´ Steel Curtain Rising: July 2009

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Steelers Resign Health Miller to Six Year Extension

Training camp has not yet begun, yet the Steelers continue to make moves to fortify the team’s future.

Steelers.com announced this afternoon that the Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with tight end Heath Miller. According to the Post-Gazette, the deal includes a 12.5 million dollar signing bonus and totals 35.3 million dollars over six years.

Good Move for Both Sides

Drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft, Heath Miller has quietly emerged as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Miller’s future with the team has been the subject of intense speculation. Under normal circumstances Miller would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency, having played five seasons in the league.

However, if the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association do not reach an agreement to extend their current collective bargaining agreement before the 2009 season ends the salary cap will expire in 2010. At first blush an uncapped year appears to be a player’s dream.

But the deal contains a number of poison pills, one of which stipulates that players do not enter unrestricted free agency until they have played their sixth year.

The deal will keep Miller with the Steelers for the next six years, presumably the prime of his NFL career. While they most likely would have kept his services had he become a restricted free agent, one of the Daniel Snyders of the league could have offered a ridiculous deal that would have been impossible to match.

Miller could certainly have given him a shot at more money by waiting, but in waiting he would be running the risk of a major injury prior to reaching free agency. Instead, he opted to sign and secure the next several years of his future with the Steelers.

Unsung Hero?

Heath Miller does not get the kind of press of a Tony Gonzales or (in his day) Shannon Sharpe, get, but his contributions to the Steelers are invaluable. Miller made an immedate impact as a rookie, and developed to the point where he’s caught just under fifty passes in each of the last two seasons.

And if his 2008 receiving average and touchdown total might be down a smidge, look no further than the AFC Championship game against Baltimore, where Miller averaged 20.7 yards on three catches, helping pick up the slack in the absence of Hines Ward.

Miller gives Ben Roethlisberger an escape valve under the middle, and has a knack for coming down with the ball in third down situations. Miller is also an exceptional run blocker, an area of the team that needs strengthening.

Last of Many?

Now that Miller has signed, the Steelers have 6 Steelers headed for unrestricted free agency unless their contracts are extended. The others are Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Deshea Townsend, Tryone Carter, and Jeff Reed.

As bad as this sounds, the Steelers have greatly impoved this situation during the past off season, which included signing Hines Ward, James Harrison, and Max Starks to extensions, all three of whom would have become free agents in March 2010.

Most of the speculation on the remaining pool focused on Health Miller, as many pegged him as the most likely and the most desirable prospects to resign.

Pittsburgh would undoubtedly like to bank on the future services of several their other impending free agents, but the Steelers are unlikely to get many others under contract.

The Steelers have maneuvered with precious little cap space during the off season, and Miller’s signing along with the recent inking of first round draft pick Evander “Ziggy” Hood likely leaves the team with little room under the cap.

You can follow all of the off season's Steelers free agent news by clicking on our Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus tag.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Watch Tower: Steel Curtain Rising Reviews Its 2008 Goofs

Regular readers know Steel Curtain Rising relishes holding the media accountable. In our Watch Tower column we critique, analyze, pick apart, (nit pick), and comment on the performance of those who cover the Steelers.

As Steelers Nation begins offering its predictions and prognostications for the 2009 season, it is only fair that Steel Curtain Rising take its own medicine.

So following the tradition established by legendary Washington Post writer David Broder, Steel Curtain Rising offers its “goofs column,” where we fess up to what we got wrong.

That’s right. Never too shy to gloat when right, we must also face up to our 2008 errors, which spanned the 2008 Draft, the pick of Dennis Dixon, Max Starks and the Offensive Line in general, pace of Tomlin’s second camp , 11th hour signings that never happened, Santonio Holmes' future with the team, the non-turning point for the offense, and joining the chorus against Bruce Arians and Bob Ligashesky .

Really, You Should Have Taken Colbert His Word

Prior to the 2008 draft, Steel Curtain Rising urged readers to ignore Kevin Colbert’s promise to “take the best available player.” Instead, we pointed to previous statements, such as 2003 when Colbert defended the status quo in the Steelers secondary prior to the draft only to trade up big time to pick Troy Polamalu.

We thought they would do the same thing in 2008 and focus on getting an offensive or defensive lineman at all costs in early rounds. And Steel Curtain Rising urged everyone to watch what Colbert did, not what he said. Perhaps Mendenhall and Sweed would beg to differ….

Maybe Dennis Dixon Wasn’t a Bad Pick Up

Giving in to knee jerkism, Steel Curtain Rising lambasted Colbert and Tomlin for picking a quarterback in the 2008 draft.

