T.J. Watt Is Already the Pittsburgh Steelers Sack Leader – Let that Sink In

The Steelers victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football was the essence of an “ugly win.” Anytime your defense scores more touchdowns than your offense, you know it ain’t pretty.

  • But Steelers History passed a critical milestone at Acrisure Stadium.

T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns MNF, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt Steelers all time sack leader

T.J. Watt sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP via San Diego Tribune-Review

Let’s repeat: T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re not talking about the Houston Texas, or the Los Angeles-Anaheim-St. Louis-Los Angles Rams.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the franchise that has defined defensive excellence for three generations. This is the franchise that gave us the Steel Curtain and a generation later gave is Blitzburgh. This same franchise who had a member of their defense set the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers were the first, and only, football team to have its defensive line featured on the cover of Time Magazine, back when that meant something.

Effective defense in the NFL goes way beyond getting after the quarterback, but you’d be wise to start there.

So just how does T.J. Watt’s accomplishment stack up in terms of the Steelers larger legacy? Let’s take a look:

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Sack Leaders

Before diving into the stat sheet above, let’s offer a big shout out to my friend and staff writer Tony Defeo. When the Steelers cut Woodley, Defeo put his accomplishments in context by calling out how Woodley had led the Steelers in sacks per game.

The totals above include Woodley’s full body of work, but if you look at Woodley’s career from his debut to the 2011 win against the Patriots, he averaged 0.8 sacks per game.

  • That was an incredible accomplishment, but Watt is beating him by a mile.

Kevin Greene, a Hall of Famer, is next. After that you get Joey Porter, Bud Dupree and the original Steel Curtain makes an appearance with Ernie Holmes.

What else can we learn from this?

First, the numbers reveal how the modern game has evolved. While each member of the original Steel Curtain makes this list, only Holmes is in the top half. Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene are in the middle. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham aren’t anywhere to be seen, with Andy Russell only eking his way in at the bottom.

Bud Carson and George Perles’ defense didn’t need to blitz often because the NFL didn’t handcuff its defensive backs before the Mel Blount Rule.

Second, you can see the difference between great Steelers pass rushers and those who were truly special. The great ones sacked the quarterback somewhere between 40 and 50% of the games. Get beyond that, and you’re truly at an elite level.

Fourth, there’s an additional metric for differentiating players on this list, and that’s players with forced fumbles. Sacking the quarterback is critical, but so much more meaningful if you can knock the ball out while doing it. (Just ask Alex Highsmith and Deshaun Watson.)

Unfortunately data isn’t available for members of the original Steel Curtain or 1980’s stalwart Keith Willis. But it does show us that players like Jason Gildon and even Lamarr Woodley weren’t as dynamic, while driving home the fact that guys like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison had innate playmaking ability.

Finally, and not surprisingly, T.J. Watt leads the field here too – by a mile. This guy sacks the quarterback in almost every game and causes a forced fumble in just under 1/3 of his games.

My take away? Man, I’m glad T.J. Watt is a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023

The moment we’ve all been waiting for since Mike Tomlin exclaimed “Kenny F__king Pickett” after last December’s  comeback over the Ravens is almost here. This Sunday at 1:00 pm the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2023 season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

Last year, I dedicated my season preview to my friend, the late, great, Ivan Cole. Prior to each season, Ivan would write his “The Case for the Steelers in…,” and my goal wasn’t simply to follow his form, but to try to find his tone. It felt good then and it feels right now, so this year I’m doing it again.

As a quick reminder, Ivan’s “The Case for the Steelers” articles weren’t predictions on what the Steelers would do, but rather vision of what they could do. Here goes.

Mike Tomlin, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Tomlin says “Kenny F___ing Pickett.” Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy Sports.com

A Quarterback Room That’s the Envy of the League?

We are told that quarterback is the NFL’s most important position. That’s always been true. It is more true today.

Look back to previous eras. Who were Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson’s quarterbacks? No one remembers.
Yet glance around today. Who were Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford handing off to in the last two Super Bowls? We’ve already forgotten.

In this sense the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room is the envy of the the NFL. In Kenny Pickett the Steelers have a player who looks poised to make the proverbial “2nd year leap.” Pickett’s 2022 passing numbers won’t impress Fantasy Football fans. But the moxie and mental toughness he showed in leading 2 come from behind wins late in the season means far more to Reality Football fans.

Behind Pickett, the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky, a former first round pick. Trubisky’s brief tenure as starter revealed why the rest of the NFL wrote him off. However, his play in the wins against the Buccaneers and Panthers shows why he can be a long-term backup in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph rounds out the room. Rudolph will never win respect from most Steelers fans. But let’s be honest. Every other NFL coach would sleep better if their third string quarterback had 17 games and 10 starts of NFL experience under his belt. Do you doubt that the third string quarterback matters? If so just remember: The Mike Tomlin Era has basically been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd String Quarterbacks.

