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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

Vindicating Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

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

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

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

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

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

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

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

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

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

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

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

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards
Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to being its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.
Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

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1993 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time

You should expect to win on Sunday.” – Billy Cowher prior to the 1992 season.

In the blink of an eye in 1992 Bill Cowher catapulted the Pittsburgh Steelers from an NFL afterthought to a contender. His secret? Cowher believed in his roster when no one else did. More importantly, Bill Cowher convinced his players to believe in themselves and to “expect to win on Sunday.”

Confidence is critical to championships, yet the story of the 1993 Steelers shows that Cowher’s players took his words a little too closely to heart.

Mark Royals, Keith Cash, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs 1993 AFC Wild Card

Former Steeler Keith Cash gets revenge, blocking Mark Royal’s punt in the playoffs. Photo Credit: John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

Zen Arrives in Pittsburgh with the 1993 Steelers Yin and Yang

The 1993 Steelers either played Super Bowl Championship-caliber football or football worthy of a team contending for draft position. There were no in betweens.

Hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview, the Steelers opened at home against the San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh promptly lost.  The 24 to 13 final was never as close as the score suggests. But Mike Tomczak played most of the game for Neil O’Donnell who was fighting tendonitis, so no one sounded the alarm.

  • No such excuses existed a week later however when the lowly Los Angeles Rams delivered Steelers their first shutout since 1989.

The Steelers rebounded by winning its next two games, and then authored what appeared to be statements victories over San Diego and New Orleans.

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

The Steelers defense dominated the San Diego Chargers so thoroughly that future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene declared:  “This is like the WWF or something.” Even though the final score read 16-3, San Diego never had a chance.

Next New Orleans brought a 5-0 record to Pittsburgh, but left only making 3 first downs in the first 3 quarters. Rod Woodson played a career game that day, waiting just 90 seconds to take Wade Wilson’s opening pass 63 yard for a touchdown.  He then intercepted Wilson two series later. The Steelers sacked Wade Wilson 5 times, held him to 6 of 23 passing.

In keeping with the season’s character, the Steelers traveled to the cursed confines of Cleveland Stadium and dominated in every statistical category possible, only to lose due to an inability to stop Eric Metcalf on not one, but two punt returns.

On Monday November 15th, 1993 the reigning AFC Alpha Male, the Buffalo Bills brought their 7-1 record to Three Rivers Stadium. One play tells the story (video courtesy of Steel City Star):

Gary Jones’ hit on Don Beebe, which would be illegal today, and it only marks the tip of the iceberg. The Steelers defense also knocked Jim Kelly out of the game with a concussion and broke Andre Reed’s wrist in a 23-0 shutout.

The Monday Night Football ass-kicking the Steelers delivered to the Bills seemingly signaled the passing of the torch for AFC dominance.

Instead, the win proved Bill Cowher’s young Steelers couldn’t handle success. Six days later the Broncos smashed the Steelers 37 to 14 in Denver. Unfortunately, the manic-depressive character of the 1993 Steelers wasn’t the only problem Pittsburgh faced.

Losing Foster Orphans 1993 Steelers Offense

For reasons unknown, Chuck Noll had played Foster sparingly despite his elite talent. Bill Cowher did the opposite. In 1992 Bill Cowher had unleashed Barry Foster as the focal point of the Steelers offense, and Foster delivered, smashing Franco Harris’ single season rushing record.

Leroy Thompson, Dermontti Dawson, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills MNF 1993

Leroy Thompson runs for over 100 yards vs the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When in doubt, he fed Foster the ball. The formula of “Get Foster his 100 and get a win” while fallible, worked well.

Unfortunately, Foster had torn ligaments in his left ankle during the Bills’ game and was done for the season. As he’d done against New Orleans, back up Leroy Thompson stepped up to the plate and rushed for 100 yards.

  • Those were the only and final 100 yard games of Thompson’s career.

Thompson was a quality backup, but the starting role was too big for him. Worse yet, for long stretches, coaches would seem to “forget” that Merril Hoge ran the ball very well.

