The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

Vindicating Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

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

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

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

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

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

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

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

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

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

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

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

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

The Colbert Effect

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

Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

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

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

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging Out from 0-3

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

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

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

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

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Growing Pains

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

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

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

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

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

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

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

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

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

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

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

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

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

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

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

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

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

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

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

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

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

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation

“There’s a big opportunity to win here. I think the tradition, the stability, the credibility of the front office and the wealth of talent on this team is exciting to any football coach….” – Bill Cowher, on his first day as Steelers head coach.

“…And Mark Royals standing at his own 40, the rush – and he’s passing down field and he completes the pass pulled in by Warren Williams…” – Jack Fleming during the Steelers 1992 opening day victory vs. the Houston Oilers

Bold words backed by bold actions – Bill Cowher began his tenure as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach by defining a single success metric: winning the Super Bowl.

It may have taken 15 years for him to do that, but Bill Cowher’s confidence inspired the 1992 Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh, and the team’s nationwide legion of fans. Steel Curtain Rising’s look at the Bill Cowher years starts where it all began, with the Steelers 1992 season.

Bill Cowher, Rod Woodson

Bill Cowher and Rod Woodson cerca 1992

1992 Opener vs Oilers: Bold Words, Bolder Actions

Bill Cowher’s declaration shocked reporters, who rolled their eyes at Cowher’s contention that the Steelers had a “wealth of talent” and “no glaring weakness.” A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette preseason reprint from the book Cowher Power, argued that the 1992 Steelers would be lucky to post a winning season while assailing nearly every position on Pittsburgh’s roster.

  • Bill Cowher’s confidence stood on a solid foundation, but perhaps the press’ cynicism can be forgiven.

Just three years earlier the 1989 Steelers storybook season had ignited hope that the Steel Curtain was finally rising again. Chuck Noll openly spoke of “Championship talent.” The Emperor felt he could win big again. But the playoffless, 9-7 1990 Steelers season effort earned the Steelers an “Underachieving” label. By the time Noll retired after a 7-9, 1991 campaign, most NFL observers, inside and outside of Pittsburgh, wrote the Steelers roster off as mediocre at best.

Bill Cowher saw things very differently, and early on, he refused to flinch when challenged to prove it.

Cowher Power Takes the NFL by Storm

And so it was, that the 1992 Steelers began the Bill Cowher era in Houston, taking on the division rival Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers had looked “OK” in preseason, but preseason means nothing.

Lore has it that, rather than discuss the challenge presented by the 11-point underdog Steelers, the Houston Chronicle focused most of its Sunday morning opening day coverage how it was imperative that the Oilers secure home field advantage during the playoffs.

  • Early events appeared to vindicate the wisdom of the Houston Chronicle editors

The Steelers fumbled away their first two possessions, in effect spotting the Oilers 14 easy points to start the first quarter. But then, on 4th and 15 at the Oilers’ 45, Bill Cowher ordered punter Mark Royals – who’d never thrown an NFL pass before, to go for it. Warren Williams caught Royals’ pass and scampered 44 yards, setting up a Barry Foster touchdown.

  • From that point on, the Steelers and Oilers fought tooth and nail.

Larry Griffin, rookie Darren Perry and Rod Woodson picked off Warren Moon 5 times, and in the process ended two would-be game-willing drives by the Oilers. Dwight Stone ran reverses twice, including one on third and long. When it ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers stood as 29-24 victors in a game no one gave them a chance of contesting, let alone winning.

  • NFL history proves that opening day upsets aren’t difficult, sustaining momentum from them is.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers sustained their momentum, with a home opening win over the New York Jets that saw Barry Foster run for 190 yards, followed by a road victory of the San Diego Chargers. In the blink of an eye, the Pittsburgh Steelers had shot from afterthought to the talk of the NFL. The Steelers fell in their next game to Brett Favre’s debut and lost the following week to Cleveland, setting up a critical mid-season stretch.

Something Special Happening with the Steelers

The 1992 Steelers snapped their 2 game losing streak with an impressive shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, giving them a 4-2 record heading into a critical 3 game stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Oilers, and the Buffalo Bills.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola observed at the time, a win over any of these teams would still be considered “an upset.”

This three game stretch would define the 1992 Steelers as contenders or pretenders. The Steelers traveled to Arrowhead Stadium, then considered an extremely difficult place to play, and blindsided the Chiefs to the tune of 27 to 3. In the process, Bill Cowher not only bettered his mentor Marty Schottenheimer, but also managed to keep Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith off of Neil O’Donnell, while the Steelers defense racked up 3 interceptions and Greg Lloyd added two sacks.

  • Following the win, Bob Labriola proclaimed that the Steelers could be counted on to defeat any NFL team at any time.

