Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Add Depth Behind the Edge

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense had a historically bad year in 2021.

  • To find similar examples of their futility against the run, one needs to back to the 1940s.

Counter intuitively, the tough year endured by the Steelers defense actually reinforced just how important its for the franchise to get quality play out of their outside linebackers.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

To those who whine about why tanking in the name of draft position is not only necessary but good, my response is simple: T.J. Watt.

The 2016 Steelers lost in the AFC Championship to the Patriots, earning Pittsburgh the 30th pick in the draft as a consequence. Sounds almost like a death sentence. Except it wasn’t. It was with that 30th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft that the Steelers picked T.J. Watt.

T.J. Watt became an instant starter, grew into a dominant player capable of making game-changing plays and is building a Hall of Fame resume. In 2021 T.J. Watt earned Defensive Player of the Year honors, tied the NFL sack record and almost single handedly beat the Seattle Seahawks.

Playing opposite T.J. Watt is Alex Highsmith, whom the Steelers drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In his first full year as a starter, logged 6 sack and 15 QB hits. Those numbers may not seem impressive, but Highsmith improved during the year, particularly in run support.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

To provide depth at outside linebacker the Steelers have signed Genard Avery in free agency. Avery isn’t well known to Steelers fans, but he is the man who forced James Conner’s fumble in the Steelers 2018 opening weekend tie against the Browns.

  • Avery has 59 games of experience, including 17 starts, 12 of which came last year while with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Steelers also have linebackers John Simon, Tegray Scales, Delontae Scott on their roster.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL DraftHow good is T.J. Watt? Well, next year it is conceivable that, in his 6th year, he’ll pass Jason Gildon, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and James Harrison for the team sack record. If the Steelers defense was bad in 2021, and it was, T.J. Watt played a critical role in it not being worse. Not bad for a 30th pick, eh?

And if Alex Highsmith is nowhere near that level, he certainly tremendous strides from year 1 to year two and his progress should continue, especially if the Steelers field quality defensive lineman not named Cam Heyward.

  • The problem is their outside linebacker depth is scant.

Genard Avery has the resume of a serviceable backup, but he certainly doesn’t look like the type of player you want starting multiple games should an injury occur. John Simon has 10 years of experience but was on and off the Titans roster during 2021.

The rest of the players appear to be placeholders. Therefore the Steelers need at outside linebacker going in to the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-High.

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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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Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

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

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

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

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

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

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

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

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era

Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.

Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.

At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.

  • Kevin Colbert has vindicate Rooney’s wisdom time and time again.

But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Colbert Effect

If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.

People expected the Steelers to use the 8th pick overall to draft Chad Pennington, the top quarterback in the draft; Colbert and Cowher instead drafted Plaxico Burress. He also signed Brent Alexander, cut guard Brendan Stai and replaced him with Rich Tylski.

Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.

The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.

  • So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.

The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com

After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.

It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”

After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”

Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.

  • Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.

So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.

  • Run blocking was improving.
  • Jerome Bettis was proving the doubters to be wrong.
  • Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.

And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.

After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.

  • The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!

Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.

Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.

  • It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.

It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.

The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.

With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?

Digging Out from 0-3

The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:

  • Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
  • Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
  • Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
  • Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
  • Begun to watch Hines Ward, and not Plaxico Burress nor Troy Edwards separate himself at wide out

Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.

As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport

Growing Pains

The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.

The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.

  • A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.

The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.

For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.

His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.

  • If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.

Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.

The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.

The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.

Undaunted, the Steelers closed their home season with a rousing 24-3 pasting of the Washington Redskins in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Dieon Sanders shying away from tackling a roaring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers forcing Jeff George from the game, and Myron Cope telling off Daniel Snyder on the open air.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.

His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.

Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.

Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.

While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.

There’s a reason why an entire sub-section earlier in this article is dedicated to one steamy afternoon in Jacksonville and titled “Hinge of Fate.” That’s because a 0-3 team went into hostile territory and trashed a conference-favorite. In doing so they set the tone for not just the season, but the entire decade:

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

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

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

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

  • Then his troubles began.

