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

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

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

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

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

  • Why would 1998 be any different?

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

  • Steelers Nation snickered.

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

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

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

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

Preseason Danger Sign: Premium Draft Picks Not Panning Out

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

Levon Kirkland, Frank Reich, Steelers vs Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not in the plan…..

Veteran Leadership Sorley Lacking for the Steelers

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

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

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

Carl Pickens, Dwayne Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Tantalize Fans with “Tease Wins” at Midseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

Thanksgiving Coin Toss Exposes 1998 Steelers as Turkeys

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

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

  • Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions.

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

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

But it did.

Steelers Close 1998 with Total Implosion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”

The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl hopes crashed 3 yards short of the goal in the AFC Championship  loss to the San Diego Chargers. Heartbreaking though it was, it did lead to the “3 More Yards” off season rallying cry.

  • Alas, the Steelers didn’t start 1995 3 yards short of the Super Bowl, however.

Quite the contrary. In 1995, Bill Cowher would need the Steelers to harness every ounce of energy within the franchise to find those final 3 yards.

Steelers Colts AFC Championship, Aaron Bailey, Randy Fuller, Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary AFC Championship

Randy Fuller bats a pass away from Aaron Bailey. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

When a franchise falls a hair short of the Super Bowl, its instinct is generally to keep the same team intact. Yet, the Steelers did the opposite in 1995.

Neil O'Donnell, Barry FosterBarry Foster and Eric Green had powered the offense in the Cowher Era, earning a third of the yards and scoring 40% of the touchdowns. The Steelers let Eric Green walk in free agency and sent Barry Foster to Carolina for a song.

  • Yes, their production dipped in 1994, but the moves carried enormous risk.

Pittsburgh replaced Green with Mark Bruener, a first round tight end who “Had no plans to hold a Super Bowl rap video.” Bam Morris’ emergence in 1994 and the arrival of free agent Erric Pegram in 1995 gave the Steelers the comfort they needed to trade the talented, but testy Barry Foster. On defense, the Steelers let Tim McKyer and Gerald Williams depart via the expansion draft, figuring they had enough depth to make up the difference.

These were calculated risks and in May 1995, it looked like the Steelers had lost their gamble when starting cornerback Deon Figures took a stray bullet in the knee while driving through Los Angeles.

  • However, Figures recovered quickly enough to play on opening day.

It seemed that the Steelers had tempted Fate and escaped. As they would soon learn, Fate was in fact a temptress, and one who did not appreciate being scorned.

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

The Steelers opened the 1995 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday September 3rd with Three Rivers Stadium awash in brilliant sunshine. All was well as the Steelers sat on a 3-0 lead with 1:19 remaining in the 1st quarter as the Lions tried to convert a 3rd and 7.

  • Scott Mitchell passed to Barry Sanders in the flat.
  • Rod Woodson pivoted to make the tackle.

No one remembers now or cared then that Sanders converted the 3rd down because Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the play. Fourteen plays later, Neil O’Donnell converted a third down with a throw to Ernie Mills, then was seen holding his hand after handing off to Bam Morris.

Mike Tomczak was warming up after the TV time out as announcers informed that Neil O’Donnell had broken his hand.

The 1995 season was barley a quarter old, and the Steelers had lost their Hall of Fame cornerback and the starting quarterback. Fate’s vengeance carried a stiff price.

“3 More Yards” Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Although, Pittsburgh rallied to win on opening day on a last second Norm Johnson field goal, the Steelers would play some of their worst football of the Cowher era over the next six weeks.

Sure, Andre Hastings, Carnell Lake, Willie Williams, and Alvoid Mays all made splash plays on special teams and defense to score critical touchdowns that supplied the Steelers with 2 more wins.

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

Willie Williams and Myron Bell. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • But those performances were exceptions, and not the rule.

While they were in route to a 3-4 start, the Boston Globe’s William McDonough argued that Pittsburgh was hopeless without their four best players from the previous year. The legendary columnist was wrong.

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

Bam Morris struggled to crack the 3 yards a carry mark and hadn’t sniffed a 100-yard game. Bill Cowher benched Mike Tomcazk twice in favor of Jim Miller, but Miller didn’t give The Chin any reason to stick with him.

But talent really wasn’t the core issue bedeviling the 1995 Steelers as revealed by a simple fact: Their two worst losses came following O’Donnell’s return, first to the expansion Jaguars and second to Bengals.

The problem? Pittsburgh’s was playing with the attitude of a team that actually thought it only needed 3 yards to reach the Super Bowl:

  • Tackles were sloppy
  • Routine passes got dropped
  • Games were lost with balls thrown into traffic while receivers roamed uncovered in the end zone

Focus seemed to be everywhere except on the fundamentals. After 7 games the Steelers were 3-4.

