Steelers Sign Kwon Alexander. Lesson? Watch What Omar Khan Does, Not What He Says

Although they’ve been at St. Vincents for less than 4 full days under, the Steelers made their first personnel move by signing veteran inside linebacker Kwon Alexander.

We’ll talk about what he brings to Pittsburgh a little later, but the quick takeaway is that, as it was with Kevin Colbert, so it is with Omar Khan. Which is: Watch not what he says, but what he does.

Kwon Alexander, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Jets

New Steelers Kwon Alexander tackles Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Khan Follows Colbert’s Footsteps

Kevin Colbert famously began the 2003 Steelers off season by defending the team’s secondary. He then promptly let longtime veteran Lee Flowers walk in free agency, tried and failed to sign Super Bowl MVP Dexter Carter, and then traded up to draft Troy Polamalu waited a few rounds, and then picked Ike Taylor.

  • During the 2023 off season the Steelers ripped their inside linebacking depth chart up root and stem.

Devin Bush’s departure was a given (as Mark Kaboly quipped, Devin Bush Sr. had a better chance of playing for the Steelers in 2023.) I strongly suspect that the Steelers were surpised to lose Robert Spillane. But even if that is true, when Spillane went to Oakland, it didn’t stop the Steelers from showing Myles Jack the door.

  • That left 2022 rookie Mark Robinson, he of 44 defensive snaps, as the “veteran” at inside linebacker.

Omar Khan quickly added Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts as the team’s starters at inside linebacker in free agency. While the Steelers address several key areas of defensive need in the 2023 NFL Draft, inside linebacker was not a position they were able to get to.

So, when Khan took questions from the media, they naturally asked him how he felt about depth at inside linebacker. Here’s Khan’s full response:

We signed the guys that we did because we felt we had to get better, and we think we’re going to be better with those guys. I’m confident with the group we have there. If there’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group, we’re always going to look at it, and if it makes sense it makes sense.

He praised his guys. Expressed confidence that they’ll improve the defense. While he left open the door to adding someone else “If t here’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group” (notice “a” the indefinite article, not “the”) he’d do it.

It sounded like Khan was content to stand pat with his current inside linebackers. And then three days later, he went out and signed Kwon Alexander.

So what is Alexander bringing to the Steelers?

Quick Look at Kwon Alexander

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Kwon Alexander their 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started for 3 straight seasons, until injuries derailed his career. After starting 40 games in his first 3 seasons, he started 14 over the next two, six in Tampa Bay, 8 in San Francisco.

He almost doubled that in 2020, starting 13 games, but he played for the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints after being dealt to the Big Easy. He started 8 games in New Orleans in 2021, and then went to the New York Jets, where he started 12 games in 2022.

All in all, he’s seen action in 95 NFL games, making 8 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, forcing 11 fumbles and making 49 tackles for losses. He’s seen as being strong in coverage, and his 33 passes defensed would lend credence to that, but only 3 of those passes defensed came in the last two seasons.

When asked why he opted to sign with the Steelers, Alexander explained, “I really came here cause of the defense,” further expanding that “Hard-nosed football, hit hard, run, get the ball. That’s the type of player I am.”

Terms of his contract haven’t been announced, but one can imagine it is either at or very near the veteran minimum.

In addition to Holocomb, Roberts and Robinson, the Steelers also have newcomers Tanner Muse and Nick Kwiatkoski listed as inside linebackers, but they’re seen more as special teams contributors. After finishing 2023 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad Chapelle Russell is also in the mix.

But one can imagine that Alexander is at the top of that pecking order.

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Clark Haggans Carved Out a Nice Niche in the Steelers Rich History at Outside Linebacker

Living up to the Steelers’ rich history of outside linebackers is not easy.

Just ask Jason Gildon. When he left Pittsburgh following the 2003 season, he did so as the organization’s all-time leader in sacks with 77. Yet, when fans talk about Steelers’ legends at the position, Gildon’s name is rarely mentioned.

  • Sure, Gildon’s name might eventually come up when it comes to retired greats.