While the pick seemed illogical at the moment, Dennis Dixon has progressed well thus far, and if he can seriously challenge Charlie Batch for the back up spot, he will deliver excellent value as a 5th round pick.

The Offensive Line Did Shuffle, Just Not the Way We Predicted…

Prior to the draft, Steel Curtain Rising published a well-crafted piece seemingly exploring all of the scenarios that the Steelers would have to undergo to settle on their starting front 5 for 2008.
The training camp offensive line shell game never even came close to evolving. Sure there was “competition” between Hartwig and Sean Mahan, while Essex and Max Starks split time at the backup right tackle slot, but the starting 5 remained stable through camp.

Of course injuries did force the Steelers to rebuild their line during the 2008 season, but Steel Curtain Rising certainly takes no credit for predicting that.

The Max Starks Situation

Treading close to Steel Curtain Rising’s “Football Only” rule, let me paraphrase a once famous Boston Senator: Steel Curtain Rising was in favor of the Steelers transitioning Max Starks, before we were skpetical about it, which preceded our ultimate approval of the move.


Then you’ve got a good reason, because Steel Curtain Rising was all over the map on the Max Starks issue.

Bottom line? Stick with your instincts, because the man who was derided for being a very expensive back up tackle on opening day had a huge role in saving the season.

Tomlin Wise Not to Push It Too Hard in Latrobe

When Pittsburgh repeatedly failed to close tight games in 2007, many in Steelers Nation questioned under their breath “Would Bill Cowher have let this happen….? Have the Steelers lost their killer instinct?”

In this light Steel Curtain Rising questioned the long injury list early in training camp and urged the team to heed James Harrison’s entreaties to pick up the intensity.

Pittsburgh’s performance against Jacksonville in week 5 established the Steelers as the NFL’s toughest.

If anything, Mike Tomlin’s refined pace is what kept the team fresh down the stretch. Tomlin knew something we didn’t. (And yes, that is something that will come true again and again.)

For Whom the Bell Doesn't Toll When It Strikes the 11th Hour

In recent years the Steelers have resigned a veteran during the week leading up to opening day. In 2006 it was Ike Taylor and in 2007 it was Kendall Simmons.

Immediately after the final roster cut the Steelers shipped 2007 starting center Sean Mahan back to Tampa Bay. Steel Curtain Rising immediately saw this an attempt to clear cap room to make a final signing.

No 11th hour signing took place in 2008.

They did try to resign Marvel Smith, but Smith balked at re-upping, choosing instead to test the free agent waters.

The Offensive Turning Point That Wasn’t

The glory of the Sixth Lombardi Trophy rightly defines the Steelers 2008 season. This triumphant glow will cause many to forget the madding inconsistency that characterized the Steelers offense for much of the year.

The offensive line rebuilding and injuries to Willie Parker and Ben were big parts of that.

But when Pittsburgh piled up tons of yards, but few points against San Diego in the regular season, Steel Curtain Rising declared that the Steelers had turned the corner and would put it all together on offense.

While that game did mark improvement, consistency continued to elude the Steelers offense for the rest of 2008 – except of course when the game was on the line.

Which counts in the Steelers favor, but alas not ours.

It Looks Like Santonio Holmes Is Going to Stick Around

Santonio Holmes had only been having an OK year when got busted for marijuana possession. In contrast, Nate Washington had been establishing himself as a dangerous deep threat – especially on third down.

That coupled with the Steelers semi-consistent policy of not tolerating players who run afoul of the law led Steel Curtain Rising to suggest that the Steelers might opt to resign Washington and unload Holmes.

Ooh…. Do we wish we had that one back now…. Perhaps not, but Steel Curtain Rising was dead wrong there. Washington continued to perform, but Holmes slipped it into high gear, and was at the center of the big plays that defined each of the Steelers three playoff victories.

Blaming Too Much on Bruce?

This one makes the list if for no other reason than the impassioned and well-argued defense that one of our readers made of Bruce Arians after the Super Bowl.

Bruce Arians took a lot of heat in 2008 from this site and the rest of Steelers Nation as the Steelers offense lacked rhythm and our once vaunted running game was shackled.

While we’re not ready to back off all the criticism we made during 2008, Bruce Arians certainly got the last laugh, and we’re thankful for that.

(In our own defense, we did say in training camp last year that Arians probably did not have the line to establish a power running game, and as the season wore on it became clear that he didn’t.)