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

The lasting images of the Steelers Thursday Night Football loss to the Bengals were Alvoid Mays getting tortured and torched by Jeff Blake and Bill Cowher screaming on the sidelines. From a distance, The Chin appeared to be losing control.

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

Bill Cowher declared it a 9-game season and, as if to prove a point, he made 9 lineup changes:

  • At left tackle Justin Strzelczyk replaced injured John Jackson
  • Rookie Brendan Stai took Strzelczyk’s place starting at right guard
  • John Williams, returned to health, replaced Steve Avery at fullback
  • Bam Morris got benched, replaced by Erric Pegram
  • Jerry Olsavsky stepped in for Chad Brown, who’d suffered a high ankle sprain
  • Brentson Buckner slid over to replace the suspended Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry took his place
  • Myron Bell became the new starter at strong safety

Making 8 lineup changes in one week in the NFL is dramatic. But Bill Cowher’s 9th change bordered on revolutionary: Carnell Lake, who played linebacker at UCLA and started strong safety since 1989, move over to cornerback. This was a bold move, as Lake had never played cornerback, outside of a few series during the 1991 preseason (don’t believe me? Check the August 1991 Steelers Digest editions).

Change came in the locker room. The Steelers held a players-only meeting, banning pagers (Google it) and cellphones from meetings and practices with Greg Lloyd promising to smash the next one he saw.

  • All of this was public knowledge. But Bill Cowher had another change up his sleeve that he was saving for the field.

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

The following week the Steelers attacked the Jacksonville Jaguars with laser like focus, going up 21-0 at the half and closing with a 24-7 win. The win was impressive and needed. But the real lesson was tucked  into the end of the 1st quarter, when on 3rd and 2, the 4th string quarterback entered the game under center and ran for 16 yards.

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart lines of up his first NFL carry. “Slash” was about to be born. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • It seemed like a gimmick. Instead, it signaled a revolutionary change for the Steelers offense.

But before starting the revolution, the Steelers needed to travel to Chicago, and play a 6-2 Bears team that had been one of the NFL’s best. It wasn’t easy. The Steelers fought the Bears for every blade of grass in a contest that saw the lead change 11 times.

In the end, the Steelers tied the game late in the 4th quarter, snuffed out a Bears comeback attempt with a Willie Williams interception, lost the toss in overtime, forced a punt but kicked a field goal to win it.

  • Against the Bears, Kordell Stewart had run once for two yards and caught another pass for 27.

Although both of those converted 3rd downs, Kordell’s contributions remained largely in the background.

That changed the following week on Monday Night Football, when Kordell Stewart stood under center at the goal line, scrambled from one end of the backfield to the next before connecting with Ernie Mills for his first NFL touchdown pass.

“Slash” was born.

While Neil O’Donnell remained entrenched as the starter, Kordell Stewart’s ability to run, throw and catch gave Pittsburgh’s offense a dynamic weapon that opposing defenses could not cope with. Lest anyone doubt how potent Pittsburgh’s offense became with Slash take a look here (tweet courtesy of Steel City Star):

This wasn’t just a 71-yard touchdown pass, it was the go-ahead score in a game that saw the Steelers start the 2nd half down 13 to 31. The offense evolved in other ways, as Kordell would sometimes join Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings to form an empty set formation which was rare in the NFL in those days, and unheard of in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stacked wins. Some, like the 20-17 road win over the Browns, were more workman like than others. But most importantly, the Steelers took it in stride, with the implicit understanding that each win was simply a necessary stepping stone toward the playoffs.

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

When the 1994 playoffs arrived, both the Steelers and Steelers Nation regarded the Divisional and AFC Championship games as formalities. The San Diego Chargers had disabused Pittsburgh of such fantasies.

The divisional round brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a steady, 23 to 7 half time lead. They tacked on another field goal to make it 26 to 7. But then the Bills, alternating between Alex Van Pelt and Jim Kelly, scored a second and then a third touchdown.

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.

Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

Levon Kirkland intercepts Jim Kelly. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images, via Heavy.com

The Steelers responded with an 11-play drive that burned 5 minutes off the clock and ended with a Bam Morris touchdown. Jerry Olsavsky and Levon Kirkland ended the next two Bills drives with interceptions, allowing Bam Morris to score an insurance touchdown for a 40 to 21 win.

Instead of the euphoria that had engulfed Three Rivers Stadium a year earlier, Greg Lloyd held up 2 fingers, for two more games, as he entered the tunnel, confirming that the Steelers were taking nothing for granted.

  • As the next week would prove, that attitude would serve the entire team well.

