Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy

We can be a better football team, I can be a better quarterback and not win 15 games…. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 games.” – Ben Roethlisberger August 2005

We would have no way of knowing it at the time, but Ben Roethlisberger was wise beyond his years. You could describe the Steelers 2004 season in many ways, but “Unplanned” might be the most accurate. After a 6-10, 2003 campaign, nothing was expected of the 2004 Steelers. And that was before they lost their starting quarterback.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 15 straight wins, until finally falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. To Bill Cowher the challenge was to keep maintain “that same look in our eye” now that expectations were high.

Expectations were high. In July none other than Art Rooney II declared “I think for the people who have been around for a while now, I think we all feel like it’s time. We’ve been close and we have to take that last step.”
In other words, “Win the Super Bowl” was the Steelers plan. Ironically, their ability to do that would hinge on their ability to improvise when things did not go as planned.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Retooled for a Run

By summer of 2005 the annual exoduses of free agents from Pittsburgh were fading from memory.

Sure the Steelers had lost free agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent, but Max Starks and Kendall Simmons were essentially upgrades. Chad Scott had gone too, but Ike Taylor was more than ready.

No one was sure, but Randle El was a proven player.

The Steelers also welcomed tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Most importantly, Jerome Bettis decided to return for one final shot at Super Bowl instead of retiring

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

When the Steelers arrived at St. Vincents Jerome Bettis passed out “Super Bowl XL Detroit: The Bus Stops” T-shirts. But all eyes were on Hines Ward’s hold out. Ward had a year on his contract. Dan Rooney did not negotiate with hold outs. He hadn’t made an exception for Franco Harris. Ward would be no different.

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward in the playoff win against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tony Tribble, AP via Al.com

But Dan Rooney felt this team had “…the closeness that brings championships” and didn’t want a money squabble poisoning camaraderie. With Jerome Bettis’s help, Rooney talked Hines Ward into reporting and delivered on his promise to treat him fairly.

Ward’s return was welcome in football terms too, because yellow flags flashed around both the Steelers running game and passing game during the 2005 preseason. The plan had been for Duce Staley to serve as the bell cow with Jerome Bettis as his backup.

  • But both Staley and Bettis had health issues during training camp. So Bill Cowher turned to Willie Parker, 2004’s preseason wonder.

Ben Roethlisberger had surprisingly struggled during the 2005 preseason, posting a 32.8 passer rating prompting Bill Cowher to confesses “I like this group of guys, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Was Willie Parker a legit starting running back? Would Roethlisberger prove to be a one-year-wonder? The Steelers were about to find out.

Season Opens as Planned, But NFL = “Not For Long….”

The 2005 Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to open the season. Willie Parker ran for 160 yards and 111 yards respectively, while Ben Roethlisberger had an average passer rating of 149.05. The Steelers would be alright with Ben and Willie.

The New England Patriots returned to Pittsburgh on week 3 left as victors yet again, after a 23-21 contest. Next the Steelers traveled to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, but it took a last second Jeff Reed field goal to get them there.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee during the game.

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

Outsiders have long questions the Steelers practice of keeping 3 quarterbacks but October 2005 would vindicate the franchise’s philosophy.

The Steelers would lose their next game as Tommy Maddox struggled all day, until finally throwing a pick six to Rashean Mathis in overtime.

Big Ben returned, and Pittsburgh rebounded for 2 more wins, but in the 2nd victory over the Ravens, but hetweaked his knee again. Worse yet, both Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis were down with injuries.

And the Steelers were traveling to Lambeau Field, one of the NFL’s most difficult venues to play in.

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

Troy Polamalu strip sacks Brett Favre. Photo Credit: John Biever, SI.com

Fortunately, Bill Cowher had flexibility at backup quarterback and started Charlie Batch started instead. He also had Duce Staley in his bullpen at running back.

  • Neither Duce nor Batch made any fantasy football owners happy that day.
  • Pittsburgh’s best“offensive” play was Troy Polamalu’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But that play, combined with just enough plays by Batch and Staley, put the Steelers over the top.

A week later, Charlie Batch did make a lot of plays in quarterbacking the Steelers to a 17-7 halftime lead, but unfortunately going into halftime he broke his finger during a QB sneak for a touchdown. Tommy Maddox struggled again, but midway through the 3rd quarter Ken Whisenhunt improvised by going to his bag of tricks, as Antwaan Randle El tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fake reverse to Hines Ward that all but iced the game.