In Washington, WMAL’s Ken Beatrice reminded Steelers fans, “Leroy Thompson isn’t going to make anyone forget he’s not Barry Foster.” Yet Thompson was vocal about trying to do just that, signaling another problem….

Enter the Locker Room Lawyers

In the third week of September 1993 the Steelers did something they haven’t done since: they signed  Rod Woodson and Barry Foster to new contracts during the season.

  • Locking up their best offensive and defensive player made sense.

But the rest of the Steelers locker room wanted theirs too.

Starting defensive ends like Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson vocally criticized management, with tight end Adrian Cooper even suggested his contract situation impacted his performance. Even players like Hoge, whose work ethic remained beyond question, admitted that contract squabbles were a distraction. The Steelers broke off all contract negotiations during the middle of the season, but the damage had been done.

Buddy Ryan, Waiting in the Weeds

Buddy Ryan had arrived as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator in 1993 and that posed a problem for Pittsburgh. While few noted it in the Steel City, during the 1980’s Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles defense had enjoyed a pretty good run of success against Bill Parcell’s offenses. And those offenses had been  coached by Ron Erhardt who was now coaching the Steelers offense….

After entering 1993 as division favorites, the Oilers started 1-4. By the time the Steelers first faced them on Sunday Night Football after Thanksgiving, the Oilers had clawed back to 6-4.

  • The Steelers-Oilers series would decide the AFC Central and for one night, the Houston Astrodome was again the House of Pain.

Houston defenders sacked Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak 6 times, with Pittsburgh coaches pulling O’Donnell, admitting that they feared injury. They were wise, as one melee saw Michael Barrow rip off Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him with relish.

In a play that painfully symbolizes the season, a pass hit Jeff Graham’s hands, bounced off his face mask, and then went  through his hands again, all while he was untouched in the end zone. The final score read 23-3 Oilers. The Steeler response was, “We’ll see you 3 weeks.”

In the intervening two weeks the Steelers notched narrow, escape-variety victories against the Patriots and the Dolphins. (Note, Merril Hoge logged 16 carries in those wins – coincidence? I think not.)

Gary Brown, Levon Kirkland, Warren Moon, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers 1993 Pittsburgh

Gary Brown runs over Steelers. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images, via Houston Sports

Perhaps Gary Anderson’s deep opening kickoff was Pittsburgh’s highlight in the Three Rivers Stadium rematch with Houston. Garbage time glory provided window dressing to 26-17 contest where the Oilers simply spanked the Steelers.

Again, the Oilers sacked O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow the one-season wonder.

Buddy Ryan bragged, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Greg Lloyd Wills 1993 Steelers to Playoffs

The next week, a wounded, flu-stricken Steelers team played Seattle on the day after Christmas where, a running back named Jon Vaughn, who’d never done anything before or since, ran for 138 yards.

Going into the season finale, an 8-7 Steelers team needed a win over Bill Belichick’s 7-8, playing for pride, the Cleveland Browns held  Pittsburgh to 9-3 at half time.

  • Greg Lloyd exploded at halftime, challenging the offense to do its part.

He led by example, forcing  two fumbles and racing down field for an open-field tackle – all on a bum hamstring.  With Lloyd leading the way, the Steelers shut out the Browns in the 2nd half scoring 13 unanswered points. The 1993 Steelers finished 9-7 and got the help they needed.

Pittsburgh was headed to the playoffs!

1993 Playoffs: Coming Up Short in Kansas City

The Steelers traveled to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the 1993 AFC Wild Card in a fever-pitched back-and-forth battle. Thing started badly for Pittsburgh when cornerback D.J. Johnson got ejected during the first series, but the Steelers struck first on a Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper touchdown.

From there, the lead would change five times, with the game’s pivotal moment coming after Neil O’Donnell’s go-ahead touchdown to Eric Green late in the 4th quarter. The Steelers defense stoned the Chiefs to force a 3 and out, giving Pittsburgh a chance to kill the clock inside the 2 minute warning.

  • Unfortunately, Chief’s defense turned the tables, forcing a punt after just 3 plays.