Like the Chargers a year before them, the 1995 Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to have made it this far. But they upset the AFC favorite Kansas City Chiefs and their demeanor made clear that the Colts arrived in Pittsburgh with every intention of doing the same to the Steelers.

  • The two teams slogged it out in a defensive chess match that lasted three quarters.

Going into the 4th quarter the Steelers held a 13 to 9 lead, having scored the only touchdown in the first half. With about 8 minutes left, Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown and a 16 to 13 lead.

  • Steelers Nation uttered a collective, “Here we go again.”

What followed was perhaps the most intense 8 minutes of the decade. Every man on each team, left it all on the field. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Colts had a 3rd and one. A first down would likely allow them to kill the clock. Willie Williams responded; rushing from the opposite side he covered the entire width of the field making an improbable tackle of Lamont Warren for no gain. The Colts Punted.

  • The Steelers got the ball back but struggled, being forced to convert a 4th and three.
  • Then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills for a 37-yard hookup that put Pittsburgh at Indy’s 1.
  • Bam Morris ran for no gain. Indy took a time out.
  • Bam Morris ran again, this time scoring, giving the Steelers a 20 to 16 lead.

The Colts had a minute 34 and were far from finished. Jim Harbaugh converted 3rd and 4th downs as he moved the Colts to the Steelers 29 with time for one throw. He heaved it towards the end zone. It found Aaron Bailey through a crowd and landed on his lap.

Bailey closed on the ball for a second, but Randy Fuller knocked it away.

Time expired and the Steelers were heading to Super Bowl XXX.

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

The Dallas Cowboys were undeniably the dominate team of the early 1990’s. The only thing keeping them from winning more Super Bowls was Jerry Jones’ ego and insistence on Barry Switzer over Jimmy Johnson.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

  • It says here that Vegas odds makers were right to favor Dallas in this game.

But was 17 points too much?

For the first 26 minutes of the game, that margin seemed about right. The Steelers played with stage fright and quite frankly, were lucky to hold the Cowboys to 13 points. But late in the 2nd quarter, Tory Aikman tried to hook up with Michael Irvin on third down only to have Rod Woodson knock the ball away.

Woodson’s presence alone was a medical miracle, let alone a play such as that against a fellow Hall of Famer.

The Steelers went to work and clawed their way down the field. The first half closed with Neil O’Donnell connecting with Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown. The Steelers were down 13 to 7 but had put themselves back into the game by halftime.

…Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell almost took them back out of the game when early in the 3rd quarter he threw directly to Larry Brown who returned the ball 30 yards, setting up an easy Cowboys touchdown.

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

They opened the 4th quarter with a Norm Johnson field goal, followed by a surprise-on-sides kick that Deon Figures recovered. Pittsburgh was not only going to continue to play, it was playing to win.

Larry Brown, John L. Williams, Steelers vs Cowboys, Larry Brown interception Super Bowl XXX, Larry Brown pick six Super Bowl XXX

Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com

O’Donnell quickly moved the team down the field, and in just 3 minutes, Bam Morris was in the end zone, making it a 20 to 17 game. The Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt on a drive that featured their only sack of the game, an 8-yard drop by Levon Kirkland.

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

To this day, people argue whether Andre Hastings ran the wrong route or not, but what is clear is that Neil O’Donnell again threw it directly to Larry Brown. And again Larry Brown returned into the Steelers Red Zone. And again, Emmitt Smith did what he did so well – score touchdowns.

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers opened the season by losing their best player. By midseason they were facing an abyss. The effort of the 1995 Steelers in turning the season around is worthy of story and song.

But at the end of the day, the truth is that Pittsburgh had glimpsed the Mountain Top, but it was two interceptions too far.

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to being its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.

Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

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1993 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time

You should expect to win on Sunday.” – Billy Cowher prior to the 1992 season.

In the blink of an eye in 1992 Bill Cowher catapulted the Pittsburgh Steelers from an NFL afterthought to a contender. His secret? Cowher believed in his roster when no one else did. More importantly, Bill Cowher convinced his players to believe in themselves and to “expect to win on Sunday.”

Confidence is critical to championships, yet the story of the 1993 Steelers shows that Cowher’s players took his words a little too closely to heart.

Mark Royals, Keith Cash, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs 1993 AFC Wild Card

Former Steeler Keith Cash gets revenge, blocking Mark Royal’s punt in the playoffs. Photo Credit: John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

Zen Arrives in Pittsburgh with the 1993 Steelers Yin and Yang

The 1993 Steelers either played Super Bowl Championship-caliber football or football worthy of a team contending for draft position. There were no in betweens.

Hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview, the Steelers opened at home against the San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh promptly lost.  The 24 to 13 final was never as close as the score suggests. But Mike Tomczak played most of the game for Neil O’Donnell who was fighting tendonitis, so no one sounded the alarm.