Running Backs – Depth Here Where Its Undervalued Elsewhere?

Even if the NFL undervalues running backs in the salary cap era, a strong running game can certainly for a critical component of a championship team.

If that’s the case, then the Steelers are in good position with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris has his critics, but he’s posted consecutive 1000 yard seasons running behind substandard offensive lines and/or while injured. Jaylen Warren earned playing time as an undrafted free agent rookie last summer and gives every indication of pushing Harris, a former first rounder, for playing time.

Going into training camp, some speculated the Steelers would only carry 2 running backs on their opening day roster. But Anthony McFarland quelled that with an outstanding preseason where he proved himself as a true dual threat.

Aerial Attack – Enough Footballs to Go Around?

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

One of Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s biggest challenges could be spreading the football around. Diontae Johnson remains a reliable all-purpose threat. George Pickens has yet to be thrown a pass in his catch radius that he can’t bring around. And Calvin Austin has field-stretching speed.

  • And when he does, Allen Robinson and Pat Friermuth can do their damage underneath.

And of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Connor Heyward, who after making several impact plays in 2022, is following that up by making himself into an offensive Swiss Army Knife.

Rounding it out, you have Gunner Olszewski who in Mike Tomlin’s words, plays with “toughness and versatility and smarts.” If nothing else, rookie Darnell “Mt. Washington” should net the Steelers a couple of three pass interference penalties in the Red Zone.

Flipping Both Lines

Two years ago it took 7 Ben Roethlisberger rallies to overcome the deficits created by historic weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines. By the end of 2022, both units improved to the point where they were no longer liabilities.

  • Going into 2023, both lines appear to be growing into strengths.

Watch Jaylen Warren’s prseason run against the Bills again to understand how much better the offensive line can be this season:

While the contribution from newcomer Isaac Seumalo is evident, the truly exciting thing is that the best play was authored by Dan Moore, the once-maligned left tackle who has improved so much he’s keeping first round draft pick Broderick Jones on the bench.

Last year’s arrival of Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defensive line the shot in the arm it desperately needed. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh’s rush defense improved from 32nd to 9th in the NFL. Yet, to achieve that Cam Heyward still needed to play 75% of defensive snaps.

Last year’s starting nose tackle Montravius Adams returns, which is a good sign. But an even better sign is that rookie Keeanu Benton is not only pushing him for playing time, but might supplant him as starter as he has already pushed free agent signinee Breiden Fehoko to the practice squad.

Isaiahh Loudermilk, after suffering a bit of a “sophomore struggle,” had a strong camp and preseason. Last, but not least is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers 2022 2nd round pick who saw his playing time increase late in the season just as the Steelers run defense was improving. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.

Linebackering: Reinforcing the Foundation and Ripping Down to the Studs

If you look at the great Steelers defense from the 1970’s onward, you’ll see that there’s one constant that unites them: Exceptional linebackers.

Yes, they’ve had Hall of Fame players on the defensive line and in the secondary. But think of how easy it is to picture Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown or James Harrison strolling out of a DeLorean and playing alongside Joe Greene, Mel Blount and/or Troy Polamalu. Now repeat the same exercise with good players Ray Seals or Bryant McFadden. It isn’t quite as easy, is it?

So let’s look at what Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did with their linebacker room this off season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

We’ve all seen that statistics showing the Steelers ’22 defense with and without T.J. Watt, and the same dynamic was at work with the impact of Alex Highsmith. Turning inward, the Steelers defensive staff mixed and matched 3 different inside linebackers all season long.

Yet, even if linebacking improved from 2021 to 2022, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. So Omar Khan strengthened the foundation on the outside, while tearing things down to the studs on the inside.

First, the Steelers signed outside linebacker Markus Golden – a virtual statistical clone of Bud Dupree, whom everyone wanted back. They also drafted Nick Herbig who promted fans to ask during preseason, “Why did he last until the 4th round?” The Steelers outside linebacking depth is sound.

Shifting inside, Omar Khan renovated without mercy. Gone are Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Myles Jack. In their place are Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Mark Robinson, a converted running back, returns for year two.

Prudence demands we offer the “Its only preseason” caveat, but if early returns are any indication, the Steelers may have flipped their inside linebacker position.

Secondary: Calculated Risks and Hedged Bets

In 2022, the Steelers secondary authored highlights in abundance. It was a ball-hawking unit that hauled in over 20 interceptions. That was an NFL best, if you’re wondering. Yet turnovers are only one metric. An analysis of others finds the ’22 pass defense wanting.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking it 25th in the NFL.

As they did elsewhere, the front office made several bold moves. Some carry risk. The Steelers invested heavily in the development of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds. Both men had provided vital stability.

