Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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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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2004 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins (Need we say more?)

As Bill Cowher prepared for his 13th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did so coming off one of the most disappointing campaigns in recent memory. When you consider the fact that the Steelers looked like legit Super Bowl contenders in both 2001 and 2002, the way things unfolded in 2003 could only be described as a disappointment.

The Steelers headed into the 2003 season thinking they had finally found the quarterback to put them over the top. Tommy Maddox, a journeyman, who re-started his NFL career after stints in both the XFL and Arena Football League, was thrust into the starting lineup early in the ’02 campaign and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the Steel City since the Blonde Bomber had been parked in the hanger.

The 2002 Steelers narrowly missed making it to the AFC title game for a second-straight year. Unfortunately, the 2003 campaign unraveled rather quickly, and once it did, there was no stop to it. When all was said and done, the Steelers finished 6-10 and looked about as far away from being contenders as they had in 1999 when they finished with the same mark.

In the Steelers Digest, no less than Bob Labriola himself reminded the Steelers faithful not to expect any “quick fixes.” 

Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

Off Season: Suprises Moves in Coaching, Free Agency & the 2004 NFL Draft

In coaching moves during the 2004 offseason, Dick LeBeau, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s, returned in the same role following the firing of Tim Lewis.

In terms of free-agent news, there wasn’t a ton of anticipation for anything huge, at least early on. However, some veterans were given the ax, including cornerback Dewayne Washington and outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who departed as the team’s all-time sack leader with 77. Washington and Gildon were cap casualties.

Maybe those cuts were made to pave the way for the signing of veteran running back Duce Staley, who inked a five-year, $14 million deal on March 9, 2004, a development that aroused the passions of a fan base that needed something to be excited about.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

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

Despite a history of injuries, Staley, 29, was brought in to not only replace the recently-departed Amos Zereoue on the running back depth chart but also continue the team’s apparent desire to supplant veteran Jerome Bettis as the bell cow back.

In rather bizarre free-agent news, Pittsburgh released veteran punter Josh Miller, who often had a frosty relationship with Cowher, and signed Chris Gardocki to a five-year, $6.5 million contract.

  • As for the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers would have the 11th pick.

There was speculation that the team was interested in nabbing a quarterback, something the organization hadn’t used a first-round pick on since 1980 (Mark Malone).

NC State’s Philip Rivers and Miami of Ohio’s Ben Roethlisberger were the two most likely targets, with the former, who played his college ball at Bill Cowher’s alma mater, gaining a lot of traction as the draft approached. Ben Roethlisberger had been tied to Pittsburgh for many months heading into the draft; with Rivers going off the board three spots after Eli Manning was taken number one, it became a question as to whether or not Pittsburgh would pull the trigger if Roethlisberger was still there at 11. Would Roethlisberger slide all the way down to the Steelers, or would another team take him?

  • No other team drafted a quarterback before Pittsburgh’s turn.

According to Dan Rooney, the late, great former team chairman, the Steelers were seriously considering taking Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews. Fortunately for everyone involved, Rooney, an influential figure if there ever was one, stepped in and persuaded Cowher and general manager Kevin Colbert to go with Roethlisberger.

  • The rest, as they say, is history.

Nobody would know that at the time, of course, and as the 2004 campaign approached, Roethlisberger seemed destined to spend his rookie year as the third-string quarterback behind Tommy Maddox, who retained his starting job from the year before, and veteran backup Charlie Batch

  • Charlie Batch would get injured in training camp, offering the first sign that this plan might go awry. 

Still, as the summer ended and focus shifted to the regular season, Steelers Digest edtior Bob Labriola assured readers that while Ben Roethlisberger was the team’s future, 2004 was all about Tommy Maddox….

An Opening Day Win, While Bettis “Just Scores Touchdowns”

The Steelers began their season with a Week-1 showdown with the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.

The Steelers won, 24-21, on a Jeff Reed field goal with seconds remaining. But perhaps what that game is known for more than anything was the bizarre box score numbers put up by Jerome Bettis, who was made the goal line and short-yardage back by Cowher, perhaps as a way to give his popular running back an important role in the offense.

Jerome Bettis wasn’t popular on this day, however, as he was booed repeatedly when he was inserted into the lineup in place of Staley in goal-line situations. Staley would go on to finish with 91 yards on 24 carries and zero touchdowns. As for Bettis, he gained just one yard on five carries but scored three touchdowns.

While Jerome Bettis would shoulder a critical load for the offense before the end of the 2004 season, his role of “Designated touchdown scorer” continued throughout September and October, and fans didn’t quite know what to make of it and it is one the seasons more unorthodox side stories.

Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Chad Williams

Chad Williams sacks Ben Roethlisberger in his first NFL game. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.

The Steelers Week-2 loss to the Ravens at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, a 30-13 drubbing, would have been just another road beatdown, if not for the fact that Roethlisberger made his professional debut late in the third quarter following an arm injury suffered by Maddox.

  • Ben Roethlisberger would get his NFL introduction earlier than he or anyone else expected.

Roethlisberger completed 12 of 20 passes for two touchdowns–his first career touchdown pass was a three-yard strike to Antwaan Randle El — and two interceptions, one of which was returned 51 yards for a score by cornerback Chris McAlister.

Tommy Maddox’s injury would force him to miss several weeks. In the meantime, Roethlisberger made his first start the following game in a Week-3 road matchup against the Dolphins. When news broke that the rookie quarterback would make his first start, veteran guard Alan Faneca made headlines by sarcastically telling reporters that he was “excited” that the offense would be in the hands of a rookie passer. The game in Miami, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. EST on a Sunday afternoon, was ultimately delayed over seven hours thanks to Hurricane Jeanne. Roethlisberger completed 12 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception, as the Steelers won a defensive battle in the rain, 13-3.

Pittsburgh was 2-1 and now appeared content to ride with its rookie quarterback. Just how far could he take him?

Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins

The Steelers won their next three games — including a last-second road victory over the Cowboys — and sat at 5-1. Were they the real deal? That question was quickly answered, thanks to back-to-back blowout victories at Heinz Field over the Patriots and Eagles, respectively.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Eagles, Troy Polamalu, Clark Haggans

James Farrior intercepts Donavan McNabb. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, came to town on Halloween night riding a record 21-game winning streak; the Patriots left with no candy, following a 34-20 beatdown that wasn’t nearly that close, as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead.

One week later, Philadelphia, like the Patriots, a team that strolled into Heinz Field with zero losses, suffered its first one, thanks to a 27-3 thrashing. Jerome Bettis would get the start in place of an injured Staley; The Bus showed that he still had something left in the tank, as he rushed for 149 yards on 33 carries.

The Steelers were 7-1 at the halfway mark and appeared to find just the right formula for success that included a game-managing rookie quarterback with a penchant for the occasional big play; a running game that returned to prominence after finishing 31st the season before; and a dominant defense, led by safety Troy Polamalu, who would go on to make his first of eight Pro Bowls for his career, and inside linebacker James Farrior, who would be a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate by season’s end.

The Steelers continued to win week in and week out and eventually captured the AFC North crown and the number one seed in the conference. In Week 17, Pittsburgh headed to Buffalo with nothing to play for. The Bills needed to win in order to make the playoffs, while the Steelers sat several key starters, including Roethlisberger and Bettis.

Tommy Maddox got the start and completed 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Running back Willie Parker, a 2004 undrafted free agent from North Carolina, rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries, while outside linebacker James Harrison, a 2002 undrafted free agent from Kent State who finally found a permanent home after bouncing around the league and even NFL Europe, returned a fumble 18 yards for a score.

The Steelers won, 29-24, denying Buffalo a ticket to the postseason in the process.

Steelers Win Regular Season “Team of Destiny” Honors. Again.

The Steelers became the first AFC squad to finish 15-1. Roethlisberger passed for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his rookie season and finished 13-0 as a starter. Jerome Bettis paced a ground game that ranked first with 2,464 yards. Despite only starting six games, Bettis was the team’s leading rusher with 941 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Duce Staley tallied a healthy 830 yards before succumbing to yet another injury bug.

Pundits had been pleading with the Steelers to permanently park The Bus since at least 2002, if not sooner. As it turns out, Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert where wise to keep their own counsel.

  • The Steelers headed into the playoffs looking like a “Team of Destiny.”

But both Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large had seen the movie Team of Destiny many, many times before only to walk away disappointed. Would Ben Roethlisberger be the difference maker in 2004? 

Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely

The fifth-seeded Jets arrived at Heinz Field for a divisional-round matchup on January 15, 2005. The home team got off to a hot start and took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. Unfortunately, the visitors scored 17 unanswered points with the help of a Santana Moss 75-yard punt return and an 86-yard pick-six by Reggie Tongue.

The Steelers trailed, 17-10, and looked all but dead following a fumble by Bettis deep in Jets territory early in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh would get another chance, thankfully, and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Hines Ward with 6:04 remaining.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dan Kreider, Steelers vs Jets

Behind Alan Faneca’s blocking Jerome Bettis runs over the Jets. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The Jets subsequently drove 68 yards and were in position to take the lead just before the two-minute warning.