No, this wasn’t the “On any given Sunday credo,” but rather a reflection of the reality that 1992 Steelers had proven they were for real. Although it’s been almost a quarter century since I read the words in Steelers Digest, the memory of Labriola’s words still raises the hair on my arm. I’ll paraphrase that passage here:

Something very special is happening to this team and this city. A win next week over the Houston Oilers will give the Steelers sole possession of the AFC Central; energize the city and galvanize their nationwide legion of fans. The possibility of playoff games at Three Rivers Stadium will become a reality for the first time in a decade.

Rod Woodson, Warren Moon

Rod Woodson after sacking Warren Moon.

The Houston Oilers refused to go gently into the good night, as they held a 20 to 7 lead going into the 4th quarter.

But the Steelers fought back, and twin touchdown passes from Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper put Pittsburgh into the lead. Houston made one final stab at victory, racing to midfield with the clock ticking. Assistant coaches implored Bill Cowher to use the Steelers time outs. Cowher balked, saying, “He’s going to miss the field goal.”

Walking into the locker room, Rod Woodson proclaimed, “We OWN the division baby!” He was right. The 1992 Steelers took possession of the AFC Central lead that day never looked back, winning their first AFC Central title since 1984.

The Playoffs Return to Three Rivers Stadium

The 1992 Steelers won five of their next eight games to finish 11-5. Nationwide, fans took notice. As Ed Bouchette reports in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when the Steelers would arrive at their hotels for road games, they were suddenly greated by thongs of fans cheering “Here We Go Steelers! Here We Go!” Veterans like Tunch Ilkin had seen a little of this in 1980 but never since.

Although they weathered some close calls and an injury to Neil O’Donnell combined with two subpar games from Bubby Brister, they qualified as only bumps in the road: The 1992 Steelers entered the playoffs as the AFC’s number one seed.

  • The cover of Steelers Digest said it all, “A Run for the Ring.”

There’s something electric about a home playoff game played in front of a fan base that believes in your team, and even on TV, it was evident that the fans at Three Rivers Stadium believed.

  • History shows that Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers weren’t quite cut out to be champions.

Cowher started Neil O’Donnell. O’Donnell wasn’t fully healthy and it is a decision Cowher now regrets. The Steelers crossed mid-field over a half dozen times, yet could only score 3 points. 4th string cornerback Richard Shelton infamously dropped an interception that had pick six written all over it.

But the fact that the Steelers Digest could even discuss a Super Bowl run revealed just how thoroughly Bill Cowher’s arrival had transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • The transformation went beyond the city of Pittsburgh.

And that’s the real achievement of Bill Cowher’s first season: The 1992 Steelers didn’t succeed in winning the Super Bowl, but Cowher Power had succeeded in awakening Steelers Nation.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Ben Roethlisberger to Return to Steelers in 2021: It is a Risk, but the Right Move for Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger will be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. The suspense is over. Nearly two months after the Steelers 2020 season ended in Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic fashion in defeat the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh has answered its biggest off season question.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Details are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks, but statements by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert left no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was going to have sacrifice to return. Ben Roethlisberger met with Art Rooney II, and undoubtedly said he would.

After he met with Art Rooney II, his agent Ryan Tollner confirmed:

For fans looking at that 3 interceptions in less than a quarter against the Browns left wondering, “Why bringing him back?” another game against Cleveland offers clarity.

The Case for Bringing Back Ben

As I’ve confessed before, when I first learned that injuries might force Terry Bradshaw to retire, I was happy, because my older brother had told me “Bradshaw was ‘old.’” To an 11 year old, “Young” meant automatically better.

  • Ah, the ignorance of youth. Cliff Stoudt was younger, but he certainly wasn’t better.

I remember seeing a few games after the fateful declaration, but didn’t see too many after that. But I do remember tuning into one a few years later. The 1987 season opened with Mark Malone and Chuck Noll logging their second upset of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

  • Could the Steel Curtain be ready to rise again?

Channel 11 in Baltimore was showing the game in week 2, a Steeler road game against the Browns. The picture in the DC suburbs was fuzzy as it arrived from Baltimore, but I didn’t need HD quality to understand the disaster.

I tuned in in the fourth quarter. The Browns were winning, but only by 20-10. It was just in time to see Mark Malone toss an interception right to Clay Matthews, which Matthew returned for a touchdown. I think, I can’t be sure, but I think that was his 4th on the day. If I’m right, he quickly threw another with the Browns converted into another touchdown.

  • Chuck Noll had seen enough, and benched Malone.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister to the rescue? Right? Ah, no. The Bubster threw an interception of his own and went 1-5 in mop up duty. He also got sacked.