Still, it would almost surely be an afterthought after fans rattle off names like Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year who eclipsed Gildon’s mark during his storied Steelers career.

  • If you thought being Jason Gildon was tough, try being the guy who replaced him.

I’m talking about Clark Haggans, a fifth-round pick out of Colorado State in the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clark Haggans, Matt Hasselbeck, Clark Haggans sack Super Bowl, Clark Haggans obituary

Clark Haggans sacks Matt Hasselbeck early in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images, via FOX News.com

Not only was Haggans a mid-round pick from Colorado’s second-most famous college football team, but he wasn’t even the most well-known alumni from that team — at least among Steelers players. For that matter, Haggans wasn’t even the most famous Steelers outside linebacker from Colorado State. Porter, a third-round pick in 1999, would quickly earn that distinction after becoming a full-time starter during the Steelers 2000 season and recording 10.5 quarterback sacks.

It’s a pity, too, because if you do a little digging into Colorado State’s history, you’ll learn that Haggans, not Peezy, is the school’s all-time leader in sacks with 33.

Back to Haggans’s Steelers career.

While Porter was quickly establishing himself as one of the best young outside linebackers in the NFL in the early-2000s, Haggans had to bide his time as a backup and special teams player.

  • It was as a reserve in 2002 when Clark Haggans had a bit of a breakout year and recorded 6.5 sacks.

This was Gildon’s penultimate season in Pittsburgh and perhaps paved the way for Haggans to ultimately succeed him as the starter on the strong side.

  • Haggans finally became the man on the left side in 2004. He would go on to start 13 games and tally six sacks.

Haggans’s best season came in 2005 when he posted nine quarterback sacks for the Super Bowl-bound Steelers. Haggans notched another 1.5 sacks in the postseason, including a takedown of Matt Hasselbeck forcing the Seahawks to punt on the first possession of Super Bowl XL.

But while that sack was huge, the holding penalty Haggans drew on tackle Sean Locklear early in the fourth quarter was bigger. Pittsburgh led, 14-10, but the Seahawks were driving and looked to have a first and goal after a pass from Hasselback to tight end Jerramy Stevens. Unfortunately for Seattle, Locklear, who was beaten badly by Haggans, was called for the controversial infraction. While that penalty will always be controversial in the eyes of Seahawks fans (Haggans may have also been offsides on the play — others will differ), there is no doubt it altered the course of the game.

  • Ike Taylor intercepted Hasselbeck moments later, and the rest is history.

Ike Taylor, interception, Super Bowl XL

Ike Taylor’s interception changes tempo of Super Bowl XL

Haggans started 61 games during his Steelers career and recorded 32.5 sacks. He departed following the 2007 campaign, as the Steelers made room for LaMarr Woodley, the next to carve his name into the Steelers’ history book of notable-to-great outside linebackers.

After playing four years in Arizona where he recorded 14 more sacks, Haggans finished his career with the NFC Champion 49ers in 2012 — his final game was a loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl LVII.

Clark Haggans, who tragically passed away on Tuesday, June 20th at the age of 46, will likely rarely be mentioned when fans talk about the Steelers’ rich history at outside linebacker.

But it’s certainly not an easy history to live up to, and it’s much easier to be an afterthought than someone who sticks around and carves out a nice little niche for himself at the position.

  • Clark Haggans may not have been a Steelers’ legend at outside linebacker, but he was far from an afterthought.

RIP to a man who did the position proud for the Steelers organization.

 

 

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Set up for Success? Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

The Steelers offer a study of contrasts at cornerback. They’ve sent Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson to the Hall of Fame. They’ve had to other excellent corners in Dwayne Woodruff and Ike Taylor.

Yet, in the 21st century they’ve struggled to draft good cornerbacks.

And cornerbacks are very expensive to find on the free agent market. Worse yet, they’ve just lost a “home grown” cornerback Cam Sutton. So how does this impact their plans for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Cornerback: The Starters

Omar Khan wasted little time in replacing Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, a veteran corner most recently out of Minnesota. Peterson is into his 30s, which is a danger sign for a cornerback, but he has continued to play at a high level.

