A Look @ the 6 Times the Steelers Have Needed Help To Make the Playoffs Since 2013

The history of the Steelers and making the playoffs includes some famous years when they somehow managed to beat the odds and got in after winning their final regular-season game and also getting some outside help.

The 1989 Steelers obviously the most famous example, the Immaculate Reception (if you will) of times that Pittsburgh needed multiple things to fall its way on the final week of the regular season in order to punch its postseason ticket.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

The 1993 Steelers are an underrated example, perhaps because, unlike Chuck Noll’s Cinderella Steelers from a few years earlier, Bill Cowher’s boys, a more talented team that actually underachieved in ’93, didn’t manage to win a playoff game after a few things fell into place which allowed them to sneak into the postseason as the sixth seed in the AFC.

Of course there’s the case of the 2005 Steelers, who also needed help to make the playoffs. They not only got that help (by the final week they were in a “win and we’re in” situation), but won Super Bowl XL, playing all of their games on the road.

There were other times prior to the 2010s when the Steelers went into the final week of the regular season facing a “win-and-need-help” scenario in order to advance into the postseason but did not get the assistance they were looking for.

The Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs by the time their game against the Chargers kicked off at 4 p.m. out on the West Coast.

However, unfortunately for the Black and Gold the Colts, a team also interested in making the playoffs, did them no favors, as they beat up on a Vikings squad that already had its playoff seed wrapped up and had nothing to play for.

The Vikings, actually gave the Colts a run for their money. But then during the game, starter Daunte Culpepper got nicked, and head coach wasted little time putting his starter on ice until the playoffs. Culpepper’s backup was none other than Bubby Brister, who in his final game as a pro, once again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. 

The Steelers didn’t face another such scenario until 2009, the year in which head coach Mike Tomlin said his struggling team would unleash hell in December. Pittsburgh did eventually get around to raising some hell but not before putting its playoff fate in the hands of other devils in the AFC, including Tomlin’s colleagues, Jim Caldwell and Bill Belichick, who chose to rest their starters against teams who were fighting the Steelers for the final wildcard spots in the AFC.

Anyway, it used to be quite rare for the Steelers to go into their final regular-season game needing to win and get some help in order to make the postseason. But while I could only come up with five examples between 1989 and 2009, it’s now a common occurrence for Pittsburgh to head into the final week with its playoff hopes resting firmly in the arms of other teams that may or may not have anything to play for.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers head into Week 18 needing to defeat the Browns at Acrisure Stadium this Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. While that is hopefully taking place, the Dolphins, a team that’s lost five games in a row but is still alive for the playoffs, needs to lose at home to the Jets, a team that has lost five games in a row and is no longer alive for the playoffs.

Also, the Bills, a team that may or may not still be vying for the top seed at kickoff, needs to defeat the Patriots, a squad that’s still alive for the playoffs, at home.

  • I actually give the Steelers more than a puncher’s chance.

Why? Because these things tend to even out over time. Or, at least I’d like to think so. You see, this will be the sixth time the Steelers have faced this exact scenario since 2013, and the Steelers have a “record” of 2-3.

So even though the Steelers beat the odds as recently as 2021 when the downtrodden Jaguars took out a Colts team that controlled its own destiny, I’d say they’re still due to even their “record” at 3-3.

Over the past 10 seasons, the Steelers have been let down by Ryan Succop (2013) and propped up by Sexy Rex Ryan (2015).

They have also been disappointed in Baker Mayfield (2018) and the complacent Titans (2019).

No matter how things shake out, it’s just amazing that the Steelers have faced this scenario so many times over the past 10 regular seasons.

Is that an indictment of Tomlin? Is that just the nature of NFL parity and something the Steelers managed to avoid for far-too-many seasons?

  • I don’t know, but it is kind of crazy.

At any rate, I sure hope the Steelers win their game, get the help they need, and stamp their ticket to the tournament.

A seventh seed and a trip to Kansas City/Buffalo/Cincinnati never looked so appealing.

