Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

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

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

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The Extension: Yes, Mike Tomlin Deserves Criticism. But He’s Earned Far More Credit

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for 3 more years. His new current contract will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season.

Tomlin’s contract extension might not be a surprise, but it does come a bit off schedule as the Steelers typically have extended their coaches during the summer, either shortly before or during training camp.

The decision also indicates that Mike Tomlin will oversee at least the beginning of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mike Tomlin’s last extension mirrored Ben Roethlisberger’s, leading to speculation that Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert would simultaneously retire.

  • That appears far less likely now.

In a prepared statement Art Rooney II extolled his 14 year head coach:

Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League. We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.

If Mr. Rooney were to poll the citizens of Steelers Nation, he’d undoubtedly find disagrees. Indeed, the dissenters would be many, and they would be vocal. They would also be wrong.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

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

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has one ring from Super Bowl XLIII, two AFC Championships, 7 AFC North Championships, 9 playoff appearances while compiling a 145-78-1 regular season record while never suffering a losing season. Only once, on Tomlin’s watch have the Steelers been eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final game.

Yet for all that, based on social media reaction you’d think resume was on par Rod Rust’s 1990 campaign in New England.

Let’s debunk some of the charges leveled against Tomlin:

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

Pittsburgh’s playoff record since Super Bowl XLV certainly strings. Those last two home playoff losses sucked.

But if that’s your argument against Mike Tomlin then ask yourself this one question – would you feel different if he’d racked up a bunch of AFC Championship losses?

Seriously.

  • Bill Cowher won playoff games a plenty between 1992 and 2004.
Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Yet the knock on Cowher was, “He can’t win the big one.” After he suffered his 2nd humiliating Heinz Field AFC Championship defeat to the Patriots in 2004, there was no shortage of fans who felt he should be fired. Fortunately, Dan Rooney ignored them and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL a year later.

“He only won with Bill Cowher’s players.”

Really? Well, by that measure, Bill Cowher started losing in the late 1990’s when Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake, the Hall of Famers/All Pros he inherited from Chuck Noll, either left or started fading. He only became a champion after a franchise QB (whom he didn’t really want to pick) dropped in his lap.

And if we’re using a predecessor’s success to discredit a successor, then let’s also acknowledge that Kevin Colbert only won with Tom Donahoe’s players.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go there either.

“He’s had 10 YEARS to Rebuild Since Super Bowl XLV”

True. Very true. It’s also true that rebuilding around a franchise QB is hard. Don Shula went to the Super Bowl in ’82, got his franchise QB in ’83, went to another Super Bowl in ’84 and never sniffed another. Shula is generally recognized as one of the top 3 coaches of all time….

“BUT Tomlin’s had a franchise QB his ENTIRE career. And he’s ONLY won ONE Super Bowl.”

Number don’t lie. This is true. But tell me:

  • How many Super Bowls did Sean Peyton win with Drew Brees?
  • Mike McCarthy had Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. How many rings does he wear?
  • Pete Carroll is a fine coach. Russell Wilson is a great QB. How many trophies do they have?
  • And, by the way, how did that Legion of Boom dynasty pan out?

Tom Coughlin did win two Super Bowl rings and he beat the Patriots to get his. Give the man credit. He also closed his chapter in New York with 3 straight losing seasons.

Would Steelers Nation trade 7-9 and twin 6-10 records for another Lombardi? We might. Throw in a playoff win over the Patriots, and I probably take that deal.

But it still shows how hard it is to sustain winning after a championship run. Oh, and how has New York done since kicking Coughlin to the curb?

Give Tomlin the Criticism Deserves and the Credit He’s Earned

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games too often. Sure, there are some mitigating circumstances in some cases. But it has happened too often to dismiss as chance.

Has he stubbornly run running backs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell into the ground while failing to staff adequate back up depth? Yes sir! This scuttled two if not 3 playoff runs.

But has wiffing on picks like Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns set the rebuild behind? Absolutely.

Does he let loyalty and personal relationships cloud his decisions on assistants? Yes, at times it seems he does.

These faults are real. But this is also real: No other coach Bill Belichick and arguably Tom Coughlin has been better than Mike Tomlin during the Tom Brady era.