Opposite Peterson, the Steelers top corner is Levi Wallace, a free agent they signed one year ago. Levi Wallace started 9 games for the Steelers and proved himself to be a bit of a ball hawk, pulling in 4 interceptions including key picks in the wins against the Saints and Browns.

Peterson at his age clearly isn’t a long term answer at corner back and Wallace while “good” and someone who can help the Steelers win doesn’t look like a long term starter

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind their starters, the Steelers have Ahkello Witherspoon, a player they traded for just before the 2021 season. Ahkello Witherspoon sat on the bench for the first part of 2021 and fans wondered why the Steelers wasted a pick on him.

They he saw action in the second part of the year and in just nine games he picked off 3 passes and deflected 13 others. Witherspoon started 2022 with a bang, picking off Joe Burrow in the season-opening upset of the Bengals, but got injured in the third game of the season, saw action and got burned against Philadelphia and did not play for the rest of the season.

The Steelers also have Arthur Maulet, a bargain basement free agent signing they made in 2020. Maulet is sort of like Mike Hilton lite. He’s not a superstar, but he’s shown the ability to make plays at critical moments while playing in the slot.

Finally, the Steelers have James Pierre, a restricted free agent who they decided to keep in Pittsburgh. Pierre looked like rising star in early 2021, found himself on the bench after suffering a couple of costly breakdowns but made a comeback in 2022, helping spark the Steelers midseason turn around with an interception to start the Colts game.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers 2023  Draft Needs @ Cornerback

As they’ve done at every area on the depth chat, except for outside linebacker, the Steelers have positioned themselves well for the draft.

They don’t need to draft someone who can win the starting job on opening day, but they sure could boost their short and long term fortunes if they do find one in the form of say, Joey Porter Jr.

Ditto the backups. Unlike outside linebacker, the Steelers don’t need to find a corner who can step in as an injury replacement, but picking one who can do just that would provide both long and short term benefits.

So in other words, the Steelers really need to come out of the draft having picked either a projected long term number 1 cornerback or someone who projects as a number 2 or number 3 corner, they’ have done OK.

Therefore the Steelers need at cornerback going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Kevin Colbert’s Legacy as Steelers General Manager in 5 Moments

Football is an intense sport. Perhaps the most intense. Yet rarely do you see someone expose the depths of their soul the way Kevin Colbert did in his press conference announcing the Steelers 2022 Draft class.

Emotional doesn’t begin to capture the moment.

  • Yet through it all, Kevin Colbert was a Steeler to his core.

Colbert was reluctant to take credit. He refused to fall back statistics on the team’s record or draft successes. He felt no need to clarify that he “knew the task” to was winning championships, only stating “It was four” and then humbly offered “being able to add to that room” meant a ton before affirming “we’ve got to get more.”

  • Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Sr. undoubtedly were watching from heaven with approval. Colbert did anything but “Put on the dog.”

Kevin Colbert legacy, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl 43, Lombardi Trophy

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney after Super Bowl XLIII with the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: Twitter

The path to understanding difficulty of winning a Super Bowl maps directly to the cracks in Kevin Colbert’s cracks voice.

I don’t and won’t pretend to know what flashed through Kevin Colbert’s mind as he struggled through those words, but I know I what leap into my consciousness as I heard them:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe-string tackle of Nick Harper vs. the Colts in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs
  • Ike Taylor making one of his 17 career interceptions in the Super Bowl XL
  • Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the 2008 AFC Championship game
  • James Harrison’s 99 yard pick six in Super Bowl XLIII
  • Ben to ‘Tone in Super Bowl XLIII

During his 22 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Colbert drafted 183 players. He probably signed twice as many undrafted rookie free agents, including men like Dan Kreider, Willie Parker and Nate Washington. He signed dozens of free agents, from All Pros like Jeff Hartings, James Farrior, and Ryan Clark, to forgotten role players like Mike Logan, Travis Kirschke, and Duce Staley.

All of those moves were necessary, in their own way, to delivering victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But absent those five critical plays mentioned above their sum would have been insufficient.

