1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell

Gravity is the universe’s inescapable force. In football gravity has always taken the forms of age, injury and the NFL draft. With 1992’s Freeman McNeil verdict, gravity gained a new form to its NFL repertory: Free Agency.

  • Free agency was supposed to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, stuck in a small, shrinking rustbelt market and locked into an unfavorable lease in an old utility stadium, could never compete with the likes of Jerry Jones and Edward DeBartlo.

  • And besides, as any fan would have told you in the 1990’s, Dan Rooney was cheap.

And so it was that every spring saw a free agent exodus out of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t backups and/or secondary starters that left, but first round picks, long time starters, perennial Pro Bowlers, a starting Super Bowl quarterback, future Hall of Famers and, in one off season, 2/3rds of the starting defensive line.

  • All of those losses came before 1997.

That spring the Steelers lost two starting-caliber wide receivers, a starting defensive end, and their TOP THREE cornerbacks. Did we mention that one of those corners was franchise icon Rod Woodson? Departures also extended to the coaches, as Dick LeBeau returned to the Cincinnati Bengals.

And by the way, the Steelers had just handed the reigns of the offense to Kordell Stewart, giving them their third new starting quarterback in 3 years.

1997 would be the season when gravity finally sucked the Pittsburgh Steelers down. Or would it….?

Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Broncos

Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart in the 1997 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: AP, via the Tribune-Review

Steelers Affirm Core Cowher Belief

In Heart and Steel, Bill Cowher declares that the 1997 Steelers were his best team. That may not be the case, but the 1997 team certainly proved one of Cowher’s core beliefs: Teams define themselves during the season’s first 4 to 6 weeks.

To that end, the Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh and put 37 unanswered points on the board until Kordell Stewart and Mark Bruener hooked up for a face-saving, garbage-time touchdown. Commentators rushed to take this as confirmation of the impending disaster foreshadowed in Fog Bowl II during the ’96 playoffs.

Really, opening day embarrassments were par for the course in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers stuck to the script by bouncing back with a convincing win against Washington in week 2.

A week later, the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville. They got embarrassed in the first half, clawed their way back into position to win at the buzzer, only to lose on a blocked field goal. The rollar coaster continued the next week against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium as Kordell Stewart would throw 3 interceptions in the first half.

  • Throwing 3 picks is never pretty, but each interception was uglier than the one before.

But Kordell Stewart shook it all off by throwing 3 touchdown passes and rushing 74 yards for another one in the 2nd half, as the Steelers pulled out a 42-34 win. The victory evened the 1997 Steelers record to 2-2, but more importantly, it established an identity: This team got right back up whenever it got knocked down.

Greg Lloyd, Steelers vs Ravens,

Greg Lloyd in his only trip to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: RVR Photos, USA TODAY Sports

Thriving on the Edge

As the first month of the season illustrated, gravity had the power to suck the 1997 Steelers to the edge. But in 1997, that was perfect for Pittsburgh, because the 1997 Steelers weren’t just a team that lived on the edge, it thrived on it. Consider:

  • The 1997 Steelers played in overtime 3 times during the year, winning each time
  • Their win over the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts came down to a missed field goal
  • Twice in overtime situations, Bill Cowher opted to ride The Bus to the end zone, rather than kick a field goal
  • When the Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in late November, they responded with 3 straight wins

Greg Lloyd’s loss, in many ways, epitomized the 1997 season.

Greg Lloyd had been a dominate player and a fan favorite for the Steelers since the late 1980s. He’d lost his 1996 season to injury, and suffered a slow start to 1997. But he’d registered a sack in each of the three games leading up to the Eagles game in late November. But just when Greg Lloyd was recovering his playmaking form, he suffered a staph infection on the turf of Veterans Stadium.

But the team took the loss in stride. Former 7th round pick Carlos Emmons stepped into the starting role and while he wasn’t a superstar, he held his own. And so it was across the depth chart.

Neither free agent Cortney Hawkins nor rookie Will Blackwell were quite as good as Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings had been, but both authored strong seasons on smaller contracts. The same can be said for defensive end Nolan Harrison.

At cornerback, Chad Scott had a pretty strong rookie year, and Bill Cowher liked “the look in his eye.” After Scott, things got tricky at cornerback, but that helped keep the team on the edge, which is exactly where they needed to be.

