T.J. Watt Is Already the Pittsburgh Steelers Sack Leader – Let that Sink In

The Steelers victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football was the essence of an “ugly win.” Anytime your defense scores more touchdowns than your offense, you know it ain’t pretty.

  • But Steelers History passed a critical milestone at Acrisure Stadium.

T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns MNF, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt Steelers all time sack leader

T.J. Watt sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP via San Diego Tribune-Review

Let’s repeat: T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re not talking about the Houston Texas, or the Los Angeles-Anaheim-St. Louis-Los Angles Rams.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the franchise that has defined defensive excellence for three generations. This is the franchise that gave us the Steel Curtain and a generation later gave is Blitzburgh. This same franchise who had a member of their defense set the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers were the first, and only, football team to have its defensive line featured on the cover of Time Magazine, back when that meant something.

Effective defense in the NFL goes way beyond getting after the quarterback, but you’d be wise to start there.

So just how does T.J. Watt’s accomplishment stack up in terms of the Steelers larger legacy? Let’s take a look:

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Sack Leaders

Before diving into the stat sheet above, let’s offer a big shout out to my friend and staff writer Tony Defeo. When the Steelers cut Woodley, Defeo put his accomplishments in context by calling out how Woodley had led the Steelers in sacks per game.

The totals above include Woodley’s full body of work, but if you look at Woodley’s career from his debut to the 2011 win against the Patriots, he averaged 0.8 sacks per game.

  • That was an incredible accomplishment, but Watt is beating him by a mile.

Kevin Greene, a Hall of Famer, is next. After that you get Joey Porter, Bud Dupree and the original Steel Curtain makes an appearance with Ernie Holmes.

What else can we learn from this?

First, the numbers reveal how the modern game has evolved. While each member of the original Steel Curtain makes this list, only Holmes is in the top half. Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene are in the middle. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham aren’t anywhere to be seen, with Andy Russell only eking his way in at the bottom.

Bud Carson and George Perles’ defense didn’t need to blitz often because the NFL didn’t handcuff its defensive backs before the Mel Blount Rule.

Second, you can see the difference between great Steelers pass rushers and those who were truly special. The great ones sacked the quarterback somewhere between 40 and 50% of the games. Get beyond that, and you’re truly at an elite level.

Fourth, there’s an additional metric for differentiating players on this list, and that’s players with forced fumbles. Sacking the quarterback is critical, but so much more meaningful if you can knock the ball out while doing it. (Just ask Alex Highsmith and Deshaun Watson.)

Unfortunately data isn’t available for members of the original Steel Curtain or 1980’s stalwart Keith Willis. But it does show us that players like Jason Gildon and even Lamarr Woodley weren’t as dynamic, while driving home the fact that guys like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison had innate playmaking ability.

Finally, and not surprisingly, T.J. Watt leads the field here too – by a mile. This guy sacks the quarterback in almost every game and causes a forced fumble in just under 1/3 of his games.

My take away? Man, I’m glad T.J. Watt is a Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Super Bowl Legends Dissing Steelers Defense Isn’t New. But It Still Hurts

“There’s absolutely no physicality. There’s no energy defensively. There’s no tone-setters.”

“Pittsburgh football ain’t about having fun. Pittsburgh football is about dominating people on the field because of your physicality.”

“But that ain’t what y’all want. What y’all want to do is show up, and y’all want to live on the backs of legends. Don’t nobody care about that no more. Young people aren’t respectful to the past. In the past, Pittsburgh was something. This Pittsburgh defense ain’t jack.”

Those quotes, courtesy of Fox News, are all from the same person, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, during a rant on Monday while making an appearance with his current employer, ESPN.

Ryan Clark, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu

Ryan Clark celebrates after an interception. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy.com

Clark, a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII team, a championship team that was spurred on by one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the NFL (Dick LeBeau‘s unit finished number one in just about every important category in 2008), was upset about the performance of Keith Butler‘s 2021 version, a version that has allowed 586 rushing yards over the past three games (the Steelers have lost two of those games and had to settle for a tie against the pitiful Lions in the other).