  • Which isn’t to say that those 5 plays alone resulted in two Super Bowls.

They did not, and arguing to the contrary would be fundamentally disrespectful to so many other players. But those 5 plays enabled the others contributions.

Think about it:

Had Ben Roethlisberger not stopped Harper, Bryant McFadden’s once in a life-time pass defense over future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne, never happens. Nor would Mike Vanderjagt’s epic fail hold its unique niche in Steelers lore.

Ike Taylor, interception, Super Bowl XL

Ike Taylor’s interception changes tempo of Super Bowl XL

When Ike Taylor made his interception on the Pittsburgh’s 5 yard line, he reversed the momentum was decidedly in Seattle’s favor. Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward perhaps still could have made their magic, but that would have only gotten the Steelers back in the game instead of helping icing the win. Ditto Deshea Townsend’s sack.

  • Ike Taylor didn’t make many interceptions, but boy, did this one count.

Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the AFC Championship didn’t just flip a game that the Ravens had been methodically wresting control of, it also exorcised the demons of 3 straight AFC Championship losses the Steelers had suffered on Pittsburgh soil.

In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison’s pick six almost got forgotten. But this one comes down to simple math: It was a four-point swing (at minimum) in a game that the Steelers won by 27 to 23. Yes, defense STILL wins championships.

Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to Santonio Holmes is perhaps the greatest 6-yard completion in the history of the game capping one of most fabled comeback drives in Super Bowl history.

  • Yes, ladies and gentleman, winning a Super Bowl is difficult, extremely difficult.

It is tempting to look at those plays and conclude “Yeah, Kevin Colbert really needed a ton of luck to get his Super Bowls.” The opposite in fact is true. These plays were so extraordinary because they were being made by the best of the best at the moment when they were needed the most.

Kevin Colbert brought them all Pittsburgh, proof that he is one of the best of the best.

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The Steelers Should Resign Joe Haden – But Only at the Right Price

Cornerback is one of the NFL’s most taxing positions to fill. So the Pittsburgh Steelers having sent cornerbacks Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson and Mel Blount to the Hall of Fame have a good track record there. Ike Taylor likely could have joined them, had he been able to hold on to interceptions (outside of his game changing pick in Super Bowl XL).

But since Taylor’s retirement the Steelers have struggled to fill their needs at cornerback, which is why they snapped up Joe Haden when the Browns cut him in August 2017.

The Steelers resigned Haden in 2019, and now that deal is up too. Will the Steelers extend his day in Pittsburgh even further?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Joe Haden’s Career with the Steelers

When Joe Haden arrived in Pittsburgh, he sustained an upswing in the Steelers defense that had begun a half season before. Haden started instantly and became an immediate leader in the locker room and in on the field.

While most people point to Ryan Shazier’s injury as the moment the Steelers defense dipped into decline, the truth is the trouble started with Joe Haden’s injury against the Colts that fall. Haden returned later that year and started for the next 3 seasons, logging 9 interceptions, defending 54 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and even dropping 11 ball carriers for losses.

  • Those statistics, while impressive don’t capture what Haden has meant to team.

To understand that look no further than the Steelers 2021 home win against the Titans, were on 4th and 6th with 0:27 at the Steelers 15, Joe Haden stoned Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for no gain sealing the Steelers win.

That one play is Joe Haden’s Steelers career in a nutshell. When the game is on the line, you can count on Joe Haden to make a play.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

1-9. That’s the Steelers record in games that Joe Haden has missed since 2018. Since Ike Taylor’s “Life’s Work” arrived the Steelers have tried finding corners on the waiver wire, rummaging in through the free agent bargain basement, making trades, drafting them late and developing them or drafting them early.

None of it has worked. The only thing that worked was bringing back departed free agents (see William Gay), and even that was sort of an accident.

Joe Haden changed all of that. His value to the team is clear and he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

Cornerback is a young man’s game. Joe Haden will be 33 next year. 33 is not young in the NFL and is positively old in defensive back years. The Steelers have Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong late in the season.

  • Who are you going to spend your salary cap space on?