In that vein, the NFL schedule makers actually did the 1997 Steelers a favor by scheduling four of their final five games on the road.

Comebacks Against Broncos, Patriots Highlight ’97 Regular Season

Letting Rod Woodson go as a free agent is one of the worst personnel decisions in Steelers history – and this from a franchise that cut Johnny Unitas. What makes that decision even dumber is the fact that they tried to replace him with Donnell Woolford.

  • Wolford struggled along as a starter for 12 weeks during the 1997 regular season.
  • The Steelers then went 1-1 on the first two road games of their season ending.

But week 15 brought the Denver Broncos to Three Rivers Stadium and Wolford had no hope of containing John Elway, who’d been burning offenses with Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

  • So Bill Cowher did what he’d done in 1995 – he moved Carnell Lake to cornerback and started Myron Bell at safety.

For the first time in memory, the Steelers held closed practices and when Bill Cowher was asked where Carnell Lake would play, his response was “defense.”

Not that it seemed to matter at first, as Kordell Stewart started off erratically missing open receivers while John Elway abused W0olford, then relegated to slot corner, to open a 21 to 7 lead in the first 20 minutes. But Stewart rallied throwing two touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen to tie at the half, and he then followed with two more runs for touchdowns in the second half.

Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett, Steelers vs Broncos

Yancey Thigpen advances on Ray Crockett. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Jerome Bettis took over the game in the 2nd half, rumbling for 125 yards on 25 carries.

The defense limited Denver to 3 points, and Myron Bell and Carnell Lake helped scuttle the Broncos’ comeback attempts with an interception and a sack.

In the season’s penultimate contest, the Steelers traveled to New England to take on Pete Carroll’s Patriots. This was about as even as a match up as you can find in the NFL. But for most of the evening, the Patriots were getting the better of the Steelers.

  • Holding an 8-point lead with one play before the 2-minute warning, the Patriots only needed to covert a 3rd and 7 for victory.

Drew Bledsoe dropped back to pass. In a Textbook-Zone Blitz move, Kevin Henry slid back into coverage. Bledsoe fired a pass to his left, never seeing Henry who intercepted the ball and took it 37 yards down field.

With two minutes remaining and no time outs, the Steelers ran 6 plays, including one on 4th and 7. With less than 40 seconds left, Kordell Stewart hit Mark Bruener for a touchdown, making it 20-19. Next Kordell connected with Yancey Thigpen for the 2-point conversion, tying the game.

The Steelers won the toss, as Courtney Hawkins and Mark Bruener made critical catches to bring the Steelers to the Patriots 13-yard line where Norm Johnson split the uprights.

The win improved the Steelers’ record to 12-5 and allowed Bill Cowher to rest his starters heading into the playoffs

1997 Playoffs – The Chess Match and the AFC Championship that Got Away

The 1997 Steelers record earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs, but that didn’t save them from a rematch against the New England Patriots. This time the Patriots had to travel to Three Rivers Stadium which is good because the Steelers needed every advantage they could get.

  • Fantasy Football owners moan about games like this, but the truth is it was a textbook defensive chess match.
Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

The Steelers drew blood on their first possession, as Kordell Stewart ran for a 40-yard touchdown. The Patriots tacked on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the 2nd and another in the 4th. And that was it for the scoring.

The game was so tight that Bill Cowher opted to go for it on 4th and goal at the one with less than 2 minutes playing instead of kicking a field goal. The Patriots stopped them, but rookie Mike Vrabel stripped Drew Bledsoe of the ball 8 plays later, sealing the win and bringing Denver back to Three Rivers Stadium for an AFC Championship rematch.

The Steelers jumped to a 14-10 lead early in the 2nd quarter and with just under 5 minutes remaining before half time, consolidated their lead, having moved to Denver’s 35 with a 3rd and 2 to convert.

  • Rather than ram the ball through with Jerome Bettis, Chan Gailey opted to pass
  • Rather than take a safe throw, Kordell Stewart looked to the end zone
  • Rather than throw it away Kordell tried to force it into double coverage by Steve Atwater and Ray Crockett

Yancey Thipgen never had a chance as Crockett intercepted. The Broncos capitalized going up 17-14 inside the 2-minute warning. The Steelers then went 3 and out, burning 68 seconds off of the clock, leaving Denver with 43 to score. John Elway only needed 30 of those to find Ed McCaffrey.

