzak remained loyal.

In doing so Mr. Walzak’s example inspired similar loyalty to in a would be wavering 14 year old. His example should continue to inspire us today.

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Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors: Larry Ogunjobi

Thanksgiving 2022 has arrived, so as we’ve done every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising is naming its 2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winner.

  • Our tradition began during the middle of the 2009 Steelers ugly 5 game losing streak.

The Steelers had just dropped a very winnable game in overtime against Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs. They’d just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a concussion. And Charlie Batch broke his wrist. Yet from the carnage of that ugly loss came a ray of hope.

Andy Studebaker had picked off a pass intended for Hines Ward. He was in his own end zone and had nothing but green in front of him. So he took off. He would have taken it the house, were it not for Rashard Mendenhall, picking himself off of the turf and coming from the complete opposite side to run 94 yards to bring him down.

If one can question the “what it” that Mendenhall displayed at other times during his Steelers career, no one can deny the heart he displayed on that play.

So Mendenhall earned our first Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, and it has been a tradition since.

2022 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winner Larryy Ogunjobi

This year’s honors begin with the brightest spot (thus far) of the otherwise disappointing Steelers 2022 season.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had come to Pittsburgh. Kenny Pickett had driven the Steelers down the field and gotten them on the board with a touchdown pass to Najee Harris. But the Buccaneers had gotten a field goal, and as the second quarter opened, Brady had moved Tampa Bay 2nd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s 1 yard line.

  • The Steelers meager 4 point lead seemed destined to become a distant memory.

Leonard Fournette, a man who has tortured the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium, got the call. He thought he had a hole behind the left guard.

  • Instead he got dumped for a 3 yard loss.
Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Now, you might be thinking, “Last year you used a similar example when bestowing Steelers Thanksgiving honors on Cam Heyward, you’re giving it to Cam again?” We’re not talking about Cameron Heyward. Yes, Cam tackled Forunette for a 5 yard loss on 3rd down, but someone else made the play on 2nd down.

And we are giving Steelers 2022 Thanksgiving Honors to Larry Ogunjobi precisely because last year Cam Heyward was the only Steelers defensive lineman capable of making those kinds of stops, and this year he has Ogunjobi to help him.

  • And after 10 games Larry Ogunjobi is showing just how much difference one man can make.

In that same game, Ogunjobi made several stops for little or no gain. And he’s done so throughout the rest of the year.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense gave up an average of 5 yards per carry, and were the NFL’s worst run defense. The Steelers only saw 3 games were an opponent’s longest run was less than 20 yards. Opponents had long runs of over 40 yards in three games and long runs of over 30 yards in 3 more. Overall, the Steelers opponents’ longest run from scrimmage averaged at 26.5 yards.

  • The Steelers 2021 run defense was so bad, one wonders why anyone even tried to pass.

Yet in 2022 the Steelers are writing a different story. This year they’re giving up 3.9 yards per carry and that 1.1 yard difference improves them to 5th in the NFL. The longest run they’ve given up is 36 yards, and the average longest run given up is 19.5 yards.

Even Cincinnati, who rushed on the Steelers at will in 2021, struggled to run the ball in an otherwise lopsided win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

  • Does Larry Ogunjobi deserve all of the credit for this improvement?

Absolutely not. And that’s the point. Improved play from Devin Bush and Montravius Adams, the arrival of Myles Jack, the maturation of Alex Highsmith and Robert Spillane and the return of Tyson Alualu are all critical to this improvement.

But none of those men would be able to do their jobs as well as they are doing them, were it not for Larry Ogunjobi making plays on his own, tying blockers up or taking advantage of double laid on Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • Followers of our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors will note Larry Ogunjobi is a bit of an outlier.

And he is. Most past honors have gone to up and comers, think Antonio Brown in 2011 or Ryan Shazier in 2016, or an established presence in the franchise such as Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 or Kevin Colbert in 2019.

In contrast, Ogunjobi is with the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal and could easily be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2023.