Tomlin and Khan are ready to trade stability for splash and spark, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal and drafted Joey Porter Jr. to replace them.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Peterson is a future Hall of Famer. He was exceptional in Minnesota last year. Yet, he’s 33 and cornerback is a young man’s game. Neal entered the league as first round pick. He started his career with a bang, but got derailed by injuries on and off since then. His counterpart, Damontae Kazee, also carries some injury baggage.

While these concerns are real, the Steelers have made several moves to mitigate these risks.

Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley both looked outstanding in preseason and provide depth. Khan snatched up veteran corner Desmond King after cut down day. Patrick Peterson could also shift to safety if needed; indeed, some suggest his long term future is at safety.

Behind all of these names stand Minkah Fitzpatrick, a man who is playing himself into carrying the label of being a “generational talent.”

A Word on the AFC North

The dynamics in the AFC North have changed and decidedly not in the Steelers favor. Or so we are assured. Let’s concede the obvious:

  • The Baltimore Ravens always field consistent winners.
  • They’ve kept former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the fold.
  • Joe Burrow is already proved he’ll be one of this generation’s great quarterbacks.
  • The Cleveland Browns are finally reaping the fruits picking in the top-third of the draft for over a decade.
  • Now they have Deshaun Watson to guide them for a full season.

The task is tall. But “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Here, a few facts from the ’22 might be illuminating:

  • The ’22 Steelers went 1-1 against the Bengals.
  • They went 1-1 against the Ravens, earning their win in late December.
  • 2 weeks later a freak, 4th quarter goal line fumble separated Baltimore from a playoff upset of Cincinnati.
  • Pittsburgh went 1-1 against Cleveland last year; their win came with Watson starting

Dare I suggest that “Iron Sharpening Iron” has already begun…?

Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin in Earnest

I’ll close as my friend Ivan always did by reminding readers that these “The Case For” column’s aren’t predictions but best-case scenarios. We all know too well how a few inopportune injuries can lay waste to the best laid plans of mice and NFL coaches and general managers.

But with that caveat in mind, I think we can all say that there are plenty of reasons for optimism as the Kenny Pickett era begins in earnest in general. And specifically, a “Best-secnario” for this season ending with a Lombardi Trophy are a lot more realistic than they’ve been in a long time.

Bring on the 49ers!

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Sometimes Lady Luck Ain’t Fair: Cory Trice’s Injury Begins the Winnowing of the ’23 Steelers Draft Class

It only took the first day of padded practices. The injury was actually contactless. Yet the winnowing of the Steelers 2023 draft class has begun.

And its first victim is 7th round draft pick Cory Trice.

Cory Trice is a 6’3” cornerback who played in 30 games for Perdue making 5 interceptions. Trice tore an ACL in his left leg 2021, but he rebounded to post a strong season for the Boiler Makers in 2022.

Cory Trice, Cory Trice injury

Steelers 7th round pick Cory Trice is carted from the field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Despite his injury history, Dane Brugler of The Athletic rated him as the 14th best corner in the draft and the 88th best player overall. NFL scouts felt differently. Trice didn’t go a 88, but 153 picks later. Still, when the Steelers drafted him at 241 in the 7th round, drafnics immediately pronounced him as “steal.”

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took stock of Trice’s medical history and draft pedigree to conclude: “They HAD to take this cornerback.”

Maybe they did. And maybe couple of 3 years from now we’ll say that Corey Trice was to Lombardi Number 7 what Deshea Townsend was to Lombardi Number 5 and Lombardi Number 6. Let’s hope so.

But today the story on Corey Trice is something different and cautionary, if not darker:

  • Lady Luck plays as big of a role in successful NFL drafting as does science and art.

Normally when you think of Lady Luck’s role in the draft you think of the players you could or couldn’t take. Think of missing out on William Jackson and getting Artie Burns instead. Or not getting O.J. Simpson and having to “settle” for drafting Joe Greene.

  • But Lady Luck continues playing her role long after a pick reaches the podium.

All reports on Corey Trice from OTA’s, Minicamp and non-padded practices were positive. This kid looked like a keeper. Yet, on Tuesday August 1st, Kwon Alexander tackled Jordan Byrd. Corey Trice didn’t touch either man or anyone else during the play, but as soon as it was over he stood in in pain favoring his left side, having sustained an injury to his right leg.

“That’s just unfortunate,” Mike Tomlin explained, “but that’s football and life.”

Tomlin is right. Sometimes Lady Luck just ain’t fair.

In 2011 running back Baron Batch started off at St. Vincents looking like a late round steal, only to tear his ACL. Further back, 6th round pickc ornerback Barron Miles was having a very strong camp until suffering a knee injury in the 1995 Steelers preseason game against the Bills, and was lost for the year.

Batch returned in 2012 to earn 49 yards on 25 carries, but Barron Miles never played down in the NFL, (although he was quite successful in the CFL.)