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Will Tyson Alualu Keep Giving Steelers “Bang for their free agency buck?”

My has the importance of the defensive line changed in the National Football League. Two generations ago defensive tackle Joe Greene arrived at St. Vincents and literally began pivoting Pittsburgh towards its championship arc during his very first practice. 

In the 80’s, Chuck Noll thought he could repeat history and “start again on defense” by drafting Gabe Rivera. Sure, passing on Dan Marino was mindbogglingly boneheaded, but even if you set that aside, the mentality of favoring defense over a quarterback doesn’t make sense in 2021. In the dark days of 1998 and 1999, the late season declines of the Steelers defense were just as bad as the offense’s, and Joel Steed’s ailing knees were a big part of those drops.

  • Casey Hampton‘s arrival in 2001 provided the cornerstone of a defense that would win two championships.

Fast forward to 2019: Javon Hargrave, a rookie starter from the Steelers 2016 draft class, shows he’s budding into his prime and the Steelers don’t attempt to make a competitive offer to keep him. They made that move, in part, because they gambled that Tyson Alualu could provide more or less the same bag for far less salary cap buck.

  • The Steelers won that gamble, but now Tyson Alualu is about to become a free agent himself.

The question is, will he return to Pittsburgh?

Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Giants, Daniel Jones

Tyson Alualu is held as he closes in on Daniel Jones. Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP

Capsule Profile of Tyson Alualu’s Career with the Steelers

Tyson Alualu was a first-round pick by the Jaguars (10th, overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft. After spending seven mostly-nondescript seasons in Jacksonville, the California product became a Steeler in 2017 after signing a two-year deal.

Tyson Alualu, who signed another two-year contract prior to the 2019 season, was brought in to provide quality depth along the defensive line, and he spent his first three seasons in Pittsburgh doing just that. However, after Javon Hargrave departed as a free agent last spring, it was as a starting nose tackle in 2020 where Alualu provided the Steelers with perhaps the highest quality play of his entire career. Alualu was so strong against the run in 2020, his absence was clearly noticeable when he missed several games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

The Steelers defensive line, one that was considered a major strength for years, is starting to fray, mainly due to the departure of Hargrave and the lack of proven depth. If Alualu is brought back for 2021, if nothing else, the starters–Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Alualu — should remain an incredible asset for Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

Alualu will be 34 in May. That’s not much of a concern. What could be a concern is any higher than expected offers he receives as an unrestricted free agent. Alualu’s salary counted $3.6 million against the cap in 2020. Now that he’s a starter, he probably deserves a salary that reflects that. But it has to be within reason for the salary compromised Steelers. If not, the Steelers’ unproven depth along the defensive line may quickly become unproven potential starters.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyson Alualu in 2021

In my opinion, Tyson Alualu was quietly one of the more critical players on the Steelers defense in 2020.

Given that, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin owe it to themselves to work out a reasonable deal and keep Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Marty Schottenheimer was a Coach I Hated as a Kid but Respected as a Man

Marty Schottenheimer, one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history, passed away on February 8 at the age of 77.

Schottenheimer won 200 regular-season games over a 20-year career that included stints with four different teams, including the Browns (1984-1988), Chiefs (1989-1998), the now Washington Football Team (2001) and Chargers (2002-2006).

Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher, Steelers

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer. Photo Credit:Charley Gallay, Getty Images

It was Schottenheimer’s tenure in Cleveland in the mid-to-late-’80s that drew the ire of a little Steelers fan in Pittsburgh. I’m talking about yours truly, of course. Right around the time Schottenheimer was turning the Browns into Super Bowl contenders in the mid-’80s, the Steelers, who had won four Lombardi trophies in the previous decade, were firmly in the throes of their post-dynasty malaise that would basically last through the final year of Chuck Noll‘s career in 1991.

It was Schottenheimer who would coach the Browns to their first-ever victory at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. It was those same Browns who would lay to rest whatever slight playoff hopes Pittsburgh had thanks to a 37-31 overtime loss at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the rematch late in the season.

Schottenheimer would go on to coach the Browns to three-straight AFC Central titles from 1985-1987. Meanwhile, the Steelers, following a stunning appearance in the AFC title game in 1984, were about to embark on their ugliest stretch since the pre-Noll days and wouldn’t win another division title until Noll retired and was replaced by Bill Cowher in 1992.