Keith Cash, a player Bill Cowher had cut in training camp, blocked Mark Royal’s punt and the Chief’s returned it to Pittsburgh’s nine-yard line. Two plays later Joe Montana connected with Tim Barnett to tie the score.

The Steelers offense suffered another three and out, and Pittsburgh braced as a Nick Lowery field goal sailed wide right. After trading punts in overtime, Joe Montana hit Keith Cash to bring Kansas City to the Steelers 32-yard line.  Six plays later Nick Lowery was kicking the game winning field goal.

After their Monday Night shut out of the Bills the Pittsburgh had gone 3-4 and now Bill Cowher was 0-2 in the playoffs. The 1993 season and proven that Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers simply weren’t ready for Prime Time.

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Looking Glass Tales: Steelers Defeat Titans 27-24, Start 6-0, Evoking Memories of ’92 Win over Oilers

It was the middle of the season. Time for the two biggest boys on the block to fight. The competition was intense. Hits were hard. One side went up big. The game appeared out of reach. The other fought back. The outcome hinged on a final kicked ball….

  • That summarizes the Steelers 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.

It also summarizes a similar contest two franchises waged in the fall of 1992. Today’s game was between the AFC’s last undefeated teams, whereas yesteryear’s was for AFC Central supremacy. Two games, 27 years apart would mirror each other to a T. With one critical exception….

Diontae Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Steelers vs Titans

Diontae Johnson reminds Malcolm Bulter the Steelers have receivers not named Claypool. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

First Half – One of the Best Halves of the Tomlin Era

Pittsburgh’s first half against the Titans has to rank as one of the top ten best halves that the Steelers have played during the Mike Tomlin era. Ben Roethlisberger set the tone by asking his coach to receive should they win the toss.

The Steelers won, and Roethlisberger delivered as he, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Diontae Johnson presented a clinic on possession football. By mixing short passes and aggressive runs Pittsburgh piced together a 16-play drive that burned more than  9 minutes off the clock.

The Titans All-World running back Derrick Henry could do nothing but watch as Diontae Johnson put the Steelers up by 7 with barely 5 minutes left in the first quarter.

Vince Williams limited Henry’s next carry to one yard, Cam Sutton saw to it that Ryan Tannehill’s next pass fell incomplete, and just like that the Titans were punting back to the Steelers.

  • In a nutshell, that is the story of the first half.
Benny Snell, Steelers vs Titans 2020

Benny Snell puts the Steelers up 14-0. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

The Steelers got the ball back and executed another 13 play drive that consumed another 7 minutes off the clock, this time ending with Benny Snell pounding it in at the goal line.

  • The Titans responded with a long drive of their own.

But by the time Tennessee scored a touchdown just over 5 minutes were left in the half, and the Steelers used two and a half of those tack on a 30-yard field goal. Then it was T.J. Watt’s turn to stuff Henry for a loss, which set up another Titans 3 and out.

Backed up against his own end zone Brett Kern boomed off an impressive punt, which Ray-Ray McCloud returned 57 yards all the way to the Titans 17. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson for his 2nd touchdown of the afternoon, putting Pittsburgh up 24 to 7.

The Steelers forced the Titans to turn over on downs, and instead of playing it safe, Mike Tomlin went for the end zone, but unfortunately Dane Cruikshank picked him off. Disappointing, yes? But an interception with 14 seconds remaining in the half when you’re leading 24-7 really isn’t anything to worry about. Is it….?

Historical Interlude – Steelers vs. Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium November 1992

Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers shocked the NFL by upsetting the Houston Oilers on opening day and followed that victory by winning four of their next six to set up a showdown at Three Rivers Stadium for sole ownership of the AFC Central lead.

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

  • This was one of those games that NFL Films couldn’t have scripted better if it tried.

The first half saw the Steelers and Oilers fight to a 7-6 advantage in a game that evoked some of the contest the two teams had fought in the 1970’s. Yet, in the 3rd quarter the Oilers took control, scoring a touchdown and then with in minutes returning a strip sack to score another, to hold a 20-7 lead late into the 4th quarter against and offense not known for its speed at scoring points.