However, kicker Doug Brien missed from 47 yards out, and the young Roethlisberger now had a chance to engineer his first game-winning postseason drive. But just one play after Brien’s miss, Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback David Barrett, who returned the pick 24 yards to the Pittsburgh 37 with 1:46 left in regulation. Moments later, Brien had yet another chance to send the Jets to the AFC title game but again missed — this time from 43 yards away–and the contest went into overtime.

The Jets won the overtime coin toss but were ultimately forced to punt. With Jerome Bettis out of the lineup with a cramp issue, the Steelers mostly hopped on Duce Staley’s back on a 13-play drive that culminated in a 33-yard game-winning field goal by Reed to send Pittsburgh to the penultimate round of the postseason.

Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily in his postseason debut, and the Steelers were lucky to escape with a win.

Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

To the surprise of no one, the Patriots would be the opponent for an AFC Championship showdown at Heinz Field. Would the Steelers dominate as they did months earlier on Halloween?

The quick answer: no.

Tom Brady was hot, Roethlisberger was not, and New England jumped out to a stunning 24-3 halftime lead, a score that was topped off by safety Rodney Harrison, who returned a Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning.

Rodney Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Marvel Smith

Rodney Harrison takes it to the house. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers rallied a bit in the second half, but it was too little, too late, as Pittsburgh fell, 41-27. It was the second time in four seasons that the Steelers lost at home to New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

  • The next day, Bettis addressed his teammates in the locker room about his future.

Moments later, an emotional Hines Ward addressed the media regarding the possibility that his teammate and friend may have played his last game in Pittsburgh.

In the end, the 2004 campaign was yet another one in which a Bill Cowher-coached team came up short at home with the AFC title on the line. There was hope for the future, however, in the form of the big, athletic rookie quarterback nicknamed Big Ben.

Bill Cowher often said that there was a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. That was never more true for the Crafton native than the time his boss persuaded him to draft the quarterback that would ultimately help shape his coaching legacy.

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2002 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rise Of Tommy Gun

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

  • Cowher and company had been down that road before.

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

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

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

Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season

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

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

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

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

James Farrior, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tommy Gun Era Begins

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

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

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

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

Terry Bradshaw Heinz Field

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

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

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

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

Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaxico Burress, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwyane Washington, Joe Nedney, Steelers vs Titans

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

  • The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.

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

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

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

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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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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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Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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

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

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dependability is Hard to Replace

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

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

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

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Steelers Extend Kevin Colbert’s Contract through the 2021 NFL Draft

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the 2020 off season is a foot, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted little time in getting their 2nd biggest off season question answered when they extended Vice President and General Manager Kevin Colbert’s contract through the 2021 NFL Draft.

Traditionally the Steelers have announced contract extension for front office staff shortly before training camp. Last season the Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract but they did not extend Kevin Colbert’s contract as Art Rooney II announced that Colbert prefers to renew on a year-by-year basis.

While most observers expected Kevin Colbert to return to the Steelers, there have been rumors that he could bolt to the Carolina Panthers, whose owner David Tepper was a former Steelers minority owner.

All of that talk is for naught, as Kevin Colbert is staying put in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert Authors 20 Years of Unparalleled Excellence in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh native, Kevin Colbert’s return to his home city in February 2000 came as a bit of a surprise. The Steelers had endured two tumultuous seasons, finishing 7-9 in 1998 after suffering a 5 game losing streak, followed by a 6-10 finish that saw the Steelers lose 7 of their last 8.

While failures in the draft and free agency fueled this decline, a feud between Hall of Famer Bill Cowher and then Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe provided a nasty backstory to the on the field implosion. Dan Rooney had to choose between the two, and he chose Bill Cowher.

  • The Steelers took an aggressive approach to replacing Donahoe, interviewing several up and coming names around the league, but Dan Rooney settled on Kevin Colbert.

Some commentators panned the move, questioning the decision to fly in people from around the league, only to hire the guy who’d graduated from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic – the same school that the Rooneys and Tom Donahoe had attended.

  • Since then, Kevin Colbert has authored an unparalleled record of excellence.

During Kevin Colbert’s two decades overseeing the front office Kevin Colbert the Steelers have only suffered one losing season, made the playoffs 12 times, earned 9 AFC Central or AFC North titles, won three AFC Championships and of course won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert has done this by excelling on first round draft picks – Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns stand has is only two misses – made prudent free agent signings securing talents like James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Steven Nelson traded up to bring in stars like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and had uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents by finding gems such as James Harrison and Willie Parker.

With Kevin Colbert locked down for another year, Steelers Nation’s attention now turns to the biggest question of the off season – that of Ben Roethlisberger’s prognosis for recovery from his elbow injury. Per reports, Roethlisberger is scheduled to have his elbow examined in late February.

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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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