1998 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Black & Gold Crashes Down to Earth

The 1997 Steelers finished a handful of plays away from winning the AFC Championship. The silver lining was that they had proven they could defy gravity. Pittsburgh had replaced over a dozen Super Bowl XXX starters and  come within a whisker of making Super Bowl XXXII.

  • And they’d done it with Kordell Stewart, a first year starting quarterback.

Sure, Kordell’s twin end zone interceptions had flipped momentum in Denver’s favor. But those were just growing pains. Weren’t they?

The Steelers lost left tackle John Jackson and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen in free agency. Jackson had been a mainstay since Chuck Noll’s time and Thigpen was a playmaking wide out. But big name free agents left Pittsburgh throughout the 1990’s, and the Steelers kept winning.

  • Why would 1998 be any different?

In fact, when two “defectors” Rod Woodson and Eric Green, got cut by their new teams and asked to return to Pittsburgh, Tom Donahoe quipped, “We’re not the Salvation Army.”

  • Steelers Nation snickered.

So did most of the rest of the NFL as one preseason publication (Street and Smiths?) projected Pittsburgh as the NFL’s 3rd best. Sure, cornerback Chad Scott had torn an ACL during OTAs ending his season in May, but the Steelers would compensate. They always did. Right?

By the summer of 1998 everyone just assumed that “The Steelers Way” meant automatically fielding a contender.

The 1998 season would challenge a lot of assumptions about the Steelers.

Greg Jefferies & Robert Porcher bring Jerome Bettis down. Photo Credit: Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Preseason Danger Sign: Premium Draft Picks Not Panning Out

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hid their “secret” for surviving annual free agent exoduses in plain sight: Anticipate departures and draft accordingly. The duo’s first two picks in the 1992 NFL Draft were Leon Searcy and Levon Kirkland. When Tunch Ilkin and Hardy Nickerson left as free agents in the spring of 1993, Searcy and Kirkland took their places.

Levon Kirkland, Frank Reich, Steelers vs Lions

Levon Kirkland closes in on Frank Reich. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The plan functioned to near perfection through the mid-1990’s.

But it was Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who sensed that something was amiss as preseason ended. He could have focused on the Steelers looking less than stellar that summer. But he didn’t.

  • Instead he focused on two critical position battles at offensive line and wide receiver.

The Steelers had drafted Will Blackwell in 1997 to replace Yancey Thigpen, yet Blackwell couldn’t beat out Courtney Hawkins, who’d been brought to in ’97 Pittsburgh as a 3rd wide receiver. At least that contest had a winner.

At right tackle, Bill Cowher had staged a battle between Jamain Stephens and Paul Wiggins. When neither man stepped up, he injected Chris Conrad into the competition. Conrad failed to grab the opportunity, forcing Cowher to move Will Wolford to left tackle, shifting Justin Strzelczyk from guard to right tackle and starting Roger Duffy in his place while rookie Alan Faneca got ready to start.

  • Stephens, Blackwell, Wiggins, and Conrad represented 1st, 2nd and two 3rd round picks from the ’96, ’97 and ’98 drafts.

None of them were ready to start. Factor in the ACL tear that cornerback Chad Scott, 1997’s first round pick, had suffered during OTAs ending his season in May.

This was not in the plan…..

Veteran Leadership Sorley Lacking for the Steelers

Looking back, the first month of the Steelers 1998 season offered several touchstones that signaled disaster:

  • There were the two lackluster wins over the Ravens and Bears to start the season
  • In week 3 the Dolphins dealt the franchise suffered its first shutout loss in 5 years
  • Kordell Stewart suddenly  looked tentative and was unable, or unwilling, to throw deep

All troubling trends, to be sure, but they were just symptoms of a root problem that was on display in a week 5 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

Carl Pickens, Dwayne Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Pickens burns Steelers Dwyane Washington. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

The Steelers had fought a back-and-forth game, with Kordell Stewart leading a comeback just inside the 2 minute warning, only to see the Bengals comeback to win with no time outs. The play that everyone remembers was Neil O’Donnell faking a spike with 2 minutes left and instead hitting Carl Pickens for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The play stung to be sure, but the more telling play come a minute earlier.

