2002 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rise Of Tommy Gun

Coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, coupled with yet another disappointing home loss in the AFC title game — this time, to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New England PatriotsBill Cowher and the Steelers entered the 2002 campaign in the old familiar position of trying to take it one or two steps further and finally capture the Super Bowl title that had proven to be so elusive during the 1990s.

  • Cowher and company had been down that road before.

Yet during the 2002 season the path that Bill Cowher would lead the Steelers on would take twists and turns that few, if any, could have anticipated.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season

Free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh had been a huge part of the Steelers story in the 1990s. Dan Rooney and Steelers management argued taht the team simply lacked the finances without a new stadium. Fans simply called the Rooney’s “cheap.”

  • However, when Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Rooneys kept their word and invested those new revenues into the roster. 

In fact, the only notable departures of the Steelers 2002 offseason were receiver Troy Edwards, who was traded to the Rams after three rather disappointing seasons for 13th overall pick of the 1999 NFL Draft; and kicker Kris Brown, another member of the 1999 draft class, who mysteriously lost his touch after the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001.

Earl Holmes, a linebacker taken by the Steelers during the 1996 NFL Draft also departed. But it was his departure that paved the way for one of the most important free agency signings in franchise history.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Browns

James Farrior in the Steelers September 2002 overtime win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers had wanted to retain Holmes and made him a generous offer. But when Holmes decided to shop that offer, Dan Rooney was not happy and told Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to “Sign the other guy.”  That other guy was James Farrior, a former first-round pick of the Jets, who would switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and is easily one of the franchise’s best free agency signings.

Other free agent pick ups included kicker Todd Peterson, receiver Terance Mathis and quarterback Charlie Batch, a Pittsburgh native, were some of the most notable signings.

The 2002 NFL Draft was a rather successful one for the Steelers, even if it wouldn’t prove to be totally fruitful for a few more years. Some members did make immediate impacts, however. First-round pick, Kendall Simmons, a guard from LSU, started 14 games, while second-round pick, Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who played quarterback at Indiana, was a major contributor right away on offense, with 47 receptions.

Randle El even completed seven of eight passes when called upon to play quarterback in specialty packages. Randle El was also a dynamic return specialist, averaging nearly seven yards per punt return and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Bengals on October 13.

To reiterate, the 2002 Steelers were mostly the same team from the previous season and one looking to get over the hump. In order to do so, they would need quarterback Kordell Stewart, an embattled player who had a bit of a career resurgence in 2001, to up his game a little more after struggling mightily in the title game loss to New England.

Fortunately for Stewart, he would have help in the form of a receiving corps that included Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, along with a ground attack led by veteran running back, Jerome Bettis, and fourth-year man, Amos Zereoue. As for the defense, it was expected to be its usual dominant self, following an ’01 campaign where it finished first in total yards and registered 55 sacks.

Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts

Unfortunately, things couldn’t have started off worse for the Steelers, Stewart and even the defense.

Pittsburgh opened its ’02 campaign with a blowout road loss to the defending champions, a Patriots team that christened its new home, Gillette Stadium, with a 30-14 victory. Stewart struggled, sure, but so did a defense that had no answers for Tom Brady and New England’s passing attack.

In the second-to-last game of the 2001 season, an overtime road loss to the Bengals, former Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau and former Steelers wide recievers coach Bob Bartowski successfully exploited their old team’s zone-blitz defense — one that he helped to develop–by spreading it out and utilizing quick passes.

The Patriots used this blueprint to frustrate Pittsburgh’s defense all night long. The following week, in the team’s home-opener vs. the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, quarterback Rich Gannon took it a step further by completing 43 of 64 passes for 403 yards in a 27-17 victory. While Stewart wasn’t totally horrible in this game, he did turn the ball over twice — including an interception and a fumble.

  • All-in-all, Pittsburgh committed five turnovers on the night, as the team dropped to 0-2.

With the Steelers already heading into their bye, they now had two weeks to stew in their nightmarish start.

The Tommy Gun Era Begins

How would Stewart and the team respond when the Browns came to Heinz Field in Week 4? Much the same — at least for Stewart. While the defense managed to have its best game to date, Stewart struggled to get much of anything going, and the team trailed, 13-6, late in the fourth quarter.

It was at this point that Cowher decided to insert Tommy Maddox, a veteran signed to be the backup the year before, into the starting lineup. Maddox immediately ignited the offense and produced the game-tying touchdown on a 10-yard strike to Burress with 2:05 remaining. The game ultimately went into overtime, where Peterson gave the Steelers their first win with a 31-yard field goal. In under a quarter of action, Maddox completed 11 of 13 passes for 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Cowher decided to go with Maddox, the former first-round pick by the Broncos who was getting another chance in the NFL after re-starting his football career in the XFL and Arena Football League, as his starter the following week and never looked back. Unfortunately, the defense struggled again in a 32-29 loss to the Saints, and Pittsburgh sat at 1-3 after four games.

Thankfully, the newly-christened AFC North Division was a rather mediocre one, and the Steelers still had a chance to get back into the race, which they did thanks to a four-game winning streak — including three victories over divisional rivals.