So Bob Ligashesky Wasn’t the Special Teams Culprit of 2007

Special teams had been a horrendous weakness in 2007. When Mike Tomlin decided to retain special teams coach Bob L. Steel Curtain Rising officially gave Tomlin the benefit of the doubt. But it didn’t take too savvy of a reader to understand know how we really felt.

If they Steelers special teams did not become strength last year, they did improve dramatically.

We’ll keep that in mind the next time Mike Tomlin declines to make a knee-jerk decision.

Looking Forward to 2009

If you read Steel Curtain Rising often enough you’ll undoubtedly recall other moments of err. (Not to mention the mundane typos, the skipped prepositions, or the slip up that renders an entire sentence unreadable – thank you to everyone who pointed these out!)

So be it. Sometimes you call it right. Sometimes you call it wrong.

But Steel Curtain Rising will always call it as we see it.

We had a blast doing it last year, and we hope you’ll join us as we get ready to do it again in 2009.

Who watches the watchmen? Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower casts a critical eye on those who cover the Steelers. Click here to read all articles carrying the Watch Tower label.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Steelers Ownership Resturcturing Nears Close

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported today that the four Rooney brothers have signed the paperwork to sell all or part of their shares to the new investment group headed by Dan and Art Rooney II.

Under the terms of the agreement, which was reached last November, middle brother Tim and Pat, the oldest of the twins, will sell all of their shares in the Steelers, amounting to 16%. Art Rooney Jr. and John Rooney, will sell about half of their shares.

The McGinley family, which currently controls 20% of the team will also sell part of their shares. How much is not known, but it is not believed to be a large amount.

When Art Rooney Sr. died in 1987, he left each of his sons equal shares of the team. They operated as equal partners, and it was believed that some sort of a buyout was in the offering at some point, if for no other reasons than estate planning.

Decision Day Brought Forward by NFL Anti-Gambling Guidelines

The Rooney family has long had interests in race tracks, some of which now have slot machines and video poker, which runs in conflict to the NFL’s anti-gambling policies. The NFL ordered the Rooneys to either divest themselves of their stakes in the tracks, or sell the Steelers.

Dan Rooney (and presumably Art Jr. and John) opted to get out of the racetrack business, while Tim and Pat will continue to be involved in running the tracks.

The Rooneys have been coy in revealing how much each of the new partners will control, but today the Post-Gazette article termed Hollywood producer Thomas Tull, James Haslam III of Tennessee and the Paul family of Pittsburgh as “major investors” in the group.

Rooney, McGinley Famlies Still to Control Large Majority of Steelers Stock

It has been reported that Dan and Art II will control about 30% of the team’s stock, with John and Art Jr. controlling 16% between them, and the McGinley’s controlling close to their existing 20%.

Together that would leave the Rooney-McGinley family in control of 66% of the team with the new investors controlling the other 34%. (Note - when we first wrote this we got the math wrong, and thanks to Carl Prine's reporting in the Tribune-Review, it now appears that the McGinley family will sell a larger portion of their stake than anticipated.)

The same Post-Gazette story indicated that the deal would formally close in about two weeks. The deal was supposed to close during the spring, but had to be postponed because additional money needed to be raised, although Art Rooney II indicated that the sum was not large.

Steel Curtain Rising to Say More on John Stallworth Soon

Another, presumably “minor,” investor is NFL Hall of Famer and former Steelers wideout John Stallworth. When the deal is complete, Steel Curtain Rising will offer a comprehensive look at John Stallworth and his legacy with the Steelers.

So stay tuned!

Roethlisberger Sexual Assault Story Reaches Second Day

The Ben Roethlisberger Sexual Assault story reached its second day, with little new news surfacing.

Both the NFL and the Steelers issued bland statements to the effect of “this is not a criminal matter at this time, we’re looking into it but not commenting on the legal process right now.”

One piece of information that did surface was on the lawyer filing the suit. Calvin R. X. Dunlap is apparently a well-established lawyer in Nevada, representing the wife of the current Governor in their pending divorce.

The fact that Mr. Dunlap is representing the woman prosecuting the suit against Roethlisberger certainly does not add any more legitimacy to her claim, it is clear that this is not some unknown lawyer attempting a publicity grab.

Likewise, someone in the bloggesphere reported that during the off season Ben returned to the same location for the same celebrity golf competition. While this of course proves nothing, it would have been unwise for Ben to return had he any inkling that he might face a court summons.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ben Roethlisberger Named Defendant in Civil Sexual Assualt Suit

Steelers Nation was hit with a bombshell, or a potential bombshell, ten days before they the Steelers were set to begin training camp in Latrobe.

As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and numerous other media outlets, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been named as a co-defendant in a civil sexual assault suit filed in Reno, Nevada.