Unfortunately, no such magic was on tap a week later as Maddox continued to struggle costing the Steelers an overtime loss, this time to the Ravens.

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

Ben Roethlisberger returned for a key Monday Night Football matchup against the 2005 undefeated Indianapolis Colts. While the Steelers kept it closer than the score indicates, the Colts won, 26-7.

That was perhaps to be expected. Ben Roethlisberger has typically struggled his first game back after an injury, and this was one of the games that set this trend. But the following week the Steelers came up short 38-31 to the Bengals, leaving Pittsburgh at 7-5 with a three-game distant second in the AFC North.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Bengals

  • A Post-Gazette photo caption went so far as to suggest that Jerome Bettis questioned his decision to return.

With his back to the wall, Bill Cowher called full pads for practice, something that was unheard of in mid-December. He did something equally meaningful in the meeting room. Cowher had always kept a white board filled with stats, facts and figures that he’d chart progress by updating throughout the season.

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

I had been there for 10 years and it’s something he did for a long time. It was always there. We come into the team meeting room and he erased all of it. We’re like, ‘Whoa, the season’s not over. We have four games left.’ And all he said was ‘Chicago. This is it. We’re not looking at all of it, just one game: Chicago.’

With 4 games left in the regular season, Bill Cowher had installed a playoff mindset in his team.
Cowher’s gambit worked.

The next week a 9-4 Chicago Bears team came to Heinz Field, and with Jerome Bettis leading the way in the snow, the Steelers dispatched the Bears 18-6. Next, the Steelers knocked off the Vikings on the road, then clobbered the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland.

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.

Even though the Steelers still needed to win – and needed help going into the final game of the season, Bob Labriola concluded, “The playoffs are coming, and so are the Steelers.”

So there was no panic on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the Lions went up 14-7 in the final week of the season. The Steelers responded with 3 Jerome Bettis touchdowns and stopped a Lion’s comeback attempt with another touchdown to win 35-21.

The Steelers got the help they needed and were in the playoffs, but as the last seed in the AFC. No last seeded team had ever won a Super Bowl.

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

This suited Bill Cowher perfectly. Bill Cowher was a motivator, yet his repertoire of stories was limited. Veterans could often finish his speeches for him. .

When the playoffs arrived , Bill Cowher shocked his veterans by reminding them that people had told Christopher Columbus that he would sail off of the edge of the earth. Columbus persisted, discovering the New World.

As Bettis recounted to Ed Bouchette, “’My point is, don’t let history dictate your future, let your future make history.’”

  • History remembers the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals as a 31-17 blowout.

What it forgets is that, even after Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently knocked Carson Plamer from the game, Cincinnati managed to build up a 17-7 2nd quarter lead. The Steelers made it 17-14 before half time, but in the third quarter the Bengals marched directly toto the Steelers 15.

There punter Kyle Larson tried to run bumbled field goal attempt, fumbled and lost 20 yards in the process. As Mike Pruista of the Tribune-Review observed, at this point Cincinnati’s playoff inexperience grabbed them by the throat and never let go.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting with Cedrick Wilson on a flea flicker to go up 28-17, the Pittsburgh was playing with Cincinnati.

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

The only thing missing from the legend of Steelers-Colts 2005 AFC Divisional is narration by the late John Facenda.

The 2005 Colts had been perfect, only losing because they rested starters. The tragic suicide of Tony Dungy’s son had the rest of the league pulling for them. The 2005 Steelers, in contrast, had been anything but perfect.

  • Yet, for the first 3 quarters the Steelers had been absolutely perfect in this game.

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Colts, 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs

Troy Polamalu’s should have been interception. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Tory Polamalu had a game-sealing interception overturned, which to Colts used to narrow the score to 21-18. Two series later, Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Peyton Manning on 4th and 6, giving the Steelers the ball on the Colt’s 2. Gary Brackett ended Jerome Bettis’ touchdown attempt with a fumble, and only Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle saved the day.

  • What everyone remembers after that was Mike Vanderjet’s missed 46-yard field goal.

But Steelers rookie Bryant McFadden authored the critical play on that series. Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone and delivered the ball perfectly. McFadden squared his shoulders, and deflected the pass in what was the best play of his 7 year NFL career.

Perfection fought with imperfection in Indianapolis, and it was an unheralded rookie who swing the balance to the Steelers, sending them to the AFC Championship.