Those two fared better than Senquez Golson, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Golson missed his rookie training camp with a torn rotator cuff, suffered a Lisfranc injury in his second summer at St. Vincents, got injured again in ’17 and after being cut he spent a few days on Tampa Bay’s practice squad and was done.

That’s three NFL careers – two would-be steals and one premium pick – all ended in the blink of Lady Luck’s eye.

  • Corey Trice should remain hopeful. Lady Luck sometimes grants second chances.
Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

Ahead of the Steelers 1987 draft Tom Donahoe spied a dominating outside linebacker in some grainy footage from Ft. Valley State. The Steelers picked Greg Lloyd in the 6th round that spring, but Lloyd tore an ACL in preseason against Washington and spent his rookie year on IR. Lloyd got injured again in the summer of 1988 and spent the first seven games in IR.

But Lloyd appeared in the final nine games of 1988 including four starts.

Here’s where things get a bit uncanny. Where did Lloyd make his first start? On November 13th 1988 at Philadelphia. Where was his last start for the Steelers? November 23rd, 1997 where he injured himself on the turf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium during the 1997 Steelers loss to the Eagles.

It would seem that even when she grants second chances, Lady Luck certainly lacks no sense of irony.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Change the Pennsylvania State Song to the Steelers/Western Pennsylvania Polka

As the month of June ended two things caught my attention:

1.       The Steelers seemingly avoided their dreaded June Curse
2.       The Pennsylvania State legislature was considering changing the official state song

The former is most welcome, given that June is the month that where the Steelers lost Chuck Noll, see Willie Colon’s season end due to an off season injury, cut David DeCastro and have Stephon Tuitt lose is brother, ultimately leading him to retire.

If the former is about avoiding tragedy, the former is about embracing opportunity. That’s right. If the Pennsylvania State Legislature wants to change the state song, then there can be no better option than  Jimmy Psihoulis “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

Residents of Philadelphia, Lancaster, Allentown, King of Prussia might object, saying the State Song should be about the entire state, not just its western part. Sure, that makes superficial sense.

  • But the truth is, popular culture already gives those parts of the state already disproportionate share of their adieu.

Think about it, Philly has the Cheesesteak and Philadelphia Cream Cheese, the latter of which is a global commodity (yes, you can even find it here in Buenos Aires, if you look for it.) Its most famous resident, Ben Franklin, is on the 100 dollar bill. And of course one of Tom Hanks breakthrough roles was in Philadelphia – sure, he played also Mr. Rogers, but he didn’t even attempt the accent.

Speaking of accents, the Philly/Southwestern Pennsylvania accent got four-star treatment in the Mayor of Eastown. Lot’s and lots of movies and TV shows get filmed and/or set in Pittsburgh.

But when was the last time you heard a character ask, “Sorry, but yinz mind getting owta of my road for a minute? I gotta I redd the table. And hey, as you’re getting up can you hand me those gumbands?”

Steelers Polka, Western Pennsylvania Polka, Jimmy Pol, Jimmy Psihoulis

Jimmy Psihoulis aka “Jimmy Pol” at Three Rivers Stadium in 1979 during the AFC Championship game

Lancaster has the movie Witness and the Amish tradition. Allentown has its own Billy Joel song. The name “King of Prussia” evokes images of Bismarck and 19th century German might.

  • More importantly, Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka stands on its own.

As the official Pennsylvania state song, it will teach citizens about the Commonwealth’s history and offer true life lessons that everyone can benefit. A simple, stanza-by-stanza analysis of the lyrics proves this:

Da-Da-Da-Da-Ta-Da – Charge!

We’re from the town with that great football team,
We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Chuck Noll and all his friends are all on the field.
Go out and get them Steelers.

Too many kids and adults today sit on couches with faces fixed screens. What better antidote than meeting friends on the field to play?

Bradshaw, and Rocky, and Franco and Lynn,
We love you Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s been many years in coming,
just keep that Steelers machinery humming

The last time lines bring home an important message: Good things take time, so it’s important to appreciate them when they do come.

Defense, Defense, make them scramble, intercept that ball.
Defense, Defense, keeps the Steelers always best of all!
Mean Joe, Mean Joe, do your thing against the other team,
You start from year to year, we’re so glad you play here,
Now join with me, and sing the Steelers cheer-er-ER!

Joe Greene single handedly shifted the trajectory of an entire franchise – what an excellent example of empowerment in action — from a Penn State grad no less!.

We’re from the town with that great football team,
We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Winning’s a habit, not only a dream,
Go out and get them Steelers!

Good habits lead to consistent, successful performance.

Gerela’s Gorrilas are here for the show,
and so is Franco’s Army,
It’s been many years in coming,
just keep that Steelers machinery humming.

In just 12 words we’re celebrating conservationism, diversity and lauding the contributions of immigrants to the Keystone State.