John Elway, Nolan Harrison, Steelers vs Broncos

John Elway torched the Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Brian Bahr, Getty Images

  • In less than 5 minutes the Denver Broncos had transformed a 14-10 deficit to a 24-14 lead.

Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis opened the second half by marching down the field, executing a methodical clock-consuming drive. This is exactly what the Steelers needed to do to take control of the game. Yet on 2nd and 5 Chan Gailey again opted to pass, and again Kordell Stewart made the wrong decision, hitting Allen Aldridge instead of Charles Johnson.

The Steelers defense forced 4 straight punts, including one on a drive that came following a lost fumble. Kordell Stewart rallied Pittsburgh late in the 4th quarter, connecting with Charles Johnson with 2:46 left.

  • If the defense could force another punt, Pittsburgh had a chance.

Alas, the defense that had kept the Steelers Super Bowl hopes alive during the second half could not stop John Elway from killing the clock. The Denver Broncos won 24-21 and went on to the Super Bowl, ending the Steelers 1997 season.

  • Conference championship losses are disappointing by definition.

One person who wasn’t down was Bill Cowher, who told his team, “We’ll be back.” Who could argue?

In just 2 years the Steelers had replaced at least 12 starters from their Super Bowl XXX squad, and all that separated them from another Super Bowl appearance were a first-year starting quarterback’s growing pains.

The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers had proven that they could defy gravity.

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Troy Polamalu Picking Dick LeBeau as His Hall of Fame Presenter = Pittsburgh Perfection

Legendary Steelers safety, Troy Polamalu, took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce that he has selected another legend, his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to present him at his Hall of Fame induction this August in Canton, Ohio.

  • Of course, Polamalu chose LeBeau.

I wish I would have been smart enough to see this coming, but it just goes to show you how stupid I am for not spotting the obvious this whole time.

Polamalu is the first inductee out of a group of Steelers’ defenders that helped the organization win its fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But Dick LeBeau was going to be the presenter regardless of who made it into Canton first.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame, Larry Foote

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu in December 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today.

In fact, even though most are long-shots to join Polamalu, if any or all of the players that took LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense and made it famous were to get that call for football immortality — including James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Ike Taylor — there’s no doubt that every single one of them would pick LeBeau to be their presenter. Heck, by the time he got through doing all that presenting, LeBeau would have enough training for a second career as a motivational speaker.

It’s amazing how much universal love there is for Dick LeBeau, who was already a popular figure with his players during his first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s under head coach Bill Cowher.

  • The late Kevin Greene, a big and tough football player if there ever was one, wasn’t shy about expressing his love for LeBeau.
Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

But it was during LeBeau’s second stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 2004-2014 when the love affair between him and his players really became a sight to behold.

It became a tradition around the holidays for LeBeau to read the classic, “The Night Before Christmas” to his players–and those big, tough football players sat there and listened like little kids!

The next time you hear a former player say anything bad about LeBeau, it will be the first time. And if word ever got back to the likes of Harrison and Brett Keisel, I’d hate to be that former player.

Speaking of Harrison, perhaps the biggest, baddest defender LeBeau ever coached, he once broke down in tears on national television while talking about his former defensive coordinator. This was back in 2013, months after Harrison was released by Pittsburgh and then signed with the Bengals. No player ever forgets LeBeau, the man they affectionately called Coach Dad during his second stay in Pittsburgh.

In the lead-up to the 2005 regular-season finale against the team that he spent his playing days with–the Detroit Lions–every single one of his defenders bought and wore a No. 44 throwback Lions jersey in LeBeau’s honor.

The kind of connection LeBeau often developed with his much-younger players was rare then and it’s rare now. I guess that’s because LeBeau treated his players like men and genuinely cared about them. He didn’t command respect through words and a presence; he earned it through his actions and the ability to teach them.

In typical Troy Polamalu fashion, he couldn’t have been more humble when he revealed the name of his presenter, Tweeting, “Can you please tell them that all I did was follow you…#eachoneteachone

Sure, LeBeau was a great leader, but in my opinion, it wasn’t because he got people to follow him; he was a great leader because he got his players to believe in the same defensive philosophies that he did.

Maybe it’s fitting that this kind, gentle man once described his zone-blitz scheme as “Tweaking someone’s nose while you go behind them and kick them in the tail.”