Terry Bradshaw Heinz Field

Terry Bradshaw embraced at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

After feuding with his old coach, Chuck Noll, as well as the fans of Pittsburgh for nearly two decades following his retirement, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was honored at halftime of a 28-10 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football. The folks in attendance at Heinz Field gave Bradshaw a standing ovation and let him know that they loved and appreciated him more than he ever realized.

It was a fitting night to honor Bradshaw, because Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” helped to change the offense’s identity and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since perhaps the Blond Bomber’s heyday of the late-’70s.

One week after a surreal 34-34 home tie against the Falcons in a game in which Pittsburgh led, 34-17, in the fourth quarter, Maddox was seriously injured in a 31-23 loss to the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum. Maddox was temporarily paralyzed following a hit and had to be taken to a nearby hospital.

Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Titans

Tommy Maddox suffers a spinal contusion in 2002. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Thankfully for Maddox, the injury turned out to be a spinal contusion; he would be okay and would ultimately miss just two games.

  • In the meantime, the Steelers stood at 5-4-1, and their season was clearly at a crossroads.

The Steelers would have to turn back to Kordell Stewart, the quarterback the fans had completely divorced themselves from emotionally, to get their season back on track. Muddying the waters, even more, were the struggles of Peterson, who had only connected on 12 of 21 field goals through 10 games and was cut after missing two attempts against the Titans. The Steelers had to hold kicking tryouts right in the middle of a season that looked to be spiraling out of control.

  • Jeff Reed, an unknown who played his college ball at North Carolina, won the job and was the Steelers new kicker.

Kordell Stewart quietly guided the Steelers to two late-season victories over the Bengals and Jaguars, respectively (Reed, in just his second game, kicked a 50-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that provided the winning points in the win over Jacksonville), and had them sitting at 7-4-1 for Maddox’s return to the lineup in a home date vs. the expansion Houston Texans on December 8. In a surreal turn of events the Steelers outgained Houston on the day, 422-47, but lost, 24-6, thanks to three turnovers by Maddox — including a fumble and two interceptions–that were returned for scores.

The Steelers rebounded from what could have been a devastating December home loss and won their last three regular-season games to capture the first  AFC North title with a 10-5-1 record.

Maddox passed for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions after being inserted into the lineup, numbers that helped earn him the nickname, Tommy Gun.

Plaxico Burress, Steelers vs Browns

Plaxico Burress scores the game trying touchdown in the Steelers OT win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Hines Ward became the first receiver in franchise history to catch 100 passes when he reeled in 112 for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Plaxcio Burress added 1,325 receiving yards on 78 catches, as Pittsburgh finished eighth in the league in passing.

Despite taking a backseat to the passing attack, Pittsburgh’s ground game still managed to produce, finishing ninth in the league with 2,120 yards. Amos Zereoue actually paced the rushing attack with 762 yards, while Jerome Bettis added 666.

  • The defense rebounded from that horrific start, finishing seventh in total yards and recording another 50 sacks.

The defense did struggle on third down all season long, however –something that would haunt it in the playoffs–and finished 27th in that category.

The Steelers didn’t capture the first or even the second seed. Instead, they would begin their postseason journey on Wildcard Weekend as the third seed in a matchup against Cleveland at Heinz Field.

Wild Card: Steelers Browns Fight in Barn Burner at Heinz Field

Things looked bleak for most of the game, as the sixth-seeded Browns opened up a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter and led, 33-21, late into the final period. With Heinz Field mostly empty, however, Maddox led an historic comeback.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Not long after finding Hines Ward for a five-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining, Maddox and the offense were back on the field, as Cleveland failed to pick up a first down that would have iced the game. With just 54 seconds left in the game, reserve running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, scored from three yards out to give Pittsburgh a 34-33 lead. Randle El then hit tight end Jerame Tuman for the two-point conversion to make it 36-33. The Browns desperately tried to drive down the field to get in position for a game-tying field goal but ultimately ran out of time.

Divisoinal Playoffs: “…And the Oscar Goes to Joe Needley

Six days later, it was onto Tennessee to take on a Titans squad that had given Pittsburgh fits over the years.

This was mainly due to quarterback Steve McNair, a man who was a bit of a precursor to Brady, in that he had a knack for making Pittsburgh’s defense look foolish.

Sure enough, the defense struggled, so did Maddox, as Tennessee jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. The Steelers fought back, however, and scored 20 unanswered points and finally took the lead early in the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Amos Zereoue.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with Pittsburgh taking a 31-28 lead on a 40-yard field goal by Reed midway through the final period.

After the Titans soon tied the score on a field goal by Joe Nedney, it looked like the Steelers were in prime position to complete another comeback when an unnecessary roughness penalty set them up at the Tennessee 40 yard line with less than two minutes left in regulation. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t advance another inch and ultimately needed a Nedney missed field goal from 48 yards out to send the game into overtime.

Dwyane Washington, Joe Nedney, Steelers vs Titans

Dwayne Washington in the act of “roughing the kicker.” Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.

After driving deep into Pittsburgh territory, the Titans sent Nedney out to end things from 31 yards away. He missed. Only problem was, cornerback Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker. The call was questionable, but Nedney got another chance from five yards closer. He didn’t miss this one, and the Steelers fell, 34-31.