Offense, Offense, take that football whole way up the field!
Offense, Offense, let’s score and score and never ever yield!
Franco, Franco, can you believe we have a running game?

Take the initiative and always remain persistent – what state legislator could argue with a song that teaches that lesson?

The Steelers are so great, and so hard to overrate,
Good things, will come, to those who work and wait.
Charge!

Reinforcing the reality that you achieve excellence through patience and hard work instead of instant gratification.

So really the case is clear.

The move to change Pennsylvania’s state song is a bi-partisan effort pushed by Reps Craig Williams and Joe Ciresi.

The only remaining is, gentleman, what are you waiting for?

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

End of an Era: John Mitchell Retires after 29 Years as a Steelers Assistant Coach

Little did he know, but Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was about to start the “John Mitchell” era.

The day was Tuesday January 11th, 1993. The site was Three Rivers Stadium and the 1993 Steelers season had ended in with a bang. Literally.

The Steelers reached the end of 4th quarter clinging to a 7-point lead in a Wild Card game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. A failed attempt on third down sent Mark Royals out to punt. Steelers cast off Keith Cash blocked it, giving the Chiefs the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory. Worse yet, Cash gave Joe Montana what you absolutely could not give him – a 2nd chance.

Montana tied the game in regulation and Nick Lowery won it on overtime. Bill Cowher reacted decisively.

He fired Special Teams coach John Guy. Everyone expected this. The blocked punt culminated a season of special team’s disaster. He also fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison. And Cowher made one more move: He sacked defensive line coach Steve Furness.

Cowher surprised everyone with the Furness firing. Not only was Steve Furness a Steel Curtain Veteran sporting 4 Super Bowl rings, but the arrow seemed to be pointing up on Steelers defensive line.

Indeed. Instead of mouthing the obligatory “Thanks to the Rooneys for the opportunity” words, Furness made no attempt to hide his bitterness and the firing apparently haunted him for the rest of his life.

  • But as so often is the case in the NFL, when a door closes for one person, it creates an opportunity for another.
John Mitchell, Steelers Assistant Coach 29 years

John Mitchell, 29 years a Steelers Assistant coach. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Bill Cowher hired John Mitchell to coach the defensive line. John Mitchell didn’t so much as take advantage of that opportunity, but rather he molded it, transformed it and remade it as his own.

  • Mitchell retired last week after 29 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In stepping away, Mitchell ends an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers that was as remarkable as it was understated.

To understand just how understated the “Mitchell Era” was try this test: Strip a Steelers fan of his or her smart phone and ask – “Who was the longest tenured Steelers defensive coach?” Most would probably answer “Dick LeBeau.” Some will probably say “Bud Carson” or “George Perles.” “Tony Dungy” might earn an honorable mention. I guarantee you that few would answer “John Mitchell” even though with 29 years of service as defensive line and then assistant head coach that is the right answer.

To understand how remarkable Mitchell’s tenure has been, consider the fate of his opposite number on offensive line. When the Steelers hired Karl Dunbar to replace Mitchell as defensive line coach in 2018, we observed that since Dunbar’s rookie training camp at St. Vincents in 1991, the only other coaches the title of “Defensive line coach” for the Pittsburgh Steelers were Joe Greene and Furness.

Since Dunbar’s return in 2018, the Steelers have cycled through Mike Munchak, Shaun Saurett, Adrian Klemm and Pat Meyer as offensive line coaches.

As Dick Hoak observed when he retired as Steelers running backs coach “You’re hired to be fired. I guess I beat the system.” So did John Mitchell.

And he beat the system by remolding and reforming the young defensive lineman in his own image. This fact has been well known and evident in the fact that very few defensive lineman started for John Mitchell as rookies.

Mitchell explained this system to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell,

Aaron Smith’s first two years, he didn’t like me because I never called him by his name. I called him ninety-one. Aaron Smith came from a small school, Northern Colorado, and they only had about three or four coaches on the staff, so Aaron Smith didn’t know any fine points about football. When he got here, he had to play technique football. The first year and a half was pretty tough on him.

Aaron Smith agrees, sharing with Ron Lippock from Steelers Takeaways: “We laugh about it now. I thought he hated me and I hated him. But now, there’s no greater person.”

  • For a quarter century Mitchell put the Steelers defensive line through similar paces.
Johnny Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell, Johnny Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Even the most educated fan has a difficult, if not impossible time assessing a position coach. Do you judge Carnell Lake on the disappointing careers that Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas authored? Or do you measure the “Lake Effect” on William Gay’s maturation following his return to Pittsburgh and rejuvenation of Kennan Lewis under Lake’s tutelage?

But when a truly great assistant coach comes along no such intellectual gymnastics are necessary. John Mitchell is one of those assistant coaches. What to understand his impact? The just look at these players: Joel Steed, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave.