The 33 year old corner who missed 5 games last year? Or the 27 year old cornerback who had 2 interceptions in his second start and 3 picks in a five game span (oh, and he also tied for the team lead in passes defensed.)

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joe Haden

Joe Haden wanted a contract extensions before the season and wasn’t happy when he didn’t get one. He even thanked “Pittsburg” before Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, clearly communicating his impression of where he is headed.

Yet, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette indicates that his sources are telling him that the door is open for Haden’s return.

  • It might be, but only at the right price.

The Steelers would be wise to prioritize signing Ahkello Witherspoon while letting Joe Haden test the market, to see who is ready to pony up for a 33-year-old corner. If no takers can be found, the Steeler would be wise to bring him back at a reasonable third contract, and allow him to serve as a 3rd corner.

He’d be a strong presence off of the bench and in the defensive backs room.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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

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

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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

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

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

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

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Retooled for a Run

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

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

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

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

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

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

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

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

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

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

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

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

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

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

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

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

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

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

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

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

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

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

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

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

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

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

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

  • Create your own opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

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

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers went up 21-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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2003 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Final Chapter of a Strange Era

Coming off back-to-back playoff runs that ended short of the crown, both Steelers Nation and the Steelers organization entered 2003 re-energized. Bill Cowher had weathered a turbulent three-year period from 1998-2000 and rebuilt his team into the same bona fide contender it had been in the early-to-late-’90s.

  • But of course the goal is to be a champion, not a contender.

Hope that the Steelers could finally do that in 2003 had been given new life thanks to Tommy Maddox. Maddox had come out out of nowhere to help rescue a 2002 Steelers season that was quickly imploding. “Tommy Gun” was the toast of the town for his guts, his bravado and his ability to lead a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t really been seen in Pittsburgh since Terry Bradshaw’s time.

With Kordell Stewart‘s departure in the offseason, there was no doubt who the Steelers starting signal-caller would be in 2003.

The Steelers had thrown that lot in with Maddox, and the season would rise and fall with his success.

Tommy Maddox, Ed Hartwell, Steelers vs Ravens

Ed Hartwell brings Tommy Maddox down. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

Critical Seeds Planted During the 2003 Off Season

Other than Stewart, there weren’t any notable departures. Outside of adding tight end Jay Riemersma, you could say the same for free-agent acquisitions, as Pittsburgh would be entering the ’03 campaign with the roster that won back-to-back division titles mostly intact.

Troy Polamalu draft

Troy Polamalu. Photo Credit: WTAE.com

The 2003 NFL Draft was noteworthy for the fact that the Steelers, in a rare move for the organization, took a huge gamble and traded up 11 spots from 27 in order to select USC safety Troy Polamalu with the 16th pick. Polamalu appeared to be the prototypical strong safety for the Steelers 3/4 zone-blitz defense, so trading up seemed like a calculated risk worth taking.

Because Pittsburgh had to give up a few picks in the trade with the Chiefs–in addition to the Steelers’ first-round pick, Kansas City also received a 2003 third and sixth-round pick–the 2003 draft class consisted of just five players, with other notable members being outside linebacker Alonzo Jackson (second round, Florida State) and cornerback Ike Taylor (fourth round, Louisiana-Lafayette).

In training camp news, Amos Zereoue, in a development that seemed to be inevitable based on the previous season, beat out the very popular Jerome Bettis in a battle for the starting running back spot. It was certainly a great opportunity for Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in 1999, and perhaps signified the beginning of the end for the 31-year old Bettis, who had been battling injuries the previous few seasons.

Tragedy nearly struck the organization at the tail-end of training camp, when outside linebacker Joey Porter was shot outside a Denver nightclub while in town to watch his alma mater, Colorado State, take on rival Colorado in an early-season college matchup. Fortunately, Porter wasn’t critically wounded, as the bullet entered his buttock and lodged in his thigh. Porter’s recovery time was brief, and he actually appeared in 14 games in ’03.