  • It was an emotional end to one of the most up-and-down seasons of Bill Cowher’s coaching career.

Despite its soul-crushing conclusion, however, the Steelers ’02 campaign will always be remembered as the year a journeyman quarterback came out of nowhere to save a season that may have otherwise ended long before the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

You know that whole “He won with Cowher’s players” thing people like to use to diss Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when discussing his team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory following the 2008 season?

  • I doubt many of those Steelers fans thought they’d ever show that kind of reverence for Bill Cowher in early 2001.

Not after three tumultuous seasons that saw his squad miss the playoffs every year between 1998-2000. Bill Cowher was right smack-dab in the middle of a reality-check after a six-year start to his career as the Steelers coach. That six year stretch saw his very talented and playoff-bound squads came oh so close to getting over the Super Bowl hump, only to come up short at the end each time.

Even if the franchise’s 5th Lombardi remained elusive, the playoffs had almost almost automatic for Pittsburgh. Then suddenly they weren’t. As the Steelers said goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium and opened Heinz Field, what “New normal” would 2001 bring?

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

The late-’90s were an ugly time in Steelers’ history.

Thanks to one-too-many free-agent defections, Pittsburgh went from a perennial contender to a level just above doormat status. The Steelers dropped 18 of 24 games during a span that lasted from late-’98 through early-2000.

The “My buddy’s the cop” rumors about his personal life were disturbing and cruel. Nor was Bill Cowher was immune, as rumors of  an extra-marital affair circulated in 1999. Add that as a backdrop to the power struggle between Cowher and Tom Donahoe and by the end of the 1999 season the Steelers were an organization in disarray. 

  • Dan Rooney backed Bill Cowher, but that didn’t mean the fans and media agreed.

In fact, many questioned how the organization could give Cowher a contract extension following the Steelers 2000 season one that saw the Steelers miss the postseason for a third-straight year.

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

Even though the organization was struggling during those years, the roster was slowly being rebuilt and replenished. During these lean times, future core players like Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith were being drafted and developed.

History was made on February 11, 2001, when Three Rivers Stadium, the host of both professional football and baseball since 1970, was imploded to make way for Heinz Field and PNC Park, two state-of-the-art facilities that would be the new digs for the Steelers and Pirates, respectively.

Chuck Noll was never shy about the role that having Three Rivers Stadium played in turning the franchise’s fortunes around, could Heinz Field have the same effort for is successor?

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh native hired replace Tom Donahoe, inked a deal with veteran guard, Jeff Hartings, who came to Pittsburgh after five seasons with the Lions. Hartings may have been a guard by trade, but he was brought to Pittsburgh to take the place of Dermontti Dawson, the legendary center, who retired after an injury-riddled 2000 campaign.

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

Jeff Hartings and Kordell Stewart at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers went into the 2001 NFL Draft needing a Joel Steed-type to be the nose tackle of their 3-4 defense. They found just that and more in Casey Hampton, the man his teammates would affectionately nickname “Big Snack.” Hampton would make an immediate impact, same with Pittsburgh’s second-round pick, Kendrell Bell, an inside linebacker, who would go on to be named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Veteran running back, Jerome Bettis signed a second contract extension stay in Pittsburgh his sixth season.

The Steelers also locked up Hines Ward with a contract extension, after Ward had finally established himself as a starting receiver alongside Plaxico Burress, the team’s number one pick a year earlier.

Make no mistake, though, the Steelers’ chances of being contenders again in 2001 hinged on the talents of Kordell Stewart, the beleaguered and embattled quarterback, a man that had been through the wringer the previous few seasons; he was yanked in and out of the starting lineup, saddled with two offensive coordinators who didn’t know what to do with him, and even banished to the receivers room at one point.

Thankfully, something clicked for Stewart when he won back the starting job midway through the 2000 season and nearly guided Pittsburgh to the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Mike Mularkey, the team’s tight ends coach the previous five years, was promoted to offensive coordinator in ’01 and would ultimately prove to be Stewart’s greatest offensive ally since the days of Chan Gailey.

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the start of their 2001 campaign would be ugly in more ways than one.

Just days after a listless 21-3 Week-1 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, tragedy struck the nation on September 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans lost their lives in a series of terrorist attacks that took place in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., a small town just 80 miles from Pittsburgh, where a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the ground, killing everyone on board.

Obviously, football — any kind of pastime, really — was the last thing on anyone’s mind, as the country tried to find its bearings, process what happened and heal.

  • With that in mind, the NFL postponed its ’01 campaign for three weeks.
Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Bengals

The Steelers defeated the Bengals in their first game at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

The Steelers’ season finally resumed on September 30, with a 20-3 victory over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers made their regular-season debut at Heinz Field the following week and ushered in their new home with a 16-7 victory over Cincinnati.

  • Pittsburgh would continue to roll from there, winning 11 of its next 12 games.

The only loss during that stretch was a home defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens, a game in which struggling kicker, Kris Brown, missed four field goals — including one at the end of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime.