It wasn’t a fun time watching Schottenheimer’s Browns reign supreme in the AFC Central during those aforementioned three seasons, while Pittsburgh could only muster records of 7-9, 6-10 and 8-7, respectively.

  • But time, they say it heals all wounds.

As I got older and learned a bit more about Schottenheimer, I realized he was not only a good and super-positive guy–someone who always got his players to respond to his message — but he was from the Greater Pittsburgh area, namely, Canonsburg, Pa. Furthermore, Schottenheimer was the only coaching boss Cowher ever had, as the fellow Pittsburgh area native cut his teeth on Schottenheimer’s staff in Cleveland as both a special teams coach and then a secondary coach.

Bill Cowher followed Schottenheimer to Kansas City and was the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator from 1989-1991. It was there that Cowher emerged as a bona fide head-coaching candidate and found himself on the Steelers’ radar during their very important search to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Emperor.

Many said Cowher was too much like his coaching mentor, which was to say he was too conservative on offense; instead, relying on defense and a sound running game

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

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

After several near-misses, Cowher finally got his ring in 2005 when the Steelers vanquished the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Many have said that the key was taking the handcuffs off Ben Roethlisberger, his second-year quarterback who had the “it” factor the organization seemed to be missing at the position since the days of Terry Bradshaw.

  • Sadly, Cowher’s old boss never did win a ring.

Heck, Schottenheimer never even appeared in a Super Bowl, as many promising seasons in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego ended before they could even reach that coveted grand stage.

Some have called Schottenheimer’s coaching career tragic due to his playoff failures, but I don’t see it that way. If you’ve never seen the A Football Life episode about Schottenheimer’s football career, I highly recommend it. Schottenheimer had a nondescript playing career for both the Bills and Patriots in the 1960s before turning to a life in coaching. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer spent several years trying to get his foot in the door in both the college and professional ranks but struggled to even get an interview.

As he told it, Schottenheimer’s family was struggling financially and pretty close to seeing everything come crashing down when the Giants hired him to be their linebackers coach in 1975. During his A Football Life episode, Schottenheimer broke down in tears when discussing the break that he got in New York. It changed his life. It changed his family’s life.

No, there was nothing tragic about Schottenheimer’s coaching career. Did his teams often come up short on the biggest stages? Yes, but he got to live his dream.

  • He got closer than many ever will to NFL’s Promised Land.

People think life is about the destination, but it’s really about the journey. I’d say Marty Schottenheimer had a great and memorable one.

Thank you, Marty Schottenheimer, not only for preparing Bill Cowher to be the Steelers’ next head coach after Chuck Noll but for being the kind of coach this man would have loved to play for if I had the talent to do so.

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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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Attention Steelers Nation: No Need to Let Ben Roethlisberger’s End Mimic Terry Bradhsaw’s Beginning

I have to admit, I’m starting to understand the Blond Bomber’s beef with the Steel City.

It is no secret that Pittsburgh’s prodigal son, Terry Bradshaw enjoys a tortuous, love-feeling unloved relationship with the Steelers and Steelers Nation. There’s a reason why Tony Defeo’s piece “Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Terry Bradshaw Made Up with the Steelers. For Good…” is one of this site’s top performing inbound articles.

To be clear, I have always and will always defend Terry Bradshaw as a player against those who charge that he was “Dumb” or “just an average quarterback lucky to be on a good team” (if you really believe that, Google “60 Prevent Slot Hook & Go” and tell me an “average” quarterback could make that throw.)

But Bradshaw’s whining about how Chuck Noll or Steelers fans treated him has always fallen flat with me.

  • That is starting to change, a little at least.

And you can thank Ben Roethlisberger for that. Or more precisely, you can thank Steelers Nation’s reaction to Ben Roethlisberger approaching his “Life’s Work” for that.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Steelers Nation Turns on Big Ben

There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger is past his prime. Once his signature, he struggles with the long ball. He’s in decline and the only question is can this decline be managed/slowed long enough for the Steelers to squeeze a seventh Lombardi from Number Seven out of his arm?

  • The answer to that could very well be “No.” I get it.