  • No such excuses existed a week later however when the lowly Los Angeles Rams delivered Steelers their first shutout since 1989.

The Steelers rebounded by winning its next two games, and then authored what appeared to be statements victories over San Diego and New Orleans.

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

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

The Steelers defense dominated the San Diego Chargers so thoroughly that future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene declared:  “This is like the WWF or something.” Even though the final score read 16-3, San Diego never had a chance.

Next New Orleans brought a 5-0 record to Pittsburgh, but left only making 3 first downs in the first 3 quarters. Rod Woodson played a career game that day, waiting just 90 seconds to take Wade Wilson’s opening pass 63 yard for a touchdown.  He then intercepted Wilson two series later. The Steelers sacked Wade Wilson 5 times, held him to 6 of 23 passing.

In keeping with the season’s character, the Steelers traveled to the cursed confines of Cleveland Stadium and dominated in every statistical category possible, only to lose due to an inability to stop Eric Metcalf on not one, but two punt returns.

On Monday November 15th, 1993 the reigning AFC Alpha Male, the Buffalo Bills brought their 7-1 record to Three Rivers Stadium. One play tells the story (video courtesy of Steel City Star):

Gary Jones’ hit on Don Beebe, which would be illegal today, and it only marks the tip of the iceberg. The Steelers defense also knocked Jim Kelly out of the game with a concussion and broke Andre Reed’s wrist in a 23-0 shutout.

The Monday Night Football ass-kicking the Steelers delivered to the Bills seemingly signaled the passing of the torch for AFC dominance.

Instead, the win proved Bill Cowher’s young Steelers couldn’t handle success. Six days later the Broncos smashed the Steelers 37 to 14 in Denver. Unfortunately, the manic-depressive character of the 1993 Steelers wasn’t the only problem Pittsburgh faced.

Losing Foster Orphans 1993 Steelers Offense

For reasons unknown, Chuck Noll had played Foster sparingly despite his elite talent. Bill Cowher did the opposite. In 1992 Bill Cowher had unleashed Barry Foster as the focal point of the Steelers offense, and Foster delivered, smashing Franco Harris’ single season rushing record.

Leroy Thompson, Dermontti Dawson, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills MNF 1993

Leroy Thompson runs for over 100 yards vs the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When in doubt, he fed Foster the ball. The formula of “Get Foster his 100 and get a win” while fallible, worked well.

Unfortunately, Foster had torn ligaments in his left ankle during the Bills’ game and was done for the season. As he’d done against New Orleans, back up Leroy Thompson stepped up to the plate and rushed for 100 yards.

  • Those were the only and final 100 yard games of Thompson’s career.

Thompson was a quality backup, but the starting role was too big for him. Worse yet, for long stretches, coaches would seem to “forget” that Merril Hoge ran the ball very well.

In Washington, WMAL’s Ken Beatrice reminded Steelers fans, “Leroy Thompson isn’t going to make anyone forget he’s not Barry Foster.” Yet Thompson was vocal about trying to do just that, signaling another problem….

Enter the Locker Room Lawyers

In the third week of September 1993 the Steelers did something they haven’t done since: they signed  Rod Woodson and Barry Foster to new contracts during the season.

  • Locking up their best offensive and defensive player made sense.

But the rest of the Steelers locker room wanted theirs too.

Starting defensive ends like Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson vocally criticized management, with tight end Adrian Cooper even suggested his contract situation impacted his performance. Even players like Hoge, whose work ethic remained beyond question, admitted that contract squabbles were a distraction. The Steelers broke off all contract negotiations during the middle of the season, but the damage had been done.

Buddy Ryan, Waiting in the Weeds

Buddy Ryan had arrived as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator in 1993 and that posed a problem for Pittsburgh. While few noted it in the Steel City, during the 1980’s Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles defense had enjoyed a pretty good run of success against Bill Parcell’s offenses. And those offenses had been  coached by Ron Erhardt who was now coaching the Steelers offense….

After entering 1993 as division favorites, the Oilers started 1-4. By the time the Steelers first faced them on Sunday Night Football after Thanksgiving, the Oilers had clawed back to 6-4.

  • The Steelers-Oilers series would decide the AFC Central and for one night, the Houston Astrodome was again the House of Pain.

Houston defenders sacked Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak 6 times, with Pittsburgh coaches pulling O’Donnell, admitting that they feared injury. They were wise, as one melee saw Michael Barrow rip off Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him with relish.

In a play that painfully symbolizes the season, a pass hit Jeff Graham’s hands, bounced off his face mask, and then went  through his hands again, all while he was untouched in the end zone. The final score read 23-3 Oilers. The Steeler response was, “We’ll see you 3 weeks.”