The Steelers got their revenge many weeks later with a 26-21 road victory over the Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Not only did Pittsburgh exact revenge over its division rival, it clinched its 15th and final AFC Central crown (the division was rechristined the AFC North the following season after realignment).

Despite an upset road loss to the Bengals two weeks later, the Steelers clinched the number one seed and would go on to finish with a 13-3 record — their best regular season record since 1978.

2001 Banner Year for Stewart, Bettis, Ward and Steelers Defense

Kordell Stewart finished the regular season with 3,109 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also contributed with his legs to the tune of 537 rushing yards and five touchdowns. For his efforts, Stewart was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was voted team MVP.

2001 was the year Hines Ward became a star and the leader of the wide-outs, as he caught 94 passes for 1,003 yards and four touchdowns. Plaxico Burress added 66 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, elevating this receiving duo to one of the most potent in the NFL.

It was another productive year for Jerome Bettis, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth-straight year (1,072), even though he missed the final five games with a groin injury.

  • With The Bus leading the way, the Steelers  ground attack finished first in the NFL with 2,774 yards.

As for the defense, it was lights out. It was dominant. It was Super Bowl-ready. The unit finished first in yards allowed and was the most stout against the run. With 12 sacks, outside linebacker Jason Gildon led a pass-rush that would tally a whopping 55 sacks on the season.

The Steelers headed into the postseason with the look of a team that was ready to get over the hump and capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi trophy. Could Stewart, Bettis, Ward and a retooled defense accomplish what O’Donnell, Foster, Thigpen and Blitzburgh had tried and failed to do a half decade earlier? It was time to find out.

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

First up for Pittsburgh was an AFC Central rematch, as the Ravens came to town for a divisional round  in Heinz Field’s first ever playoff game. There was a bit of fear that Baltimore, a team that proved to be a fierce road warrior a year earlier on the way to a Super Bowl title, would march into town with its swaggar turned up at full blast after a resounding road victory over the Dolphins on Wildcard Weekend.

Hines Ward, Rod Woodson, Jerame Tuman, Steelers vs Ravens, First playoff game Heinz Field

Jerame Tuman gives Rod Woodson a warm “welcome” back to Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers got some disturbing news right out of gate when it was reported that Bettis would have to miss the game due to complications from a pain-killling injection to help him manage his nagging groin issue.

Thankfully, Amos Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in the 1999 NFL Draft, was up to the task, rushing for 63 yards on 24 carries.

  • Zereoue scored two one-yard touchdowns to help Pittsburgh jump out to a 17-0 first-half lead.

Jermaine Lewis gave the home folks a reason for concern when he returned a Josh Miller punt 88 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to make the score 20-10. Fortunately, Kordell Stewart and Plaxico Burress quickly put those fears to rest when they connected on a 32-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to basically put the game out of reach.

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

It was on to the AFC title game for the first time in four seasons and a home matchup against an upstart Patriots team led by some coach named Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by some guy named Tom Brady, who was starting in place of the veteran Drew Bledsoe after he suffered an early-season injury and never got back in the lineup.

The Steelers were favored by 10 points, and nobody outside of New England gave the visitors much of a chance. That may seem funny now, but Bill Cowher owned Bill Belichick when the latter was coach of the Browns in the early 1990’s.

  • But there’s a reason why we play game.
Troy Brown, Steelers vs Patriots, 2001 AFC Championship Game

Troy Brown smokes the Steelers for a 55 yard 1st quarter touchdown punt return. Photo Credit: SBnation.com

Special teams had been a thorn in the Steelers’ side dating back to the 2000 season, and that thorn would feel quite painful late in the first quarter when Troy Brown returned a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for a score. Making matters worse was the fact that Miller was re-kicking thanks to an illegal procedure penalty on receiver Troy Edwards that nullified the previous one.

Tom Brady got injured late in the second quarter, but the Patriots didn’t miss a beat as Bledsoe entered the game helped to further stun the home crowd with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to put Pittsburgh in a 14-3 hole at the half.

Things got even worse early in the third quarter when Kris Brown’s 34-yard field goal was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and returned for a touchdown by Troy Brown to make it 21-3.

Pittsburgh mounted a furious comeback and cut the lead to four thanks to touchdowns by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Steelers would get no closer, as Stewart threw interceptions on successive drives with the team trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter.

  • It was the third home loss in the AFC title game for Bill Cowher, and the second where his team was a huge favorite.

While the loss was deeply deeply disappointing end to a promising 2001 campaign, it was clear that Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert had rebuilt a roster that would be able to compete for a Super Bowl title for many for years to come.

After a three-year stretch of chaos and uncertainty, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers were contenders again.

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Introduction: Bill Cowher’s Steelers Coaching Career, A Season-by-Season Retrospective

Our goal this year is to put a fifth trophy in the case outside in the hall.

Bill Cowher launched his tenure as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach with those words at Three Rivers Stadium on January 21st, 1992.

  • Things were different in 1992.

Around the world, the Commonwealth of Independent States had just “replaced” the Soviet Union. The World Trade Center formed an indelible mark on the Manhattan skyline, or so we thought. Bell Atlantic sold bricks with antennas and ran ads encouraging customers to use their “car phones” outside the car.