Yet, Neil O’Donnell rallied Pittsburgh, hitting tight ends Adrian Cooper and Eric Green for touchdowns, the latter of which gave the Steelers a 21 to 20 lead just ahead of the two minute warning.

Sloppy Second Half Raises Blood Pressure Across Steelers Nation

…As it turns out, Roethlisberger’s interception at the close of the first half foreshadowed things to come. Sure, T.J. Watt started the half with a sack that set up a Titans 3 and out, and the Steelers responded with another Chris Boswell field goal, making it 27-7. But things unraveled after that.

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick blinked, allowing A.J. Brown to take it to the house for 73 yards
  • A tipped ball gave the Titans an interception at the Steelers 30
  • The defense limited Tennessee to 3, but the score stood at 27-17 with a quarter remaining
  • The Steelers stopped Tennessee on 4th & 1 at the goal, but committed a penalty
  • The Titans took advantage and made it 27-24, with 10 minutes to play

The Steelers responded by milking 7:38 off the clock, but the Titans intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone, giving them the ball at the Steelers 20 with 2:34 left to play and a chance to win it all.

As It Was in 1992, It is Again in 2020: Wide Right!

It’s ironic how two games between two franchises separated by 10,221 days can evolve as mirror images of each other.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had clawed their way back from defeat to hold a 1 point lead with little more than two minutes separating them from a win over the Houston Oilers and the division lead.

The 2020 Tennessee Titans had clawed their way back from disaster and two minutes separated them from turning the tables on the Steelers and establishing themselves as the AFC’s last undefeated team.

  • The 1992 Oilers marched down the field reaching field goal range as time threatened to expire
  • The 2020 Titans marched down field reaching field goal range as a 4th and 13 made it now or never

Mirror images indeed, except that ending was the only element to escape the reversal of fortunes that all looking glasses trap in their reflection:

  • Like Al Del Greco 27 years and 11 months earlier, Stephen Gostkowski field goal sailed wide right!

And the Steelers left Nashville with a 6-0 record.

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Steelers Didn’t Draft Emmitt Smith in ’90 Because of Tim Worley… But It Actually Worked Out

Steelers fans always like to play the “what if?” game.

For example, what if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier weren’t injured for the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders in 1976? What if the Steelers had actually drafted Dan Marino back in 1983? What if Pittsburgh’s coaches had recognized the talent they had in this Johnny Unitas fella, a ninth-round pick out of Louisville in 1955, instead of cutting him in training camp without letting him take a snap that summer?

  • The reason I put Unitas last in those aforementioned examples is because I want to prove a point.

Sure, the ending may have been different for those ’76 Steelers had Franco and Rocky been healthy for that conference title game against those hated Raiders. And, obviously, had Pittsburgh selected Marino in ’83, how could that have possibly been a bad thing for a franchise whose 1970s Super Bowl dynasty was running on fumes and about to come to a complete stop?

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

As for keeping Johnny Unitas around, on the other hand? Sure, it may have led to championship success much sooner than anyone would have imagined. But would it have led to Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, those four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the franchise’s rise to one of the marquee teams in all of professional sports?

It just doesn’t seem possible that all those dots would have still connected the exact same way and led us to where we are today with regards to the Steelers iconic status.

And that brings me to the 1990 NFL Draft, and the Steelers decision to trade their first-round pick to the Cowboys (17th, overall) and move back four slots.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

With the pick the Cowboys secured from Pittsburgh, they selected running back Emmitt Smith from Florida. And with the 21st pick the Steelers acquired from Dallas, they drafted tight end Eric Green from Liberty University.

  • Even if you’re a casual fan of the NFL and its history, you no doubt know that the Cowboys won that deal with a bullet.

Yes, Eric Green stormed onto the scene and was a bit ahead of his time for the position with his size, speed and athleticism. After a lengthy holdout, Eric Green went on to have a fairly sensational rookie campaign that included seven touchdown catches.

Eric Green played five seasons in Pittsburgh, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994, before leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

In the end, Eric Green wasn’t the one that got away. After signing a huge free agent contract with the Dolphins, Green bounced around the NFL through the 1999 season before calling it a career.