But what I don’t get is the way some fans have turned on him. This tweet provides a perfect taste of what I’m talking about:

So based on his body of work in 2020 Ben Roethlisberger is now “average” or “below average?” Really? Let’s put that hypothesis through a simple exercise.

Can you imagine, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones, Michael Vick, Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges – or all the other quarterbacks that have thrown a pass for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2004 — starting a playoff game by throwing 3 interceptions in one quarter?

I can, particularly if Diontae Johnson is bouncing letting catchable balls off of his hands towards waiting defensive backs.

Now, can you imagine any of those players going 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards for the rest of the game? In his prime, Vick might have, but by the time he became a Steeler? No way. Neither could any of the others.

  • This is a statement of fact.

Moreover, this statement of fact references Ben Roethlisberger’s current capabilities, not Big Ben of yesteryear. That that’s the rub with treatment Ben Roethlisberger is getting from wide-swaths of fans in Steelers Nation.

  • The idea that Ben Roetlisberger has completely lost it, frankly isn’t fair.

Nor are arguments that suggest Ben Roethlisberger has and will continue to sabotage the offense. Here’s a perfect “Ben is hostile to the running game” quote for Steel City Insider’s message board:

As long as he is around they will not have a run game he is the reason why we lost the 2 playoffs game.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble, Steelers vs Titans

Le’Veon Bell in 2017 vs. the Titans. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

True, Ben’s turnovers represented critical mistakes in both playoff losses. But Le’Veon Bell logged 16 rushes against Jacksonville, and the Steelers defense was AWOL at turn-key moments in both defeats. So Ben was hardly “the reason why we lost the 2 playoff games.”

This “Ben hates the run” mentality extends to the regular season as well as evidenced by another comment from the same message board:

I’d only be willing to do this if he agreed to run an offense that DOESN’T throw 600 passes a year with at least 350 of them short of the first down line. I don’t want to watch this ridiculous offense he has insisted on running since 2018.

Objectively, he’s got the numbers going for him. But the key phrase above is “offense he has insisted on running since 2018.” Really? If Ben was “insisting” on running a pass-heavy offense, then why was James Conner was on track to have a 378 touch season until it became clear that the Le’Veon Bell holdout would be permanent?

The Steelers abandonment of the run in 2018, 2018 and 2019 for that matter was driven by necessity not desire. Ben Roethlisberger may not have objected to this, but it certainly wasn’t his decision.

No Need to End Big Ben’s Time the Way Bradshaw Began His

This post began by referencing the rift between Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers. That’s a one sided rift if there ever was one. If Terry Bradshaw ever decided to “come home,” fans in Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large would embrace him with enough enthusiasm to put the Prodigal Son’s father to shame.

  • But it is also true that early in his career, the fans were brutal on Bradshaw.

That brutal treatment left a scar on Bradshaw’s soul that he’s unable heal because he’s unwilling to heal it. But the scar never should have been made in the first place.

  • In contrast, the team, the city and the fans embraced Ben Roethlisberger from the moment he arrived.
  • His early career isn’t marred by scars, but adulation.

The cross roads that Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at is a difficult one. There’s no need to complicate things with criticisms and characterizations that simply aren’t true. Just as there’s no need to end Ben Roethlisberger’s career by adding the type of scars that marked Terry Bradshaw’s beginning.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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Simple Math: Steelers Beat Bengals 36-10, but Number 7 is Key for Pittsburgh

Football is grounded in physics. Chuck Noll opined that the purpose of training camp was to teach players to use their bodies as projectiles. In his book, A Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell argues that success and failure in football often comes down to subtle changes in angles, stances and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fan.

  • Physics is driven by numbers
  • And in many senses, numbers and the measurables they represent determine outcomes on football fields.

But in the Steelers 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh proved two things:

  • All numbers are not created equally on the gridiron
  • And for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one certainly more equal than others

Lets look at how the men in Black and Gold delivered their lesson in math and physics.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger takes the snap. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sometimes Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

Football fans love statistics. Before the age of Direct TV, streaming and even shows like ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime, reading the stats in the paper at the breakfast table was as close as some citizens of Steelers Nation got to the game itself.

  • Sometimes, stats can be revealing.
  • At other times they can be deceiving.

Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard both have better career rushing averages than Jerome Bettis. Who would you rather draft for your all time Steelers team? Case closed. If I grabbed the stat sheet from the Steelers-Bengals game and told you that:

  • James Conner would rush for 36 yards at 2.8 yards a carry…
  • The Steelers would give up a fake punt that went for 39 yards…
  • Samaje Perine averaged 6.9 yards per carry…
  • The Steelers would convert 2 fumble recoveries for 3 points…
  • Pittsburgh would go 6-16 on third down…
  • The Bengals would convert 2 of 3 4th down attempts…

You could easily concluded that Cincinnati came out of Pittsburgh with an upset. But you’d have been wrong, because those numbers just don’t add up.

A Few Numbers that Offset the Ones Above

Football is the ultimate team game and it’s important to remember that because the conclusion of the next two

Cam Sutton, Tee Higgins, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Sutton strips the ball from Tee Higgins. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

sections could suggest otherwise. (Keep reading, we’ll go quick – no skimming down.)

The numbers above are at once accurate and imprecise because they’re counter balanced by statistics like these:

  • T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane, and Bud Dupree combined for 4 sacks
  • Ray-Ray McCloud ripped off a 42 yard punt return to the Bengals 15
  • Cincinnati went 0 for 13 on third downs
  • Joe Haden tipped way 3 passes
  • The Steelers would hold a mere 62 second advantage in time of possession

Take those stats, and look at them alongside the first set of numbers and it paints a picture of Pittsburgh perhaps pulling out another barn burner thanks to a little Minkah Magic magic.

But once again, you’d come away with the wrong image. This game was a blow out instead of a barn burner, and that’s because one number is more important to Pittsburgh than any other.

7 Stands as Steelers Magic Number

The two BIG known unknowns for the Steelers heading into 2020 were how would COVID-19 impact the team, and how well would Ben Roethlisberger rebound from surgery.

  • The confluences of both issues met at Heinz Field this past week.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger was unable to practice, due to potential exposure to COVID-19, but it Big Ben’s performance was the definitive difference maker for the the Steelers.

No, Ben Roethlisberger was not perfect. His long passes remain a work in progress. A couple were too short, a few more flew too long, and a few failed to escape the line of scrimmage without getting batted away.

But that really doesn’t matter when you can:

All of that amounted to the Steelers going 4 of 5 in the Red Zone, while tacking on a Chris Boswell field goal on their other trip, in addition to two other Boswell scores from father out. Two other stats help complete number 7’s tale: Zero sacks and Zero interceptions.

7 is the numeral that means so much more than any other number to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Minkah Magic! Steelers Defeat Cowboys 25-19 as Fitzpatrick Helps Pittsburgh Avoid Trap Game

Google “Trap Game” and you’ll get many definitions. Some are better than others. The best had nothing to do with sports and came from the late, great Mr. Jim Baker, my 8th grade World Studies teacher, who would chide the class:

  • This was a ‘gimmie’ and you blew it.

Mr. Baker was talking about blowing assignments that should have been an easy “A.” A trap game is one you “should” win but end up losing.

Mike Tomlin has been unfairly criticized for many things during his tenure, but there’s no arguing that Tomlin teams tend to get tripped up by trap games. On Sunday, against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers almost tripped again. But they didn’t because this time they had Minkah Magic on their side….

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Half Full or Half Empty? How About Just Half a Glass?

NFL teams rarely play 3 consecutive road games. Winning 3 straight road games is rarer yet. Winning two of the three against the a conference and division heavyweight is more difficult yet. But both of those wins came with a half-full/half-empty element to them.

Cam Sutton, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Cam Sutton tries to stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers played a phenomenal first half against the Titans, only to cling on to victory thanks to a missed field goal. Against the Ravens, the Steelers played one of their worst first halves of offensive football in the Tomiln era, gave up tons of yards, yet delivered decisive play after decisive play in the 2nd half to win.

  • And so it was against the Dallas Cowboys.