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

By the time he traveled to Denver on January 22nd 2006, Bill Cowher had coached in 5 AFC Championships with Jerome Bettis playing in three of those. All of those had been at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Cowher had lost 5 of 6 and Bettis all three.

  • If playing at home wasn’t the problem, perhaps getting away from Pittsburgh was part of the solution.

Jerome Bettis grew up in Detroit and he’d never won a championship. The night before the game, he implored his teammates: “Take me home! Take me home.”
The Broncos never had a chance.

Sure, rookie wide receiver Nate Washington turned into a defensive back to make a heads up play to stop a would have been game-changing interception. But that’s precisely the point. Championship teams find ways to make those plays.

When all was said and done, Joey Porter logged a sack, backup lineman Brett Keisel made 2, Larry Foote had an interception, and the Steelers completely neutered the Broncos “Zone Rushing” attack.

On offense, Cedric Wilson, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis all found the end zone, while Jeff Reed kicked 2 field goals. By the time Ben Roethlisberger rushed for the final score, it really was an insurance touchdown.

  • But the most telling moment of the game came on the sideline.

As Bill Cowher faced Dan and Art Rooney II, shaking hands, his left-hand index finger was raised to form the numeral 1 and he was clearly mouthing, “We’ve still got 1 more game to play!”

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

You can win Super Bowls several ways. You can dominate out of the gate as the Steelers did to the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Two fantastic franchises can go toe-to-toe with the best one eking out a win as the Steelers and the Cowboys did in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. You can make up for inferior talent by outfoxing your opened with better coaching as the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.

Every coach plans to dominate, probably expects to go toe-to-toe and likely falls back on outfoxing his opponent. But of none of those work one other option remains:

  • Create your own opportunities.

And that’s the route the Steelers took in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XL, but their offense was stuck in 2nd gear for most of the first half. In fact, Seattle held a 3-0 lead for most of the first 30 minutes.

So the Steelers did what they’d done so well all year long – improvise.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger was nervous and not playing well. After trying, and failing to connect with Hines Ward through the air, Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him in a reverse. Ward picked up 18 yards. The Steelers didn’t score on that drive, but on the next one they darted around the backfield buying time as Ward made a 37 yard catch that brought the Steelers to the Seahawks 3.

  • When two Jerome Betis runs didn’t get it done, Roethlisberger ran it in himself.

Save the whining Seahawks fans. Sure, the replay is hardly “indisputable,” but the referee who was standing right there had a far better view than the camera angle and he called it a touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt I
If the Steelers offense had been stalled in the first half, their play calling had forced the Seahawks to adjust their formations, just as Pittsburgh’s coaches expected, as recounted by Alan Faneca in Jim Wexell’s:

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

That wasn’t “just” a 75 yard run for a touchdown, it was an remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

Ike Taylor
Ben Roethlsiberger would turn over the ball on the Steelers next possession with Kelly Herndon returning it 76 yards. The Seahawks took 4 plays to score. Four series later, Seattle was at it again, driving to Pittsburgh’s 27 yard line, threating to score.

Ike Taylor was a great cornerback who couldn’t hold on to the ball. He had 17 interceptions, regular season and playoffs combined, in his entire 12-year career. Dwayne Woodruff also played 12 years and had 37 in the regular season alone.

  • Matt Hasselbeck thought he had Darrell Jackson open at the five.

Ike Taylor thought better of it, intercepted the ball and returned it 24 yards. Ike didn’t pick off too many passes in his career. But he sure made this one count.

Ken Whisenhunt II
The Steelers got the ball at midfield. A mix and match of runs and short passes earned a first down. Then Ken Whisenhunt went for the knockout punch. Ben Roethlisberger handed to Willie Parker. Parker tossed it to Antwaan Randle El. Randle El kept running his reverse. Ben Roethlisberger threw a block. Hines Ward got open. Randle El released.

The Steelers went up 21-10

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

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

Dicky LeBeau
Seattle still had time. They got the ball back. They advanced to midfield. The Steelers held them, forcing a third down with 8 yards to go. Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass. Deshea Townsend came out of nowhere sacking Hasselbeck and forcing a punt.

  • Dick LeBeau’s blitz was a new one, one he’d improvised and installed the night before.

The Steelers fed the ball to Jerome Bettis 7 times on their next 8 plays. Seattle got the ball back but it was too little too late – they turned over on downs.