Thank you John Mitchell to your contributions to the “Steelers Way.” We wish you the best in retirement.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Both “Franco’s Italian Army” and Franco Harris Himself Fueled the Explosion of Steelers Nation

It has been said that Mean Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner and four-time Super Bowl champion, helped change the culture within the Steelers organization.

Joe Greene refused to accept losing and a losing mentality, and he demanded that everyone–including his teammates, coaches and even the team owner–have that same mindset.

  • It’s hard to argue with that sentiment.
Al Vento, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Franco's Italian Army

Al Vento and wife, Franco Harris, John Stallworth. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

But if Greene changed the culture within the Steelers organization, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a four-time Super Bowl champion, helped change the culture in the stands and in the fan base.

Franco Harris unexpectedly passed away on Wednesday, just days before he was to be honored by having his No. 32 retired 50 years and one day after he starred in the greatest play in NFL history — the Immaculate Reception.

Franco Harris’s sad passing has been met with countless stories of his love of community, love of Steelers fans and just a genuineness that was hard to fake.

Harris became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community and one of the most accessible athletes in the history of the region’s sports landscape.

And I believe the seeds of the figure Harris would become were planted 50 years ago when the Steelers selected him out of Penn State in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

Most Steelers fans know the sad history of the franchise for the first 40 years of its existence. Pittsburgh appeared in one postseason game between 1933-1972–a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in an Eastern Conference Playoff Game in 1947.

  • The Pirates were the most popular team in Pittsburgh, and baseball was the top sport.

For years, the Steelers played their home games at Forbes Field–really a baseball venue–before moving to Pitt Stadium–the football home of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

But even after Three Rivers Stadium gave the Steelers their first true home in 1970 — sharing it with the Pirates, of course — attendance just wasn’t good. That’s because the results on the field still weren’t promising, even if Chuck Noll, the new head coach hired in 1969, was putting the pillars in place for what would become a rock-solid contender by the early-’70s.

  • But nobody could see it, yet. Nobody could even sense that it was on the horizon.

That all changed in 1972 with the arrival of Harris.

Harris rushed for 1,055 yards as a rookie and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. He was eventually named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.

Harris also galvanized the fan base like no Steelers player had been able to do before him. The fans immediately adopted the youngster, who was of mixed race, as his father was African American, while his mother was Italian. The Italian part of Harris’s heritage was what spawned the most famous fan club in Pittsburgh sports history:

  • Franco’s Italian Army.
Frank Sinatra, Franco Harris, Franco's Italian Army

Frank Sinatra is inducted into “Franco’s Italian Army” in December 1972. Photo Credit: Facebook.com

Franco’s Italian Army was so popular by the end of the 1972 season that Frank Sinatra was named an honorary member and actually interrupted a practice one day in order to greet the rookie running back.

But, make no mistake, Franco Harris was embraced by everyone. Many fans — black, white, Italian, Irish, etc. –identified with Harris. Again, being of mixed race in the early-’70s wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today (and it’s not exactly easy today). Yet, Harris transcended the social climate of the time and was able to find universal appeal.

It certainly helped that he was successful right away and that his arrival marked a transition for the franchise, as the Steelers finished 11-3 and won their first AFC Central Division title. The fans were so ravenous for a football winner by the time Harris came on the scene that, according to him, it was like the whole city had been waiting for such a thing forever.

Even before the end of the 1972 campaign, many more player fan clubs had popped up in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium, but the Italian Army was always the most famous. Harris rewarded his soldiers on December 23, 1972, by riding in on a white stallion (to quote Jack Fleming, the team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster for many years) and riding off into the sunset by scoring a touchdown that not only gave the Steelers their first playoff victory in team history but would continue to grow in lore until it became larger than life.

  • Much like Franco.
  • Much like Steelers fans.

Player fan clubs became commonplace by the end of the decade, as just about every player–even guys like John Banaszak and Dirt Winston — had banners hanging from the stands of old Three Rivers Stadium in celebration of the four-time Super Bowl champions.

Myron Cope, the late, great Steelers color commentator, radio personality and Sports Illustrated writer, created the Terrible Towel in 1975, and it has become the unifying symbol for Steelers fans all over the world.

  • That’s right, I said “The world.”

Thanks to the decay of the steel industry in the 1970s, Pittsburghers were forced to migrate to other parts of the country and even the world in subsequent decades. But no matter where they decided to put down roots, the love for the Steelers stayed with these folks.

  • And this love was passed down to their children and even their grandchildren.

Today, we refer to anyone who is part of this passionate black-and-gold-clad fan base as a member of Steeler Nation.

  • But I believe Steeler Nation started as Franco’s Italian Army in 1972 and just continued to grow from there.

Franco Harris meant so much to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the success they had on the field.

But he may have meant even more to their fans and is perhaps the most galvanizing player in the history of the franchise.