In the NFL, five days stood between Joe Gibbs and his third Super Bowl, which seemingly cemented Washington’s status as a dominate franchise. A year into his “retirement,” Bill Parcells worked as an NBC commentator. The “Run ‘N Shoot” offense supposedly signaled the future of football.

In Pittsburgh, The Press and Post-Gazette circulated. The Carrick Village Dairy operated as the neighborhood greasy spoon, and at least one patron was getting his 3 squares a day there. Everyday. Further down Brownsville Road, Ravita’s butcher shop still booked numbers and sold fresh meats on the side.

And down at 300 Stadium Circle, someone other than Chuck Noll held the title of “Pittsburgh Steelers head coach” for the first time since 1969.

Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers

January 21st, 1992, Bill Cowher introduced as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach

Bill Cowher dropped a gauntlet with his opening declaration. Pittsburgh had only made the playoffs once in 7 years and hadn’t held “contender” status since the Houston Oilers ended the Super Steelers run on dreary early December evening in 1980.

  • All new head coaches espouse optimism, but Bill Cowher conveyed his with a difference: The Chin meant it.

Few bought Bill Cowher’s bravado. The “wealth of talent” Cowher saw on his roster prompted eye rolls instead of “nods.” Yet Cowher forced critics to eat a slice of humble pie by taking the league by storm, starting 3-0.

In many ways, Bill Cowher defied definition. Regarded as a “players coach” whose players adored him, Cowher reputedly had abrasive relations with everyone else in the Steelers organization not named Rooney. In a league where players are said to “tune out” head coaches quickly, Bill Cowher recycled the same speeches so frequently that his veterans could often finish them.

  • Yet, Cowher’s ability to motivate served as perhaps his greatest asset.

Howie Long once labeled Cowher as the ultimate coach for his “Tough Guy team.” Bill Cowher preached and practiced tough, physical football on defense, and bruising in-between- the- tackles rushing on offense. “Conservative” best described his coaching style. But which decisions defined the trajectory of Cowher’s coaching career? How about these:

  • Calling a fake punt in his first game as coach when on the road and down by 14.
  • Deploying a 5 wide receiver formation that included Kordell Stewart as a “Slash” quarterback/wide receiver
  • Going for an on-sides kick in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXX when down 10-20
  • Icing victory in Super Bowl XL by calling a fake reverse option pass

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

None of the above serve as examples of “Going by the book.”

When Bill Cowher stepped down as Steelers head coach on January 5th, 2006 the world had changed.

No one remembered that the Commonwealth of Independent States had ever existed, but Vladimir Putin was working to restore Russia’s military might. September 11th had obliterated Twin Towers from the New York skyline while burning their silhouette into our collective memory. Everyone owned a cellphone and Verizon now ran commercials reminding customers NOT to text and drive.

In the NFL, Joe Gibbs had returned as Redskins coach after watching 5 other men cycle through Washington’s coaching carousel. Bill Parcells coached the Dallas Cowboys, but would soon “retire” for good or until Miami offered him control of its front office in two year’s time, whichever came first. No one remembered the Run ‘N Shoot offense.

In Pittsburgh, Richard Mellon Scaife subsidized the Tribune-Review’s money-losing effort to topple the Post-Gazette which had long ago absorbed the Pittsburgh Press. The Carrick Village Dairy had closed. Its 3 squares-a-day patron had long since taken up permanent residence down the road at St. Joseph and St. George’s cemetery. Further yet down Brownsville road, Ravita’s had closed, but the neighborhood moved on.

Downtown, Three Rivers Stadium had imploded with Heinz Field and PNC Park taking its place. That forced the Steelers to relocate to 3400 South Water Street, South Side, on ground where J&L’s massive steel works had once stood. Something else had changed too.

  • The Steelers had added 5th trophy to their case.

It took Bill Cowher 15 years and 261 games to do it, but in Super Bowl XL he finally succeeded in handing One for the Thumb to Dan Rooney.

In the coming days, with the help of staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising will tell the story of Bill Cowher and his Steelers, season-by-season. As we publish new stories, we’ll add links below.

Steelers 1992 Season: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation
Steelers 1993 Season: Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time
Steelers 1994 Season: Over Confidence is Cowher’s Achilles Heel
Steelers 1995 Season: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”
Steelers 1996 Season: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!
Steelers 1997 Season: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell
Steelers 1998 Season: The Black and Gold Crashes Down to Earth
Steelers 1999 Season: Cowher-Donahoe Feud Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head
Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era
Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again, as Playoff Drought Ends
Steelers 2002 Season: The Rise of Tommy Gun
Steelers 2003 Season: The Final Chapter of a Strange Era
Steelers 2004 Season: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins
Steelers 2005 Season: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy
Steelers 2006 Season: Super Bowl Hangover and the Chin Hangs it Up

 

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Friday Night Lights Offers Antidote to NFL’s COVID 19 Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Memorial Day’s passing brings us closer to the NFL season’s start. But in this COVID-19 context, there are more questions than there are answers about the coming NFL year. Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL is fortunate in that it has had time to prepare a Coronavirus virus contingency plan.

  • But the NFL still has no answer to question of whether it will field games in front of fans or play in empty stadiums.