  • With 3 seconds separating the Steelers from One for the Thumb, Ben Roethlisberger took a final knee.

Minutes later Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher took tie dais together. Bettis declared “The Bus stops here.”

Bill Cowher finally did what he returned to Pittsburgh to do: He handed Dan Rooney his 5th Lombardi Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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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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John Stallworth’s Steelers Career: An Improbable Journey from Overlooked Draft Pick to Hall of Famer

NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.

The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.”  That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.

In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr.

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

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years of the Super Steelers

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

  • But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

  • Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

  • Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

  • It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.

But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

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One World Defines David DeCastro’s Steelers Career: Attitude

With David DeCastro’s Steelers career coming to an end it is time to assess his legacy. That can be tricky with offensive lineman, who don’t generate statistics to compile and compare. But that doesn’t matter with David DeCastro, because DeCastro defined himself with his attitude.

Every great player authors signature plays. Think:

Offensive lineman author signature plays too, but these by definition come in a supporting role. Alan Faneca’s block that swung Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL comes to mind. But each of those has something common: They all they shifted the outcome of playoff games at critical junctures.

David DeCastro’s signature play is unique because it came during the regular season and actually cost the Steelers 15 yards during a 2 minute drill!

David DeCastro, Eric Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Panthers

David DeCastro gets in Eric Reid’s face during the Steelers 2018 win over the Panthers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.

IT came on a balmy Sunday night during September 2014 in Carolina. The Steelers had opened the season with a nail biter win over the Browns and then gotten ripped apart by the Ravens. The Carolina Panthers were coming off of a 12-4 season and were seen as NFC contenders.

As half-time approached, the Steelers hung to a slim 6-3 lead thanks to two Shaun Suisham field goals. Ben Roethlisberger was running the two-minute drill and the Steelers were sniffing the Red Zone. Roethlisberger hit Justin Brown for a 4 yard gain.

Luke Kuechly tackled him. He stripped the ball from Brown after the whistle and held him down as he tried to get up. Then, when both got to their feet, Luke Kuechly pushed Brown, as if to remind him who was the biggest boy on the block.

  • David DeCastro saw it from across the field and was having NONE of it.

He crossed the distance and unloaded on Kuechly. The linebacker remained on his feet, but DeCastro had put him in his place. All this happened right in front of the official, who flagged DeCastro for 15 yards and essentially ended any chance of a touchdown. (Suisham did make a 45 yarder for a 9-6 half time lead.)

You call a 15 yarder at the 28 with 33 second to play a costly penalty? Fine, I’ll call it addition by subtraction.

  • It may have been the most important play authored by the offensive line during the Tomlin era.

Offensive line is one spot on the depth chart that transcends measurables. Sure, offensive lineman must be big. They need strength, a lot of strength. Agility is essential. But more than anything else, they need attitude. And they need a little streak of nasty. Because at their core, successful offensive lineman impose their will.

  • David DeCastro embodied it all on that one play.

Justin Brown was first year player and roster bubble baby who’d worked himself up from the practice squad. The Steelers cut him before the season’s end. Most fans didn’t who he was then let alone remember him today.

None of that mattered to David DeCastro. He made it clear to Kuechly, the Partners and the rest of the NFL that these Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t going to be intimated, they were going to be the intimidators.

  • To be generous, the Steelers offensive line had been a mess up until that point in the Tomlin era.

During those early years, the team’s strategy on offensive line was “Plug and Patch.” They’d sign guys and then cut them in the middle of their contract. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began moving away from that in 2010 by picking Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert in 2011 and DeCastro in 2014.

  • But DeCastro’s shove of Kuechly marks the moment when the offensive line turned a corner.

The late, legendary scribe Ivan Cole labeled the offensive line’s performance against the Panthers as “scary good.” Scary good it was. The game marked the last time that the Steelers had two 100 yard rushers in the same game, as Le’Veon Bell ran for 141 yards and LeGarrette Blount ran for 118 – in mop up time.

Sure, Bell and Blount had runs of 81 and 50 yards, but that’s the point: The offensive line was in full road grading mode that night, open holes that you could drive trucks through.

  • From that point on until the 2019 season the Steelers offensive line wasn’t just a team strength but one of the NFL’s best.

David DeCastro was one of the foundations of that group and attitude was the difference maker that DeCastro brought to the table.

 

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

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

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

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

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