The Bengals had started their drive at their own 7. After a few plays, the Steelers defense had the Bengals at 4th and 12 from their own 15, only to see Neil O’Donnell complete a 50 yard pass to Carl Pickens.

The scene screamed for a Greg Lloyd or Rod Woodson to rally the troops – Cincinnati still had 50 yards to go in under a minute and the clock was ticking.

But Lloyd was in Carolina and Woodson in Baltimore, and instead of steeling themselves to make the stop, Pittsburgh’s defenders stood pouting, with their hands on their hips. Given that attitude it is no surprise that that O’Donnell could steal the game by fooling them so easily.

Steelers Tantalize Fans with “Tease Wins” at Midseason

By capitulating to Cincinnati at the final gun the 1998 Steelers had accomplished a rare feat during the Cowher era: They lost a close game. To that point, Bill Cowher’s teams had been blown out and embarrassed plenty of times, but they’d almost always found ways to win the close ones.

  • Although, that was about to change, the 1998 Steelers would not go gently into this good night.

Far from it. Over next the six weeks the 1998 Steelers would tantalize their fans with a series of tease wins. The month of October would see the Steelers drop two decisions to the Tennessee Oilers in the span of 3 weeks.

  • But those losses were staggered by Steelers wins on Monday Night Football over the Chiefs and Packers.
Courtney Hawkins, Steelers vs Packers

Courtney Hawkins advances against the Packers on MNF. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Allsport

Both victories came over contenders. Both wins were convincing. Jerome Bettis ran for 100 yards in both games. Kordell Stewart played competent, if unspectacular football. Rookie Hines Ward even completed a pass to Stewart in the Chiefs win.

  • The 2nd loss to the Oilers set up a AFC Central show down at Three Rivers Stadium with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers were ready. Dwayne Washington opened and closed the game with 58 and 74 yard pick sixes. In between, Norm Johnson booted 3 field goals and Mark Bruener scored a touchdown to deliver a convincing, 30 to 15 win over the division leader.

The 1998 Steelers were now 7-4 and heading into a short week and a trip to Detroit for what looked to be a little more than a Thanksgiving layup against a 4-7 Lions team. To boot, Detroit was Jerome Bettis’ hometown and his mother welcomed the team with a Thanksgiving dinner.

What could go wrong?

Thanksgiving Coin Toss Exposes 1998 Steelers as Turkeys

Thanksgiving 1998 is a day that will live in infamy within Steelers Nation.

After a sloppy 4 quarters of football, the Steelers had blown a 13-3 lead only have Norm Johnson kick a last second field goal to force overtime. Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake took the field. The Bus called “tails.” The coin landed on tails.

  • Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions.

Even the Lions captain Robert Porcher stood dumbfounded. But if this was one of the most egregious examples of an officiating error impacting the outcome of a game, Dan Rooney called it straight when he declared that it never should have come to overtime. The 1998 Detroit Lions were bad team. The Steelers had botched multiple opportunities to put them away.

But just as the Thanksgiving game never should have gone to overtime, a bad coin toss never should have unraveled the entire Steelers 1998 season.

But it did.

Steelers Close 1998 with Total Implosion

The 1998 Steelers didn’t field a championship caliber roster, but they certainly had a playoff caliber team. You’d never know it after watching the final 5 weeks of the season.

A week after the Thanksgiving debacle, the Patriots came to Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense responded to New England going up 23-9 early in the 4th quarter with a 46 yard Earl Holmes interception return that took Pittsburgh to the Patriots 22, with 4 minutes and change remaining. Here’s what followed:

  • Kordell Stewart threw 7 passes, yet couldn’t find the end zone.
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out.
  • Kordell took the Steelers to the 10 yard line, then he threw an interception.