But that’s one of the lessons that comes with this year’s choice – sometimes its best to be thankful for what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

As I “celebrate” my 21st Thanksgiving in Argentina, I’ll again express my hope that everyone reading this has reasons to be Thankful that go far beyond football.

So whether your spending Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh or welcoming friends and family from Pittsburgh as I did so often growing up and as a young adult or whether you’re just a Steelers fan with no ties to the Steel City, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Emperor’s Wisdom: 5 Chuck Nollisms to See Steelers Nation Through the 2022 Season

These are tough times for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans. The team holds a 2-6 record at the bye week and the franchise appears to be fated for its for its first losing season since 2003. Oddly enough, its during tough times like these that Steelers Nation would do well to lean into the wisdom of Chuck Noll.

  • Chuck Noll, the head coach who altered the course of the franchise, was never known for his colorful quotes.

As Myron Cope remembered in Double Yoi, after one of Noll’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, a national reporter taped a blank page to the wall of the press room titled, “Highlights of Chuck Noll’s Press Conference.”

Yes, Nollism’s were rare. That’s what makes them so special. Here are a few that are relevant to 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll in his element with the Steelers at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

1. “When you’re losing, everything they say about you is true”

This quote from Noll underlines his understanding that the NFL is a bottom line business. There may be, as his successor Bill Cowher often reminded, a “Fine line between winning and losing,” but Noll knew that when you end up on the wrong side of that fine line, no one cares why, even though some might think they do….

2. “…the question they’re really asking is ‘Why don’t you win?’”

After the 1989 Steelers started the season losing to the Browns 51-0 and to the Bengals 41-10, as vulchers circled over Three Rivers Stadium, ESPN dispatched Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh to ask Noll “Has the game passed you by?”

Noll dodged the direct question while delivering a truthful response, by responding “When people ask that question, its like when they ask, ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun?’ ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ and what they’re really asking is, ‘Why don’t you win?’”

  • He was right then and his words of wisdom apply today.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Should the Steelers use Derek Watt more in the offense? Yes, I certainly think so.

But I wouldn’t care if the Kenny Pickett was playing as well as Ben Roethlisberger did in 2004. Nor would we care about how Mike Tomlin was splitting carries between Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris if they were pounding offenses the way Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were during that same Steelers 2004 season.

3. “Back to Basics”

Whenever the Steelers would hit a rough stretch, Chuck Noll would begin the week with one of his “back to basics” speeches. Noll was a fundamentalist. He lived and died by the credo that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily.

That philosophy is what led him to critique and correct the pre-snap stance of Andy Russell, one of the few good players he inherited from Bill Austin, transforming a Pro Bowl player into someone who, arguably broached Hall of Fame level under Noll

This pearl of wisdom relevant to the entire 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers squad, but particularly the offense. Lost in all of the anger directed at Matt Canada and his “one touchdown a game” offense is the fact that this is young and inexperienced unit.

Extra focus on “the little things” like avoiding illegal formation penalties, or footwork to get your feet in in bounds, would be invaluable for this offense.

  • Doubt that, do you?

Well consider the penultimate drive against Miami. Kenny Pickett moved the team to the 3rd and 1 on the 1 yard line, only to see penalties on successive plays push the offense back 10 yards when he threw an interception. The “little” things add up, particularly when you don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

4. “If everyone can be just 1% better, we’ll be 22% better as a team”

Teamwork drove Chuck Noll. He talked about it in his Hall of Fame induction speech. He relentlessly reminded his players that geese flew much faster in formation than alone.

The 2022 Steelers need to take this to heart, whether this means holding a block a second longer, concentrating just a bit more on the cadence of the snap count, or focusing on executing their exact assignment on a play.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

This is mentality was in evidence during the Steelers win over Tampa Bay, and something they should embrace coming out of the bye week.

5. “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.”

This Nollism isn’t oft repeated, but I remember Mel Blount and Ray Mansfield talking about it during an NFL Films clip on Chuck Noll. As Blount explains, Noll preached this to his team at the peak of their Super Bowl runs in an effort to ensure that their success never went to their heads.

  • Suffice to say the 2022 Steelers are on anything but a Super Bowl run.