The other co-defendants are employees of Harrah's Lake Tahoe hotel, the location where the alleged incident was said to have taken place.

The suit names Roethlisberger as the perpetrator of the alleged incident, and charges numerous other hotel employees with participating and wide-spread and far-reaching coverup.

The Allegation

The woman, a former employee of Harrah's hotel, claims that she was assigned to guide Ben through the American Century Golf competition which took place last summer. The plaintiff claims that the Steelers quarterback lured her up to her room under the premise of needing to have a broken TV fixed.

The plaintiff further claims that when it became apparent that the TV was working fine, the alleged assault took place.

The woman filing the claim further contends that she notified her superiors in hotel management, and that a coverup ensued.

No Criminal Charge, No Criminal Complaint

Ben Roethlisberger's attorney David Cornwell vigorously disputed all charges. He pointed to the fact that neither a criminal complaint nor criminal chargers were ever filed in relation to the incident, and pledged that Roethlisberger would fully cooperate with any investigation, and that he would be fully exonerated.

Amatur Analysis

Steel Curtain Rising quite obviously does not retain lawyers to provide legal analysis. (Although, sometimes it seems like we should. Or as Ken Beatrice, former DC area sports host for WMAL and later WTEM used to say, "I apologize for not having gone to law school so as to better bring you the sports news."

Nonetheless, we can offer some analysis of the facts:

  • The complaint is very detailed.

    What that fact might seem to make the case more compelling, the fact that the suit alleges a cover-up that involves eight people actually makes it seem less plausible.
  • No Criminal Complaint Was Ever Filed

    This is where the law would come in handy. At face value, this would seem to seriously undermine the case. Yes, the burden of proof in civil suits is less than in criminal suits, but what would the motive be in not reporting a case like this to the police?

    Moreover, one would think that a wise lawyer would know that the potential repercussions of filing a bogus civil suit would perhaps be far less severe than filing a false criminal charge. (But any lawyers out there are more than welcome to offer their analysis.

Steel Curtain Rising has no additional facts on this case, and will not offer any additional analysis. We do hope that for the sake of everyone involved that these chargers were completely false, and that Ben is completely exonerated.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Steelers 1989 Draft: Gems Amidst the Fools Gold

16 days to training camp… To help fill the void, Steel Curtain Rising begins what will be a season-long series commemorating the Steelers 1989 playoff season.

Of all the Steelers non-Super Bowl seasons their 1989 playoff run was the most special.

Pittsburgh’s 1989 season ended with the Steelers in the once-unthinkable spot of playing a divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos. During the game, NBC's Dick Enberg and Bill Walsh reported Chuck Noll had told them that the '89 draft was a prime reason for the Steelers surprising success.

Another commentator agreed, comparing the ‘89 draft to the Steelers 1974 draft.

With 20 years hindsight, the idea that the 1989 draft even deserves mention with the 1974 Hall of Fame haul draft is laughable.

  • But in January 1990, the idea was far from outlandish.

9 months after the fact it looked like the Steelers had had a very, very good draft. The 1989 draft certainly delivered Pittsburgh a few prize gems, but a lot of fools gold accompanied those precious stones.

The 1989 Draft – The First Six

It is supposed to happen this way. The first six picks of the 1989 draft were: Troy Aikman, Tony Mandarich, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deon Sanders, and Borerick Thomas.

Three are already Hall of Famers, with Deon Sanders soon to follow. Four busts in Canton heavily outweigh the other 2 busts on the field.

The Steelers were drafting seventh, their highest position since 1971. Dare they dream of making it five Hall of Famers?

The 1989 Draft – The Steelers Picks

1. Tim Worley, Running Back, Georgia
1b. Tom Ricketts, Offensive Tackle, Pitt
2. Carnell Lake, Strong Saftey, UCLA
3. Derek Hill, Wide Receiver, Arizona
4. Jorrell Williams, Outside Linebacker, Purdue
5. David Arnold, Cornerback, Michigan
6. Mark Stock, Wide Receiver, Virginia Military Institute
7. David Johnson, Cornerback, Kentucky
8. Chris Asbeck, Nose Tackle, University of Cincinnati
9. A.J. Jenkins, Defensive End, Cal State Fullerton
10. Jerry Olsavsky, Inside Linebacker, Pitt
11. Brian Slater, Wide Reciever, Washington
12. Carlton Haselrig, Nose Tackle (later moved to Offensive Guard), Pitt-Johnstown (wrestling team)

The Outright Busts

Chris Asbeck and Brian Slatter got cut in training camp. David Arnold played some special teams in 1989 and then was out of football.