The zone-blitz scheme was all about deception, but it was still a rough and tough defense, one that allowed his players to wreak havoc on opponents week in and week out.

I’ll leave you with one more quote about LeBeau courtesy of a 2006 ESPN.com article and courtesy of another player who deeply admired him, Kimo von Oelhoffen:

“Probably the best man, and not just one of the best coaches, I’ve ever met in my life. The things I’ve learned from him about football and about life, I’ll cherish forever, really. Every minute you’re around him, believe me, is a minute where you’ve benefited in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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Sometimes 15.8 Million Isn’t Enough. Bud Dupree Files Franchise Tag Grievance

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is filing a grievance over the franchise tag, requesting that he be considered a defensive end as opposed to an outside linebacker. As a franchised outside linebacker the only thing standing between Bud Dupree and 15.8 million dollar payday is COVID-19.

  • But apparently, 15.8 million dollars for a year’s work just isn’t enough.

Per Joe Rutter’s reporting at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the 2020 franchise tender for a defensive end is $17.788 million or 1.988 million more.

As Rutter reports, Shaq Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has filed a similar grievance.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Evolution of Edge Rusher in the Age of the Salary Cap

As this column’s snarky headline suggests, this author doesn’t start with great sympathy for Bud Dupree. For the vast majority Terrible Towel twirlers, 1.988 million dollars represents a lifetime of income, and then some. In that light, it is easy to write this off as another example of a greedy, out of touch pro athlete.

  • But would that be fair to Bud Dupree? Perhaps not.

Football players have short careers, and after deducting taxes and agent commissions, the difference between two franchise tags could amount to nearly 1 million dollars more in Dupree’s pocket. If you could give yourself a shot at getting an extra million dollars by filling out paperwork would you do it?

  • Whether Bud Dupree deserves to be considered a defensive end is another question.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

Two generations ago, the idea that Jack Ham, Andy Russell or Robin Cole arguing that they play the same position as L.C. Greenwood or Dwight White would be laughable. Neither would anyone confuse the responsibilities of Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter with those of Ray Seals or Aaron Smith in Dick LeBeau’s defenses of the ‘90’s or the ‘00’s.

  • But the game has changed.

Cam Heyward entered the league as a defensive end in the Steelers system. A few seasons ago, his position was changed to that of tackle. The Steelers had Javon Hargrave budding into a very good (if not great) nose tackle and let him go because they only use their “base” defense.

  • Bud Dupree might not start snaps with his hand in the dirt, but his primary responsibility is to rush the passer.

And in 2019 Bud Dupree did that to great effect, registering 11.5 sacks, forcing 4 fumbles and recovering 2. For the first time since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Bud Dupree made difference making plays as an “Edge Rusher.”

  • Its the “Edge Rusher” status which clouds the situation, and that’s where Dupree’s grievance gets a tad bit ironic.

Bud Dupree took a long time to get to this level, and to counter the “Bud the Bust” story line, leaks about Dupree’s pass coverage prowess found their way into the press. This scribe always assumed that they came from Steelers coaches because the leaks sounded awfully similar to the ones that praised Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run.

  • But Bud Dupree’s agent could have also been the source of the leaks.

If it was Dupree’s agent, and this is most certainly an IF, then his agent has made a pretty deft pivot from extolling his client’s ability to cover passes downfield to arguing that he should now be considered a defensive end.

But I guess that’s why Bud pays him the big bucks.

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James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself and See How Petty His Feud with Mike Tomlin Has Become

COVID-19 is radically transforming our world. Not even the NFL is immune. Yet, Coronavirus can’t touch James Harrison’s status as the “gift that keeps on giving” to Pittsburgh Steelers bloggers.

Seriously. Just when you think there’s nothing left to add James Harrison’s story, a new chapter emerges. No disrespect to Antonio Brown, but James Harrison out does him when it comes to controversy. Heck, Harrison might give Terry Bradshaw a run for his money at this rate.

Football news has been slow during the pandemic, but Steelers Nation can count on James Harrison to speed it up. And that’s actually a real shame. For James Harrison.

James Harrison, Mike Tomlin, Feud, Steelers vs Seahawks

James Harrison and Mike Tomlin after Steelers ’15 loss to Seahawks. Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

And so it was that James Harrison went on Willie Colon’s Going Deep Podcast talking about a wide range of topics. From a journalistic standpoint, Harrison’s interview with Colon was revealing.