  • Overall, Eric Green’s 10-year career, it was merely okay. It was one of unfulfilled potential, due mainly to his weight issues, drug problems and a lack of a great work ethic.

As for Emmitt Smith, he couldn’t have fulfilled his potential any better if he were a fictional running back created by some Hollywood writer.

Not only did Emmitt Smith quickly become one of the cornerstones of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, when he finally hung up his cleats following the 2004 season, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 18,355 yards, a record that still stands today.

And that’s why you’ll often see those “What if?” articles pop up around draft time regarding that 1990 trade with Dallas, and how the Steelers really screwed up.

  • They obviously did, but that’s still revisionist history.
Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

If you look at that 1990 draft in context, there was no way the Steelers were going to select Smith or any other running back, not after spending the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on Tim Worley, running back, Georgia.

And while Tim Worley’s NFL career made Green’s look downright Hall of Fame-worthy (drug issues quickly derailed Worley’s career, and he was out of football following the ’93 season), he showed great promise in his rookie season with the 1989 Steelers, rushing for 770 yards and scoring five touchdowns.

Besides, while the Steelers didn’t find their franchise back in Worley, they thought they’d discovered one in Barry Foster in 1992, when he set a single-season team record for rushing yards with 1,690. And while Foster didn’t have the hunger to be a workhorse running back over the long haul (he left football after the 1994 campaign), the Steelers long search for a long-term franchise running back ended during the 1996 NFL Draft, when they traded a second-round pick to the Rams for the services of Jerome Bettis.

  • Need I say more?

With his size, willingness to punish tacklers and desire to be the workhorse, was there a more perfect running back for the Steelers and the City of Pittsburgh than Jerome Bettis, the man the late, great Myron Cope quickly dubbed The Bus?

In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards. By the time Bettis retired after the 2005 season, not only was he fifth all-time in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, he left Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown, with the Steelers’ fifth Lombardi trophy in hand, following a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring, Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring,

Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Think about the kind of career Jerome Bettis had in Pittsburgh, and how it never would have happened if the selection of Worley in 1989 hadn’t prevented the Steelers from drafting Smith one year later.

  • Would you trade the actual story of Jerome Bettis as a Steeler for a hypothetical one involving Emmitt Smith?

If you’re all about the numbers and Super Bowl titles, maybe you would. But there’s no predicting how Smith would have fit in with Pittsburgh, a team that was suffering from a great malaise in 1990 and about to go through a massive transition at head coach, from the legendary Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher in 1992.

And there certainly is no way to predict with any certainty that Emmitt Smith would have been able to lead the likes of Neil O’Donnell (Larry Brown’s best friend, no, not that Larry Brown) to even one Super Bowl title, let alone three.

  • Nope, I can’t imagine a Steelers history without a chapter that includes Jerome Bettis.

Like Bill Cowher told him on the sidelines at old Three Rivers Stadium back in ’96:

“This is your bleepin city. And you’re my bleepin guy.”

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Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers Career Is Worth Remembering & Honoring

When talking about their all-time great Steelers players, cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who played for Pittsburgh from 1979-1990, rarely (okay, never) is mentioned by fans.

  • While that’s unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable.

After all, Dwayne Woodruff played the overwhelming majority of his career for a Steelers team that was stuck in a decade-plus post-dynasty malaise after winning four Super Bowls in a six-year period in the 1970s.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

The same can be said for players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Louis Lipps, but Dwayne Woodruff actually had the fortune of coming along just before Pittsburgh’s time atop the football mountain came to an end, as it afforded him the opportunity to earn a ring in his rookie season thanks to a 31-19 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV.

In-fact, Dwayne Woodruff had two key interceptions postseason interceptions on the way to the Super Bowl — one in a 34-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round; and one in a 27-13 win over the Houston Oilers in the AFC title game.

When Dwayne Woodruff drove to Latrobe to announce his retirement prior to the start of training camp in 1991, , he was actually the last remaining player from any of those Super Bowl teams from the ’70s.

  • But you don’t remember much about Woodruff’s contributions to that Steelers ’79 Super Bowl season because they were relatively minor.