In the intervening two weeks the Steelers notched narrow, escape-variety victories against the Patriots and the Dolphins. (Note, Merril Hoge logged 16 carries in those wins – coincidence? I think not.)

Gary Brown, Levon Kirkland, Warren Moon, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers 1993 Pittsburgh

Gary Brown runs over Steelers. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images, via Houston Sports

Perhaps Gary Anderson’s deep opening kickoff was Pittsburgh’s highlight in the Three Rivers Stadium rematch with Houston. Garbage time glory provided window dressing to 26-17 contest where the Oilers simply spanked the Steelers.

Again, the Oilers sacked O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow the one-season wonder.

Buddy Ryan bragged, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Greg Lloyd Wills 1993 Steelers to Playoffs

The next week, a wounded, flu-stricken Steelers team played Seattle on the day after Christmas where, a running back named Jon Vaughn, who’d never done anything before or since, ran for 138 yards.

Going into the season finale, an 8-7 Steelers team needed a win over Bill Belichick’s 7-8, playing for pride, the Cleveland Browns held  Pittsburgh to 9-3 at half time.

  • Greg Lloyd exploded at halftime, challenging the offense to do its part.

He led by example, forcing  two fumbles and racing down field for an open-field tackle – all on a bum hamstring.  With Lloyd leading the way, the Steelers shut out the Browns in the 2nd half scoring 13 unanswered points. The 1993 Steelers finished 9-7 and got the help they needed.

Pittsburgh was headed to the playoffs!

1993 Playoffs: Coming Up Short in Kansas City

The Steelers traveled to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the 1993 AFC Wild Card in a fever-pitched back-and-forth battle. Thing started badly for Pittsburgh when cornerback D.J. Johnson got ejected during the first series, but the Steelers struck first on a Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper touchdown.

From there, the lead would change five times, with the game’s pivotal moment coming after Neil O’Donnell’s go-ahead touchdown to Eric Green late in the 4th quarter. The Steelers defense stoned the Chiefs to force a 3 and out, giving Pittsburgh a chance to kill the clock inside the 2 minute warning.

  • Unfortunately, Chief’s defense turned the tables, forcing a punt after just 3 plays.

Keith Cash, a player Bill Cowher had cut in training camp, blocked Mark Royal’s punt and the Chief’s returned it to Pittsburgh’s nine-yard line. Two plays later Joe Montana connected with Tim Barnett to tie the score.

The Steelers offense suffered another three and out, and Pittsburgh braced as a Nick Lowery field goal sailed wide right. After trading punts in overtime, Joe Montana hit Keith Cash to bring Kansas City to the Steelers 32-yard line.  Six plays later Nick Lowery was kicking the game winning field goal.

After their Monday Night shut out of the Bills the Pittsburgh had gone 3-4 and now Bill Cowher was 0-2 in the playoffs. The 1993 season and proven that Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers simply weren’t ready for Prime Time.

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1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation

“There’s a big opportunity to win here. I think the tradition, the stability, the credibility of the front office and the wealth of talent on this team is exciting to any football coach….” – Bill Cowher, on his first day as Steelers head coach.

“…And Mark Royals standing at his own 40, the rush – and he’s passing down field and he completes the pass pulled in by Warren Williams…” – Jack Fleming during the Steelers 1992 opening day victory vs. the Houston Oilers

Bold words backed by bold actions – Bill Cowher began his tenure as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach by defining a single success metric: winning the Super Bowl.

It may have taken 15 years for him to do that, but Bill Cowher’s confidence inspired the 1992 Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh, and the team’s nationwide legion of fans. Steel Curtain Rising’s look at the Bill Cowher years starts where it all began, with the Steelers 1992 season.

Bill Cowher, Rod Woodson

Bill Cowher and Rod Woodson cerca 1992

1992 Opener vs Oilers: Bold Words, Bolder Actions

Bill Cowher’s declaration shocked reporters, who rolled their eyes at Cowher’s contention that the Steelers had a “wealth of talent” and “no glaring weakness.” A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette preseason reprint from the book Cowher Power, argued that the 1992 Steelers would be lucky to post a winning season while assailing nearly every position on Pittsburgh’s roster.

  • Bill Cowher’s confidence stood on a solid foundation, but perhaps the press’ cynicism can be forgiven.

Just three years earlier the 1989 Steelers storybook season had ignited hope that the Steel Curtain was finally rising again. Chuck Noll openly spoke of “Championship talent.” The Emperor felt he could win big again. But the playoffless, 9-7 1990 Steelers season effort earned the Steelers an “Underachieving” label. By the time Noll retired after a 7-9, 1991 campaign, most NFL observers, inside and outside of Pittsburgh, wrote the Steelers roster off as mediocre at best.