The Fools Gold

Tim Worley

Modern-era Pittsburgh has never had a running back taken higher. Not Franco, not Rocky, not, Hoge, not Foster, not Bettis, not Mendenhall.

Tim Worley was supposed to be that good. Ken Beatrice, long time WMAL/WTEM Washington-area sports radio voice, used to say “If I had my choice between Worley, Barry Sanders, and Bobby Humphrey, I would take Worley every time. Worley is simply the superior athlete.”

Things did not start smoothly for Tim Worley. He fumbled three times in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, and was generally ineffective early in the season.

Fools Gold Glitter: Worley exploded at the end of the season, cranking out two one hundred yard games and totaling 770 yards, and made a respectable showing in the 1989 playoffs.

Alas, Not Gold… But Brass: Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose. He ran afoul of Chuck Noll in ‘90 and Noll cut his playing time drastically. Drug suspensions followed in 1991 and 1992. He came back strong in 1993, but the Steelers had had enough and traded him to Chicago, where he played one more year.

Tom Ricketts

To this day, Tom Ricketts holds the distinction of being the Steelers only number 1b. first round draft pick, thanks to the Mike Merriweather trade.

Pyrite Promises: Rickets cracked the starting lineup on opening day as injuries forced Chuck Noll to have Ricketts swap positions with guard John Rinestra. Both men played their new positions played well under such trying circumstances.

From Illusion to Disillusion: That was Rickett’s high point, he never matured into a full time starter, peaking at eight starts in 1991. By then, he had eaten himself out of the league, moving on to play in Indy and Kansas City.

Derek Hill

Pittsburgh had high hopes that Derek Hill would do for Louis Lipps what Lipps had done for John Stallworth.

The Mirage's Gleam: As a rookie, Hill was poised to realize his promise, starting eight games, catching 28 balls for 433 yards. Sound pedestrian? Well, that dwarfs Limas Sweed’s 2008 production.
Reality Check: Hill had issues. Starting 3 more games in 1990, he caught three fewer balls, and no touchdowns. He left after 1990 as a Plan B free agent, and was out of football by opening day 1991.

Jorrell Williams

As a rookie, Jerroll Willams gave every indication that he was a fourth round steal.

The Leprechaun’s Allure: Thrust unexpectedly into the starting line up in week three, Williams made an immediate impact with 5 tackles and two sacks. Williams contributed heavily as a part-time player throughout the rest of the year and in ‘90 and led the team in sacks in ‘91 despite not starting.

Fool's Gold, or Just a Fool?: Jerrol Williams’ failure to start puzzled. After making the first team under Bill Cowher and playing well, he immedately bolted as a free agent complaining that stars like Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson denied him the spotlight he needed to showcase his talents. He "showcased" in San Diego, Kansas City, and Baltimore over the next four years, never starting more than six games in a year.

Mark Stock

The Chimera’s Cadence: Mark Stock played in 8 games, made four catches averaging 18.7 yards per catch, plus two grabs for 37 yards in the playoffs….

Crashing Down to Earth: …But Mark Stock was most famous for the catch he didn’t make, dropping a go ahead touchdown pass against Denver in the waning moments the divisional playoffs.

He got cut in training camp the following year. But then Stock’s career took an interesting turn, 1990 saw him serve in Operation Desert Storm, he played for the Washington Redskins in 1993 and then Indianapolis Colts in 1996. In between, he also played for the World League of American Football and the CFL.

A.J. Jenkins
Visiting the Potemkin Village: Jenkins played in all sixteen games as a rookie, and began working himself into the lineup during his second year, netting two sacks by mid-season.
Rough Break: Alas, A.J. Jenkins also got injured at mid-season, and he was out of football by 1991.

From Coal to Diamond to Lead - Carlton Haselrig

We can only describe Haselrig by mixing our mineral and metal metaphors. You cannot impossible label this man as a bust or write off his accomplishments as flashes of fools gold. Haselrig never played football in college, wrestling at Pitt-Johnstown and winning multiple NCAA Divison II and Division I titles. Drafted in the 12th round, he played on the Steelers practice squad as a nose tackle before moving to guard in 1990.

Starting by 1991, he made the Pro Bowl in 1992. Substance abuse problems began in 1993, which caused him to miss the entire 1994 season. Dick Haley brought him to the Jets in 1995, but Haselrig was out of football after that.

The Gems

David DJ Johnson

Not to be confused with the man the Steelers picked this year, David Johnson (not yet known as “DJ”) played sparingly at first, saw his playing time increase as the year continued, and established himself as a full-time starter beginning in 1990.

