2002 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rise Of Tommy Gun

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

  • Cowher and company had been down that road before.

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

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

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

Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season

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

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

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

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

James Farrior, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tommy Gun Era Begins

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

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

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

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

Terry Bradshaw Heinz Field

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

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

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

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

Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaxico Burress, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwyane Washington, Joe Nedney, Steelers vs Titans

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

  • The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

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

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

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

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

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

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

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

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

The Colbert Effect

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

Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

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

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

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging Out from 0-3

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

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

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

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

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Growing Pains

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

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

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

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

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

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

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

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

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

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

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

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

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

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

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

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

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

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

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

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

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

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

https://twitter.com/NealCoolong/status/1368621254719270918

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Ben Roethlisberger to Return to Steelers in 2021: It is a Risk, but the Right Move for Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger will be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. The suspense is over. Nearly two months after the Steelers 2020 season ended in Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic fashion in defeat the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh has answered its biggest off season question.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Details are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks, but statements by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert left no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was going to have sacrifice to return. Ben Roethlisberger met with Art Rooney II, and undoubtedly said he would.

After he met with Art Rooney II, his agent Ryan Tollner confirmed:

For fans looking at that 3 interceptions in less than a quarter against the Browns left wondering, “Why bringing him back?” another game against Cleveland offers clarity.

The Case for Bringing Back Ben

As I’ve confessed before, when I first learned that injuries might force Terry Bradshaw to retire, I was happy, because my older brother had told me “Bradshaw was ‘old.’” To an 11 year old, “Young” meant automatically better.

  • Ah, the ignorance of youth. Cliff Stoudt was younger, but he certainly wasn’t better.

I remember seeing a few games after the fateful declaration, but didn’t see too many after that. But I do remember tuning into one a few years later. The 1987 season opened with Mark Malone and Chuck Noll logging their second upset of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

  • Could the Steel Curtain be ready to rise again?

Channel 11 in Baltimore was showing the game in week 2, a Steeler road game against the Browns. The picture in the DC suburbs was fuzzy as it arrived from Baltimore, but I didn’t need HD quality to understand the disaster.

I tuned in in the fourth quarter. The Browns were winning, but only by 20-10. It was just in time to see Mark Malone toss an interception right to Clay Matthews, which Matthew returned for a touchdown. I think, I can’t be sure, but I think that was his 4th on the day. If I’m right, he quickly threw another with the Browns converted into another touchdown.

  • Chuck Noll had seen enough, and benched Malone.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister to the rescue? Right? Ah, no. The Bubster threw an interception of his own and went 1-5 in mop up duty. He also got sacked.

7590 days elapsed between Terry Bradshaw’s last pass to Calvin Sweeney and Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass to Plaxico Burress. No, not all of those days were as bleak as that afternoon at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but the moral of the story is clear: If you have a franchise quarterback, you ride him as far as he will take you.

Yes, There is a Risk in Roethlisberger Returning

The risk of a Ben Roethlisberger return is real. One Mexican blogger spelled it out:

What we saw at the end of 2020 might be the best Ben can bring with the new arm that’s attached to his 39 year old body. Even if he can get comfortable with his arm’s “bionics” (to borrow Jim Wexell’s term) the Steelers will still need to:

  • Find a starting caliber running back
  • Rebuild the offensive line
  • Keep or replace key players on defense

But Ben Roethlisberger has obviously indicated he’s willing to give up enough salary to let the Steelers try to do that. Mason Rudolph has shown real upside. (And please, the Steelers can and will do what is needed to keep in in Pittsburgh in 2022.)

Mason Rudolph might represent the future, the here in the present Ben Roethlisberger still represents the Steelers best shot at going to the Super Bowl in 2021.

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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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Steelers Promote Adrian Klemm as Offensive Line Coach. A Strange Move that Might Work

….Once upon a time, a once proud Steelers unit fell into deep disrepair.

Someone from outside Pittsburgh caught the Steelers head coach’s eye. Some viewed the outsider of choice as suspect. He had deep ties deep ties to a historic divisional rival after all. But everyone felt it best to embrace a breath of fresh air, to bring in new blood.

  • Yet new blood could not revive what remained stale.

And after two seasons of test, the Steelers head coach opted for change again, this time looking no further than the end of his nose. Given his chance, this insider innovated, reanimating a unit that was once again proud….