Bill Cowher saw things very differently, and early on, he refused to flinch when challenged to prove it.

Cowher Power Takes the NFL by Storm

And so it was, that the 1992 Steelers began the Bill Cowher era in Houston, taking on the division rival Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers had looked “OK” in preseason, but preseason means nothing.

Lore has it that, rather than discuss the challenge presented by the 11-point underdog Steelers, the Houston Chronicle focused most of its Sunday morning opening day coverage how it was imperative that the Oilers secure home field advantage during the playoffs.

  • Early events appeared to vindicate the wisdom of the Houston Chronicle editors

The Steelers fumbled away their first two possessions, in effect spotting the Oilers 14 easy points to start the first quarter. But then, on 4th and 15 at the Oilers’ 45, Bill Cowher ordered punter Mark Royals – who’d never thrown an NFL pass before, to go for it. Warren Williams caught Royals’ pass and scampered 44 yards, setting up a Barry Foster touchdown.

  • From that point on, the Steelers and Oilers fought tooth and nail.

Larry Griffin, rookie Darren Perry and Rod Woodson picked off Warren Moon 5 times, and in the process ended two would-be game-willing drives by the Oilers. Dwight Stone ran reverses twice, including one on third and long. When it ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers stood as 29-24 victors in a game no one gave them a chance of contesting, let alone winning.

  • NFL history proves that opening day upsets aren’t difficult, sustaining momentum from them is.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers sustained their momentum, with a home opening win over the New York Jets that saw Barry Foster run for 190 yards, followed by a road victory of the San Diego Chargers. In the blink of an eye, the Pittsburgh Steelers had shot from afterthought to the talk of the NFL. The Steelers fell in their next game to Brett Favre’s debut and lost the following week to Cleveland, setting up a critical mid-season stretch.

Something Special Happening with the Steelers

The 1992 Steelers snapped their 2 game losing streak with an impressive shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, giving them a 4-2 record heading into a critical 3 game stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Oilers, and the Buffalo Bills.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola observed at the time, a win over any of these teams would still be considered “an upset.”

This three game stretch would define the 1992 Steelers as contenders or pretenders. The Steelers traveled to Arrowhead Stadium, then considered an extremely difficult place to play, and blindsided the Chiefs to the tune of 27 to 3. In the process, Bill Cowher not only bettered his mentor Marty Schottenheimer, but also managed to keep Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith off of Neil O’Donnell, while the Steelers defense racked up 3 interceptions and Greg Lloyd added two sacks.

  • Following the win, Bob Labriola proclaimed that the Steelers could be counted on to defeat any NFL team at any time.

No, this wasn’t the “On any given Sunday credo,” but rather a reflection of the reality that 1992 Steelers had proven they were for real. Although it’s been almost a quarter century since I read the words in Steelers Digest, the memory of Labriola’s words still raises the hair on my arm. I’ll paraphrase that passage here:

Something very special is happening to this team and this city. A win next week over the Houston Oilers will give the Steelers sole possession of the AFC Central; energize the city and galvanize their nationwide legion of fans. The possibility of playoff games at Three Rivers Stadium will become a reality for the first time in a decade.

Rod Woodson, Warren Moon

Rod Woodson after sacking Warren Moon.

The Houston Oilers refused to go gently into the good night, as they held a 20 to 7 lead going into the 4th quarter.

But the Steelers fought back, and twin touchdown passes from Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper put Pittsburgh into the lead. Houston made one final stab at victory, racing to midfield with the clock ticking. Assistant coaches implored Bill Cowher to use the Steelers time outs. Cowher balked, saying, “He’s going to miss the field goal.”

Walking into the locker room, Rod Woodson proclaimed, “We OWN the division baby!” He was right. The 1992 Steelers took possession of the AFC Central lead that day never looked back, winning their first AFC Central title since 1984.

The Playoffs Return to Three Rivers Stadium

The 1992 Steelers won five of their next eight games to finish 11-5. Nationwide, fans took notice. As Ed Bouchette reports in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when the Steelers would arrive at their hotels for road games, they were suddenly greated by thongs of fans cheering “Here We Go Steelers! Here We Go!” Veterans like Tunch Ilkin had seen a little of this in 1980 but never since.

Although they weathered some close calls and an injury to Neil O’Donnell combined with two subpar games from Bubby Brister, they qualified as only bumps in the road: The 1992 Steelers entered the playoffs as the AFC’s number one seed.

  • The cover of Steelers Digest said it all, “A Run for the Ring.”

There’s something electric about a home playoff game played in front of a fan base that believes in your team, and even on TV, it was evident that the fans at Three Rivers Stadium believed.