Dwayne Woodruff’s true legacy was his contribution to the team after his rookie year. Beginning in 1981, he became a full-time starter at left cornerback. The former sixth-round pick out of Louisville would remain a fixture on the left side for the next nine seasons, starting a combined 103 games.

  • For someone who had to play in the shadows of a former dynasty, Dwayne Woodruff had a really respectable career.

In addition to starting a total of 105 games in 12 seasons, Woodruff posted 37 interceptions and returned three for touchdowns. Woodruff had five defensive touchdowns in all, which is pretty exceptional when you consider Rod Woodson, a First Ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL, had six defensive touchdowns in his 10 years as a Steeler.

Steelers vs Rams, Dwayne Woodruff, Wendell Tyler, Jack Ham, Donnie Shell

Dwayne Woodruff helps gang tackle Wendell Tyler of the LA Rams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

As per his Wikipedia Page, Woodruff either led or co-led the Steelers in interceptions five times–1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989–and his 37 picks rank fifth all-time in franchise history.

Woodruff’s Wikipedia Page references a key interception that set up an overtime victory over the Bengals in Week 2 of the 1982 season. As a 10-year old boy who had witnessed Cincinnati sweep the once-mighty Steelers in both 1980 and 1981, I can tell you that Week 2 win is one I still cherish to this day. In fact, it was probably the first time I really went crazy as a fan.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dwayne Woodruff’s skill as a player came during his final season with the Steelers. It the first week of October 1990, following a offensive touchdownless September under Joe Walton‘s offense

Everyone remembers that week 5 victory over the San Diego Chargers for the offensive explosion that saw rookie Eric Green catch two touchdown passes, with Warren Williams and Barry Foster rushing for two more. (Well, OK, the sum total of people who actually remember that game is probably a lot fewer than “everyone.”) 

  • However Steelers defense played just as an important of a role in that win, and perhaps no player played a bigger role than Dwayne Woodruff.

After injuries to Rod Woodson, Thomas Everett and Larry Griffin left the Steelers with just four healthy defensive backs, Dwayne Woodruff was forced to play right cornerback for the first time in 11 years. As Woodruff relayed to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When I first went out there I thought I was going to fall down. After 11 years of backpedaling always looking to your right and breaking to your right and all of the sudden everything’s opposite it was strange.

“Strange” it might have been, but Woodruff responded with 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for 51 yards in the Steelers 36 to 14 win over the Chargers.

Dwayne Woodruff Excels in His “Life’s Work.”

It was well-known during his playing days that Dwayne Woodruff was attending law school at Duquesne University.

Dwayne Woodruff actually began practicing law in the latter stages of his football career, and following his retirement from the NFL, he remained in Pittsburgh and founded the firm, Woodruff & Flaherty.

  • In the 2000s, Woodruff was elected as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County.

Woodruff is still a judge in Allegheny County, and he and his wife are very involved in charity work in the Pittsburgh community.

Dwayne Woodruff perhaps falls a bit short of qualifying as an all-time Steeler great, and he arrived a little too late to be associated with the dynasty of the 1970s, despite playing on the Super Bowl XIV team.

But if Dwayne Woodruff doesn’t quite qualify as one of the greatest all time Steelers, he certainly ranks up there as one of Pittsburgh’s best cornerbacks. Any All Time Steelers cornerback depth chart would have Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler at the top.

  • Some fans might rank Ike Taylor as 4th, but there’s a strong argument to suggest that Dwayne Woodruff should occupy that slot on the depth chart. 

When you’re neck-and-neck with Ike Taylor on the all-time Steelers corneback depth chart, you’ve certainly authored a career that is worth remembering and honoring. Such is the case with Dwayne Woodruff’s Steelers career.

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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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Remembering the Steelers 1992 Win over the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium

When people think of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher‘s first season in Pittsburgh–1992–one of the first things that comes to mind is his initial game, a 29-24 come-from-behind victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston.

Yes, it was a great way to kick off a career that would certainly put The Chin in rarefied air is it pertained to Pittsburgh coaching legends–the decision to try a fake punt, down 14-0 early in the game was an indication to the old AFC Central Division that this Steelers team and this Steelers coach were here to win.