Steelers Open 2003 with “Ominous” Win

With the Porter incident behind them, the Steelers opened up the season with an impressive 34-15 victory over the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field. Tommy Maddox passed for 260 yards and three touchdowns on the day –including two to receiver Hines Ward — as the offense, specifically the passing attack, appeared to pick right up where it left off the previous season.

  • 2003 marked the first opening day win for the Steelers since the 1999 season.

Both the 1999 and 1998 seasons had opened with wins but ended with ugly implosions. Could and opening day win be an ominous sign? 

After splitting their next two games on the road — including a 41-20 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium that was a little closer than the final score indicated and a win over the Cincinnati Bengals — the Steelers were sitting at 2-1.

With both victories coming against AFC North foes, Pittsburgh looked poised to win its third-straight division title.

Injuries and Miscalculations Doom 2003 Steelers

Then the wheels fell off.

The Steelers lost their next five games to fall to 2-6 at the halfway mark of the season. Perhaps the most noteworthy losses during this streak were the two that started it — back-to-back blowout home defeats at the hands of the Titans and Browns, respectively.

Andre Davis, Chad Scott, Steelers vs Browns 2003

Andre Davis scores a touchdown as Chad Scott is too late. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP, Via USA Today

The offense wasn’t clicking. The defense was failing. This included the rookie Troy Polamalu, who certainly wasn’t the phenom he would one day become, as he struggled to grasp the Steelers’ very complicated zone-blitz scheme.

As for Amos Zereoue and his starting opportunity, it was an epic fail; he started just six games and rushed for a total of 433 yards. Bettis won back his starting job by season’s end and tallied 811 yards, while also eclipsing the 12,000-yard mark for his legendary career.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Steelers’ failures in ’03 had to do with a sudden love affair with the passing game.

While Tommy Maddox wasn’t necessarily horrible in his first full year as a starter–he passed for 3,414 yards while throwing 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — he clearly wasn’t capable of carrying an offense, especially one that would go on to finish 31st in rushing — a result that seemed inexplicable for a Cowher coached team.

Jerome Bettis, Nick Ferguson, Steelers vs Broncos

Nick Ferguson forces a Jerome Bettis fumble. Photo Credit: Michael Martin, Getty Images, via the Denver Post.

  • This result was inexplicable even if you factor in the injuries decimated the offensive line. 

A neck injury cost left tackle Marvel Smith most of the season. During training camp Kendall Simmons experienced a sudden weight loss and was diagnosed with diabetes which disrupted his ability to play. Things got so bad that by mid season, Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle for a few games, and in a few other contests Faneca was rotating between the two positions depending on which down it was. 

But even if injuries made the Steelers offensive line into a liability, the team simply lacked a commitment to the run, as evidenced by Mike Mularkey’s decision to call 38 pass plays on the in near blizzard like conditions in a road game against the New York Jets — which the Steelers lost 6 to 0.

A False Shot at the Playoffs and a False Prophecy

Even as the Steelers languished near the bottom of the AFC North, there was hope. Hope because the AFC North was one of the NFL’s worst divisions that year. After a thrilling 13-6 road victory over the Browns on November 23,  The Steelers sat at 4-7 and were just two games behind the Ravens, with a Week 17 matchup between the two rivals still on the horizon.

Curtis Martin, Ike Taylor, Steelers vs Jets

Ike Taylor tries to tackle Curtis Martin. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images and JetsFactor.com

  • In other words, believe it or not, the Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs. 

Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed thanks to losses in two of the next three games — including a last-second defeat against the Bengals at Heinz Field the following week and the fore-mentioned infamous 6-0 loss to the Jets at Giants Stadium on December 14.

The Steelers and Ravens still met on Sunday Night Football to close the season. And although neither team had anything to play for, both teams fought as if a playoff berth were on the line. In fact, Bill Cowher opened the 2nd half by calling a fake punt, which tied the score, and then the Steelers went ahead late in the fourth.

  • The Ravens tied the game with a 46 yard field goal and then one it in over time with another 47.

The Steelers would ultimately finish third in the division with a 6-10 record, as Baltimore captured the North with a 10-6 mark.