 

 

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Still Believe in Yesterday? 20th Anniversary of Tommy Maddox Playoff Rally Shows Need for Prudence with Pickett

January 5th certainly is a momentous day in Steelers history. Thanks to the magic of social media yesterday I was reminded that January 5th was:

  • Chuck Noll’s birthday (he’d have been 91 on January 5th 2023
  • The anniversary of Tommy Maddox‘s dramatic playoff comeback vs the Browns at Heinz Field in 2003
  • The day Bill Cowher resigned in 2007 after the Steelers 8-8 2006 season

All three events were important in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers as we know them today. All three are worthy of memory and celebration.

But one offers an important lesson for Steelers fans, if not the organization itself today in January 2023. And that is Tommy Maddox’s playoff rally.

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

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

The Tommy Gun Story: Digest Version

For a full accounting of the Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” story click here to read Tony Defeo’s retrospective on the Steelers 2002 season. If you don’t have time, here’s the digest version:

  • Tommy Maddox was a first round pick in 1992, who’d washed out with the Broncos, Giants and Falcons
  • Maddox played the 2001 edition of the XFL and quarterbacked Los Angeles Xtreme to the championship
  • The Steelers signed Maddox in the summer of 2001, and Maddox won the backup job

Kordell Stewart had quarterbacked the 2001 Steelers to the AFC Championship game and won team MVP honors after stepping up following Jerome Bettis‘ midseason injury. So Kordell appeared set as the starter going into 2002.

However, the Steelers started 0-2, Kordell looked bad, and Bill Cowher opted to bench Stewart in favor of Maddox in week three in the name of giving the team a proverbial “spark.”

Maddox led the team to a win in overtime, Cowher opted to stick with a hot hand, and the 2002 Steelers won their final first AFC North crown, brining up a wild Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

Maddox’s Playoff Rally at Heinz

Bill Cowher’s Steelers defenses of the 1990’s had carried a reputation for their “shut down secondaries.” But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady opened the 2002 season exposing the Steelers secondary as a shell of its former self (hence Kevin Colbert trading up to get Troy Polamalu that next spring, but that’s another story.)

The Browns exploited that weakness to jump ahead 14-0 and kept it a two score game for the first 45 minutes of play. They opened the 4th quarter with a 27 to 14 lead, and held 33 to 21 lead with just over ten minute left.

Tommy Maddox went to work.

  • First he led a 14 play drive that ended with a Hines Ward touchdown
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out
  • Maddox led an 8 play drive where he completed 4 of 5 passes, setting up Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard touchdown

An Antwaan Randle El pass complete to Jerame Tuman completed the 2 point conversion, the Steelers defense held on for what Dan Rooney described as one  of the most exciting playoff wins in Steelers history.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

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

And it was exciting. It also seemed to cement Tommy Maddox’s status as the Steelers franchise QB. Dan Rooney, per Bob Labriola, seed to have come to a similar conclusion, after spending much of the game “Making a list” which he balled up and threw away at after the Steelers beat the odds with their comeback win.

For my money, I thought the game proved that Tommy Maddox had the most important intangible quality a quarterback can have — mental toughness. Heck, according to urban legend, Maddox himself stood in the huddle, down two scores with 5:30 left to play and said, “Alright. We got ’em where we want ’em.”

Lesson? Remain Prudent with Pickett

But of course Tommy Maddox wasn’t the Steelers answer at quarterback. He had a rough go of it as the Steelers struggled throughout the 2003 season, leading Pittsburgh to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Kenny Pickett has had a tremendous rookie year. The poise and acumen he’s show in orchestrating game winning drives against the Colts, Raiders and most impressively the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium IS impressive.

  • Those drives show not only mental toughness, but an instinctive, innate playmaking ability that can’t be taught.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan should proceed into the 2023 off season with the assumption that the Steelers have found their franchise QB in Kenny Pickett. Fans should also keep that in mind whenever the Steelers decline to make some sort of inane trade with Green Bay should Aaron Rodgers throw one of his “I’m not sure I want to be a Packer anymore” tantrums.

But fans should also remember the lesson Tommy Maddox left us – the true test of a quarterback isn’t whether he can author on successful season but several.