And that’s their fans need to keep Noll’s wisdom front of mind. The Steelers are rebuilding. Rebuilding is a process, not an event. And because its a process, that’s why its painful as it is far more like rehabbing an injured joint than pulling off a Band Aid.

So expect that results, at least at first, to be measured by progress before those measurements come via victories.

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Steelers Fans Should Embrace What Looks To Be A Rare Bad Season

I feel like a teenager all over again.

Why do I say that? I’ve been reminiscing about the 1980s, back when times seemed simpler and the world was full of possibilities. Maybe it’s because I turned 50 in May. Maybe it’s because I really miss the formative years of my life.

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

Or maybe it’s because the Steelers are oh-so awful in 2022, complete with a 2-6 record and a place near the bottom of many statistical categories, both offensively and defensively.

That’s right, the offense, one now led by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, is ranked 28th in total yards. As for the defense, one that was supposed to carry the team in 2022, it’s ranked 29th in total yards allowed. Yes, the unit has been without T.J. Watt since Week 1, but the defense was no bargain a year ago, even with Watt putting together a Defensive Player of the Year season.

The calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s dismissal — calls that were always quite popular even during the good years — have been louder than ever.

Speaking of coaching dismissals, the Steelers have officially reached their bye week, and the only thing the fans are hanging their hats on at the moment is the possible firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Seriously, the fans are wishing for that like some fans wish for a championship.

The tide is low in 2022. In fact, it hasn’t felt this low since the late-1980s when 6-10 and even 5-11 campaigns became commonplace under the Emperor, Chuck Noll.

Yes, times were tough under Bill Cowher in the late-’90s, but this just “feels” different and more like the 1980s struggles when a turnaround wasn’t just a few moves away.

I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to mid-to-late-’80s Steelers nostalgia as of late. Maybe that’s why I watched the NFL Films “highlights” from the 1986 campaign, one that ended with a 6-10 record, the franchise’s then-worst mark since 1969. That feature was narrated by Larry Richert, an unknown at the time but someone who would go on to become a Pittsburgh radio icon, as well as Dan Marino‘s brother-in-law.

  • Oh yeah, Richert is the PA announcer for every Steelers home game at Acrisure Stadium.

I’ve also been watching broadcasts from the Steelers’ 5-11 campaign in 1988, their now worst season since 1969. The Steelers started off even worse in ’88 than they did through seven games of the 2022 campaign–1-6–before stunning a slightly better Broncos team, one that was without the legendary John Elway, 39-21 at old Three Rivers Stadium.

I’ll never forget where I was — at my grandparents’ home in Pittsburgh — when Rodney Carter opened the game by galloping for a 64-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0. The late Sam Nover, a long-time sports broadcaster for WPXI, a local affiliate for NBC, was the play-by-play man that day for the Peacock Network and screamed as if Carter had just scored a touchdown in the AFC title game. Maybe that’s because Nover was quite close to the Steelers in those days and was often the locker room reporter who interviewed the players during The Fifth Quarter postgame show.

  • The Steelers actually jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead and looked about as dominant as they would all season.

Much like today, there was talk of Pittsburgh climbing out of its hole and making it to the postseason, but 2-6 eventually turned into 2-10.

The ’88 season was so forgettable that I was given a free ticket to a game against the Eagles at Three Rivers Stadium. It was my first-ever Steelers game, and I went with my uncle–he’s the same age as me, believe it or not. We were two teenagers who had a great time and were surrounded by many lunatics in the stands who supported both Pennsylvania teams, as well as the right to punch each other in the face.

It was fun, but it wasn’t a victory, as the Steelers fell, 27-26, when a 57-yard field goal attempt by Gary Anderson was blocked at the buzzer.

It wasn’t all bad for the Steelers in ’88. In fact, they pulled things together near the end of the season and finished with three wins in their final four games–including an exciting 37-34 victory over the Houston Oilers at the iconic Astrodome on Sunday Night Football.