  • History shows that Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers weren’t quite cut out to be champions.

Cowher started Neil O’Donnell. O’Donnell wasn’t fully healthy and it is a decision Cowher now regrets. The Steelers crossed mid-field over a half dozen times, yet could only score 3 points. 4th string cornerback Richard Shelton infamously dropped an interception that had pick six written all over it.

But the fact that the Steelers Digest could even discuss a Super Bowl run revealed just how thoroughly Bill Cowher’s arrival had transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • The transformation went beyond the city of Pittsburgh.

And that’s the real achievement of Bill Cowher’s first season: The 1992 Steelers didn’t succeed in winning the Super Bowl, but Cowher Power had succeeded in awakening Steelers Nation.

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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Ben Roethlisberger Must to Put his Money Where His Mouth Is

Art Rooney II beat me to the punch.

Ben Roethlisberger’s future in Pittsburgh is the story of the Steelers 2021 off season. The sequel to my piece comparing the current treatment of Ben Roethlisberger to what the Blonde Bomber endured early in his career was to carry the headline, “The Steelers Should Welcome Roethlisberger Back. But on One Condition.”

Leave it to Steelers President Art Rooney to steal my thunder as Art II declared: “We’ve been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn’t have him back under the current contract” and then later clarifying “We’d like to see Ben back for another year if that can work.”

So there you go. The head of the Steelers brain trust put black and white: Ben Roethlisberger’s the right man to be the Steelers signal caller for 2021, but only at the right price.

  • Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head.

But since I’ve been wrong about Rooney being right before, (see Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag) let’s give the counter argument its due.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Real Risks of a Roethlisberger Return

Ben Roethlisberger is turning 39. That’s geriatric in NFL years. Moreover, he had major elbow surgery in 2019.

  • Father Time began to catch Ben Roethlisberger in 2020.

Ben Roethlisberger began 2020 playing better than anyone had a right to expect. Disagree? Then let me ask: Would you have gone to Vegas and wagered $100 on Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in release time in 2020? I wouldn’t have either.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility, once his trademark, now eludes him.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

So does the deep ball. At first, it seemed like it might be a question of timing. By mid-season the goal of throwing deep to Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool seemed to be to draw pass interference penalties. In November, the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses answered by choking the short passing game. Roethlisberger responded by trying to go deep.

It is almost as if Roethlisberger is struggling to get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm, to borrow Jim Wexell’s words. When Roethlisberger gets comfortable, he recovers his greatness. After throwing 3 interceptions, Ben went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards in the “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff loss to the Browns.

  • Those are championship passing numbers.

But who can win when their quarterback starts 9-17-66-0-3? No one.

Could Ben adequately get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm with a full off season of rehab and workouts with wide outs?

Now add that “If” to other “Ifs” about whether the Steelers can: Beef up the offensive line sufficiently, find a starter-capable running back, find a starter-capable tight end, keep or find corner and nickel backs, develop Alex Highsmith to replace Bud Dupree all while navigating salary cap Armageddon.

  • Look at it that way, and tearing it all down and rebuilding is tempting. Very tempting.

But the Steelers would be wise to welcome Roethlisberger back. It all comes down to a simple mathematical equation.

Why Joe Greene + T.J. Watt = Welcome Roethlisberger Back

Joe Greene wore number 75 and T.J. Watt wears number 90. Put those digits together and you get 7590.

On December 10th, 1983 Terry Bradshaw threw his final touchdown to Calvin Sweeney  at Shea Stadium. On September 19th, Ben Roethlisberger completed his first pass to Plaxico Burress at M&T Bank Stadium.

  • 7590 days passed between those two events.

Terry Bradshaw,

Terry Bradshaw wears a grim look during Steelers Mini Camp on May 29, 1984, at Three Rivers Stadium. (Photo Credit: Jim Fetter, The Pittsburgh Press)

Seven thousand, five hundred ninety days is a long time. Memories of Mark Malone’s 5 interception outing in Cleveland to Neil O’Donnell’s hook ups with Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX to Kordell Stewart‘s struggles in the dark days of 1998 and 1999 make that wait seem even longer.

But 7,590 days really isn’t that long when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback. Minnesota is still waiting on the next Fran Tarkenton. Joe Burrow’s presence notwithstanding, Cincinnati still searches for the next Ken Anderson. And yes, the New York Jets are still struggling to find their next Joe Namath.

Doubts about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to rebound are legitimate, but so were the questions about Peyton Manning and Brett Favre when they left the Colts and Packers. Under normal circumstances taking the risk of welcoming Roethlisberger back would be a no brainer for the Steelers.

But these are not normal circumstances.

