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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

Vindicating Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

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

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

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

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

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

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

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

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

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

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

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

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2006 Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl Hangover, The Chin Hangs It Up

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw the 2005 Steelers become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University.

Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming. Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion.

The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near Pittsburgh’s Armstrong Tunnels, Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.

Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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Steelers 2006 Season Record and Summary

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw Pittsburgh become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University. Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming.

Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion. The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near the Armstrong Tunnels in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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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.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Like Fine Wine, Steelers 2015 Draft Grade of “B” Gets Better with Age

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

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

“Better late.”

As mentioned before, stories about Vince Williams, Tyson Alualu and JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving Pittsburgh were planned but never published due to time constraints. And that worked out well as all 3 are still Steelers.

This site follows Chuck Noll’s “It takes 5 years to grade a draft” philosophy, but the 2015 grades never got published by virtue of the pandemic-fueled 24/7 digital office.

That too has worked for the better because it proves once again that this is one draft report card that’s gotten better with time.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Budy Dupree the Late Bloomer

Bud Dupree, drafted as a “project,” started his rookie year gang busters, racking up 4 sacks early in the season before hitting the rookie wall. Year two began on injured reserve, but his return helped spark the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Bud Dupree plateaued in years 3 and 4, and that’s being polite.

Then, in year five, under the tutelage of Keith Butler, Bud Dupree exploded for 11.5 sacks. But aside from his numbers popping, Bud Dupree did his damage in critical situations. But had we graded him last year, it would be impossible to know if 2019 was an aberration.

  • In 2020 Bud Dupree proved he was the real deal.

To understand how good Bud Dupree was, just look at how bad the defense got after he got hurt. Like a good bottle of Riglos Gran Corte, Bud Dupree’s draft has only gotten better with time. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: Senquezy Golson – The Ever Injured Cornerback

The Steelers desperately needed a corner going into the 2015 NFL Draft. They grabbed one in the 2nd round with Senquez Golson.

  • A torn rotator cuff scuttled his rookie season.
  • Another injury scrapped his second year.
  • His 2017 season consisted of maybe a practice and half before he suffered another injury.

All this for a guy whose college career was basically injury free. All at a time when the Steelers’ secondary screamed for help at cornerback. Grade: Incomplete

3rd Round: Sammie Coates the Strange Cat

Sammie Coates had a quiet rookie regular season but did a respectable job during the playoff loss to the Broncos. Coates started strong in 2016 and seemed to breakout with a 6-catch 136-yard two touchdown performance against the Jets.

Coates cut his hand and/or broke a finger. Or two. His story kept changing. He disappeared from the offense only getting 18 more balls thrown his way; he caught only 2. He was next seen wide open in the first drive of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

If Coates catches it, he’s still running, Forrest Gump style. Coates did not catch it. The Steelers traded him the next summer and he caught 7 passes over two years with the Browns and Texans. Grade: Bust

4th Round: Dorany Grant – Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

When Pittsburgh drafted Doran Grant as their 2nd corner in the 2015 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation cheered. When they cut him at summer’s end, Steelers Nation called it a crisis. They chilled out when he returned via the practice squad.

The Steelers cut him the following September. Over the next two years he’d do stints with the Bills, Giants, Jaguars, and Bears but played nary a down. Grade: Bust.

5th Round: Jesse James – The Outlaw

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Pat Freiermuth’s arrival probably means Jesse James’ second act with the Steelers will never happen. That’s a shame. Because he’ll always be remembered for the Jesse James game, and that’s a shame, because as Tony Defeo pointed out, he deserves to be remembered for so much more.

  • In four years, Jesse James never touched Heath Miller’s status as the best tight end in franchise history.

Nor did he put himself into the conversation with Bennie Cunningham or Mark Bruener. But he was, and remains the Steelers most consistent player at this position following Miller’s retirement. And while Jesse James never kept opposing defensive coordinators awake at night, he delivered critical catches when called upon. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

6th Round A: L.T. Walton – Overvalued, Undervalued Elsewhere, Part I

We’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on L.T. Walton. If you’re burning for a deep dive (and you certainly aren’t, but do you REALLY want to get back to work?), click here and here. If not, here’s the skinny:

  • In his first 3 years, L.T. Walton broached becoming a viable 5th lineman in John Mitchell’s system.
  • Under Karl Dunbar, not so much, as he languished behind Daniel McCullers.