Starting opposite of Rod Woodson, Johnson was a frequent target, but Johnson more than held his own. He picked off one pass as a rookie and tied for second place in special teams tackles. In his next year he intercepted two passes for 60 yards and returned one for a touchdown. He would net nine more in his next three seasons as a starter, and never failed to turn in more than 50 tackles a season.

  • In an early 1990 Sunday night game against Houston, Johnson returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown, providing a much needed boost during a one-month stretch where the offense failed to score a touchdown.

  • The pick of Johnson paid handsome gains in his last game regular season game as a Steelers. Defending a 16 to 9 lead, Johnson hung tough in the end zone, defending several would-be Vinny Testaverde touchdown passes.

Jerry Olsavsky

Not big enough, not strong enough, not fast enough. Simply good enough.

The NFL may have had a more accomplished 10th round draft pick, but I would have no idea who that person is (well, OK L.C. Greenwood would be one, and now that I just checked, Merrill Hoge was also a 10th round pick. My Bad.) Olsavsky started eight games as a rookie in 1989 due to injuries to Hardy Nickerson. Made the first team of the UPI’s 1989 All Rookie Team.

All of that would suffice to make an inspirational underdog story, but there’s more.

The Steelers 1990 media guide described Olsavsky this way:

An exteremly intelligent player who is rarely out of position. He makes up for relative lack of size with hustle and anticipation.

Yes, Jerry O. had an on the field presence that put him in the right place at opportune moments. He made the most of those opportunities.

Pancaking the Nigerian Nightmare - With Pittsburgh defending its goal line and protecting a narrow lead, 221 lb. Jerry O was all that stood between the 260 lb. NFL leading rusher “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye and the Chief's go ahead touchdown.

  • Olsavsky blew Okoye off the goal line and stopping him cold on 4th down.

Drawing First Blood in “the House of Pain” (aka the Astrodome) - In their first playoff game in five years, the Steelers struck first against Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers.

  • Jerry O set it up when he secured the 1980’s final blocked punt to set up Tim Worley’s 9 yard score.

Rising from the Dead - October 24, 1993 - Pittsburgh totally dominated the Browns in Cleveland Stadium, yet still fell to Eric Metcalf. But it was also the day that Jerry Olsavsky, in his first full year as a starter, blew out all four ligaments in his knee. He had one repaired and three more replaced with ligaments from a cadaver.

  • 14 months later, Jerry O was back on the roster.

Stepping up in 1995 - When Jerry O returned in 1995, many chalked it up to sentimentality. But Chad Brown had one of those infamous “high ankle sprains” early in 1995.

  • Olsavsky started four games, but took plenty of snaps and helped shore up a defense forced to compensate for the loss of Rod Woodson.

Filling the Void Left in the Absence of Lloyd - A year later, Greg Lloyd’s injury forced Chad Brown to move to outside linebacker, and Jerry O was ready to step up again.

  • Olsavsky started 14 games at inside linebacker making solo 46 tackles, recording half a sack, forcing one fumble and intercepting a pass.

Carnell Lake

Carnell Lake may not have garnered the ink and attention that Woodson and Lloyd did, but Lake’s contributions were every bit as important to the dominance of Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of the 1990’s.

After playing linebacker at UCLA, Lake made the transition to Strong Safety and started as a rookie, and becoming a mainstay for the defense for a decade. Lake started 15 games as a rookie, finishing as the 6th leading tackler in the regular season, making one sack, defending 13 passes, recovering 5 fumbles, forcing two fumbles, and intercepting one pass.

For an encore, Lake led the team in solo and total tackles in the 1989 post season.

Living Up to his Namesake – Torrential rains had transformed large parts of Joe Robbie Stadium into swamp land, so it is fitting that the man named Lake was the MVP.

  • Lake struck early, nailing Dan Marino and injuring his shoulder. We don’t applaud injury, but Mario was forced to stand and watch as the Steelers erupted for 24 points in the second and third quarters.
  • Lake also paved the way for the Steelers second touchdown when he recovered a fumble when he lateral to Dwayne Woodruff who returned it 21 yards for a touchdown.

Saving the Season I – It was 1995, and things were not going according to plan. Stopped three yards shy of a trip to the Super Bowl, the Steelers were coming apart at the seams. The Steelers had lost Rod Woodson for the year on opening day. Dieon Figures was playing, but still recovering from a gun shot wound.

The Steelers had dropped one to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, and then followed it up by losing to Cincinnati at home, as Jeff Blake, looking more like Kurt Warner, torched Alvoid Mayes for touchdown after touchdown.

