Bending Back with a Vengeance: Steelers Beat Packers 23-19 with Two 4th Quarter Interceptions

“Alright, that was easy,” proclaimed Mike Tomlin after the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

  • The Steelers standard bearer was of course being uncharacteristically sarcastic.

Of course this wasn’t easy. Which is actually appropriate. The Steelers and Packers are two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Many of their recent matchups have gone down to the wire, and this one lived up to the tradition.

While the caliber of football isn’t strong enough to earn this team any sort of legendary spot in NFL Films lore, it should be noted that Mike Tomlin’s team won because his offense returned to its roots and his defense delivered when the game was on the line. Again.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Najee Warren, Jaylen Harris Deliver 1-2 Punch on the Ground

There are some jobs in this world where 1 + 1 equals more than two. Think of making a queen-sized bed. Although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, ranking leaves is another, at least in my experience.

  • NFL rushing attacks are a bit harder to pin down.

For a generation, Chuck Noll’s offense dutifully divided carries between running backs. That changed when Bill Cowher arrived.

During the Steelers 1992 season reporters asked if Cowher might ease up on Barry Foster’s workload, Cowher quipped, “Not unless I see parts of his body falling off.” Mike Tomlin said something similar about Fast Willie Parker in 2007, and he’s stuck with his “bell cow” since.

The win over the Packers proves that the running back-by-committee trend has sustained itself. On the Steelers opening drive Najee Harris carried on four out of the Steelers 5 rushes. After Jaylen Warren ripped off a 12 yarder to reach the Red Zone, the Steelers went back to Harris, who found the end zone one the second of consecutive runs.

  • The next time Pittsburgh got the ball, Matt Canada and Eddie Faulkner flipped the script.

Warren saw most of the work, slogging out some and doing better on others, with Harris spelling him for a double-digit carry. Yet, the fact that Warren got dropped for a 1-yard loss after the Steelers reached the Red Zone didn’t prevent them from going back to him 2 plays later.

Warren rewarded the coaches’ faith, ripping off a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers touchdowns on their consecutive opening drives since… God knows when.

Is the fact that the Steelers affirmed their commitment to a two running back system and scored touchdowns on their first two drives for the first time in recent just a coincidence? You decide.

Defense Breaks, Early

The win against the Packers will not and should not be remembered as one of the great defensive performances of the post-Roethlisberger era, let alone anything larger. Jordan Love’s Green Bay Packers are not of the same pedigree as Brett Favre’s or Aaron Rodgers’.

  • Yet, Jordan Love and his offense hung 2 touchdowns on the Steelers defense in the first half.

Worse yet, they made it look easy. And for a time, in the first half, it looked like this game might turn into a score-for-score affair if not a shoot-out similar to the 2009 match up.

The game evolved differently. After breaking early, the Steelers got a second chance.

The Myth of the “Irrelevant Play” on Display

The extra point and the kickoff return are two of the most mundane plays in the modern NFL. A few years ago serious commentators even suggested eliminating the extra point. And the NFL is all but trying to legislate the kick return out of the game.

  • One might be tempted to conclude that both plays are irrelevant.

The win over the Packers gave Steelers fans a double edged reminder that there are no irrelevant plays in the NFL.

  • Patrick Peterson blocked the Packer’s extra point after their second touchdown.
  • Keisean Nixon set up two Green Bay scores with kick returns of 49 and 36 yards
  • Anthony McFarland set up the Steelers penultimate field goal with his own 36 yard kick return

Chuck Noll preached that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily. Both Green Bay and Pittsburgh leaned in on this last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers leaned in a little further.

Steelers Defense Bends Back – with a Vengeance

Kenny Pickett started the game with a completion to George Pickens right out of the gate. While the Steelers running game deserves credit for the first two touchdown drives, Pickett was sharp on both.

Keanu Neal, Keanu Neal interception end zone, Steelers vs Packers

Keanu Neal with the Steelers 1st 4th quarter interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Had Pickett remained similarly sharp or had Diontae Johnson made a few clutch catches the defense’s late game heroics wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • But necessary they were.

The first came with little more than three minutes remaining, immediately after the Steelers had retaken the lead. Green Bay drove the length of the field, reaching Pittsburgh’s 14. There Jordan Love fired a dart to Christian Watson in the end zone. Patrick Peterson tipped it, Keanu Neal intercepted and returned 39 yards.

The Steelers almost ran out the click, but Kenny Pickett was right on the money for a would be game-sealing pass to George Pickens that was negated by a (questionable) Calvin Austin pass interference penalty.

After six plays the Packers were back at Pittsburgh’s 16 – a field goal would do them no good thanks to Peterson’s blocked kick. Again Love targeted Watson:  This time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn to intercept the ball and return in 30 yards as time expired.