On paper, the Steelers should have steamrolled the Cowboys, a team that was reeling even before it found itself needing to start its 4th or 5th string quarterback. It should have been so simple. Yet, it wasn’t:

  • James Conner struggled, plodding for 2.4 yards a carry instead of running strong
  • Ben Roethlisberger struggled to connect on the deep ball and couldn’t convert 3rd downs
  • Garrett Gilbert played more like Dallas’ next Tony Romo than its next Babe Laufenberg
  • It was Dallas, and not Pittsburgh that moved the chains and possessed the clock

So instead of dominating Dallas, the Steelers were looking at a 13-0 deficit with 3:50 left to play. Just as they had against Baltimore, and just as they had against Tennessee, the question wasn’t whether the glass was half empty or half full, but rather why the Steelers seemed to be stuck with half a glass.

Steelers Come Alive @ 2 Minute Warning

The key word there is “seemed.” Just after the two minute warning, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee, and almost as if on cue:

Dallas got the ball back, and a quick pass from Garrett Gilbert to CeeDee Lamb looked promising until Cam Sutton knocked the ball loose, regaining possession at the Cowboy’s 39. Mason Rudolph came in to complete a few passes, but those amounted to little more than chump change.

  • Still, it was enough for Chris Boswell to kick a franchise-record 59 yard field goal.

Instead of heading into half time on the ropes, the Steelers had narrowed the score to a very manageable 13 to 9.

Special Teams Snafus Nearly Sabotage Steelers

Steelers fans with long memories know of the team’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship with special teams coaches. Jon Kolb was a legendary tackle for Chuck Noll, but a nightmare as a special teams coach. George Stewart followed him, and his special teams strike force helped craft the 1989 Steelers Cinderella story.

Bobby April gained cult hero status for his special teams prowess during the 1995 Steelers failed Super Bowl run, while Jay Hayes disastrous special teams foul ups paved the way for the Tom Brady era in the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • Many fans in Steelers Nation have felt Danny Smith was on the wrong side of that divide.

I’d argue that wouldn’t have been fair to Smith, but not one can argue that during 2020, special teams have been an asset for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Until they set foot in Jerry’s World, where:

  • Chris Boswell missed his first extra point
  • Boswell then missed his next field goal (although a penalty gave him a re-try)
  • The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during an 83 yard punt return
  • The Cowboys blocked an extra point
  • Rico Dowdle transformed a picture perfect 64 yard “mortar kick” into a 64 yard return

The math is pretty simple, the 83 yard punt return set up an easy Dallas field goal, and the two botched extra points took two points off the board for the Steelers. That’s a 5 point swing against Pittsburgh…

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Cowboys

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers 2nd Half Comeback That Almost Came Up Short

True to form the Steelers fielded a different team in the 2nd half, that featured the following fireworks:

  • 75 and 79 yard drives that ended with touchdown passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron
  • Another 75 yard drive that started at Pittsburgh’s 1 and ended with a field goal
  • A 5-play negative 1-yard Cowboys drive at the 2 minute warning

That Cowboy drive ended with a hellacious Cam Heyward/ T.J. Watt sack on 4th and 8 with 1:45 left.

  • The game should have ended there. Except it didn’t.

The Steelers got the ball back at the Dallas 24. James Conner ran twice for little effect. On third down Ben Roethlisberger connected with Chase Claypool, but Claypool only got 5 yards, bringing up 4th and 1. On 4th and one James Conner got stoned for a 4 yard loss.

Dallas was not only in it, it had a chance to win it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowboys

Minkah Fitzpatrick after saving the day for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Boston Globe.

Minkah Magic = Difference Maker for Steelers

Steelers fans have seen these situations before and suffered from them all too often – just remember the 2nd half of the 2018 season. But Dallas didn’t close the deal here, for the same reason it failed to put Pittsburgh away at two other points in the game: Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • Minkah recovered the Cowboys fumble late in the first half, setting up the Steelers field goal
  • Dowdle’s 64 yard kick return gave Dallas perfect field position, only for Minkah to intercept the ball

And so it was. Dallas got the ball back with 38 seconds left. Gilbert moved the team 58 yards. The prevent defense looked like it was about to prevent the Steelers from winning. Then, on 3rd an 4 from the Pittsburgh 23 with 0:04 left, Gilbert fired at CeeDee Lamb.

  • As he did last week, Minkah Fitzpatrick stepped up and batted away the final pass.

Once again, Minkah Magic put the Pittsburgh Steelers over the top.

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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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