Bill Cowher knew he had to shake up the team, and shake it up in a big way. He moved Lake, a man who had only ever played corner for a few series during the 1991 preseason, to cornerback.

  • While Lake may not have transformed himself into a true shut down corner, his selflessness is what began the turn around for the Steelers.

The Steelers went on to win 8 out of 9 and came within two Neil O'Donnell interceptions of upsetting the Dallas Cowboy's in Super Bowl XXX.

Saving the Season II – It was 1997, and the Steelers had just lost their top three cornerbacks to free agency. Chad Scott was holding his own as a rookie, but when Donell Wolford wasn’t getting beaten, he was getting burnt.

  • Shortly before a week 14 show down with the Denver Broncos, Lake again put the team ahead of himself and moved to corner.

The defense improved, and the Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship, coming a few untimely interceptions away from a Super Bowl.

The Steelers 1989 Draft, 20 Years Later

Looking back, the Steelers 1989 draft turns the old adage of “it takes 5 years to judge a draft” on its head. Normally that maxim serves to cool the jets of overly reactionary fans who’re ready to declare a high round draft pick a bust before his rookie year is over.

Pick-for-pick the 1989 draft class did more to help the team win in the present than in the future. By 1993 Lake, Haselrig, and Johnson were the group’s only starters, with Jerry O on IR. But Johnson was to leave in free agency, and Haselrig’s substance abuse issues were getting the best of him.

At the end of the day, Lake was the only true diamond in the group, with Jerry O and David Johnson as sapphires and rubies, and the rest turned out to be little more than fools gold.

Steel Curtain Rising will honor the Steelers 1989 team all season long. Please feel free to share your thoughts or memories by leaving a comment.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

When Ben Roethlisberger Throws More than 30 Times

ESPN’s John Clayton discussed Ben Roethlisberger’s development a few weeks ago when taking questions from fans.

Clayton responded to a fan who questioned the wisdom that Big Ben benefited by coming to a playoff caliber team. The fan argued that the Steelers had finished 6-10 in 2003 and that Roethlisberger made the difference during the 15-1 2004 campaign. Clayton countered, indicating that good teams take advantage of down years by stocking up on top talent.

Clatyon’s analysis is dead on, but the statistics he used to make his case caught Steel Curtain Rising’s attention:

Last year, Big Ben had a 6-2 record in games in which he had to throw 30 or more passes. In the four seasons before that, his record was 5-12 in such games.

This is the perfect marriage. The Steelers had the talent that helped him grow, and he was the perfect quarterback to grow in that system.

Clayton couldn’t be more right in his essential point.

But using Ben’s performance in games where he threw over 30 passes is interesting. And there is no arguing with the numbers themselves. But are they relevant?

We Already Knew Ben Was a Winner Going into 2008... Or did we...?

Going into the 2008 season, Steel Curtain Rising was already firmly in the corner of those who believe that Ben had already established himself as one of the best.

He had the numbers, the wins, and the intangibles to prove it. Although many still sought to hang the “game manager label” around his neck, Ben had established himself as a quarterback to be counted on when the game was on the line.

The Steelers 2008 Media was replete with numbers to back it up:

  • 6 NFL passing records
  • 26 100 yard passing games, 24 in the regular season, 2 playoff in the games
  • 3 perfect passer rating games
  • 13 fourth quarter game winning drives

Add the fact that Ben was the youngest man to lead his team to a Super Bowl, and it would seem like all other arguments would be a moot point.

But the implications of Clayton’s statistics add another dimension. Fourth quarter comebacks certainly measure a quarterback’s ability to deliver when the game is on the line. But games where a quarterback must pass more than 30 times, (at least in the Steelers system) are an indication of a quarterback’s ability to both thrive and carry the team when some other facet of the game is failing.

Ben’s 30 Plus Passing Games

So with that in mind, let’s take a look back. Steel Curtain Rising examines each of Roethlisberger’s 30 plus passing games, including the playoffs,
Ben’s rookie year in 2004, and going on to the Steelers 2005 Super Bowl XL season, the post-motorcycle accident/Cowher’s swan song of 2006, Tomlin’s debut in 2007, and the Steelers Super Bowl season in 2008.

Roethlisberger’s 30 plus passing games in 2004
Ben did not pass for more than 30 times during the regular season as a rookie. He did throw 28 times in leading the Steelers to victory over the Giants.

2004 Post Season

AFC Divisional Playoffs
Jan. 15th, vs. the Jets (Steelers win 20-17)
Ben goes 30-17-2-1 for 181 yards. Looked like a rookie for perhaps the first time, but did play well enough to lead a field goal drive in OT.