The Steelers defense may have broken early, but it bent back with a vengeance when the game was on the line. And that decided the game for Pittsburgh.

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Under the Radar: Steelers Sign Anthony McFarland, 16 Others to “Futures Contracts”

What does 30 yards on 6 carries and 11 yards on 2 catches earn you today?

  • Apparently a second shot at an NFL career.

As the first week of their 2023 off season closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already signed 17 players to “futures” contracts and none more intriguing than Anthony McFarland. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland out of the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.

As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.

  • The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.

But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

  • McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.

NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.

Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.

That changed in 2022. When injuries felled both Harris and Warren against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped in, providing the foundation that allowed Kenny Pickett to stage his first comeback. This is the first sign that the change will continue.

Other Futures Signings

Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:

Cody White, wide receiver
Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver
Rodney Williams, tight end
Master Teague, running back
Jason Huntley, running back
Emeke Egbule, linebacker
William Dunkle, guard
Duke Dawson, defensive back
Scott Nelson, defensive back
Ryan McCollum, center

The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:

Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver
Madre Harper, defensive back
Kenny Robinson, defensive back
Chris Wilcox, defensive back

If nothing else, with Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all headed for free agency, the Steelers are adding quantity to their defensive backfield.

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Kevin Colbert’s Legacy as Steelers General Manager in 5 Moments

Football is an intense sport. Perhaps the most intense. Yet rarely do you see someone expose the depths of their soul the way Kevin Colbert did in his press conference announcing the Steelers 2022 Draft class.

Emotional doesn’t begin to capture the moment.

  • Yet through it all, Kevin Colbert was a Steeler to his core.

Colbert was reluctant to take credit. He refused to fall back statistics on the team’s record or draft successes. He felt no need to clarify that he “knew the task” to was winning championships, only stating “It was four” and then humbly offered “being able to add to that room” meant a ton before affirming “we’ve got to get more.”

  • Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Sr. undoubtedly were watching from heaven with approval. Colbert did anything but “Put on the dog.”
Kevin Colbert legacy, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl 43, Lombardi Trophy

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney after Super Bowl XLIII with the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: Twitter

The path to understanding difficulty of winning a Super Bowl maps directly to the cracks in Kevin Colbert’s cracks voice.

I don’t and won’t pretend to know what flashed through Kevin Colbert’s mind as he struggled through those words, but I know I what leap into my consciousness as I heard them:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe-string tackle of Nick Harper vs. the Colts in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs
  • Ike Taylor making one of his 17 career interceptions in the Super Bowl XL
  • Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the 2008 AFC Championship game
  • James Harrison’s 99 yard pick six in Super Bowl XLIII
  • Ben to ‘Tone in Super Bowl XLIII

During his 22 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Colbert drafted 183 players. He probably signed twice as many undrafted rookie free agents, including men like Dan Kreider, Willie Parker and Nate Washington. He signed dozens of free agents, from All Pros like Jeff Hartings, James Farrior, and Ryan Clark, to forgotten role players like Mike Logan, Travis Kirschke, and Duce Staley.

All of those moves were necessary, in their own way, to delivering victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But absent those five critical plays mentioned above their sum would have been insufficient.

  • Which isn’t to say that those 5 plays alone resulted in two Super Bowls.

They did not, and arguing to the contrary would be fundamentally disrespectful to so many other players. But those 5 plays enabled the others contributions.

Think about it:

Had Ben Roethlisberger not stopped Harper, Bryant McFadden’s once in a life-time pass defense over future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne, never happens. Nor would Mike Vanderjagt’s epic fail hold its unique niche in Steelers lore.

Ike Taylor, interception, Super Bowl XL

Ike Taylor’s interception changes tempo of Super Bowl XL

When Ike Taylor made his interception on the Pittsburgh’s 5 yard line, he reversed the momentum was decidedly in Seattle’s favor. Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward perhaps still could have made their magic, but that would have only gotten the Steelers back in the game instead of helping icing the win. Ditto Deshea Townsend’s sack.

  • Ike Taylor didn’t make many interceptions, but boy, did this one count.

Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the AFC Championship didn’t just flip a game that the Ravens had been methodically wresting control of, it also exorcised the demons of 3 straight AFC Championship losses the Steelers had suffered on Pittsburgh soil.

In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison’s pick six almost got forgotten. But this one comes down to simple math: It was a four-point swing (at minimum) in a game that the Steelers won by 27 to 23. Yes, defense STILL wins championships.

Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to Santonio Holmes is perhaps the greatest 6-yard completion in the history of the game capping one of most fabled comeback drives in Super Bowl history.

  • Yes, ladies and gentleman, winning a Super Bowl is difficult, extremely difficult.