The prospect of staging major league games in empty stadiums is eerie. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist John Steigerwald has gone as far as to argue that if fans can’t attend games “…the NFL should forget it. Write off the 2020 season.”

“Big games need big crowds,” Steigerwald insists, hypothetically wondering what it would have been like for Bill Mazeroski to round the bases at Forbes Field with no fans in the stands.

  • Steigerwald has a point. Or does he?

At BTSC, Tony Defeo suggests that if the WWE can host matches without fans, then the NFL can play games in empty stadiums. As Defeo deftly points out, “Unlike Razor Ramon, T.J. Watt doesn’t need to draw the ire of the fans in attendance in order to be the bad guy—he just has to sack the quarterback.”

  • Technically speaking, Defeo is right.

But imagine the Steelers are mounting a comeback in their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens. Would a T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree strip sack of Lamarr Jackson have the same game-changing impact absent the roar of the fans?

Imagine in the same game, James Washington sets up a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster go ahead touchdown pass with a devastating block followed by an end zone Terrible Towel Twirl al la Yancey Thigpen vs. the Browns in the ’94 playoffs would bring Heinz Field to a fever pitch.

  • The same end zone celebration in front of an empty stadium on a cold November evening at 10:30 pm would just seem kinda strange.

Defeo and Steigerwald advance completely opposite arguments, yet both men are on to something. Fortunately there’s a way to reconcile both of their points.

Friday Night Lights Holds Antidote to NFL’s Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Although it was filmed long before the word “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, fictional coach Eric Taylor provided the antidote to playing games in front of empty stadiums during Season 4 of Friday Night Lights.

Late in the season, rich kids from the rival Dillon Panthers use their 4x4s on to destroy the field of the less-well-to-do rival East Dillon Lions just before their season-ending matchup. The Dillon Panthers need this win to reach the playoffs, and their plan is to force the game on to their home truf.

  • But coach Taylor out-foxes the Panthers by staging the game in an empty field in a local park.

If by September it is unsafe to play games in front of full stadiums, the NFL should follow coach Taylor’s example and stage games at local high schools. Seriously.

Bethel Park Stadium, Bethel Park High Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park Stadium

Moving games from pro stadiums to local high school fields would solve a lot of problems. Instead of reinforcing sense of isolation that COVID-19 has wrought, it would bring games back to their roots. If the NFL shifted to smaller venues, the focus would remain on the players and the action itself. Empty seats would fade out of view.

  • For a season at least, football would again become back yard boy’s game, only one played by elite men who are the best at it.

Doing so could also serve to re-connect teams to their communities. General-admission tickets could sell for $25 a head. Local health officials could use the Abbott Labs and/or Bosch machines to test fans before the games, ensuring everyone’s safety. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and other “first responders” could be given free tickets.

  • Assuming enough adequate venues can be found, teams could even rotate home games to different stadiums, further integrating communities.

The Steelers could play one week at Central Catholic, another at Baldwin High, another at Bethel Park, and yet another at Upper St. Clair. I grew up in the DC suburbs rooting against the home team, but to be honest, the idea of the Washington Redskins playing under the lights at Wheaton High School is pretty cool.

  • The chances of this actually happening are pretty slim.

There is simply too much money be lost. Forbes estimates that the Steelers would lose a minimum of $156 million if they have to play in front of an empty Heinz Field. The Dallas Cowboys could lose up to four times that amount. Knowing that, the NFL will do whatever it can to get fans into the stadiums.

But if that proves to be impossible, then Roger Goodell would do well to take a page for Eric Taylor’s book.

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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A Tale of Two Field Goals: Steelers Win over Packers Turned on Green Bay’s Failed Field Goal

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a 31-28 victory over the Packers at Heinz Field, Sunday night, thanks to a 53-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell on the game’s final play.

  • It was certainly one of the greatest finishes in the history of the Steelers franchise.
  • And hats off to Boswell, who tied the the mark for the longest field goal in Heinz Field history.

Steelers vs Packers, Chris Boswell

Steelers hoist Chris Boswell after kicking the game winner against the Packers at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Daily Caller

Of course, if Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s third quarter gamble had paid off, his kicker, Mason Crosby, would hold the Heinz Field record at 57 yards.

Midway through the third quarter, mere moments after the two-touchdown underdog Packers had taken a 21-14 lead on a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Hundley to receiver Davante Adams, Green Bay linebacker Blake Martinez corralled a tipped screen pass that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was tyring to get to Le’Veon Bell that set the visitors up just 45 yards away from another score and a commanding lead.

  • But after driving to Pittsburgh’s 31-yard line, the Packers were pushed back to the 39, thanks to sacks by defensive ends L.T. Walton and Cameron Heyward.

Facing fourth and 18, surely McCarthy, one of the better head coaches in the NFL, would send out his punting unit and force the Steelers offense to start from deep within its own territory.

  • Surprisingly, however, McCarthy, a Pittsburgh-native, sent out Crosby to attempt a 57-yard field goal.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Crosby’s kick wasn’t even close, and Pittsburgh took over from its own 47.