Clark isn’t the only former Steelers defensive player to chime in on the struggles of the current defense. Former linebacker Arthur Moats has been very critically, especially of the effort put forth by linebacker Devin Bush: “Your tape is going to tell me everything I need to know so don’t tell me you want to make plays when I cut the tape on you, you’re not showing that effort.”

I realize that Bush has come under the microscope with the media and fans because of his lack of productivity this year, but Moats’ comments had to cut deep like a surgical procedure with no anesthesia.

It’s easy for us to just arbitrarily proclaim that a player isn’t putting forth the effort, but when a former player, an actual expert, accuses you of that, again, ouch!

Of course, former Steelers, especially former Super Bowl heroes like Ryan Clark, expressing strong opinions about the team’s defensive struggles is nothing new. In fact, I think the most famous quote from an old legend about such things came from Dwight White, a four-time Lombardi winner and member of the famed Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, once famously (or infamously) described Pittsburgh’s mediocre defense of the mid-’80s as “Soft and cheesy.

Guys like Clark, Moats and White know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two, especially Clark and White who, again, played on some of the best defenses in the history of the NFL.

It can’t be easy for a former player to sit back and watch a unit that he once helped to make legendary, intimidating and dominant regress into something that wouldn’t put fear into a high school team’s offense.

It has to be especially frustrating to watch the 2021 unit because, despite the injuries, there should be more than enough star power to still be quite effective. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s unit, one that was hovering around the top 10 in total yards fairly recently, has dropped to 21st in that category.

  • As for the run defense, it’s near the bottom of the NFL, allowing 133.1 yards per game.

Pathetic.

Also, a defense that was one of the more opportunistic units in the NFL the past two seasons has just 10 takeaways in 11 games. Heck, even the pass rush, the hallmark of the defense–the entire team, really–since the second half of the 2016 campaign, is having a down year and is on pace for just 37 sacks–and that’s with an extra regular-season game.

What has happened to the Steelers defense in 2021? It can’t be just about the injuries; if it is, guys like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu deserve a lot more money than what they’re currently earning. If it’s indeed about attitude, want to and being on the details, well, the unit better figure things out and quick.

Former players aren’t just watching, they care deeply. And when a legend like Ryan Clark, one of the most charismatic and vocal former NFL players currently working in television, puts you on blast, he isn’t going to turn the volume down until you get it right.

 

 

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Discipline Drives Steelers to 15-10 Win over Browns in Cleveland

The location was Cleveland, the day Halloween. The teams were the Steelers and the Browns. The stakes were avoiding the division basement. And Pittsburgh triumphed 15-10 in a game worthy of the old AFC Central.

The victory puts the Steelers within striking distance of the AFC North lead and extends their winning streak to 3. But the real take away from the game lies in how the Steelers won: By focusing on fundamentals and maintaining discipline.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Strange Things Happen in Cleveland. But This was Just a “Side Note”

Strange things happen when the Steelers play in Cleveland. Seldom are they good.

Joe “Turkey” Jones once pile drove Terry Bradshaw in a late hit. Dwight White once warned rookie Tunch Ilkin to wear his helmet at all times lest he get hit with a battery. Ilkin took the veteran’s advice. Leroy Hoard once got decked in the end zone, only to have pass, that deflected off of several players, literally land in his lap for a touchdown.

Jerry Olsavsky blew out 4 ligaments there and got pelted by the Dawg Pound with beer bottles as he was removed on a stretcher. The same game saw the Steelers dominate in every phase, yet lose thanks to 2 Eric Metcalf punt returns.

In 2012, the Steelers fumbled the ball 8 times, lost 5 of them, while Charlie Batch threw 3 interceptions.

  • The strange thing isn’t that the Steelers lost, but that they could have won it at the end.

And so it was that Mike Tomlin, instead of taking a near-certain field goal for the lead late in the first half, opted for a fake. And so it was that Chris Boswell, who’d been 1-1 and a 1 touchdown as a passer, not only threw an incompletion, but got a concussion on an illegal hit.

  • Mike Tomlin accepted responsibility for the call.

But this latest “strange thing” ended up being a “side note” instead of a defining moment largely because of the work Tomlin and his staff had done during the week.

Steelers Execute on Fundamentals while Browns Bumble

Going into this game, if you’d have said it would revolve around the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and simply hitting or pushing harder than your opponent, the smart money would have favored the Browns.

