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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Do Steelers Playoff Hopes Hinge on Alex Highsmith Imitating Ziggy Hood? Actually, They Might!

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to surprise the skeptics and make a serious Super Bowl run they’re going to need players like Alex Highsmith to find a little something extra during the playoffs. There are signs that Highsmith might already being doing that.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Highsmith’s pressure helped force Mike Hilton’s interception. Later, Highsmith helped pressure Rivers into throwing incomplete on 4th down. Against the Browns, Highsmith’s sack of Baker Mayfield helped stop Cleveland’s 2 minute drill cold.

These trends are encouraging and Alex Highsmith must build on this in the playoffs by following in the footsteps of Ziggy Hood

…Yep, you read that right!

Ziggy Hood Teases at Becoming the “Special Man”

Ziggy Hood was of course the Steelers 1st round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, number 32 overall due to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It is both unfair and incorrect to hang the label “bust” on Ziggy Hood (if you really think he was a bust, I invite you to Google Keith Gary, Daryl Simms or Aaron Jones).

  • But if that’s true, its also true that Ziggy Hood disappointed.

Just as Walter Abercrombie had the ignominious fate to replace Franco Harris, Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith, one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Ziggy Hood wasn’t up to the task.

  • However, for a time it seemed like he might be the time Ziggy “…Became the special man”

When injuries ended Aaron Smith’s 2010 season, this site declared that Ziggy Hood’s moment had arrived, leading off the post with the quote ““When the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band” from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The idea was Smith’s injury signaled the end of an era on the Steelers defensive line, and that a torch was being passed

With 20/20 hindsight, it would seem like Ziggy Hood fumbled the moment and then it was gone. But that’s not true. Ziggy Hood just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle.

But Ziggy Hood enjoyed one great flash in his career and that flash came right when the Steelers needed it the most.

  • Hood took over from Aaron Smith at the end of October and authored a pretty ho-hum November.

But he came alive in December, sacking Joe Flacco in the Steelers AFC North Division clinching win over the Ravens. He followed that with sacks in the Steelers win over the Panthers two weeks later and in the 2010 season finale win over the Browns. And if you’re tempted to write off that as garbage time glory in meaningless games then consider what Hood did in the playoffs.

Ziggy Hood, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Super Bowl XLV

Ziggy Hood sacks Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

In the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens, Hood sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 10 with 1:15 left to play, setting up a 4th and 18 which Baltimore failed to convert. In Super Bowl XLV he sacked Aaron Rodgers on Green Bay’s final drive.

For those of you counting at home, that’s 5 Ziggy Hood sacks, several coming at critical moments during 8 must-win games for the Steelers.

Never would Ziggy Hood broach that level of production again.

The Playoffs Can Prime Players to Step Up

Long term, if Alex Highsmith succeeds in Bud Dupree his career ceiling will need to be higher than Ziggy Hood’s. But the take away from Hood’s story is that the playoffs can coax the best out certain players.

During the Steelers 2010 playoff run offensive tackle Jonathan Scott also enjoyed his career peak as had as offensive guard Darnell Stapleton during the Steelers 2008 run to Super Bowl XLIII.

Go back further, and you’ll find that that a good regular-season Merril Hoge became playoff great with 100 yard games for the 1989 Steelers in their upset Wild Card win over the Oilers and heartbreaking loss to the Broncos.

  • It doesn’t always work this way of course as we’ll detail in a future story.

But if Alex Highsmith can step it up and help T.J. Watt give the Steelers defense the 1-2 punch on the edge that they enjoyed with Bud Dupree healthy, Pittsburgh’s road to Super Bowl glory will become much more plausible.

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Consequences: Steelers 19-14 Win Over Ravens Carries Costly Repercussions

The Steelers-Raven game was supposed to be on Thanksgiving. COVID-19 pushed it to Sunday. And then to Tuesday. And then to Wednesday. By the time they actually played, the Baltimore Ravens had called up 11 players from their practice squad.

  • Everyone expected a JV-Varsity game.
  • Stephon Tuitt, himself out on the COVID-19 list, tweeted about padding stats.
  • We did see a JV-Varsity effort.

Except the Baltimore Ravens brought their Varsity game, while Mike Tomlin labeled the Steelers’ effort as “J.V.” As they’ve been many times this season, the Steelers were below the line in all three phases. And, just like in other outings this year, Pittsburgh prevailed 19-14 despite that.

But the critical question is, how much longer can continue to do that?

RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

RGIII is off to the races on 3rd down late in the 2nd half. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Quarter Foreshadows Things to Come

The Steelers and Ravens began by exchanging punts, then on the first play of Baltimore’s second possession, a failed exchange between Robert Griffen III and his running back landed on the grass with Vince Williams pouncing on it to give Pittsburgh the ball at Baltimore’s 22.

In other words, things happened exactly as they were scripted to.

Lack of practice had reduced the Ravens to struggling with fundamentals, as Pittsburgh looked poised to go up early and easily. But instead of capitalizing, the Steelers stumbled. Sure, Ben Reothlisberger and  Benny Snell had a nice 13-yard hookup that brought the ball to the Ravens 6, but the rest of the drive consisted of 1 and 2 yard runs by Snell and piecemeal catches by Eric Ebron.

  • Unable to score on 3rd down, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1.

As he’s done too many times this season, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone. The Steelers squandered an opportunity to go up by an easy 7.

But that didn’t seem to matter. The script that destiny had drafted for this game continued to impose its own inertia. On the Ravens very next possession, RGIII looked to convert a very easy 3rd down to James Proche, but Joe Haden read him all the way, picking off the ball and taking it to the house.

  • What the Steelers offense couldn’t do, the defense did for it.

It took about a minute and a half longer, but the Steelers still got their early touchdown. Except the score was only 6-0 instead of 7-0 because Chis Boswell missed the extra point, foreshadowing things to come.

Ravens Force Role Reversal, Steelers Oblige

Had the Steelers offense scored its easy touchdown AND had the defense brought home its pick six, it is easy to imagine the game evolving very differently. No, John Harbaugh’s team would NOT have quit on him. But often times when inexperienced teams get behind early in big games, they start trying too hard.

  • Balls get loose.
  • Blocks get missed.
  • Easy catches bounce off hands.
  • Simple tackles slip and big gains ensue.

And that is exactly how things evolved following Chris Boswell’s missed extra point. Except the Baltimore Ravens rejected the role of method actor, opting to go improv and the Steelers willingly obliged by flipping the script.

You can pin-point the Steelers somersault with precision. With the help of a Cam Heyward sack, Pittsburgh seemed to be slamming the door on the Ravens by forcing a quick punt.

Marlon Humphery, Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens

Marlon Humphery bats away touchdown pass from Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Unfortunately, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the return, giving Baltimore the ball at Pittsburgh’s 16. 6 plays later, the Ravens were up 7-6 and Steelers Nation was primed for what is perhaps the sloppiest 48 minutes of play in recent history. It was JV football at its most mediocre. Here are the low lights:

  • The Steelers had to settle for Red Zone field goals, twice
  • Eric Ebron, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool all either had Red Zone drops or passes batted away
  • RGIII gored the Steelers defense with a 39 yard run on 3rd an 11
  • The Steelers failed to convert a 4th and 2
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick dropped an easy interception/pick six
  • Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed tackles allowing Trace McSorley (who) to connect with Marquise Brown for an easy touchdown.

Yet, in spite of all that, the Steelers to eeked out a win. Let’s look at why.

JuJu and Snell Gamers to the End

Athletes who are good enough to reach the pros generally give it their all. But “gamers” are athletes who give it their all but manage to find a little something extra when the game is on the line. Franco Harris in the Immaculate Reception and James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII are two easy examples.

  • But true gamers find ways to deliver that something extra on bread and butter plays.

To use Mike Tomlin, in his William and Mary eloquence, the Steelers had “sucked” in the Red Zone throughout the game. By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied:

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

The Steelers other “gamer” is Benny Snell Jr., who on that self-same touchdown drive, got the ball on a 3rd and 3, had ZERO room to run, reversed field and ripped off 10 yard run. Later, with the Steelers looking to kill the clock, Snell exploded for a 13 yard run, forcing the Ravens to use a precious time out, and then ended the game by converting a 3rd and 1.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sloppy Play Carries Consequences

With 5:31 left to play, Trace McSorley fired off a deep pass to Marquise Brown. Minkah Fitzpatrick almost intercepted it.

  • Bud Dupree had blitzed the passer, slipped and immediately began pounding the turf.

Later, we not only saw him walking with the trainers to the locker room, but he did so under his own power. Surely, this couldn’t be serious, could it? Alas, it was serious as he’d torn an ACL.

If the Steelers had made half, perhaps even a third of the plays they’d left on the field, Bud Dupree would have been out of the game, resting up for Washington. Instead, he’s out for the year.

The Steelers had slipped but recovered enough to win, but as Dupree’s injury reveals, sloppy play has its consequences.

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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

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

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

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

James Harrison, Mike Tomlin, Feud, Steelers vs Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the problem.