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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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Mike Tomlin is on the Brink of His First Losing Season. Will He Go Over?

There are many things that annoy fans about Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Number one, they think the only reason Dan Rooney, the late, great owner of the franchise, hired Tomlin to be the Steelers’ next head coach in 2007 was because of the Rooney Rule (Rooney stated multiple times that this wasn’t the case, but even if it was, so what?)

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Number two, they think Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII with a team that was assembled by Bill Cowher, the man Tomlin replaced as head coach and someone who only managed to win one Super Bowl in 15 years with teams he helped to assemble. (For the record, I love Bill Cowher, but that is one of the dumbest criticisms of Tomlin I have ever heard–it’s too bad it never seems to go away. And how come no one ever criticizes Kevin Colbert for “Only Winning with Tom Donahoe’s players?”) Number three, Tomlin’s teams have only won three playoff games since the 2010 season, when he guided the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV where they lost a heartbreaker to the Packers.

Of those first three reasons, the third one is by far the most valid criticism. While Tomlin has had a great career as the Steelers’ head coach, it comes down to postseason results at the end of the day, and there’s no question he’s come up short in that department over the past 13 seasons.

But there is a fourth reason why fans have often been critical of Mike Tomlin (well, there are plenty more than just four, but who has time for that?), and that’s the fact that he’s never suffered a losing season as head coach of the Steelers.

  • Why is that a criticism of his?

Beats the holy heck out of me, but Tomlin’s most vocal critics love to weaponize it and mock the streak that currently stands at 15 straight seasons. Maybe it’s because Tomlin’s most vocal supporters use it to prop him up in just about every argument involving Tomlin and his abilities as a head coach in the National Football League. Can you blame Tomlin’s supporters for that, though? I mean, the man started to be roundly and unfairly criticized long before the streak was even a streak.

Tomlin remarkably kept past teams together and rallied them to non-losing seasons, and even playoff appearances, during years when they easily could have fallen off a cliff. The Steelers managed to remain relevant in the 2010s, even after the legendary roster that produced three AFC championships and two Lombardi Trophies between 2005-2010 got old all at once.

Perhaps more impressive than Tomlin’s lack of a losing season as head coach of the Steelers is the fact that his teams have only played one game during his tenure where they were officially eliminated from playoff contention at kickoff.

For the record, that game was the final one of the 2012 regular season. It was also the first time Tomlin was on the brink of having his first losing campaign (although, the streak wasn’t long enough for anyone to notice at that point). Fortunately, the Steelers took on a pretty pathetic Browns team at Heinz Field and won in a rather convincing fashion to finish the regular season at 8-8.

  • It was actually the Steelers’ ninth-straight non-losing season dating back to the Cowher years.

The Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons was in serious jeopardy in 2013 when they started out 0-4 and 2-6. After rallying to get back to 5-6, Pittsburgh then lost two heartbreakers — 22-20 to the hated Ravens on Thanksgiving Night, and then 28-24 to the Dolphins on December 8 — to drop to 5-8.

  • It looked like the streak would end in short order.

In fact, my old boss, completely disinterested in attending another game that season, gave me two free tickets to the Steelers’ next matchup: A Sunday night affair against the soon-to-be AFC North champion Bengals at Heinz Field.

I invited my uncle to the game, and we both froze our butts off. Actually, I later found out that I suffered frostbite in my right big toe, an appendage that still goes numb to this day if my feet get too cold. (Because of the cold and the Steelers’ subpar record, this was the lowest-attended game in the history of Heinz Field up to that point.)

I may have suffered frostbite — and I may have spent half the night standing in the men’s room trying to stay warm–but Pittsburgh won that game rather convincingly to improve to 6-8.

Not only did the Steelers win their last two games to finish the regular season at 8-8, but they ended their season still in playoff contention, where they would remain for the next few hours until Chiefs kicker, Ryan Succop, dashed their hopes out in San Diego.

It wasn’t long after 2013 that the Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons became Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons (and, again, a weapon for his supporters and detractors to use in every debate about his coaching prowess).