The Browns are the NFL’s best rushing teams. They do it by winning the battles upfront which allows Nick Chubb to reach the second level just as he’s hitting his stride. You counter teams like this by putting 8 men in the proverbial box. But, as The Athletic’s Mark Kabloy explained:

The Browns have been outstanding against eight-man fronts. The majority of the time the Browns have countered with two tight ends. Still, they average a league-high 4.69 yards per carry when at least eight are in the box.

Devin Bush, D'Ernest Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

Perhaps the Browns outsmarted themselves a bit, opening by throwing more than running. But in the end it didn’t matter. The Steelers shut down Nick Chubb. Devin Bush stopped him once at the goal line and then Bush plus T.J. Watt did it again on 4th down.

Cam Heyward had a hand on shutting him down on numerous 1st down runs. In the 4th quarter Alex Highsmith had a hand in shutting him down on three separate critical plays.

Taking Chubb out of the game put the onus of moving the offense on to Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, playing hurt, did make some courageous plays, but the Browns were 3-10 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th down.

Steelers Offense Embraces KISS Principle

Offensive innovation is in vogue. Everyone likes creative formations and deceptive use of motion. And who doesn’t love a good gadget play? To be certain Matt Canada’s clever play calling helped carry the day.

  • But the Steelers won because on offense they embraced the KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid principle.

Matt Canada didn’t try to dazzle the Browns with smoke and mirrors. Sure, he gave 3 carries to Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud, and those plays helped open up the offense. But Canada executed a conservative game plan designed to limit the damage Myles Garrett could do.

  • And by and large, it worked.

Even though Najee Harris was only averaging 3 and a half yards per pop, the Steelers stuck to the run and that kept the Browns defense honest, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to quietly author his best game of the season, which included a spectacular 50 yard hook up with Diontae Johnson. Johnson not only flipped the field, but had the discipline to stay in bounds, essentially sealing the game.

Discipline = Difference Maker

“Discipline.” There’s that word again. If the Steelers ability to stay in their gaps on defense and make tackles was critical winning the game, but Pittsburgh’s superior discipline was the difference maker.

Clinging to a 1 point lead early in the 3rd quarter, the Browns faced a 4th and at midfield. Cleveland lined up with Mayfield going into the hard count, trying to force a penalty. Playing from behind, on the road in front of fired up fans, the Steelers defense could have flinched easily.

  • They didn’t. The Browns punted.

Discipline was critical on the next drive, and Ben Roethlisberger on 4th and goal, waited patiently, and then hit Pat Freiermuth who not only had the concentration to catch a very contested catch, but also got his foot in bounds for the touchdown.

https://twitter.com/ESPNNFL/status/1454893552002011143

8 plays later, a lapse of discipline would undo the Browns, as Joe Schobert knocked the ball lose from Jarvis Landry, as T.J. Watt recovered. The Steelers punted 3 plays later, but the clock was ticking.

Finally, with the Browns sitting on the Steelers 25 yard line on 3rd and 12, Rashard Higgins committed a false start, knocking Cleveland back 5 yards. They got four of them back, but Minkah Fitzpatrick saw to it that Mayfield’s 4th down pass to Jarvis Landry fell incomplete.

Steelers Story Heading in Right Direction

When asked about what this game means to the team Mike Tomlin explained:

Its days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be. We’ll continue to write that story positively or negatively, but today was a good day.

He is right. The Steelers will continue to write their story. But fortunately, for the first time since the opening day win against the Bills, the Steelers story is a tale of more wins than losses.

Yes, today was a good day.

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Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

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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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Steelers 1974 Rookie Class Legend Deepens Thanks to Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Induction

I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.

  • Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.

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

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.

But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.

The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.

  • It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.

But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.

Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.

Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.

  • That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.

Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.

While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.

  • Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.

Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.

 

 

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Celebrating the Immaculate Reception – Franco Harris and the “Big Bang” that Created Steelers Nation

Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.

  • That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.

Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

The Post Immaculate Reception Steelers

While the 1972 Steelers lost in the following week to Don Shula’s perfect 1972 Dolphins team, the Immaculate Reception ushered in an unheralded era of pro football prosperity. Since that fateful the Pittsburgh Steelers have:

  • Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
  • Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
  • Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
  • Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
  • Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
  • Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say

These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.

Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.

No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.

The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers

The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.

  • That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.

The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.

In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.

An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.

steelers fans, maryland, dinos, aspen hill

But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.

“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.

The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:

  • A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
  • A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
  • Not even allowing Johnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
  • Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
  • Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
  • Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
  • Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s

The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.

Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.

Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)

The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.

The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change

The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.

Dan Rooney began to take over control of the Steelers in the 1960’s while Art Rooney Jr. began building the scouting department. Rooney in fact influenced his father’s decision to fire the mercurial Buddy Parker, yet could not persuade The Chief to ignore Vince Lombardi’s advice to hire Bill Austin.

Austin failed after just two seasons, and Art Rooney Sr. finally relented in allowing Dan to conduct a thorough coaching search. Then, things began to change for the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll, the first and as yet only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls
  • The city of Pittsburgh agreed to build Three Rivers Stadium, giving the Steelers a modern home
  • Noll selected future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene with his first pick in 1969 NFL Draft
  • Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
  • Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft

Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.

  • Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.

Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.

Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:

  • “Dick, don’t over coach him.”

At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.

According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”

  • That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.

The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.

John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.

  • Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.

The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.

Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.

As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.

And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):

Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.

Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.

  • But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.

Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.

  • As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”

The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation

Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.

  • That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
  • And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.

Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.

Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.

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How Mike Tomlin Strengthens His Locker Room Credibility by Keeping Joshua Dobbs Over Landry Jones

With the dust settling on the Steelers 2018 roster it has become apparent Pittsburgh has permanently parted ways with Landry Jones.

But now that Joshua Dobbs is officially the Steelers new QB Number 2 behind Ben Roethlisberger that doesn’t seem likely to happen. As someone who both advocated for keeping Joshua Dobbs AND who’s a little nervous about the Steelers cutting Landry Jones, one thing is immediately clear about this choice:

  • Mike Tomlin has strengthened his locker room credibility in with his decision.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“The best 22 players will start. The best 53 men will earn roster spots. The next best 10 will join the practice squad. Everyone else had best prepare for ‘Life’s Work.'” All NFL coaches say it, all of the time. And most of them really do want to mean it.

  • But the realities of the modern NFL often make it hard for coaches to truly put their money where their mouths are.

Sometimes salary cap realities dictate that a player who otherwise might be cut stay on the roster. The reverse is also true, hence the term “salary cap casualty.” Other times it is draft status. The last time the Steelers cut a rookie 4th round draft pick, Bill Clinton was President (no, sorry Doran Grant in 2015 doesn’t count.)

A coach can preach his “Keep the best 53” sermon without losing credibility because NFL players understand all of the above.

  • Sometimes NFL coaches keep a player because cutting him falls a little too far outside his comfort zone.

Those are the choices that lead to coaches causing trouble for themselves. Most outsiders thought that Chuck Noll was as unsentimental as Bill Belichick when it came to parting ways with old players. He wasn’t.

Keeping an aging Dwight White over Dwaine Board serves as the best example, but if you sat down with someone like Dick Hoak, Dick Haley or even Art Rooney Jr. they’d probably supply a good half dozen similar examples without breaking a sweat. Moving to more modern times, Bill Cowher’s decision to keep Duce Staley on the 2006 roster provides another example.

  • And that brings us to Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones.

During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have made personnel mistakes (see Shamarko Thomas), but they’ve rarely been guilty of hanging on to a player who is ready for “Life’s Work.” Perhaps keeping Aaron Smith into 2011 serves as one example, and certainly there are others but not many.

Nonetheless, the Steelers 2018 roster certainly has taken the franchise out of its comfort zone.

Tomlin Takes Steelers Out of Their Quarterback Depth Chart Comfort Zone

The last time the Steelers started a season without a veteran back up quarterback on its depth chart was in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger and Brian St. Pierre backed up Tommy Maddox.

  • And that situation only arose because Charlie Batch got injured in training camp.

To find a time when the Steelers voluntarily opted not to staff a veteran back up quarterback must go back to 1990 when Rick Strom and rookie Neil O’Donnell backed up Bubby Brister (although the picky purists in Pittsburgh will point out that Strom had thrown one incompletion in 1989 – keep that fact handy should you ever reach the Who Wants to be a Millionaire finals.)