James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers 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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Will the Steelers 2019 Season Quiet Their Entitled Fan Base?

It has been said that the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are entitled. Fair enough, and the reason that it’s fair is because it’s true.

  • But can you really blame the fans for acting like it’s their birth-right to win Super Bowls and have consistent success?

After all, regardless of what happens on Sunday, the Steelers will kick off the final game of their 2019 regular season with more than a reasonable shot at qualifying for the playoffs.

Although 2012 remains the lone season when a Mike Tomlin team was eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final gun, playing for the postseason in week 17 didn’t seem possible after Week 2 when it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had suffered a severe elbow injury that would require surgery and end his 16th season well before it even had a chance to pick up the steam necessary for the team to meet its usual high standards.

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

But if you’re reading this page, you obviously know the team, despite totally inexperienced and (it would be appear) talent-deficient quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges playing musical chairs all season while trying to lead an offense that has left a lot to be desired in the skill-position and offensive line department, has managed to win eight games (so far) and has a direct line to the playoffs with a win this Sunday coupled with a Titans’ loss.

Again, if you’re reading this page and are an entitled Steelers fan, you should know this kind of thing rarely happens in the NFL. When a quarterback the caliber of a Roethlisberger goes down, the team usually sinks faster than someone who owes the mob a lot of money.

  • But, again, if you are an entitled Steelers fan, I can’t say that I blame you for not only expecting this kind of success, but demanding more.
  • If you’re under 50, you were born into such Steelers success.

The Steelers were a franchise that couldn’t have been more of a laughing-stock from its founding in 1933 all the way up until 1971, when it still had yet to win its first postseason game.

Then, 1972 happened, the Steelers won 11 games and a division title. And just when it looked like their fairy-tale season would end on December 23, 1972, in a hotly-contested divisional round playoff game against the Raiders at old Three Rivers Stadium, the Immaculate Reception happened. Do I even have to explain that play to you? If so, Google it. It involved Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua, Jack Tatum and a ricocheted football that either hit Fuqua or it didn’t (and there has always been a question of whether or not it hit the turf of TRS before Franco gathered it in and galloped into Steelers lore).

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

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

That play, one that has been impossible to duplicate in the 47 years since it happened — which further illustrates just how improbable it actually was — launched the Steelers dynasty.

  • Can you imagine that?

A few years later, following the first two world championships in team history, the Steelers began the 1976 season looking to three-peat as Super Bowl champions. Unfortunately, along with a rocky 1-4 start to the season came a severe neck injury suffered by quarterback Terry Bradshaw after being slammed on his head by Browns defensive lineman Joe “Turkey” Jones in a Week 5 loss in Cleveland.

Terry Bradshaw would go on to miss a total of six games that season and was replaced by Mike Kruczek at quarterback. In those six games, Mike Kruczek didn’t throw a single touchdown and averaged 126 passing yards per game. But thanks to an all-time great defense, MIke Kruczek won all six of his starts. The Steelers recovered from their 1-4 start and won their next 10 games before falling to the Raiders in the AFC title game.

  • In many ways, that ’76 team is considered to be the best one in franchise history.
  • So, you see, even a Steelers season that didn’t end with a Lombardi Trophy was still a fairy-tale.

Fast-forward many decades to the 2005 season and a Steelers team that just barely qualified for the NFL playoffs as the AFC’s sixth seed. Historically, wildcard teams had rarely fared well in the postseason–especially the ones tasked with winning all of their games on the road just to reach the Super Bowl.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Not only did the Steelers become just the second team in league history to win three road games on the way to the Super Bowl, they did the 1985 Patriots one better by knocking off the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Where was that Super Bowl held? In Detroit, Michigan, hometown of legendary running back Jerome Bettis, who got to announce his retirement right after the game in a stadium–Ford Field–that was built not far from where he was born.

  • What about the head coaches–okay, the last three?

The Steelers have had exactly three head coaches in the last 50 years. That’s because after Chuck Noll retired following the 1991 season, the Steelers replaced the four-time Super Bowl-winner with Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native who would go on to achieve great success in his own right–including bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi in 26 years.

Bill Cowher resigned following the 2006 season, and the Steelers replaced the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist with Mike Tomlin, a man who, in addition to winning a Super Bowl of his own, has never had a losing record in 13 seasons as Steelers head coach.

  • And that brings us back to 2019, and a team that may actually see postseason life, despite having a practice squad offense that is lucky to score one touchdown per game.

If Pittsburgh advances to the postseason and even wins a game, would you really be surprised? Only if you’re not an entitled Steelers fan.

 

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