The Patriots had tried to give the Steelers the game, but Pittsburgh refused to accept their gift.

A week later Bill Cowher lost control. Early in the 3rd quarter during a deluge in Tampa, Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. Kordell Stewart protested, getting in his coach’s face. Next, Kordell was seen crying on the bench.

Back on the field, Mike Tomczak was busying fumbling the ball on his third play in the game, and then he throwing an interception on his second pass. Meanwhile, hurricane force rains continued to pour.

  • Stephen King couldn’t have scripted a more horrific scene had he tried.

A beleaguered Bill Cowher reinserted Kordell Stewart. To no one’s surprise, Kordell failed to rally the team. The downward spiral continued. Steelers fans scapegoated Kordell Stewart. That was both ugly and unfair. He had plenty of help.

Offensive Coordinator Ray Sherman was in over his head. Beyond having no idea of what to do with Kordell Stewart his play calling was so predictable that on 3rd and 7, patrons of Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon would call out, “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee.” Invariably at the snap, McAfee would get a pitch, run to the weak side, and make it about 6 yards before getting clobbered.

  • The defense, which had carried the team, collapsed.
  • But worse of all, the Steelers quit on Cowher.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

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

Certainly, not players like Levon Kirkland, Dermontti Dawson and Jerome Bettis. But they were exceptions. The Post Gazette’s Ron Cook went as far as to call out Carnell Lake for “playing so poorly with such little passion down the stretch.”

By the time they reached their 1998 season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh was playing for pride.

  • They’d already been eliminated from the playoffs.
  • Bill Cowher had stripped Ray Sherman of play calling duties.
  • The Jaguars playoff position was set
  • Tom Coughlin started third string quarterback Jonathan Quinn.

Each of those factors flowed in Pittsburgh’s favor. But they were formalities. The Steelers lost 21-3. Bill Cowher suffered his first losing season as the 1998 Steelers finished 7-9.

And Pittsburgh, learned the hard lesson that in the NFL gravity could only be defied for so long.

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Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

https://twitter.com/DevinBushFan/status/1334272521235992578

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

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

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

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Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

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

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.
Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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What Do Steelers Fans Want from Bud Dupree and JuJu? Super Bowls or Draft Picks?

The NFL trade deadline came and went on November 3; the Steelers added more than they subtracted, thanks to acquiring inside linebacker Avery Williamson and a seventh-round pick from the Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2022.

This was seen as a success by many Steelers’ fans and media members who were a bit concerned about the inside linebacker spot after the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Devin Bush against the Browns back in October.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

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

However, there may have been more than a few fans disappointed by the fact that Pittsburgh failed to part with either outside linebacker Bud Dupree or receive JuJu Smith-Schuster in exchange for some 2021 draft compensation. You see, that’s the new thing now, not only with the fans, but also with the media and, yes, even the teams, themselves.

Both Dupree and Smith-Schuster are in the final year of their rookie deals, and I don’t know how many times I was asked if I thought the Steelers were going to trade the star players before the deadline. In the old days, it was just understood that some players were going to reach the end of their rookie contracts and ultimately depart without anything in return except for maybe a compensatory draft choice.

  • But those days are long gone.
  • Today, everyone thinks they’re owed compensation.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Again, even the fans are preoccupied with worry about a pending free agent. Instead of being excited about what Dupree and/or Smith-Schuster could do for the Steelers here in 2020 and their quest to finally make it back to the top of the NFL mountain, the sentiment among so many folks leading up to the deadline was: “So, they’re supposed to just let them walk without getting anything in return?”

Yes…at least this season. Pittsburgh is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. What would you rather have:

  • A 2021 first-round draft choice for Dupree or a Super Bowl?
  • A second-round pick for Smith-Schuster or a seventh Lombardi?

I realize that outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, the rookie third-round pick out of Charlotte, has shown a great deal of promise this year. I also understand how deep the Steelers’ receiving corps is. But can you imagine Pittsburgh’s defense without Dupree and what he has brought to the outside linebacker position opposite T.J. Watt? Can you picture that receiving corps without Smith-Schuster leading the way both on the field and off?