Not great for a 6th round pick, but not bad either. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

6th Round B: Anthony Chickillo – Overvalued Here, Undervalued Elsewhere, II

Sure, I overreached a bit when declaring Anthony Chickillo as “starter capable” when reached restricted free agency. Fair enough.

  • But that makes up for the lack of love Chickillo got from the rest of Steelers Nation.

But in 5 years Anthony Chickillo appeared in 65 games for the Steelers and started 9 of them at both outside linebacker spots. While averaging at about 30% of the defensive snaps during his middle 3 years, Chickillo made 7.5 sacks, 3 defensed passes, 3 forced fumbles and had 3 fumble recoveries. Not bad. Grade: Quality Value Pick

7th Round: Gerod Holliman – Unsafe in Any Round

What’s an NFL Draft analyst’s best friend? How about a 404 error? In January 2015, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah released his mock draft and had the Steelers drafting Louisville Safety Gerod Holliman in the first round.

  • Jeremiah was only off by 6 rounds.

Full disclosure. Both staff writer Tony Defeo and I mused aloud whether Gerod Holliman would be the next Darren Perry. He wasn’t. But hey, those were good articles for an otherwise dead time for Steelers “content.” Holliman played well in Steelers spring practices, but that was his peak. He got cut in training camp. He did some time on Tampa Bay’s 2016 off season roster and was done. Grade: Incomplete

Overall Draft Grade for the Steelers 2015 Draft Class

In Bud Dupree the Steelers got themselves a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker, even if his development was delayed.

At the bottom of their draft class, the Steelers got excellent value out of the Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo picks. While L.T. Walton is hardly a “Sleeper,” he did help steady the ship on the back end of the 2026 season after Cam Heyward went down.

For all of those positives, the Steelers got nothing out of their middle 3 picks, aside from a few tease plays by Sammie Coates. That brings the grade for the Steelers 2015 draft down a bit, but the grade is far, far better than I would have been 3 or 4 or even 5 years after draft. Grade: B

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Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

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

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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Steelers Draft Pat Freiermuth, 2nd Round 2021, as Nittany Lion Return to Tight End Depth Chart

Well, I guess we know why the Steelers didn’t sign Jesse James, although its clear that someone on the South Side was had their ear tuned to the purr of the Nittnay Lions.

One night after playing it strictly by the book in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers departed from the script and drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second pick.

  • Well, maybe that’s a little strong. The move should not come as a surprise, as tight end is a clear area of need.

Our Steelers Draft Needs Matrix rated it a 4th level priority, and staff writer Tony Defeo marked tight end even higher at High need. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac went as far as to suggest the Steelers would draft Pat Freiermuth.

Still the expectation was that the Steelers would stick to the offensive line during round two, drafting either a center or an offensive tackle. However, two of the tackles Pittsburgh purportedly coveted were off the board before they could pick, and Kevin Colbert stuck to his pledge not to sacrifice draft picks to move up.

Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts explained the decision to pick Freiermuth: “He’s going to be a kind of throwback tight end. He can play different positions, do multiple things. His position flexibility will allow us to do a lot of different things.”

And the Steelers do need a tight end who can “do a lot of different things.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers second round draft pick 2021

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth out foxing Maryland defenders. Photo Credit Abby Drey, via Central Daily

Pat Freiermuth Video Highlights

At 6-5, 251 pound and having worn 87 for Penn State, Pat Freiermuth certainly fits the bill of a two way, throwback tight end. Here’s a look at his tape.

He certainly has good hands and definitely does not shy away from after the catch contact. Doing it in the NFL won’t be quite as easy as it was doing it in the NCAA, but he offers a lot of promise. It would be nice to see video on his blocking, but I guess that doesn’t generated page views.