Time for Ben Roethlisberger to Put His Money Where his Mouth Is

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with the NFL’s salary cap, which could go as low as 176 million dollars. In 2020 it was $198.2 million. The Steelers already have 203 million in salary cap liabilities for 2021 with just 35 players under contract.

  • That puts them at $21 million over the cap, without drafting a player or signing a free agent.
  • The Steelers could fill out their roster with undrafted rookie free agents and STILL have to cut veterans.

And that’s where Ben Roethlisberger comes in.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger will count $41 million against the Steelers salary cap. $22 million of that comes in bonuses from restructures, $4 million is base salary and the rest is a roster bonus due in March. The plan was to use these pages to call for Ben Roethlisberger take a pay cut to return, similar to what Jerome Bettis did in 2004 and 2005.

Fans asking or expecting players to give “hometown discounts” or take pay cuts simply isn’t realistic, which is why I’ve never done that before. And I don’t have to now, as Ben Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette:

I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year. I don’t care about my pay at all this year.

There you have it. Ben Roethlisberger currently contributes to the Steelers salary cap problem, but he’s offering to be part the solution. There are 18 million ways he can do that. If Ben Roethlisberger were to bite the bullet and agree to play for the veteran minimum, the Steelers would get very close cap compliance.

  • Sure, Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan would have work to do.

But with the stroke of a pen, Ben Roethlisberger could make a huge financial sacrifice that would transform the Steelers impending salary cap hell into a mild form of salary cap purgatory for Pittsburgh.

After publishing is initial article, Ed Bouchette warned readers that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t offering a reverse blank check to the Steelers. That might be the case, and playing for the veteran minimum isn’t the only viable option.

But if Ben Roetlisberger truly believes he can return to championship form and truly wants to do all he can to help the Steelers do that, then he must put his money where his mouth is.

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Can the Steelers Dress Joshua Dobbs vs Browns? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The Steelers 2020 season finale against the Browns contained an unexpected wrinkle: Joshua Dobbs.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach decided early to “Air Mail” players to the playoffs, including Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds and Maurkice Pouncey. That meant that Mason Rudolph would start.

  • Mason Rudolph indeed started and played very well.

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But his understudy Joshua Dobbs also saw action, rushing the ball several times and completing a number of passes (OK, they were shovel passes.) This was a wrinkle that no one was expecting, and given that the Steelers offense is desperate to do anything to breathe life into its running game, deploying Dobbs was a welcome sign.

  • When asked if this could continue in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deadpanned: “It’s a possibility.”

Yet most pundits wrote this off as head coach bluster designed to give opposing defensive coordinators a little something extra to think about. The reasoning is that Mason Rudolph clearly earned his stripes as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 going into the playoffs. Ergo, there’s no way the Steelers would give Joshua Dobbs a helmet over Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course, everyone KNOWS, there’s no way the Steelers would have 3 quarterbacks active on game day.

This is one case where the conventional wisdom is probably right. But it doesn’t have to be. Keeping 3 quarterbacks active isn’t the radical notion that it sounds like. In fact it used to be reasonably common. In fact, keeping three quarterbacks dressed and on the active roster was a critical component of the Steelers first serious attempt at 1 for The Thumb.

3 Quarterbacks, the 1995 Steelers and Slash

Dressing 3 quarterbacks was a fundamental and intentional part of the 1995 Steelers offensive strategy. It started rather unintentionally on opening day when injuries to both Neil O’Donnell and later Mike Tomczak forced Jim Miller into the game for one play (where he threw a long pass that was the equivalent of an interception.)

It was one of the rare times when 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game, and it was the only time that phenomenon occurred in that season.

And while Mike Tomczak wasn’t getting a lot of love, Kordell Stewart was enjoy the heyday of the “Slash Era.” At the time NFL game day rosters limited teams to 45 members, plus an emergency 3rd string quarterback.

Whether Jim Miller continued to suit up as the team’s emergency 3rd stringer while Kordell Stewart was a wide receiver is a question best left to NFL archivists. It doesn’t really matter, because today teams are allowed to dress 46 active players.

The game has certainly changed since 1995. Each team’s personnel needs with regards to injuries, substitutions and situational packages is unique. But if the 1995 Steelers could find a way to dress 4 or 5 wide outs, 2 quarterbacks and a “Slash” then it would see that the 2020 Steelers could find a way to dress Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Dobbs.

For what its worth, and for those of you boning up on your Steelers 3rd string quarterback trivia, the last time times 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game came against the Browns, most recently in the 2008 season finale and prior to that in the 1999 season opener.

If the Steelers do defy the odds and dress Joshua Dobbs alongside the other two quarterbacks, let’s hope that there’s no cause for QB number 2 to throw a pass outside of garbage time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

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

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

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

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

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

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

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

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

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

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

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

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

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

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