It is tempting to look at those plays and conclude “Yeah, Kevin Colbert really needed a ton of luck to get his Super Bowls.” The opposite in fact is true. These plays were so extraordinary because they were being made by the best of the best at the moment when they were needed the most.

Kevin Colbert brought them all Pittsburgh, proof that he is one of the best of the best.

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Regardless of Result, Pittsburgh Right to Prioritize Playoffs Over Draft Picks

In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.

  • But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.

That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.

I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.

  • If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.

That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)

  • Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.

There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.

  • You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.

The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.

You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.

  • Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.

But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.

The Perils of Playing for Draft Position

Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).

Then Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Marvel Smith, and Willie Parker getting old happened. That was a problem because rebuilding around a franchise quarterback is difficult, because a franchise QB gives you a couple of three wins per season.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Switch Ben Roethlisberger for Kordell Stewart on the 1998 and 1999 Steelers squads and they probably both finish at least at 8-8 instead of 7-9 and 6-10.

  • But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.

Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?

  • Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.

Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.

The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.

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

When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”

That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.

Oh, and by the way, Noll also got himself his own Hall of Fame running in 1972. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Franco Harris.

As Jimmy Psihoulis assured us in the Western Pennsylvania Polka, “…Good things come to those who work and wait.”

Jimmy Pol was right. The Steelers face long odds against the Chief and face even longer odds in their quest to win Super Bowl LVI.

But they are damn right to do everything in their power to try.

Go Steelers!

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

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

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

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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

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

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

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

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

Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Chad Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

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

The quick answer: no.

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

Rodney Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Marvel Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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One Word Defines David DeCastro’s Steelers Career: Attitude

With David DeCastro’s Steelers career coming to an end it is time to assess his legacy. That can be tricky with offensive lineman, who don’t generate statistics to compile and compare. But that doesn’t matter with David DeCastro, because DeCastro defined himself with his attitude.

Every great player authors signature plays. Think:

Offensive lineman author signature plays too, but these by definition come in a supporting role. Alan Faneca’s block that swung Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL comes to mind. But each of those has something common: They all they shifted the outcome of playoff games at critical junctures.

David DeCastro’s signature play is unique because it came during the regular season and actually cost the Steelers 15 yards during a 2 minute drill!

David DeCastro, Eric Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Panthers

David DeCastro gets in Eric Reid’s face during the Steelers 2018 win over the Panthers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.

IT came on a balmy Sunday night during September 2014 in Carolina. The Steelers had opened the season with a nail biter win over the Browns and then gotten ripped apart by the Ravens. The Carolina Panthers were coming off of a 12-4 season and were seen as NFC contenders.

As half-time approached, the Steelers hung to a slim 6-3 lead thanks to two Shaun Suisham field goals. Ben Roethlisberger was running the two-minute drill and the Steelers were sniffing the Red Zone. Roethlisberger hit Justin Brown for a 4 yard gain.

Luke Kuechly tackled him. He stripped the ball from Brown after the whistle and held him down as he tried to get up. Then, when both got to their feet, Luke Kuechly pushed Brown, as if to remind him who was the biggest boy on the block.

  • David DeCastro saw it from across the field and was having NONE of it.

He crossed the distance and unloaded on Kuechly. The linebacker remained on his feet, but DeCastro had put him in his place. All this happened right in front of the official, who flagged DeCastro for 15 yards and essentially ended any chance of a touchdown. (Suisham did make a 45 yarder for a 9-6 half time lead.)

You call a 15 yarder at the 28 with 33 second to play a costly penalty? Fine, I’ll call it addition by subtraction.

  • It may have been the most important play authored by the offensive line during the Tomlin era.

Offensive line is one spot on the depth chart that transcends measurables. Sure, offensive lineman must be big. They need strength, a lot of strength. Agility is essential. But more than anything else, they need attitude. And they need a little streak of nasty. Because at their core, successful offensive lineman impose their will.

  • David DeCastro embodied it all on that one play.

Justin Brown was first year player and roster bubble baby who’d worked himself up from the practice squad. The Steelers cut him before the season’s end. Most fans didn’t who he was then let alone remember him today.

None of that mattered to David DeCastro. He made it clear to Kuechly, the Partners and the rest of the NFL that these Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t going to be intimated, they were going to be the intimidators.

  • To be generous, the Steelers offensive line had been a mess up until that point in the Tomlin era.

During those early years, the team’s strategy on offensive line was “Plug and Patch.” They’d sign guys and then cut them in the middle of their contract. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began moving away from that in 2010 by picking Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert in 2011 and DeCastro in 2014.

  • But DeCastro’s shove of Kuechly marks the moment when the offensive line turned a corner.