For Bill Cowher, it was his fourth playoff-less season in six years and the second time his teams finished 6-10 since 1999. In many ways, the 2003 campaign felt like the final chapter of a wacky, unstable and topsy turvy era that began with the five-game losing streak that closed out the 1998 season.

Indeed, in the pages of the Steelers Digest Bob Labriola cautioned fans to look at 2003’s disappointments the way one would view someone with a weight problem — who didn’t gain that weight over night, nor would they lose it overnight.

Sure, the 6-10 finish earned Pittsburgh the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but its not the Steelers were only one player away from re-opening their Super Bowl window, were they? 

Yes, the Steelers 2003 season felt like an end to an era. That feeling turned out to be true. 

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Troy Polamalu Picking Dick LeBeau as His Hall of Fame Presenter = Pittsburgh Perfection

Legendary Steelers safety, Troy Polamalu, took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce that he has selected another legend, his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to present him at his Hall of Fame induction this August in Canton, Ohio.

  • Of course, Polamalu chose LeBeau.

I wish I would have been smart enough to see this coming, but it just goes to show you how stupid I am for not spotting the obvious this whole time.

Polamalu is the first inductee out of a group of Steelers’ defenders that helped the organization win its fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But Dick LeBeau was going to be the presenter regardless of who made it into Canton first.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame, Larry Foote

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu in December 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today.

In fact, even though most are long-shots to join Polamalu, if any or all of the players that took LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense and made it famous were to get that call for football immortality — including James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Ike Taylor — there’s no doubt that every single one of them would pick LeBeau to be their presenter. Heck, by the time he got through doing all that presenting, LeBeau would have enough training for a second career as a motivational speaker.

It’s amazing how much universal love there is for Dick LeBeau, who was already a popular figure with his players during his first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s under head coach Bill Cowher.

  • The late Kevin Greene, a big and tough football player if there ever was one, wasn’t shy about expressing his love for LeBeau.
Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

But it was during LeBeau’s second stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 2004-2014 when the love affair between him and his players really became a sight to behold.

It became a tradition around the holidays for LeBeau to read the classic, “The Night Before Christmas” to his players–and those big, tough football players sat there and listened like little kids!

The next time you hear a former player say anything bad about LeBeau, it will be the first time. And if word ever got back to the likes of Harrison and Brett Keisel, I’d hate to be that former player.

Speaking of Harrison, perhaps the biggest, baddest defender LeBeau ever coached, he once broke down in tears on national television while talking about his former defensive coordinator. This was back in 2013, months after Harrison was released by Pittsburgh and then signed with the Bengals. No player ever forgets LeBeau, the man they affectionately called Coach Dad during his second stay in Pittsburgh.

In the lead-up to the 2005 regular-season finale against the team that he spent his playing days with–the Detroit Lions–every single one of his defenders bought and wore a No. 44 throwback Lions jersey in LeBeau’s honor.

The kind of connection LeBeau often developed with his much-younger players was rare then and it’s rare now. I guess that’s because LeBeau treated his players like men and genuinely cared about them. He didn’t command respect through words and a presence; he earned it through his actions and the ability to teach them.

In typical Troy Polamalu fashion, he couldn’t have been more humble when he revealed the name of his presenter, Tweeting, “Can you please tell them that all I did was follow you…#eachoneteachone

Sure, LeBeau was a great leader, but in my opinion, it wasn’t because he got people to follow him; he was a great leader because he got his players to believe in the same defensive philosophies that he did.

Maybe it’s fitting that this kind, gentle man once described his zone-blitz scheme as “Tweaking someone’s nose while you go behind them and kick them in the tail.”

The zone-blitz scheme was all about deception, but it was still a rough and tough defense, one that allowed his players to wreak havoc on opponents week in and week out.

I’ll leave you with one more quote about LeBeau courtesy of a 2006 ESPN.com article and courtesy of another player who deeply admired him, Kimo von Oelhoffen:

“Probably the best man, and not just one of the best coaches, I’ve ever met in my life. The things I’ve learned from him about football and about life, I’ll cherish forever, really. Every minute you’re around him, believe me, is a minute where you’ve benefited in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.

Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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