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

And win the Steelers did in ’92, five of their first seven games, in fact, and were primed for a first place showdown with Houston, a rematch that would take place at Three Rivers Stadium on November 1, 1992.

With the help of an old LA Times post-game article, we know the Oilers jumped out to a 6-0 first half lead thanks to two Al Del Greco field goals–one from 29 yards away and the other from 19 yards out.

Pittsburgh took the lead later in first half on a one-yard run by Barry Foster, a running back who would go on to break the Steelers single-season rushing mark with 1,690 yards and tie an NFL record with 12 100-yard games.

Behind 7-6 early in the third quarter, the Oilers lost their star quarterback and Steelers nemesis, Warren Moon, after Moon was hit on the chin by cornerback Rod Woodson.

Speaking of nemeses, Cody Carlson, the unknown youngster who cost Pittsburgh a division title and playoff spot just two years earlier when he filled in for an injured Moon in the 1990 regular season finale and torched the Steelers defense for 60 minutes, entered the lineup and continued where he left off.

  • Carlson connected with receiver Webster Slaughter for an 11-yard score to make it 13-7.

That was bad enough, but just 1:03 later, Ray Childress scooped up a fumble by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell and raced eight yards for yet another touchdown, stunning the Three Rivers crowd and giving Houston a 13-point advantage.

But the Steelers were no strangers to overcoming such deficits against Houston in ’92: “We were down 20-7, but we’ve been there before,” Cowher would go on to say later.

  • The Steelers were there before, and they were about to do that again.

Early in the fourth quarter, Neil O’Donnell connected with tight end Adrian Cooper on a two-yard touchdown pass to pull Pittsburgh to within 20-14.

Midway through the final period, following a fumble recovery by legendary linebacker Greg Lloyd, the Steelers went ahead, 21-20, on a five-yard touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to the other and more decorated tight end, Eric Green.

It wasn’t over yet. The Oilers had one more chance. Cody Carlson had one more opportunity to stick a dagger in Pittsburgh’s heart–and if not end its season, at least capture sole possession of first place.

As Carlson methodically drove the Oilers’ offense down the turf at Three Rivers Stadium in the final moments, I could sense another heartbreaking loss coming on the horizon. As the seconds ticked off the clock, and Cowher kept the Steelers final timeout in his back pocket, I figured a turnover was all that could save the day.

And when Cody Carlson set up Del Greco at the 22 with seconds left, I kind of resigned myself to second place in the Central.

  • Little did I know that Bill Cowher had been responding to pleas from assistants to use with “Don’t worry, he’s going to miss the field goal.”

Bill Cowher’s instincts were on the mark. The day was actually saved by Del Greco, himself, who hooked the seemingly make-able field goal, giving the Steelers not only sole possession of first place, but an all-important sweep of Houston.

As the fans in attendance went nuts, some of whom were seen dancing and hugging on the top of the dugout, I felt the kind of magic that fans must have experienced two-decades earlier, when the 1972 edition came out of nowhere and captured the hearts of an entire region (for good).

Yes, it felt like the 70’s to a 20-year old who really didn’t know any better. The one thing I knew for sure:

  • The 1992 Steelers had put the rest of the NFL on notice.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Greg Lloyd, who never backed down from a fight and was certainly at the forefront of the team’s resurgence in the 1990’s:

“I’m sure (the Oilers) are going to say ‘What if, what if, what if?’ That’s a tough loss for them, but a great win for us.”

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Do Eric Green’s NFL Stats Suggest an Underachiever or a Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era?

When the Steelers selected Liberty tight end Eric Green with the 21st pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, I was a little underwhelmed, but that was nothing new.

After years of watching Pittsburgh select players like John Rienstra instead Keith Byars (1986) or Aaron Jones instead of anyone else on the planet (1988), I was used to my draft day fantasies being dashed by the Emperor Chuck Noll, a four-time Super Bowl-winning coach who certainly knew a little more about football than I did.