7590 days elapsed between Terry Bradshaw’s last pass to Calvin Sweeney and Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass to Plaxico Burress. No, not all of those days were as bleak as that afternoon at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but the moral of the story is clear: If you have a franchise quarterback, you ride him as far as he will take you.

Yes, There is a Risk in Roethlisberger Returning

The risk of a Ben Roethlisberger return is real. One Mexican blogger spelled it out:

What we saw at the end of 2020 might be the best Ben can bring with the new arm that’s attached to his 39 year old body. Even if he can get comfortable with his arm’s “bionics” (to borrow Jim Wexell’s term) the Steelers will still need to:

  • Find a starting caliber running back
  • Rebuild the offensive line
  • Keep or replace key players on defense

But Ben Roethlisberger has obviously indicated he’s willing to give up enough salary to let the Steelers try to do that. Mason Rudolph has shown real upside. (And please, the Steelers can and will do what is needed to keep in in Pittsburgh in 2022.)

Mason Rudolph might represent the future, the here in the present Ben Roethlisberger still represents the Steelers best shot at going to the Super Bowl in 2021.

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A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.

Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

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

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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Should Mason Rudolph Start for Steelers Against the Jets?

Just two days after his young, rookie quarterback threw four interceptions in the Steelers 17-10 loss to the Bills at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football, head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Devlin Hodges would retain his starting role against the Jets in Week 16.

  • Not much of a surprise.

While Devlin Hodges didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to match the “Duckmania” that was born during the 2009 National Duck Calling Champion’s previous three starts and 16 quarters of action in total, fact is, he “didn’t kill us” as Tomlin famously summed up Hodges’ relief efforts, when he rescued a struggling Mason Rudolph in the second half of a game against the Bengals on November 24 and did just enough to guide Pittsburgh to a come-from-behind victory.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Even though his four-interception performance did help kill the Steelers chances against Buffalo, I believe Devlin Hodges retaining his starting role is the logical direction to take for a Steelers team that’s 8-6 and still has the inside track on the sixth seed in the race to qualify for the AFC playoffs.

However, if you were to go by the reactions of a lot of fans and even media members following Sunday’s rather frustrating loss to a Bills squad that appeared to be ripe for the picking, you would have thought the next logical step would be to go with Rudolph in the penultimate game of the 2019 regular season.

Based on what?

In Rudolph, we’re talking about a quarterback that really hadn’t shown a whole heck of a lot of special talent or even an “it” factor during his first nine games as the replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field.

  • This isn’t to say Manson Rudolph was terrible.
  • This isn’t to say he didn’t have his moments.

But he was a guy whose foot-work, accuracy, pocket presence and, eventually, confidence were all called into question. Sure, these things can be corrected. Heck, for all we know, he may have already taken huge steps in fixing these problems during his three weeks as Hodges’ backup — after all, Mason Rudolph may not be a rookie, but in terms of NFL experience, the second-year man from Oklahoma State is essentially at that level.

  • But we don’t know if Mason Rudolph has improved his game while not playing. How could we?

The only thing we know about Mason Rudolph is that he went from looking just okay during his first seven games of action, to looking completely lost during his final six quarters — including that abysmal performance against the Browns on Thursday Night Football, in-which he threw four interceptions and became the center of a national NFL scandal, thanks to an ugly brawl with defensive end Myles Garrett in the game’s final seconds.

  • Fact is, the offensive production hasn’t been much better under Devlin Hodges than it was with Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers have scored just one offensive touchdown in six of the last seven games–including Hodges’ last two games as a starter.

Although, in fairness to Devlin Hodges, he does look more capable of moving the offense and making plays downfield. Yes, that hurt him the other night, as the game-plan seemed to call for more passing than running against a Buffalo team that was elite while defending the former and just okay while defending the latter.

But Rudolph may have made those same mistakes against Buffalo. When you’re dealing with quarterbacks this young and green, a conservative approach seems to be the best one–why the Steelers didn’t stick with that approach is an article for another time.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to find much to love about Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges in terms of talent and performance. Let’s face it, if Hodges didn’t have a cool nickname and backstory, and if he didn’t remind old-time Steelers fans of Bubby Brister, he may never have endeared himself to the faithful in the first place.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked if Hodges will have a short leash if he continues to struggle against the Jets this Sunday. To paraphrase the veteran head coach, he said he does not anticipate failure, and that he will cross that bridge if and when he comes to it.

  • Obviously, Devlin Hodges does have a short leash, especially with the playoffs on the line.

But if Tomlin does go to Mason Rudolph during the game, it won’t be because his talent dictates that he’s the better option. He’d just be the quarterback currently not “killing” the Steelers offense.

 

 

 

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