In the Steelers preseason win over the Panthers, Joshua Dobbs didn’t simply “lean into the tape.” His play was exceptional enough to convince Mike Tomlin to disregard 28 years of franchise Quarterback depth chart policy.

So next time a player hears Mike Tomlin insist that “The best 53 will make it,” they’ll know he means it.

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Steel Curtain Rising Celebrates 10 Years on the Web and Says “Thank You”

While we’re missing the actual date by a little, today Steel Curtain Rising celebrates 10 years on the web! And, in a curious case of life imitating “art”, events have brought this site full circle. How?

Well, on January 6th, 2008 Steel Curtain Rising’s first article read: “Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars.” Ten years and nine days later we’d be forced to observe: “Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field.”

  • Home playoff losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the preferred way to bookend 10 years of Steelers blog, but it could actually be a good omen (see below).

They’ve been a lot of ups and a lot of downs along the way including, but not limited to Super Bowl XLII and, God willing, Ben Roethlisberger will play well enough and long enough to give the Steelers another shot at the Stairway to Seven.

Until then, let’s take stock of the last 10 years, share some highlights and, most importantly, offer some needed thank you’s.

Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl XLIII trophy, Super Bowl 43, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

Ben Roethlisberger & Tone celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with Dan and Art Rooney

Steel Curtain Rising – Genesis

While Steel Curtain Rising has only existed for 10 years, its roots dig deep into the 1990’s. At the dawn of the Bill Cowher era, I began PC screen saver marquees with “The Steel Curtain Will Rise Again.”

  • Then, during the dark days 1999, I began writing post-game email rants, as an act of catharsis.

Later, during 2000 season, I continued the practice, but decided to focus on the writing and the analysis. Some of those actually made it on to the web via Tim McMillen’sMcMillen and Wife” site, although I’m not sure they’re still there.

In 2001 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for the first time in a decade, I was reduced to watching Steelers Monday night and Sunday Night games, often times on tape delay. I continued the post-game emails, driving my wife crazy.

  • And  she was right: it was a too much work for too little return.

Yet, on a trip home after Super Bowl XL, two people independently complemented me with: “Hey, I really like your post-game write ups. Keep them coming….” A year and a half would pass before I kicked off this site, but I probably never would have had it not been for their complements.

  • So if you’ve enjoyed this site, then my cousin Jim V. and my friend Tom L. both deserve credit.

So in January 2008, on the evening of Mike Tomlin’s playoff debut, Steel Curtain Rising launched with the aim of either saying things about the Steelers that others weren’t or say so same things a little differently.

Ten Years of Steelers Blogging Highlights

Independent blogging is tough, and its tougher now than it was 10 years ago thanks to the rise of “content aggregation sites” and the corporatization of the blogging world. So be it.

But until August 2009, Steel Curtain Rising benefitted from the Tribune-Review’s old “SteelersLive Site” which included a link sharing feature that, for a good article, could net you over a 1000 page views in a single shot.

  • Thanks to that site, the profile on Greg Lloyd was this site’s most viewed article for a long, long time.

As Archie Bunker sang, “Those were the days.”

In time, on the old blogger platform, the retrospective on Steelers-Patriots history would ellipse that thanks to the magic of Google, as would the landing page for our series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the most enjoyable pieces this site has put together.

While blogger provided an easy way to get to the web, things change in the digital world. And as time passed Google showed a clear preference for independently hosted pages. So we moved to WordPress.

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

On WordPress the most popular page by far is the history of the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys (thanks to the journalist who gave me a followable link, you have no idea of the favor you did.) After that comes the piece debunking “Your Team Cheats” from a Steelers perspective. Not too far below that comes our 2015 April Fools piece announcing the faux trade of Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins.

As noted, independent blogging is challenging, and often times you need an outside push to get your stuff read. So it’s no surprise that the articles contrasting the Steelers and Redskins salary cap negotiation polices and taking Colin Cowherd to task, both of which benefited from Retweets from high profile journalists, did so well. Thanks to both of you.

ICYMI – Sleeper Steelers Stories

While this site’s high-performing articles are pieces to be proud of, they only represent a small cross section of the best work produced here.