RIP, Franco.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

George Pickens Catch = The Beauty and Bliss of Steelers Training Camp

The Steelers returned to St. Vincents, in Latrobe on Tuesday, July 26th after a 2 year thanks to COVID-19. And took just 24 hours and less than one picture on my Whats App to bring home the beauty and bliss that is summer at St. Vincents.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 training camp, Cam Sutton

George Pickens making a catch on the first day @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted George Pickens in the 2nd round of the 2022 NFL Draft, friends who know a lot more about X’s and O’s than I do were excited. A quick look at his college record revealed why. This kid had talent, and were it not for an injury, he’d surely have gone early in the 1st round.

And this first photo from training camp makes it easy to see why:

In a single shot you have the beauty of training camp.

Sure, as Jim Wexell pointed out, it was only, “a lazy, looping “bomb” by Trubisky that Cam Sutton allowed George Pickens to catch as he was falling down.” But you know what? It matters not. And that’s the bliss of training camp.

Art Rooney Sr. once lamented to a reporter that, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” The Chief was right. The draft is about potential. St. Vincent is about seeing how can prove their potential.

Every summer is filled with these moments like George Pickens catch. Some of these go on to earn their rightful spot in Steelers lore, such as Joe Greene dominating in the Oklahoma Drill as soon as he arrived at St. Vincents or Ben Roethlisberger making an “a memorable rollout, throwback, 40-yard laser to Zamir Cobb” that caught Bill Cowher’s attention and brought Big Ben 1 step closer to Tommy Maddox on the depth chart.

Others, fade into obscurity. During my first year in Buenos Aires prior to the Steelers 2001 season I remember excitedly read Bob Labriola’s account in the Steelers Digest Kendrell Bell stopping Jerome Bettis at the goal line with a hit so resounding that it echoed off the hills which surround Chuck Noll field.

No one remembers that now because today Jerome Bettis is in the NFL Hall of Fame, while Kendrell Bell is a One Year Wonder Steelers rookie of the year.

  • How will we remember George Pickens catch a generation from now?

Will we see it as the first sign that this kid was something special?  Or will this photo only serve to remind us of how deeply he disappointed us ? Only time can tell us where George Pickens’ journey will take him and just as time will tell us where the 2022 Steelers journey will take them.

But that one photo of George Pickens is proof that the journey has begun.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

A Steelers Fan Looks at 50: If You’ve Watched the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben Play, You’re Old

I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.

Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.

Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.

What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.

Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.

While the second Super Bowl era officially ended in an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 regular season, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to overhaul its roster and become a bona fide contender again by the mid-10s.

Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

  • What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?

Man, I’m getting up there. I’ve seen both Joe Greene and Cam Heyward. I’ve been around for both Jack Ham and T.J. Watt.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Yancey Thigpen, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Pickens.

I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?

Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.

I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.

My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to

Super Bowl XL
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

 did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.

  • I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.

Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?

As the Steelers begin a new era with a new quarterback–it’s either going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett who gets the first crack at replacing Big Ben–I sure can’t wait to find out.

 

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Look Far, Stay Close: Steelers Hire Omar Kahn to Replace Kevin Colbert

After interviewing 16 candidates from around the NFL to find Kevin Colbert’s replacement, Steelers President Art Rooney II settled on one who has been in his own back yard since 2001, naming Omar Khan as the next General Manager.

Omar Khan, Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert

Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Omar Khan joined the Steelers in 2001, one year after Kevin Colbert arrived, serving as football operations coordinator and was named as Vice President of Football and Business Administration in 2011, one year after Kevin Colbert officially got the title of general manager.

In a statement released by the team, Khan commented:

I am extremely excited for this opportunity to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I would like to thank Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert for their support throughout this process. I am ready for this challenge and grateful to continue the success we have had on the field during my first 21 years. I look forward to completing our football operations staff and working tirelessly to build another championship football team for Steelers Nation and our community.

The choice of Khan does represent a bit of a departure for the Steelers in that his background is on the business side of the operations, as opposed to scouting. (Although Khan did gain scouting experience while working with the New Orleans Saints.

Andy Weidl of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was also a finalist to replace Colbert, will reportedly join the team as Assistant General Manager, although the hire has not yet been announced.

There’s been no word on what role if any Brandon Hunt, the Steelers current Pro Scouting Coordinator will play with the organization. Hunt interviewed and was a finalist for the job.

Steelers MO: Look Far for Coaches, Stay Close for Front Office

In another sense the Steelers decision to promote Khan from within is in keeping with their MO for hiring a front office head. For all intents and purposes, Art Rooney Jr. was the first head of the Steelers scouting department.