  • As I alluded to already, this isn’t just driven by fans.

In my opinion, they’re taking their cues from the media and even the teams. How often do you hear media members talk about the possibility of getting compensation for a pending free agent? More now than ever, and that’s because NFL general managers and coaches seem to be interested in doing just that.

But while that might make sense for your downtrodden franchises like the currently winless Jets, it makes very little sense for a team like Pittsburgh. Besides, do you think a team like New York is going to part ways with a premium draft choice in exchange for a rent-a-player? No, that team is going to want to stack draft choices, not part with them. And do you really think the Steelers are going to trade a main cog in their machinery to another contender? No, because that would be quite dumb.

Avery Williamson is a free agent after this season, and he’ll likely leave. But that’s okay because he’s just a rent-a-player for the Steelers, one that the team didn’t develop and one that the fans didn’t become emotionally attached to.

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

Hines Ward catches a touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El in Super XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

  • Dupree and Smith-Schuster, but especially, Smith-Schuster, are different.

I get that, but it still doesn’t change much.

Back in the old days of NFL free agency — for someone my age, that would be the 1990s and 2000s–many Steelers players came and went, but not before leaving behind lots of great memories.

Kevin Greene, a veteran free agent pick up in 1993, gave Pittsburgh three great years and helped the franchise reach Super Bowl XXX, their first trip to the big dance in 16 seasons. But he left for the Panthers after that.

Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who also specialized in punt returns and even a little quarterback from 2002-2005, threw the game-sealing touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL. Immediately after becoming a Super Bowl hero, Randle El signed a lucrative second contract with the Washington Football Team.

  • Can you imagine how that 2005 season may have played out if Pittsburgh was more interested in flipping Randle El for a future draft pick?

I don’t know how the Steeler careers of Dupree and Smith-Schuster will end, but if they leave behind some Super Bowl memories, well, that would be much better than some extra draft compensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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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.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Win Compensatory Pick Gamble. Now They Must Spend Winnings Wisely

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert have never “lived in their fears” when it comes to making personnel decisions. They also haven’t hesitated to play the long game, even when it comes to gambles.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

On Tuesday, the NFL awarded the Pittsburgh Steelers a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft bringing one of Colbert and Tomlin’s longest gambles to a close.

Devin Bush‘s price was steep. The Steelers first and second round picks from 2019, plus their third round pick in 2020. But the Steelers made that pick in part based on their calculations that they’d get a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing Le’Veon Bell.

  • While the logic was sound, the NFL has never revealed the formula it uses for compensatory picks so a third rounder was never certain.

Uncertainty shifted to despair when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort. Due to a little known rule, for player to count on a team’s signed/lost ledger for compensatory picks, he needed to be on his destination team’s roster by week 10 of the season.

  • The move prompted the Steelers to cut Donte Moncrief whom they’d signed as a free agent.

Granted, Moncrief had not exactly played well for the Steelers in his two outings, and he failed to log a single catch in his three games with the Carolina Panthers. However, by cutting Moncrief the Steelers were essentially giving the nod to Tevin Jones who would only last until the Steelers loss to the Bills.

Nonetheless, the Steelers gamble paid off, ensuring them two premium picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now they must spend their winnings wisely.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe the ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

  • A generation ago the Steelers getting a third round compensatory pick meant a bonanza.

The third round was Tom Donahoe’s money round. Players such as Jon Witman, Mike Vrabel, Hines Ward, and Amos Zereoue arrived in Pittsburgh as third round compensatory selections.

Kevin Colbert hasn’t had as many third round compensatory selections, but his picks have been hit or miss. James Conner was a hit in 2017. Dri Archer was a huge miss in 2014. The Steelers need Colbert’s 2020 3rd round compensatory pick to be more of a James Conner than a Dri Archer.

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Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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