He reaffirmed his love for Dick LeBeau. He contrasted how players partied heavily the Bill Cowher era as compared to the atmosphere on Mike Tomlin’s watch. He left no doubt that Kevin Colbert stood shoulder to shoulder with him in 2010 when Roger Goodell unfairly scapegoated him for hits to the head. He shed light on a previously unreported clash with Bruce Arians that started when he bumped into Ben Roethlisberger.

Our knowledge about the inner workings of the Steelers of the 00’s and the ‘10’s is richer for Harrison’s chat with Colon. Then, after referencing his $75,000 fine  Roger Goodell slapped on him for his legal hit of  Mohamed Massaquoi he dropped this bomb:

And I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right? the G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that. I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.

Of course James Harrison was implying that Mike Tomlin was paying the fine for him. Harrison knew what he was doing would set off a firestorm. That was his intention all along.

And that’s the problem.

James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself

Reaction has been swift to Harrison’s bomb. Art Rooney II issued an unequivocal denial. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise declared that the exchange “Never Happened.” Harrison himself partially walked back comments, clarifying that Mike Tomlin never paid him to hurt anyone.

  • This came after Sean Peyton suggested the Steelers should face some sort of Bountygate investigation similar to what he was subjected to.

Hum. It seems like Harrison is confronting the law of unintended consequences, doesn’t it? He wanted to poke his former coach. He wanted to make some mischief? But get him and the organization into real trouble? Not so much.

Two years into his definitive retirement from the NFL, three things are clear about James Harrison:

  1. He has a knack for creating controversy
  2. He knows it.
  3. He still holds a grudge against Mike Tomlin.

The end between Harrison and the Steelers was a train wreck. As Art Rooney II immediately confessed, there was blame to go around. But Harrison’s situation was hardly unique. Both Franco Harris and Rod Woodson left Pittsburgh with bruised egos and hard feelings.

  • But both men moved on and ultimately reconciled with their first NFL franchise.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Whether James Harrison reconciles with the Steelers is his choice. Regardless, he would do well follow Rod Woodson’s lead. Even when blood was bad in the ‘90’s, Woodson never resorted to taking petty potshots of the kind at Harrison is taking. (Even if Woodson was on the receiving end of some of those from Tom Donahoe.)

James Harrison again insisted to Colon that he’d been promised more playing time and made no bones about mailing it in once when he didn’t get it. Even promises were made, Harrison must take responsibility for his own actions.

Yes, Harrison could still contribute in 2017. But rookie T.J. Watt was better than Harrison. Faking injuries, sleeping through meetings or going home when deactivated is no way to prove you deserve to play.

  • As the late Myron Cope argued, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to its linebacking legacy.

James Harrison has earned his place alongside Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and other Steelers linebacking legends. His continued cheap shots won’t change that.

But how James Harrison transformed himself from a practice squad bubble baby into a an NFL Defensive Player of the Year who made game a changing play in Super Bowl XLIII was always part of his mystique.

Now he’s tarnishing that mystique. James Harrison needs to get over himself and see just how petty his one-sided feud with Mike Tomlin has become.

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs at Safety: Starter-Back Up Breach Looms Large

Safety, as the name implies, is a critical position in football. Unlike other positions, it is almost impossible to mask sub-standard safety play with scheming and/or double teaming.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily at safety via the draft and free agency over the last decade.

Some of those investments have borne fruit, others have rotten on the vine. During 2019 the Steelers had some stellar play at safety for the first time since Troy Polamalu retired. But that doesn’t mean they’re “safe” at safety and we’ll soon see why.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

There’s one thing that the Steelers starting safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick share – no one predicted their arrival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted Terrell Edumnds with their first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, shocking observers everywhere.

That was nothing compared to the shock that came 18 months later when they traded their first round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t trade first round picks. They just don’t. The last time they did it was in the mid 60’s when most people heard the word “Beatles” they still probably thought of insects.

  • In two season Terrell Edmunds has started 31 of 32 possible games and hardly missed a snap.

While the Steelers defense isn’t as complex as it was under Dick LeBeau, it is certainly not easy for a young player to come in and play so consistently.

However, if Edmunds has quantity on his resume, quality is an open question. It is far too early to label him a bust. And Edmunds clearly has the athleticism needed to excel at the position. But he hasn’t shown the type of playmaking the Steelers need at strong safety either.