And when Chuck Noll retired and Haley left the Steelers, Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations. When the breach between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe became unbridgeable, Dan Rooney again interviewed candidates from across the league, only to settle on Kevin Colbert, who was not only a Pittsburgh native, but an alumni of North Catholic, the same high school that Rooney and Donahoe had attended.

  • That stands in contrast to their MO for hiring coaches.

Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll from outside the organization (OK, it’s not like Bill Austin’s staff was stocked with up and comers). When Noll stepped down, the smart money was on Joe Greene as his replacement.

But an exhaustive search lead them to Bill Cowher. When Bill Cowher hung it up, the front runners to replace him were Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. Both men were serious contenders and Grimm was one of the finalists, but the job ultimately went to Mike Tomlin, who was with the Minnesota Vikings.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line – Invest in the Future Now

Draft picks on defensive line have a way of defining eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Greene’s arrival pivoted the franchise from loser to champion. Passing on Dan Marino for Gabe Rivera was a mistake it took 2 decades to atone for. And the selection of Aaron Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft is one of the unsung moments in the building of the Steelers second Super Bowl Era.

As the 2022 NFL Draft arrives, defensive line is clearly an area of need for Pittsburgh. Lets find out just how deeply that need runs.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart at: The Starter

The bad news? Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers only have one confirmed starter on the defensive line.

When the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert pronounced it a “historic day” for the franchise. Those were perhaps the truest words of post-draft praise since Chuck Noll proclaimed his love for Rod Woodson during the 1987 NFL Draft.

In playing 11 years, 166 games and 131 starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cam Heyward has become more than a dominant player on the field, a locker room leader off the field and a pillar within the community of Pittsburgh, Heyward has arguably become the face of the franchise.

In 2021, at age 32 and playing alongside junior varsity defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, didn’t simply turn in an All Pro performance with his 10 sacks, 17 QB hits, interception and nine defensed passes, he showed himself to be worthy of mention alongside franchise legends Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.

Heyward will be 33 in 2022, and if he’s shown little sign of slowing down thus far, the Steelers must be mindful of his age.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Could Be Starters

If you are surprised to read that Cam Heyward is the only confirmed starter on defensive line, you should be. Thus far there’s been no public indication that Tyson Alualu will not be back in 2022. And Steel Curtain Rising has zero access to sources that would contradict this.

However, Alualu is 35 and he is coming off of an injury that cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2021 campaign. If Alualu can stay healthy and can return to something resembling his former level, he’ll be an asset to the team.

The Steelers defense dominated at the beginning of 2020 and only began to slip with Alualu’s injury against the Ravens. The run defense took a noticeable hit when he went out against the Raiders in week 2 of 2021 and never improved.

Unlike Alualu, there has been question about whether Stephon Tuitt will return to play football in 2022. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all expressed optimism, but they’ve all been non-committal.

Stephon Tuitt had a monster year in 2020, 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Mike Tomlin likes to say that backups are really just “starters in waiting.” Yeah. That might be true in many cases, but it certainly was false for the Steelers in 2021. The absence of Tuitt and Alualu exposed the Steelers defensive line’s dearth of depth the way a root canal without pain killers exposes a nerve.

  • The Steelers had the worst run defense in franchise history since the 1940’s.

The unit was so bad that the Steelers signed Montravius Adams in week 13 off of the Saints practice squad, started him and saw the unit improve. Adams pushed Isahiah Buggs off the team, and will be back in 2022.

One potential “benefit” to the injuries to Tuitt and Alualu is that the Steelers got Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field. The Steelers traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get Loudermilk, and many questioned the move. However,  Loudermilk played reasonably well with on sack and 3 passes defensed and appears to have upside.

They also have Chris Wormley who started 14 games in 2021 and recorded 7 sacks, shining brightly against Baltimore.

In addition to Wromely, the Steelers have Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis. Mondeaux saw action in 15 games and Davis played in 4 games, or 3 fewer than his rookie season.

The Steelers 2022 Defensive Line Draft Needs

A best case scenario for the Steelers in 2022 would see Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu rejoin Cam Heyward as starters. That would be great, but it wouldn’t change the fact that all are over 30. Loudermilk’s sample size is small, but he has potential to be at least starter capable.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Wormley and Adams’ appear to be serviceable backups, but both are replaceable. As for Henry Mondeaux and Davis? The Steelers trade for Loudermilk reminded me of Mondeaux and Davis faux tussle on the sidelines of the ’20 finale against Cleveland.

That in turn reminded me of my high school wrestling coach, the amateur Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, who once stopped practice admonished two wrestlers who were staring each other down with, “If either of you was as tough as your pretending to be you’d both be state champions. Now get back on the mat.”

  • Neither Mondeaux nor Davis is as tough as they were pretending to be that day. Instead, they’re roster bubble babies.

How does all of this impact the Steelers draft needs? Well, the Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need to draft a starter this week, but they really must to use this draft to find future starters, so their need at defensive line must be considered High-Moderate.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.