The Steelers did trade four spots down with the Cowboys, who used the 17th pick to select Florida running back Emmitt Smith, a man who would go on to capture the NFL’s all-time rushing record. But being angry over that now would be revisionist history, especially when you consider Pittsburgh used the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft to to select Tim Worley, a running back Chuck Noll said reminded him of former all-time rushing leader Jim Brown.

  • Anyway, as far as 1990 tight end prospects were concerned, Eric Green was believed to be the cream of the crop, so there was that.

On the face of it, the Steelers picking a tight end with their first round draft pick seemed rather odd, given that even the most hardcore Steelers fans old enough to remember the era would be challenged to remember a tight end other than Bennie Cunningham.

OK, Mike Mularkey had come to Pittsburgh via Plan B Free Agency, and had been a key role player in the 1989 Steelers playoff season, but the fact that he only needed 22 catches to be an “impact tight end” should tell you what you need to know about tight ends in the Steeler offenses of the 80’s.

But Chuck Noll had just hired Joe Walton as his new offensive coordinator, and Joe Walton’s offensive philosophy was very tight end-centric.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Therefore, looking at things from a pragmatic standpoint–and not through the eyes of an 18-year old Steelers fan who was looking for that draft day splash–the selection of Eric Green actually made sense.

What didn’t seem to make sense about a player selected in the second half of the first round–and from tiny Liberty University — was his willingness to holdout all of training camp, preseason and Week 1 of the regular season. Chuck Noll went as far as to say that Green would have to be a genius to contribute after missing so much time.

When Eric Green did finally sign, he was of no use through the first month of the season, neither was Joe Walton’s tight end-centric offense, one seemingly a little too complex to grasp for the likes of quarterback Bubby Brister, a player who certainly fit the mold of someone who had charmed cheerleaders into doing his term papers for him while he attended Louisiana Tech.

Under Joe Walton’s complex scheme, the 1990 Steelers infamously didn’t score an offensive touchdown during the first four games (note the Steelers Media Guide consistently gets this wrong) and were only saved from an 0-4 start thanks to a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by D.J. Johnson and a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rod Woodson in a 20-9 Week 2 victory over the Oilers.

The Steelers did finally break through offensively in a 36-14 Week 5 victory over the Chargers, which just so happened to be Eric Green’s coming out party. Against San Diego, Green, who at 6-5 and 280 pounds and blessed with speed and athleticism that defied that kind of size (at least in those days), was a bit of a catalyst, catching three passes for 22 yards and two touchdowns.

After Green’s breakout debut, Noll conceded, “He’s a genius.”

  • But it was the following week, in a 34-17, come-from-behind victory over the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, where Eirc Green really burst onto the scene.
  • Like the week before, Eric Green’s catches and yards were humble (just four for 28), but he caught three touchdowns.

For the season, Eric Green would go on to catch 36 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as a legitimate weapon for a Steelers offense that sorely needed as many as it could find. In 1991, Green continued to establish himself as one of the best young tight ends in the NFL, catching 41 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns.

1993 would be Green’s best year as a Steeler–and as a pro–as he caught 63 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns, earning himself his first of two-straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

  • Unfortunately for Eric Green, his 1994 season would be his list in Pittsburgh.

Eric Green’s legacy in Pittsburgh was tainted by a six-game drug suspension in 1992 and yet another hold out prior to the ’94 regular season. After the ’94 season, Eric Green left as a free agent and finished out the remainder of his 10-year NFL career with the Dolphins, Ravens and Jets

For his career, Eric Green caught 362 passes for 4,360 yards and 36 touchdowns–including 217 catches for 2,681 yards and 24 touchdowns as a member of the Steelers.

Eric Green the Right Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era

The conventional wisdom among Steelers fans is that Eric Green never lived up to his potential.

But Eric Green’s size, speed and overall athleticism defined a player who was clearly ahead of his time. Had he come along maybe 20 years later, there’s no doubt Eric Green would be up there with the likes of Rob Gronkowski as not only one of the best tight ends of his time, but one of the best offensive weapons in the game of football.

At the end of the day, Eric Green will never be known as an all-time Steelers great. But, had he played in another era, he may have been one of the greatest tight ends who ever played in the NFL.

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