  • In contrast, Minkah Fitzpatrick has proven the trade skpetics wrong.

As Tony Defeo argued so correctly, Minkah Fitzpatrick did nothing less than save the Steelers 2019 season. Minkah had 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and two touchdowns in just 14 games. Moreover, Minkah makes the rest of the secondary better.

Fitzpatrick forces opposing quarterbacks to account for him on every play, and that extra millisecond of delay helps Joe Haden and Steven Nelson be better cornerbacks, and gives T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree just a little more time to get to the quarterback. The results speak for themselves.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Unfortunately, for the Steelers they’re depth at safety is perilously thin. Their number one backup, Jordan Dangerfield, neither got a restricted free agent tender nor did he get interest from opposing teams. Marcus Allen failed to make the initial 53 man roster, only landing their when AAF re-tread Kameron Kelly was waived due to off the field issues.

Marcus Allen might offer legitimate “upside” and Jordan Dangerfield might get by in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want either man to be starting for an extended period.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

The Steelers find themselves in a similar situation at safety as they do at other positions on the depth chart. They’ve got two established starters.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Terrell Edmunds still has a long way to go to justifying the faith that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert showed in him when the made him a first round pick. But there’s no realistic scenario that would see the Steelers entering this year’s draft looking to find Edmunds’ replacement.

  • Given the Steelers limited draft capital, the idea of targeting a premium pick to push Edmunds is just as imprudent.

But the Steelers depth chart is screaming to be addressed in the draft. Maybe Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen can play at a Will Allen level of pressed into duty.

But nothing either man has indicates they can be counted on to do that.

There have also been whispers about either Cam Sutton and/or Justin Layne shifting to safety on a part or even full-time basis. And while that might work, it would compromise cornerback depth….

So the Steelers needs at safety going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered as Moderate-High.

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Color Canton Black & Gold: Troy Polamalu Elected to Hall of Fame!

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 Class will have an unmistakable Black and Gold tinge Troy Polamalu was elected to the 2020 class where he will join fellow Steelers safety Donnie Shell and his former coach Bill Cowher who were inducted as part of the Centennial Class.

  • All of the news wasn’t good for Steelers Nation however, as Alan Faneca was passed over again.

In the words of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu was a generational talent and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot was a no brainer. Going into the voting the fear was that the “Too Many Steelers” mentality espoused by Peter King and other voters might hurt Polamalu’s candidacy.

Fortunately, voters set aside their any bias or political agendas, and did the right thing.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Troy Polamalu Once in a Lifetime Talent, Hall of Famer

During his 12 year career, Troy Polamalu made 783 tackles, logged 56 tackles-for-losses, sacked the quarterback 12 times, intercepted 32 passes, dislodged 14 forced fumbles, recovered 7 fumbles and scored 5 touchdowns.

  • To those regular season numbers, Troy Polamalu added 3 interceptions and half a sack.

Those playoff numbers may seem pedestrian, but they in fact show why he was so special. His last post-season interception came in the 2008 AFC Championship game against the Ravens. If you’ve read this far, you obviously remember it, but you’ll just as obviously want to see it again:

This was one of the most spectacular defensive touchdowns in this history of football. That’s easy to remember. But even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is easy to forget the play’s ominous backstory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud franchise. But the Steelers had also lost 3 straight AFC Championships at home. They’d lost the 1997 AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos in Three Rivers Stadium. Then they’d lost the 2001 AFC Championship and again the 2004 AFC Championship to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter holding a 16 to 7 lead. Yet, the Baltimore Ravens took their first 4th quarter possession and marched to the Steelers end zone with startling ease. The Steelers next possession amounted to a 2 yard Willie Parker run followed by Willie Colon penalty and a 3rd down Terrell Suggs sack of Ben Roethlisberger that forced a punt.

In Heinz Field the feeling of “Here we go again” was palpable.

  • Six plays later, Troy Polamalu took it to the house, exorcising the Ghosts of AFC Championships’ past

Take that play away, and Troy Polamalu probably still has a Hall of Fame worth resume. But with his interception of Joe Flacco, and his wild, zig zaging return for touchdown, Troy Polamalu cemented his status as a legend.

Welcome to Canton Mr. Polamalu.