Six plays later, the Steelers tied the game at 21, thanks to a one-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown

It’s impossible to say if Pittsburgh would have still scored a touchdown had it been forced to start the drive from even its own 20, but it’s likely Todd Haley’s play-calling approach would have been different.

  • It just goes to show you that all NFL coaches–even highly-respected one–are susceptible to lapses in judgment.

It’s likely McCarthy, given Green Bay’s health issues (Aaron Rodgers missed his fifth-straight game with a broken collarbone) and precarious playoff positioning in the NFC, was frustrated with his offense’s inability to capitalize on Roethlisberger’s second interception of the night, and he wanted to give his team a boost (along with a two-score lead).

  • Instead, McCarthy gave the home team a boost and allowed the Steelers to quickly get back into the game.

When it comes to kicking 50-plus-yard field goals at Heinz Field, perhaps the toughest place to kick in the history of modern football, there’s a time and a place for everything.

With just four seconds remaining in regulation, it was a no-brainer for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin to send Boswell out to attempt a 53-yard field goal.

  • Worst-case scenario: The kick is blocked and returned for a game-ending touchdown.
  • Likely scenario: Boswell’s kick falls short, and the game goes into overtime.
  • Best-case scenario is what actually transpired, as Boswell’s kick sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.

A head coach can often be his own worst enemy.

If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had to do it all over again, he probably would have played it safe and not allowed Chris Boswell to fire the last salvo of the night.

 

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For Better or Worse, Steelers 31-28 Win over Packers Provides Season’s Defining Moment

The Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers gave us something we’ve been longing for: A defining moment.

  • Mike Tomlin calling out the New England Patriots before the ball was even snapped gave the press their defining moment.
  • The NFL commentating class won’t forget – or forgive – Mike Tomlin’s declaration.

But the other, more critical moment came during the game itself, as the contest between the NFL’s two storied franchises laid bare both the fundamental strengths and fundamental weaknesses that will define the success or failure of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers quest to add Lombardi Number 7.

Steelers vs Packers, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown touchdown packers, Morgan Burnett, Davon House

Antonio Brown burns Morgan Burnett & Davon House for his 3rd touchdown in Steelers win over Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Killer Bees Finally Sting in Unison

For the first 9 weeks of the season, the story on the Pittsburgh Steelers was the under performance of the offense. During 2015 and 2016 injuries and suspensions combined to keep all four Killer Bees Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant from playing together.

Yet, when the Steelers four Killer Bees finally took the field, the result was a plodding, pedestrian effort instead of the Heinz Field re incarnation of The Greatest Show on Turf.

But during the win over the Tennessee Titians Pittsburgh’s offense exploded for forty points and four touchdowns. But excelling for a single week means nothing in the NFL, hence the term “On Any Given Sunday.”

  • Had the Steelers offense come alive, or was the Titans win merely a one-game wonder?

Against the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh’s offense proved it could match another team blow for blow in a contest where the Steelers gave up 3 turnovers, secured zero and had to tie or retake the lead 4 times.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers offense left a lot of plays on the field against the Packers.

While Martavis Bryant scored a touchdown and made important catches, he dropped critical passes. We can say the same of Jesse James and Eli Rogers who came up with critical catches but also suffered drops. All Justin Hunter seems to do is drop passes. But if the supporting cast wasn’t always great, they did clear the stage for stars of the Steelers offense.

  • And the Steelers Killer Bees stung the Packers early and often.

Antonio Brown stung the Packers on long and short routes, with yards after the catch, in the end zone, over the middle and, perhaps most importantly, on the sidelines. Le’Veon Bell had some tough sledding at times, but he remained patient and nearly gouged the Green Bay for 100 yards rushing, while steadily burning them through the air.

And at the center of it, you had Ben Roethlisberger, who in spite of two interceptions, is playing his best football of the season.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Hand in Steelers Defense

While the Steelers offense struggled to find its legs early in the season, the defense filled the void. We saw that dominating defense starting with the Packers second possession of the 3rd quarter.

Things were looking bleak for the Steelers after the Brett Hundley and Davante Adams torched them for a 55 yard touchdown followed by a Ben Roethlisberger interception 7 plays later, followed by a quick Packers first down.

  • But ten L.T. Walton sacked Brett Hundley on first down
  • T.J. Watt defended one of those short passes Hundley had been delivering so lethally all night
  • Cameron Heyward sacked Hundley on 3rd down
  • Then Max McCartney got greedy and tried a 57 yard field goal, which is beyond risky at Heinz Field

When the Packers got the ball back, Mike Hilton and Cam Heyward stoned Jamaal Williams for a two yard loss, followed by an incompletion, followed by Cameron Heyward’s second consecutive sack on third down.

Steelers vs Packers, T.J. Watt, Brett Hundley, Vince Williams

T.J. Watt celebrates his 4th quarter sack of Brett Hundley as Vince Williams looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger PennLive.com

Le’Veon Bell coughed up the ball on the Steelers next drive, but the defense forced a stop in a series highlighted by Ryan Shazier’s pass deflection.

  • If only Steelers defense could have played that well for the rest of the night.

Alas, they didn’t. In the last three games the Steelers defense has given up touchdown passes of 61 yards, 60 yards, 75 yards, 39 yards, 54 yards and 55 yards.