I don’t know if this current Steelers team can pull itself out of the mess it’s in and avoid its first losing season since 2003. If Pittsburgh can’t, well, the streak had to come to an end sooner or later, right?

I guess it would be fitting for it to happen in 2022, the first one without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades.

If the Steelers do actually finish with a losing record in 2022, not only will it be the first time in 19 years, but it would only be the fourth such occasion since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1992.

That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the fact that Pittsburgh finished with a losing record in four of the final seven seasons of Noll’s career.

  • If you’re a Steelers fan, you should embrace the pain. Experience it.

It’s not often you get to witness something like this around here.

 

 

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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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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Seen This Movie Before? The 2022 Steelers Looked Too Much Like ’21 Edition in the Opener

The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.

The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.

The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.

When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.

The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.

When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime. 

Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.

  • If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.

That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.

I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.

It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.

But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.

Back to 2022.

I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.

  • I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.

Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.

I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.

The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.

And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.

  • The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
  • Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.

While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.

That’s a frightening thing to imagine.

 

 

 

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Surprise! Steelers Upset Bengals 23-20 in Overtime as Defense Dominates

The Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Mitch Tribisky era Sunday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

  • The win came at a cost with several marquee players leaving the field early with injuries.

But an upset road win over a division rival and defending conference championship is always good. And the win confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these Pittsburgh Steelers, and that’s both good and bad.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Defense Still Wins Games

The old adage used to be, “Defense wins championships.” In this era of big gambling, Fantasy Football fueled football, the game has been legislated to tilt heavily towards the offense. Does defense still “win championships” in the National Football League?

Who knows?

Mike Tomlin and his players proved that defense can still win games for the Pittsburgh Steelers here in 2022. And they did this from the very beginning of the game.

Cam Heyward opened up the game, rag dolling Joe Burrow with a 5 yard sack. Minka Fitzpatrick struck next with a 31 yard pick six. Less that three and a half minutes had elapsed, the Steelers offense had punted once after earning just 8 yards.

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Heyward opens game by sacking Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

  • Yet, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Alex Highsmith struck next, sacking Burrow for a 7-yard loss on third down, although a record setting 59 yard field goal by Evan McPherson got Cincinnati on the board. Highsmith wasn’t done, because four plays later he strip sacked Burrow with Cam Heyward recovering. Pat Freiermuth did his part with a 31 yard reception.  But the Steelers offense sputtered at the goal line, settling for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Not that it really mattered, because T.J. Watt picked off Joe Burrow 8 plays later. This time Zach Gentry did the honors of getting the Steelers in position to score, and Najee Harris finally found the end zone on the team’s 5th shot from the goal line.

Lovers of defense only needed to wait for six more plays for Cam Sutton to short-circuit another promising Bengals drive with an interception.

And that was only the first half. In the second half Ahkello Witherspoon intercepted Burrow again while Arthur Maulet sacked him in overtime forcing a final punt. T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane added sacks of their own, Myles Jack stepping up with a critical pass defense, as did Cam Sutton in the end zone.

After the game, this was the word from Cincinnati:

Then this:

Anyone wonder why?

SOSO – Same Old Steelers Offense

If the Steelers defense played as well as optimist felt it could, their offense played as poorly as pessimists (or realists) feared it would. Here’s some harsh reality: Only 2 critical Cincinnati special teams errors separated the Steelers from losing a game in which they enjoyed a 5 point turnover differential.

  • You almost have to try to lose a game in which your defense secures 5 turnovers.

And the worst part about it? The Steelers offense wasn’t trying to lose the game, they were trying their best. And their best almost wasn’t good enough. Sure, both tight ends came up with big catches in the first half with Pat Freiermuth adding another in overtime.

  • Matt Canada employed some smoke and mirrors to get a running game going with Chase Claypool.

Diontae Johnson set up what should have been the game winning field goal in overtime with what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler.

But Steelers running backs managed 2.3 yards per carry behind an offensive line that had ZERO push. And Pressley Harvin punted 8 times. Mitch Trubisky made a few nice throws and his mobility limited his sack total to one.

But the Steelers offense was just as in effective as it has been since early 2020, scoring only 2 field goals without the help of turnovers.