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Can Sutton Smith Gain the Size Needed to Play Linebacker for The Steelers?

When you look at the frame of edge rusher/outside linebacker Sutton Smith, the Steelers sixth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in the 2019 NFL Draft, you wonder if he’ll have the size to play with the big boys at the professional level.

  • At first glance, Sutton Smith, at 6’1″ and 234 pounds, appears to be light years away from having the ideal size to play outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense.

But maybe that’s because I’m thinking of Dick LeBeau‘s old Steelers defense, and the likes of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who seemed to carry the bulk necessary for their time.

But times are different in 2019. In Keith Butlers defense, Steelers outside linebackers are expected to be more athletic, more agile than they were in the past. In fact, Bud Dupree, who came into the league at around 270 in 2015, dropped 20 pounds by his second year. T.J. Watt, a budding star in the Steelers defense, is listed at 252 pounds.

  • Both players are more lightning than they are thunder. They’re more quiver than they are quake.

What that means is, for a player like Sutton Smith, he may not have very far to go to get to where he needs to be in order to compete in the National Football League.

Sutton Smith, Steelers 2019 6th round pick

Sutton Smith, the Steelers 1st 6th round draft pick from 2019. Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Tribune

If the desire and intensity he displayed in college on his way to 30 quarterback sacks makes its way into the Steelers weight room, there’s no reason Sutton Smith can’t pack on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. If he does that, he’ll be in the game, he’ll be in the running for a spot on the Steelers roster.

Just take a look at second-year outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, who is the same height as Smith and listed at 248 pounds. There’s a bit of a buzz surrounding Ola Adeniyi as he enters his sophomore season in the NFL. Who’s to say there won’t be a similar buzz about Sutton Smith this time next season?

  • Who’s to say there won’t be a buzz about Sutton Smith this summer?

Fact is, Sutton Smith has a chance to make it on the Steelers’ roster, even if it’s as an inside linebacker (his current weight would be just about ideal at that position). There’s always room on Pittsburgh’s defense for a guy with the ability to get after the quarterback. There’s always room on the Steelers roster for a player with the kind of intensity Sutton Smith displayed in college.

Sutton Smith may have limitations, but his size, well, that probably isn’t going to be one of them.

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Good News (and Some Bad): Steelers Resign Tyson Alualu to 2 Year Contract

NFL free agency may still be almost 3 weeks away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have already made two moves, two very different moves involving Le’Veon Bell and Tyson Alualu. A day after Kevin Colbert announced that the Steelers would not be tagging Le’Veon Bell, the franchise announced that it has signed backup defensive lineman Tyson Alualu to a two year contract.

Terms of the contact have not yet been announced, but the deal that Tyson Alualu signed with the Steelers in 2017 paid him roughly 3 million per year, so one can figure Tyson Alualu’s new contract pays him at a commiserate level.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Vital, Valuable Backup on Defensive Line

While the Steelers employee their “base” 3-4 defense less and less frequently, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and yes, Dick LeBeau, have struggled to staff adequate depth behind their starting front three. Al Woods was blossoming into a viable number 4 lineman in 2012, but the Steelers were unable to retain him, and shuttled through Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews over the next two years.

  • Tyson Alualu promised to change that he he’s delivered on that promise since arriving in Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Jaguars made Tyson Alualu the No. 10 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, which saw him go three spots behind Joe Haden and eight ahead of Maurkice Pouncey, but Alualu never lived up to his draft status.

In In 31 games for the Steelers, including 7 starts, Tyson Alualu had registered four sacks and made 61 tackles. To the naked eye, his production may have slipped bit in 2018, but that’s because his snap count declined from 44% in to 29% in 2018.

That drop in Tyson Alualu’s snap count was driven mainly by the relative state of health that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt enjoyed last season, and the coaches decision to get Javon Hargrave on the field more.

  • The Steelers have made the right move in resigning Tyson Alualu.

But this bit of “good news” must be balanced by a bit of less positive news. During the Mike Tomlin era (and arguably the trend extends back to Bill Cowher’s days as head coach), the Steelers have struggled to develop defensive line depth in house.

The fact that the Steelers have moved first to resign Tyson Alualu over extend deal to Daniel McCullers or L.T. Walton shows that Pittsburgh is still struggling in that area. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Steelers have secured a critical defensive backup before free agency has even begun.

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