The late, legendary scribe Ivan Cole labeled the offensive line’s performance against the Panthers as “scary good.” Scary good it was. The game marked the last time that the Steelers had two 100 yard rushers in the same game, as Le’Veon Bell ran for 141 yards and LeGarrette Blount ran for 118 – in mop up time.

Sure, Bell and Blount had runs of 81 and 50 yards, but that’s the point: The offensive line was in full road grading mode that night, open holes that you could drive trucks through.

  • From that point on until the 2019 season the Steelers offensive line wasn’t just a team strength but one of the NFL’s best.

David DeCastro was one of the foundations of that group and attitude was the difference maker that DeCastro brought to the table.

 

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Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

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The Extension: Yes, Mike Tomlin Deserves Criticism. But He’s Earned Far More Credit

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for 3 more years. His new current contract will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season.

Tomlin’s contract extension might not be a surprise, but it does come a bit off schedule as the Steelers typically have extended their coaches during the summer, either shortly before or during training camp.

The decision also indicates that Mike Tomlin will oversee at least the beginning of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mike Tomlin’s last extension mirrored Ben Roethlisberger’s, leading to speculation that Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert would simultaneously retire.

  • That appears far less likely now.

In a prepared statement Art Rooney II extolled his 14 year head coach:

Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League. We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.

If Mr. Rooney were to poll the citizens of Steelers Nation, he’d undoubtedly find disagrees. Indeed, the dissenters would be many, and they would be vocal. They would also be wrong.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has one ring from Super Bowl XLIII, two AFC Championships, 7 AFC North Championships, 9 playoff appearances while compiling a 145-78-1 regular season record while never suffering a losing season. Only once, on Tomlin’s watch have the Steelers been eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final game.

Yet for all that, based on social media reaction you’d think resume was on par Rod Rust’s 1990 campaign in New England.

Let’s debunk some of the charges leveled against Tomlin:

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

Pittsburgh’s playoff record since Super Bowl XLV certainly strings. Those last two home playoff losses sucked.

But if that’s your argument against Mike Tomlin then ask yourself this one question – would you feel different if he’d racked up a bunch of AFC Championship losses?

Seriously.

  • Bill Cowher won playoff games a plenty between 1992 and 2004.

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Yet the knock on Cowher was, “He can’t win the big one.” After he suffered his 2nd humiliating Heinz Field AFC Championship defeat to the Patriots in 2004, there was no shortage of fans who felt he should be fired. Fortunately, Dan Rooney ignored them and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL a year later.

“He only won with Bill Cowher’s players.”

Really? Well, by that measure, Bill Cowher started losing in the late 1990’s when Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake, the Hall of Famers/All Pros he inherited from Chuck Noll, either left or started fading. He only became a champion after a franchise QB (whom he didn’t really want to pick) dropped in his lap.

And if we’re using a predecessor’s success to discredit a successor, then let’s also acknowledge that Kevin Colbert only won with Tom Donahoe’s players.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go there either.

“He’s had 10 YEARS to Rebuild Since Super Bowl XLV”

True. Very true. It’s also true that rebuilding around a franchise QB is hard. Don Shula went to the Super Bowl in ’82, got his franchise QB in ’83, went to another Super Bowl in ’84 and never sniffed another. Shula is generally recognized as one of the top 3 coaches of all time….

“BUT Tomlin’s had a franchise QB his ENTIRE career. And he’s ONLY won ONE Super Bowl.”

Number don’t lie. This is true. But tell me:

  • How many Super Bowls did Sean Peyton win with Drew Brees?
  • Mike McCarthy had Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. How many rings does he wear?
  • Pete Carroll is a fine coach. Russell Wilson is a great QB. How many trophies do they have?
  • And, by the way, how did that Legion of Boom dynasty pan out?

Tom Coughlin did win two Super Bowl rings and he beat the Patriots to get his. Give the man credit. He also closed his chapter in New York with 3 straight losing seasons.

Would Steelers Nation trade 7-9 and twin 6-10 records for another Lombardi? We might. Throw in a playoff win over the Patriots, and I probably take that deal.

But it still shows how hard it is to sustain winning after a championship run. Oh, and how has New York done since kicking Coughlin to the curb?

Give Tomlin the Criticism Deserves and the Credit He’s Earned

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games too often. Sure, there are some mitigating circumstances in some cases. But it has happened too often to dismiss as chance.

Has he stubbornly run running backs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell into the ground while failing to staff adequate back up depth? Yes sir! This scuttled two if not 3 playoff runs.

But has wiffing on picks like Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns set the rebuild behind? Absolutely.

Does he let loyalty and personal relationships cloud his decisions on assistants? Yes, at times it seems he does.

These faults are real. But this is also real: No other coach Bill Belichick and arguably Tom Coughlin has been better than Mike Tomlin during the Tom Brady era.

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