How Pat Freiermuth Fits into the Steelers Scheme

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers have been wandering in the wilderness at tight end since Heath Miller. Heath Miller was a picture of dependability in the passing game, a strong blocker and a quiet force who led by example in the locker room.

Since Miller departed, Pittsburgh has thrown money at Ladarius Green, whose ankle and concussion injuries limited him to a handful of games and qualified him as one of the Steelers all-time free agent busts.

They traded for Vance McDonald, who was injured most of his first year in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald had a strong season in 2018, was inconsistent in 2019, and used sporadically in 2020. Things got so bad in 2019 that Kevin Colbert had to trade for Nick Vannett and Mike Tomlin started him that very week. (Nick Vannett played well in that first game, then disappeared.)

For a while there, it looked liked Xavier Grimble might have worked himself up from the practice squad to a competent number 2 tight end, but that was not to be either.

They signed Eric Ebron as a free agent last spring, and while Ebron did some nice things, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking skills are non-existent and he had trouble holding on to the ball. As for Zach Gentry he hasn’t done much other than get injured.

Suffice to say, Pat Freiermuth doesn’t even need to complete the run test at St. Vincents to immediately upgrade the Steelers depth chart at tight end.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Pat Freiermuth.

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Steelers in Tight Spot @ Tight End Heading into 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonald this offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters

A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.

At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups

Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader, Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftAgain, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)

With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.

After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.

No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High

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Steelers Vance McDonald Retires: Tight End Wasn’t Great, but He Beat the Odds

Steelers’ tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday after eight seasons.

Vance McDonald, who came to Pittsburgh in 2017 via trade, was a second-round pick by the 49ers in the 2013 NFL Draft. Big, fast and athletic, McDonald seemed to fit the mold of that Rob Gronkowski-type tight end that had become all the rage, the kind of matchup problem that had given the Steelers’ defense fits for years.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The emergence of George Kittle, a fifth-round pick in 2017, made Vance McDonald expendable to the 49ers, while less-than-desirable performances by their tight ends during that summer’s training camp made McDonald desirable to the Steelers. It also didn’t hurt that McDonald had just recently inked a deal with the 49ers and would be under Pittsburgh’s control for a few years.

Unfortunately for McDonald and the Steelers, he never quite realized his full potential during the entirety of his eight-year career but especially his four seasons in Pittsburgh.

Sure, he showed flashes, like on Monday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2018 campaign when he stiff-armed Buccaneers’ defensive back Chris Conte into retirement in the Steelers MNF win. Here it is again:

 

After an injury-plagued first season with the Steelers, McDonald’s stiff arm actually signaled his best year in 2018, as he caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be developing the kind of rapport that the veteran quarterback had been longing for from a tight end since his buddy, Heath Miller, retired a few years earlier.

Sadly for McDonald, Roethlisberger’s elbow injury prevented the on-field relationship with his quarterback from developing further in 2019. As for 2020? With only 15 catches for 99 yards, McDonald was barely a factor in the passing game, even with a returning Roethlisberger, who seemed to fancy a new tight end, free agent pick-up, Eric Ebron.

  • For his career, McDonald caught just 181 passes for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns.

It’s sad for the Steelers that McDonald never morphed into their version of Gronk, but kudos to him for beating the odds.

  • That’s what any NFL player who lasts in the league for nearly a decade does, ya know?

According to the NFLPA, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years. Not only did McDonald beat the odds on the field, but he also beat them in a financial sense. According to Spotrac.com, McDonald made over $28 million during his eight-year career. That’s not chump change, especially for a profession that often chews people up and spits them out before they can start making any serious money (by NFL standards, of course).

McDonald never made his mark in the NFL. He wasn’t an all-time great. He wasn’t even an all-time Steeler. But he’s now 30 years old and, assuming he makes sound financial decisions moving forward, is set for life.

It’s hard to say what motivates NFL players when they first get into the league, but it’s the kind of business that is always looking to replace them if they can’t meet a certain standard. It’s highly competitive. It’s dog-eat-dog. Most don’t last. Even fewer profit from it.

Vance McDonald did both during his eight seasons in the NFL. Good for him. Good for any player who has that kind of career.

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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

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