Chase Claypool, Germaine Pratt, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool stiff arms Germaine Pratt. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review.

The Difference – Special Teams and the Run Defense

And the one field goal the Steelers did score was set up in part by Gunner Olszewski 20 yard punt return. The Steelers special teams also blocked an extra point and the Bengals missed a field goal in overtime. That’s four points special teams kept off the board and three more that they added. Subtract Boswell’s miss, and you still have a 1 point differential.

  • But what made all if it meaningful was the Steelers run defense.

Last year Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers, averaging 5.5 yards per carry against them, and making it look easy. That success loosened the defense and allowed Burrow to abuse the Steelers secondary at will.

Today the Steelers held him to 3.0 yards on 27 carries, and if you take out the one, ugly 31 yarder that the Steelers defense did allow, that average drops to almost 2 yards a carry.

Running the ball might be passé in today’s NFL, I’d argue it is not, but even if I’m wrong, being unable to stop the run is positively lethal. The Steelers defense stopped the run, giving their play makers a chance to do their damage, and that was the difference.

Keeping It in Perspective

This win, in all its ugliness, came with a cost. T.J. Watt is rumored to have torn a pec. If that’s true, he’s done for the year, and the Steelers defense will become decidedly mortal. Najee Harris reportedly left the stadium in a walking boot. Levi Wallace and Robert Spillane also left the game with injuries.

  • Even if the news on Watt is better than expected, the Steelers offense must improve. Period.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game without Ben Roethlisberger demonstrating the same resilience that defined the Roethlisberger Era.

That alone is a sign of hope.

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For Better or For Worse: Steelers Trubisky Begins Where Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl Window Closed

History keeps evolving symetrically for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last year, Ben Roethlisberger played his final regular season game on the road, against the Ravens, just where he played the first one. On Sunday September 11th 2022, the Steelers Mitch Trubisky will begin in Cincinnati, exactly where the Ben Roethlisberger’s ended or at least where his Super Bowl window closed.

  • Often times Super Bowl windows close in silence.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers returned for their 4th Lombardi in Super Bowl XIV a year later against the Rams, while the Cowboys lost in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Yet Tom Landry and Danny White had The ‘Boys back in the NFC Championship for 3 straight years. It seemed only a question of “When” Tom Landry would win his third ring, not one of “If.”

  • Alas, it would take Jimmy Johnson to bring the Lombardi back to Texas Stadium.

In contrast, the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era end the moment Ryan Shazier turned over on the turf unable to move his legs at Paul Brown Stadium (yes, I know its Paycor now) back on that dark December night in 2017. The Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and especially Ben Roethlisberger himself tried to move heaven and earth to re-open that window.

  • But Ryan Shazier proved to be irreplaceable.

And in trying to replace the irreplaceable the Steelers quite likely gave up too much, in the form of the Devin Bush and even Joe Schobert trades.

And Cincinnati adds its weight to that historical rhyme scheme in other ways. For it was in Cincinnati in 2019 that Mike Tomlin benched Mason Rudolph for Delvin Hodges — reminding everyone of just how difficulty it was going to be to replace Ben Roethlisberger. A year later at Paul Brown, Ben Roethlisberger gave his own reminder, authoring a first half of football that drove this scribe to wonder out loud if Steelers Nation hadn’t just witnessed its own Ali-Holmes moment.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Roethlisberger rebounded, playing better football the next Sunday and for the next season as well. Yet, if there was any one game that symbolized just how far the Steelers had fallen, it was the 2021 beating the Steelers suffered in their final game at the venue that was to be known as Paul Brown Stadium.

  • What fate will fortune deliver to the Mitch Trubisky era of Steelers football?

Will Trubsiky earn his own Super Bowl rings? Will he follow in the footsteps of Cliff Stoudt, who ushered in an era of mediocre, bad, average and above average quarterbacks? Or will he be like Tommy Maddox, serving as a bridge quarterback to a long and successful Kenny Pickett era?

No one knows at this moment. But we’re about to start finding out.

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