That little fairy tail intro was prompted by the news that the Steelers officially named Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach, promoting him from his role of Assistant Offensive Line coach. Given that the once dominating Steelers offensive line has slipped from elite status to liability, Mike Tomlin’s decision to promote in house seems like a real head scratcher.

Adrian Klemm, Steelers

New Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Photo Credit: Photo by Shelley Lipton, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After all, following the Hindenburg Rescuers the Titanic disaster of a playoff loss to the Browns, Tomlin acknowledged the repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is insanity. Yet, after firing Randy Fichtner, he promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. Now, after firing Shaun Sarrett, he promotes his assistant Adrian Klemm.

  • It seems crazy. And maybe it will turn out to be.

But precedents from Steelers history offers proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. After the 1998 season it became clear that offensive coordinator Ray Sherman was way, way in over his head. Mexican Blogger Carlos Ortega even reports that he once called a play that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook, but one that came from the Minnesota Vikings playbook.

  • Bill Cowher looked outside the organization, and replaced Sherman with Kevin Gilbride.

The Steelers, of course, knew Kevin Gilbride from his days with the Houston Oilers and Jacksonville Jaguars. He was seen as a bright young offensive mind. Or just the guy to bring Kordell Stewart along. Except he wasn’t.

Bill Cowher surprised everyone with his next move, by hiring Mike Mularkey as his offensive coordinator. Mulkarkey had returned to the Steelers in 1996, shortly after Super Bowl XXX, as tight ends coach – which isn’t exactly a fast-track position for offensive coordinators in waiting.

  • Many questioned the move, but Mike Mularkey proved to be a good offensive coordinator.

Yes, perhaps he did do a little too much to earn his “Inspector Gadget,” moniker, but with weapons like Jerome Bettis, Antwaan Randle El, Hines Wards, and Plaxico Burress at his disposal, he fielded a good offense and managed the change from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox effectively.

Can Klemm Copy Mukarkey’s Example

It remains to be seen if Adrian Klemm can follow Mike Mularkey’s example. Kleem does have 3 Super Bowl rings earned as a backup with the New England Patriots, and has extensive experience coaching future NFL offensive lineman while coaching in the collegiate ranks.

  • Former Steelers lineman Ramon Foster and Trai Essex have publicly endorsed the hire.

That’s a welcome sign, but regardless of his coaching acumen, Kleem has his work cut out for him. The Steelers will likely part ways with Alejandro Villanueva and could see Zach Banner and Matt Feiler while Maurkice Pouncey is contemplating retirement and most certainly will if Ben Roethlisberger does not return.

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Steelers Signing Dwayne Haskins Isn’t as Strange as it Sounds. In Fact, Its Quite in Character.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first attention catching move of the 2021 off season when they signed former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins to a reserve/futures contract. Dwayne Haskins played for Ohio State and was the 15th pick of first round pick of Washington in the 2019 NFL Draft. He was the third quarterback taken in the first round that year.

  • While Haskins draft pedigree and his athleticism are tremendous, his NFL resume underwhelms.

Dwayne Haskins, Pittsburgh Steelers

Dwayne Haskins signs his futures contract with the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Haskins made 7 starts in 2019 and 6 and 2020 and compiled a 3-10 record, throwing 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But Haskins was known to be a project coming out of college, and his high draft status was largely a product of pushing for Daniel Snyder for Washington to take the player over his coaches’ objections.

Growing pains are nothing new for rookie NFL quarterbacks (just look up Terry Bradshaw’s early career passing stats) but Haskins created problems for himself off the field.

As the Washington Post’s Les Carpenter detailed, Haskins was chronically late to meetings, refused to study his playbook, had poor practice habits and was seen breaking COVID-19 protocols by partying maskless.

In a nutshell, he’s the type of player the Steelers normally avoid. So why is he in Pittsburgh?

Mike Tomlin’s Fascination with Athletes, Extra “Camp Arm” Nothing New

To put the Dwayne Haskins in context, remember two things about Mike Tomlin:

  • Superior athletes fascinate him
  • He believes in “camp arms” and in keeping 3 quarterbacks

Quick trivia question: Where was Joey Galloway’s NFL home between New England and Washington? If you guessed the Pittsburgh, you guessed right. The Steelers signed him at the tail end of 2009, although Galloway never played a game in Black and Gold.