And it is that statistic that gives us the second, and decisive defining moment that surfaced against the Packers.

Steelers Defense, Not Tomlin’s Words Cast Die for Rest of 2017

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it best when he declared, “Mike Tomlin wrote a really big check, so he best cash it.” By declaring that the Steelers should win it all and THEN calling out the Patriots Tomlin looked past the Packers, Bengals and Ravens. That’s a coaching cardinal sin even if another Super Bowl was already the internal measure of success for the 2017 Steelers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Packers

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

But the Steelers head coach has now set the narrative for the rest of the season as the story will now pit Pittsburgh either rising or falling because of Mike Tomlin’s words.

  • And you know what? Those stories will generate a lot of page views and social media clicks, but all will boil down to a bunch of BS.

If you want to know what will really define success or failure of the Steelers for the rest of the season, it comes down to either the defense’s ability to stop averaging one 57 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play or the Killer Bee’s ability to outscore a trio of offenses that are far better than anything Pittsburgh have seen of late.

  • All of the sound and fury generated by Tomlin’s words is nothing more than a distraction.

The success of the 2017 Steelers will come down the their ability to stop the bomb. It really is that simple.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Victory over Packers

Another Steelers game, another nail biter, another win as Pittsburgh triumpthed at the last second over the Green Bay Packers by the score of 31-28 thanks to Chris Boswell’s last second 53 yard field goal.

Antonio Brown, Antoino Brown 2 point conversion, Steelers vs Packers

Antonio Brown gets the 2 point conversion in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

With another victory in the bag its now time to vote Steelers game ball winners. Here’s the ballot:

[yop_poll id=”61″]

Antonio Brown gets top billing, thanks to his 2 touchdown, 10 catch 169 yard game that include several critical catches. Following him is Le’Veon Bell, who had 95 yards rushing, 88 yards through the air and kept numerous drives alive.

  • Ben Roethlisberger also gets a ballot slot thanks to his 4 touchdown 351 yard performance, although Big Ben did toss two picks.

Rounding out the ballot for the offense are Martavis Bryant, who had a touchdown and 3 other catches. We’ll also give a nod to Xavier Grimble who caught a touchdown pass, and of course Chris Boswell gets a slot for his 53 yard game winning field goal which tied the Heinz Field record.

On defense, Cameron Heyward gets the first slot, thanks to his monster game which include 2 sacks on third down, 2 tackles for a loss an 3 quarterback hits. Ryan Shazier who led the team in tackles and had a critical pass defense also gets a nod.

T.J. Watt and L.T. Walton, who both had sacks, while Watt added another key pass defense, get a nod. Stephon Tuitt also gets a ballot slot after another strong night.

Write In Your Choice

Remember, you’re not limited to these choices. If you feel that someone like Jesse James, Vince Williams or perhaps Eli Rogers deserves a game ball, write his name in. Better yet write his name in and leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting. The game ended at 1:30 here in Buenos Aires, and the work day looms tomorrow, so click here for our full analysis of the Steelers win over the Packers.

Go Steelers!

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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The Steelers 2016 AFC North Title is More than Just a Stocking Suffer

Steelers fans like to brag about not cherishing playoff spots, division titles or even conference championships.

I guess the standard really is the standard, and after watching the Black and Bold capture six Super Bowls, well, not to sound too cliched (it’s like nails on the chalkboard, sometimes), fans expect nothing less.

However, there’s something to be said for winning a division title, which Pittsburgh did, Sunday night, thanks to a pulsating Christmas 31-27 victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Hold Down the North,

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers following the Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Did the win secure home-field advantage or even a bye? No, but a division championship is nothing to sneeze at and not just something that you look back on years later and say, “Oh yeah, they won the division that year.”

The AFC North is a pretty tough and bruising division, filled with hard-fought and often dirty battles. Sometimes, the best teams don’t always come out on top, and even when they do, like the Steelers did in 2014, it’s not always unscathed. (Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee against the Bengals in the regular season finale and was lost for the wild card game versus Baltimore a week later.)

The Steelers got out of Sunday’s game without any serious injuries, and the fact that they survived at all, heck, that’s better than the alternative.

  • Can you imagine how glum things would be this week, on the heels of a depressing home loss to Baltimore that would have seriously put the Steelers playoff hopes in jeopardy?

Believe me, the chances of the Bengals, the unstable and probably ready for the tropics Bengals, mustering up the enthusiasm to wreck Baltimore’s season in Week 17 on the way to the plane were probably slimmer than none.

Now, Pittsburgh, a team with a lock on the third playoff seed has a chance to rest players such as James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt, Ladarius Green and perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, players who’ve been injured such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams and perhaps even Sammie Coates can get a chance to get their feet wet.

So, who do the Steelers match-up best against in the postseason? Who cares……for now. Just enjoy that division title for the next couple of weeks. Sure, it’s been done in Pittsburgh 22 times since 1972, but it’s still not that easy (if it was, everyone would do it).

Go out and buy that t-shirt. Go out and buy that cap.

The Steelers are in the playoffs, and that just never gets old.

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