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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20 Years Ago Today: Greg Lloyd’s Steelers Career Ends – Looking Back at a Linebacking Legend

Time flies. 20 years ago today the Steelers cut former All Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd. It hardly seems possible, just as it hardly seems possible that 10 years have passed since we published our original version of this profile of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. But it has been that long.

Pittsburgh yields nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to linebacking excellence, and Greg Lloyd distinguished himself as a top member of that elite group.

  • In 1987 the Steelers drafted Greg Lloyd out of Ft. Valley State in the six round.

Expectations of 6th round picks from Ft. Valley State run low, but Greg Lloyd so distinguished himself that ESPN ranked him at 27th in 2008 on its list of “Top 50 All Time Draft Steals.” Greg Lloyd would have ranked higher on the list, but so many of the things Greg Lloyd brought the field were intangible.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

If, as Mike Tomlin used to say, Hines Ward is a football player first and a wide receiver second, then Greg Lloyd was a warrior before he was an outside linebacker.

  • Greg Lloyd was about intensity, attitude, fury, and “Just Plain Nasty.”

What most people fail to realize is that Greg Lloyd played his entire career with an ACL missing in one knee, and another ACL basically stapled together in his other knee. Lloyd overcame these liabilities because he had an undeniable on-the-field presence.

Jerry Olsavsky tells the story of making a tackle as a rookie and reaching down to help the opposing player up, only to have his hand slapped away by as Greg Lloyd commanded “We don’t do that here!”

Greg Lloyd was relentless. Lloyd was not blessed with anything near the athletic skills of Rod Woodson, but Greg Lloyd set the tone for the Steelers defense. Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career saw Number 95 start 125 games for Pittsburgh, register 53.5 sacks, make 659 tackles, and force 34 fumbles. Not bad, for a guy out of Ft. Valley State.

When Rod Woodson went down in the first game of the 1995 season, Lloyd animated the concept of stepping it up. In his best season ever, Greg Lloyd made 117 tackles, registered 6.5 sacks, intercepted three balls, and forced six fumbles.

  • Greg Lloyd exploded at the snap and wrought havoc in the offensive backfield.

Seldom was Number 95 outside of the camera view when a tackle was being made. Greg Lloyd was the rare player who altered the course games with the sheer force of his will.

The Steelers were losing 9-3 at half time in the final game of the 1993 season to a mediocre Browns team. They needed to win for a shot at the playoffs. In the locker room Greg Lloyd read his team the riot act, smashing a chair, offering to go out and play offense if that unit continued to be unable to do its part.

  • Greg Lloyd backed word with deed.

Two weeks prior he’d torn his hamstring, but readied to play by doing more than the required rehabilitation. He dominated the Browns, leading the team in tackles, making one sack, forcing two fumbles, and saving a touchdown by running down a Cleveland ball carrier from what seemed like ten yards behind.

  • Unfortunately, in the first game of 1996 it was Greg Lloyd’s turn to go down with a season-ending injury.

He recovered and was back on the field for opening day 1997, but was slow to regain his dominating presence. Greg Lloyd opened the second half of the season by registering a sack in games 9, 10, and 11. He opened week 12 against the Eagles like a house of fire, knocking Bobby Hoying down as he threw the ball away on an early pass. After that play I remember proclaiming to the members of the PSFCOB at the Purple Goose Saloon, “Greg Lloyd is Back!”

  • Alas, that would be Lloyd’s last play for the Steelers.

He seriously injured his ankle on that play, and a brush with Veteran’s Stadium artificial turf resulted in a staph infection that caused him to lose more than 20 pounds.

Still hobbled by injury, Lloyd nonetheless reported to mini-camp and drilled with the team, an act which made an impression on rookie Hines WardBill Cowher praised Lloyd’s competitive drive, but the team was forced to cut him shortly before training camp.

That was 20 years ago this week. While Joey Porter, James Farrior, Jason Gildon and for a time LaMarr Woodley certainly carried on the Steelers linebacker legacy, but no one (save for James Harrison) has ever matched Greg Lloyd’s intensity, explosiveness, or on-the-field presence.

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Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

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