Tomlin’s streak hasn’t really been in danger since 2013, even if it looked like it was going straight down the tubes after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the year in the second game of the 2019 campaign (see Tomlin’s ability to rally compromised teams).

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger fat, Ben Roethlisberger out of shape,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in late 2019. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via York Dispatch

  • That brings us to the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers currently sit at 5-8 after an annoying loss to the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Not only is Tomlin again on the brink of suffering his first losing season as the head coach of the Steelers, but thanks to the NFL’s new 17-game schedule, his team now has to win an extra game in order to keep the streak alive.

  • Can Tomlin avoid it? I don’t really care.

For that matter, neither does Tomlin, who’s on record as saying that he doesn’t seek comfort in something like that. He’s only worried about winning a Super Bowl, and any season that falls short of that is a failure.

But part of me would love to see that streak stay alive. Why? Tomlin’s detractors seem to hate it more than his supporters love it.

Right now, I picture Tomlin as this heel wrestler who is trying to survive a 30-man battle royal. He’s teetering on the brink of elimination and has several other wrestlers attempting to push him out of the ring. Maybe they already have, but they don’t know that both of his feet must touch the ground in order for him to be eliminated. Much like Shawn Michaels in the 1995 Royal Rumble, maybe some people already assume that the end of Tomlin’s streak is a mere formality.

  • But he’s still alive. His second foot hasn’t touched the ground.

Tomlin is still plotting out a way to have yet another non-losing season and anger Steelers fans…for some reason.

I refuse to count out Mike Tomlin until that second foot has touched the floor.

 

 

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Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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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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Looking Back: Steelers Last Win in Philadelphia Gave Mike Nixon His 15 Minutes of Fame

Tomorrow Mike Tomlin will attempt something that neither Bill Austin, nor Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher ever did:

  • Lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory on the road in Philadelphia.

While Philly fans are loyal, there’s no question that when it comes to Pennsylvania’s two football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Keystone State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Steelers lead the Lombardi count 6 to 1 and have appeared in the Super Bowl 8 times compared to 3.

And of course the Steelers lead the Eagles in other measures such as games won since the NFL-AFL merger, division titles, playoff appearances, wins etc. And the Steelers count on a nationwide, no, global fan base.

  • That’s great. But the Eagles OWN the Steelers when they play in Philly.

The last time the Steelers won a game in Philadelphia was at Franklin Field on Sunday, October 24, 1965 during Mike Nixon’s lone season as coach. 20,825 days have passed since the Steelers clocked that milestone, in case you really, really want to know. It isn’t just the the Steelers 57 year losing streak there:

  • Bad things happen when the Steelers play in Philly.

In 1997 alone, Philadelphia marked the end of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. Heck, the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown in Philly was when Kordell Stewart connected with Will Blackwell.

Much Has Changed Since the Steelers Last Win in Philly

A lot has changed since Steelers last win in the City of Brotherly Love.

Their last win came 360 days before my older sister was born (she’s a Ravens fan, but we still love her just the same) so suffice to say I have no memory. And although my parents were newlyweds living in Pittsburgh in 1965, they’re not much for sports so its no use asking them.

  • But thanks to the Magic of Google Newspaper Archives, we can glimpse of what it was like then.

In 1965, man on the moon was more fiction than science. In fact, the headline of October 25th Pittsburgh Press tells us that the Gemini Mission has been Scrubbed as Agenda Fails. The Post-Gazette led with Gemini story too. Except the Post-Gazette tells us Gemini Launching, Space Docking a ‘Go.’

The first Gemini Space rendezvous occurred later that December, but it was supposed to happen in October. (The lesson then, as it is now, is that you need to read beyond the headlines.)

Just below that story, the Post Gazette tells us that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson is off to Rhodesia for talks with the white settler government who was vying for independence. “Rhodesia” is now best known (at least in Argentina) as a chocolate bar, and the country in question is Zimbabwe.

The Pittsburgh Press devotes about a 1/3 of its front page to Vietnam coverage, and talks about the record low 25- degree temperature Pittsburgh experienced that weekend. It also informs us that the Civic Arena turned its first profit for the first time since it opened in 1961.