Our aforementioned 1989 Steelers series cleaned up on the blogger site, but hasn’t fared so well on WordPress. The Myron Cope obituary, the site’s 12th article, was the first breaking news event I wrote about, and remains a source of site pride, as is Dwight White’s obituary.

  • Writing profiles on Steelers legends, both living and for those who have passed, has been a pleasure.

Yet, those pieces don’t always get the traction that you’d think the would, but site tributes to the likes of Kordell Stewart, Rod Woodson, John Stallworth, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, and of course Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney are labors of love, and worth checking out.

If there’s any one surprise in terms of page views, it was a May 2010 piece on the 2000 Steelers road upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it didn’t “go viral” it did well when published kept drawing visitors long after this sort of #TBT type story should.

Thanks You – Part I

Success results team effort and this site is no exception.

To that, thanks go out to my wife and, yes, my mom who help with editing and proofreading when time allows. The articles that have benefitted from their extra pair of eyes should be easy to spot.

  • Thanks also go out to Osvaldo in Patagonia, who migrated me from blogger, and Raghav in India who has provided SEO advice from time-to-time.

Words of appreciation are also due for Michael Bean and Neal Coolong, who gave me a chance to contribute to BTSC when it was a site on the rise, and who’ve done favors for this site large and small. Rebecca Rollett, Ivan, Homer, Clark, Bill and all of the contributors at Going Deep with the Steelers also get a well-earned “Thank You” nod here, for the same reason.

The first big Thank You goes out to Gustavo Vallegos, “El Dr. de Acero,” who started contributing articles in Spanish a few years ago and continues to do so on an occasional basis, as time allows. While dream of establishing a true, bi-lingual Steelers blog remains a way off, the truth is Gustavo’s analysis and writing is excellent, and this site is far strong for his contributions. Muchas Gracias, Gus!

  • We save the biggest shoutout for the man who’s done the most.

As a rule, big Steelers news has a knack of breaking when I’m away and/or unable to write. Tony Defeo stepped in and began helping by keeping the site updated in breaking news situations when I’m away. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

For close to two years now, Tony has been contributing to this site on a regular basis, raising the level of quality of this site across the board.

His profile on Calvin Sweeney a top-performer and must read. Likewise his piece on Larry Brown. And his work on Weegie Thompson stands as an example of blogging brilliance at its best. Thank You Tony!

Thanks to You the Readers

The biggest thank you goes you to you, the readers. For better and for worse, this site’s footprint in terms of comments and interaction has always been limited. That’s fine. But the Black and Gold faithful find this site, and if Google Analytics is any guide, visitors stay here after they arrive and they, or you, return.

It was also particularly gratifying, in the early days of 2008, before total life time visitors had even broken the 1,000 mark, to see “Steel Curtain Rising” hoping up in the referring keywords report.

  • Its been said that Google is the ultimate truth serum and that’s correct in a lot of ways.

The numbers of this site confirm it. While half of this site’s visitors come from Western Pennsylvania, the other half does not. And while the US, UK and Mexico send the lion’s share of visitors, this site has served visitors from nearly every country on the globe.

So thanks to whoever it was from Romania who kept visiting early on, thanks to whoever it was in Austria who visited this site day in and day out for several years. And thanks to the person in Nigeria who searched for Christian Okoye, found the page on the 1989 Steelers Chiefs game, and then went and viewed several dozen other pages.

In a word, thanks to each and every one of you for reading.

Jaguars Playoff Loss as a Good Omen?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are NOT in a good place right now. Instead of playing for the Super Bowl, they’re watching it at home as all sorts of negative stories permeate the press coming out of Pittsburgh.

But things didn’t seem too bright 10 years ago, after a promising season ended with the defense on the decline, and a controversial play call to the outside and a controversial special teams decision allowed the Jaguars to beat the Steelers at home twice in one season.

At that time, I made this observation, in the very first edition of the Watch Tower:

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.
But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Things didn’t feel quite as bleak in January 2008, but the arrow on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t seem to be pointing up. One year later the Steelers were Super Bowl Bound.

Yours truly is most certainly not predicting a Super Bowl next season. But then again, I wouldn’t have done so in January 2008 either….

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover and commentate on it all.

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