Plax ultimately joined the Jets, but returned to Pittsburgh in mid-2012, catching a touchdown for his final NFL pass. Word was that when Mike Vick got out of prison Tomlin wanted to do the same but got overruled by the Rooneys.

  • Like Burress, Vick eventually found his way to Pittsburgh.

When Charlie Batch broke is collarbone at St. Vincents in 2008, he brought former first rounders Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich to Pittsburgh for workouts immediately. Lefwich of course stayed.

A year later, when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion against Kansas City and Charlie Batch broke his wrist, the Steelers worked out (but did not sign) former first round pick Patrick Ramsey.

Although he wasn’t a first rounder, with 10 NFL starts to his name Zach Mettenberger served as the Steelers third string quarterback in 2016. One quarterback who first rounder in the 2016 NFL Draft Paxton Lynch, who served as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback in 2019 behind Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

Devlin Hodges of course came to Pittsburgh as nothing more than a camp arm, and one who earned his shot via the Steelers rookie mini-camp. As Mark Kabloy suggests in The Athletic, Haskins isn’t anything other than a camp arm.

His arrival likely does spell the end of Devlin Hodges time in Pittsburgh, but signals nothing about the Roethlisberger era, the Steelers plans for Mason Rudolph and the 2021 NFL Draft, nor does it preclude Joshua Dobbs’ return.

Mike Tomlin has taken a flier on a “camp arm” albeit with a bit more upside then most “camp arms,” but he’s still a “camp arm.”

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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Steelers Draft Chase Claypool in 2nd Round of 2020 NFL Draft, Notre Dame Wide Receiver can Sustain Trend

The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool, a wide receiver out of Notre Dame in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin finally got to make Pittsburgh’s first move after 48 players had been taken off of the board.

The Steelers enter the 2020 NFL Draft with limited draft capital thanks to the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Nick Vannett and Chris Wormley, heightening attention over how the Pittsburgh would use its scare resource.

  • The decision to Draft Chase Claypool suggests the Steelers brain trust is leaning towards best available athlete.

Although the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix suggests that running back, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and safety are all areas of greater need, this is a deep draft at wide receiver. Which isn’t to say that the Steelers can’t use more offensive fire power. They can.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

A Look at Chase Claypool

As Jim Wexell pointed out Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger has never been shy about his love for big wide receivers. He lobbied in vain for the Steelers to resign Plaxico Burress and wasted little time hooking up with Martavis Bryant as a rookie.

Chase Claypool fits that bill, standing at 6’4” and arrives in Pittsburgh with a 40 ½ inch vertical. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner described him as an immediate Red Zone threat. As Fitchner went on to explain:

Some of the small things just grow on you as you watch his tape and you watch his play. He’s a dependable ball-security player. A guy who plays without the football. There’s no job too small. He blocks. He gives effort when balls aren’t coming to him in his routes. He volunteers for special teams. This guy’s just a football player, and he’s grown.

Chase Claypool played for four years for the Fighting Irish, seeing his productivity increase each year, peaking at 66 catches for 1037 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.

Randy Fichtner is right. Chase Claypool will make for a tempting Red Zone target.

Chase Claypool’s Chance to Sustain a New Trend

As mentioned above, wide receiver is one of the Steelers least needy positions on offense. However, Chase Claypool can still have an impact in 2020. JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely to see his role as number 1 wide receiver threatened.

However, even before this pick came in, the pecking order between James Washington and Diontae Johnson was not established. Chase Claypool could easily push both men. Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer were already going to arrive at Latrobe as roster bubble babies and both men’s standing with the team just became more tenuous.

  • Chase Claypool will also arrive in Pittsburgh with a chance to sustian a new trend.

In the modern era, the Steelers haven’t had much success at drafting players from Notre Dame. (Remember, Rocky Bleier had been drafted by Bill Austin, not Chuck Noll, and Jerome Bettis arrived via trade.) Yet Stephon Tuitt came to Pittsburgh as 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and immediately made the defensive line better.

So the arrow is pointing up for Fighting Irish joining the Steelers. Welcome to Steelers Nation Chase Claypool.

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