Digging into the Post-Gazette you see that Giant Eagle is selling Roast Pork Butt for 49 cents per pound. The same add tells us that a 9 oz package of Scallops would set you back 89 cents.

Not to be out done, A&P is selling “Long Bologna” for 49 cents a pound and Jane Parker Large Apple Pie for 39 cents (normally it would have cost 49 cents, the ad assures us). In between the two adds, you learn that you could have bought a Polaroid Swinger Camera for $19.95.

Yes, times have changed. But has enough changed for the Steelers to recapture some of that 1965 magic?

Mikey Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Art Rooney Sr. was notoriously bad at hiring head coaches. Yet even he knew Mike Nixon wasn’t the man for the job. When Dan Rooney accepted/forced Buddy Parker’s resignation during the 1965 preseason, Art Rooney reportedly called Nixon, told him he was going to offer him the job but encouraged him to reject it because he wasn’t ready.

Nixon ignored The Chief’s advice, accepted the job and then preceded to lose his first five games as Steelers head coach. Game six brought the Steelers to Philly, and thus began Mike Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame.

  • The Steelers beat the Eagles that day, 20 to 14.

Jim Bradshaw,

1960’s Steelers safety Jim Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But by the look of the box score, it was an UGLY win. Quarterback Bill Nelsen went 6 of 16 for 79 yards. Running back Mike Lind also got 16 carries, managing 30 yards, but he did catch 2 passes for 11 yards including a touchdown.

The highlight of the day, and one would presume the season, came in the 2nd quarter when safety Jim Bradshaw returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown, which was one of 3 picks for a total of 101 yards.

The Steelers would win again the next week 22 to 13 over the Dallas Cowboys back at Pitt Stadium. So Mike Nixon can hang his hat on the fact that he’s one of the very few head coaches who went undefeated against Tom Landry during his career.

Alas, after beating Landry, Mike Nixon’s Steelers lost their next 7 games finishing the season 2-12, and Nixon got fired.

Nixon did enough to impress Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who hired him as an assistant coach, giving Nixon three years of gainful employment before he faded into a footnote in Steelers history.

  • Can Mike Tomlin repeat Mike Nixon’s success in Philly?

It is doubtful. But I’ll wager that Kenny Pickett will pass for more than 79 yards and Najee Harris will run for more than 30 (well, he’d better.) Who knows? But even if Minkah Fitzpatrick has an 82 yard pick six, expect the Eagles to win and the Steelers to take a 2-6 record into the bye week.

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Upset! Short-Handed Steelers Beat Tom Brady, Buccaneers 20-18 as Trubisky Comes Off the Bench

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-18 at Acrisure Stadium in a game that embodies the concept of “Upset.”

Mike Tomlin’s Steelers hadn’t simply dropped four straight games since their opening day win over the Bengals: They got progressively worse with each loss. They arrived at the stadium today absent their number 1 tight end, their All Pro safety and their top three cornerbacks.

  • Worse yet, Tom Brady, the GOAT was their opponent.

Did anyone give the Steelers a chance? I know I didn’t. Craig Wolfley, the optimists’ optimist was none too positive in his pregame comments. Mike Tomlin, however, did give Pittsburgh a chance, and he made sure his players gave themselves a chance, and that attitude carried the Steelers from the very first play to the very last.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Upsets in Context

Special upsets occur not when a team wins a game that they “shouldn’t” win, but rather when they prevail when the consensus is that they “couldn’t” win.

I experienced my first special Steelers upset listening to Myron Cope on WTAE while on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as Chuck Noll’s 1989 Steelers, after losing their first two games 51-0 and 41-10, shocked the Minnesota Vikings, then a Super Bowl favorite, 27-14 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Eleven years later I stood in Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon, as Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers went down to Jacksonville, having had their starting quarterback injured late in practice on Friday, and pasted the then Super Bowl favorite Jaguars 24-13. The upset over the Jaguars set the tone for an entire decade.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

Chuck Noll’s ’89 Steelers defied the odds because, after watching his team lose 92-10 in their first two outings, he boldly stood in the locker room and declared “I believe in this team,” and then outlined how they were going to address their short comings by “getting back to basics.”

Bill Cowher’s ’00 Steelers rebounded because new leaders like Aaron Smith, Joey Porter and Deshea Townsend while stalwarts like Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart reasserted themselves.

  • How did Mike Tomlin’s ’22 Steelers pull off their upset today?

Time will tell if he delved into his coaching craft to find something unique or if new leaders emerged, but today we can make one definitive observation: The Steelers beat Tampa Bay because they dominated in the Red Zone.

Steelers Dominate the Red Zone

Often times, in today’s Fantasy Football fueled football discussion exaggerates the importance of the Red Zone. But make no mistake about it, there is one undeniable truth about the Red Zone and that is this:

  • Play well in the Red Zone and you give yourself a chance to win.
  • Fail in the Red Zone, and you’ll likely loose.

Much will be made about Kenny Pickett’s difficulty in scoring points, but his scramble in the Red Zone set up a 4th and 1, and Jaylen Warren’s 1 yard run on 4th is what set up Pickett’s pass to Najee Harris – the Steelers first opening drive touchdown since last year’s tie vs Detroit.

  • That set the tone for what was to follow, on both sides of the ball.

Myles Jack and Tre Norwood broke up passes in the Red Zone on the next play, forcing field goals. Larry Ogunjobi and Terrell Edmunds made tackles for losses and Cam Heyward got a sack forcing field goals the next time Tampa Bay reached the Red Zone. On the Buccaneers next trip to the Red Zone, Tom Brady & company had five shots inside the Steelers ten. All of those came up short, despite a Steelers holding penalty. Again, Tampa settled for 3.

The real Red Zone fireworks came in the fourth quarter, as Mitch Trubisky rifled a six yard bullet to Chase Claypool to give Pittsburgh a 20-12 lead.

Tom Brady of course rallied the Buccaneers, as you’d expect him to do with nearly 10 minutes left to play. But while Tampa scored a touchdown, they missed the 2 point conversion thanks to Devin Bush deflecting the pass.

Steelers vs Buccaneers, Terrell Edmunds, Malik Reed, Cameron Heyward, Leonard Fournette

Steelers stop Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Defense Delivers, Special Teams Special

Those Red Zone performances were made relevant by the outstanding work done by the defense and special teams with a significant contribution by a workman-like offense.

One should not lose sight of this simple fact: The Steelers were starting practice squad cornerbacks against Tom Brady. And they won. They won in part by forcing 5 punts, as Tampa Bay went 4-14 on third downs.

Myles Jack, Robert Spillane, Alex Highsmith and Malik Reed all batted away passes. Highsmith registered a strip sack that help scuttle a drive. Chris Wormley made a critical tackle for a loss that closed the 3rd quarter by forcing a punt.

Steven Sims saw his first regular season action and responded by ripping off a 24 yard punt return and opening the 2nd half with an 89 yard kickoff return. And if the Steelers inability to turn that long return into a touchdown is frustrating, Chris Boswell delivered when called upon, tacking on 3 points in a game that was ultimately decided by two.

Mitch, Chase Connect to Close the Game

If you’d told me that the Steelers could hold a 2 point lead with 4:38 left in the 4th quarter, I’d have told you it was possible, but improbable. If you told me the Steelers held that lead despite Kenny Pickett leaving with a concussion I’d have rolled my eyes.

But if you’d told me that the Steelers would lose 13 yards on a bad snap after on their second play from scrimmage while defending that lead but still would win, I’d have said you were bat shit crazy.

Yet that is what happened, thanks to exceptional plays by Mitch Tribuisky and Chase Claypool, who teamed up on 3rd and 15 and 3rd and 11 to kill the clock.

Road from Here

After the game, Mike Tomlin, while praising his players was quick to remind everyone, “…where we are is more than one good day, one good plan, one good winning performance in terms of working our way back to respectability.”

Tomlin strikes exactly the right tone. After all, this still is a team that 2-4 so the Steelers locker room would do well to embrace Tomlin’s words.

But man, it does feel good beat Tom Brady.

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