Roethlisberger's 30 Plus Passing Games in 2005
Oct. 31st, vs. the Ravens (Steelers win 20-19)
Ben goes 30-18-0-2 for 177 leading the Steelers from behind to set up Jeff Reed’s game winning field goal.

Dec. 4th, vs. the Bengals (Bengals win 38-31)
Ben goes 41-29-3-3 for 386 playing well but also making some poor decisions and ultimately he was unable to rally the team from behind.

2005 Post Season
Ben had no 30 plus passing games in the Super Bowl XL run.

Analysis of Roethlisberger’s 30 plus passing games in 2005

Two thirty yard passing games is not a lot to judge from. In one instance, Ben was able to rally the team, in another he failed.

Roethlisberger's 30 Plus Passing Games in 2006

Sept. 18th, vs. the Jaguars, at Jacksonville (Jaguars win 9-0)
Ben goes 32-17-2-0 for 141 yards in his first post motorcycle, post-appendectomy game. Ben was rusty, but so was the rest of the team, and missed opportunities on defense were as much as reason for the loss as anything else.

Sept. 24th, vs. the Bengals (Bengals win 28-20)
Ben throws 39-18-3-0 for 208 yards. Not only does Ben throw three interceptions, but two of them came in the end zone. But the Steelers make a comedy of errors in all three phases of the game.

Oct. 8th, vs. the Chargers at San Diego (Chargers win 23-13)
Ben tosses 31-20-2-0 for 220 yards. Like the Jacksonville game, the Steelers seem to be in a funk, unable to get it together. Ben, like the rest of the team has start-and-sputter style of play.

Oct. 29th, vs. the Raiders at Oakland (Raiders win 20-13)
Ben throws 37-25-4-1 for 301 yards. Rothlisberger’s worst game as a pro. The Steelers out gain Oakland 360-98, limiting them to 17 yards passing. Yet Ben’s four picks, including two for TD’s, doom the Steelers.

Nov. 5th, vs. the Broncos (Broncos win 31-20)
Ben heaves 54-38-3-1 for 433 yards. Ben hits 5 different recivers and has a record-breaker day in terms of yardage. He also throws three picks, including two in the fourth quarter.

Nov. 19th, vs. the Browns at Cleveland (Steelers win 24-20)
Ben goes 44-25-3-2 for 272 yards. Ben has another three pick day, but in one quarter goes 18 for 29 for 224 yards and two touchdowns as he as he notches his 8th fourth quarter comeback

Nov. 26th, vs. the Ravens at Baltimore (Ravens dominate 27-0)
Ben throws 41-21-2-0 for 214 yards. Ben get hammered for nine sacks, as the Steelers play anvil to the Raven’s hammer.

Dec. 24th, vs. the Ravens (Ravens dominate again 31-7)
Ben tosses 31-15-2-1 for 156 yards. The Ravens again dominate the Steelers, as Ben does not even finish the game.

Analysis of Roethlisberger’s 2006 30 Plus Passing Games

Everyone knew that 2006 was an awful year for Ben. But when you breakdown the numbers this way, it is slightly easier to understand why ESPN would issue its edict that Ben had ZERO chances of making the Hall of Fame, pompously concluding that “nothing to this point suggests that Roethlisberger can carry an undermanned team on his shoulders to playoff success.” (I said understand, not agree with, I thought that bit of pontification was inane then.)

Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the motorcycle accident, the appendectomy, the concussion, and the post-Super Bowl hang over make for less than-ideal circumstances making an honest evaluation of Ben’s passing ability.

Roethlisberger's 30 Plus Passing Games in 2007

Sept. 16th, vs. the Bills (Steelers win 26-3)
Ben throws 34-21-1-1 for 242 yards. The Steelers dominate the Bills from top to bottom, and Ben plays very well.

Sept. 30th, vs. the Cardinals at Phoenix (Cardinals win 21 to 14)
Ben throws 32-17-2-2 for 244 yards. The good news is that Ben Roethlisberger begins developing a rapport with Santonio Holmes. The bad news is that his fourth quarter rally falls short. Special teams breakdowns contribute to loss, but so does Ben’s pick in the end zone.

Oct. 21st, vs. the Broncos at Denver (Broncos win 31-28)
Ben tosses 35-21-2-4 for 290. The Steelers pass too much against the NFL’s worst defense, although Ben looks sharp, tying the game 1:10 left to play. But poor return coverage and the absence of Ryan Clark allow Denver to win on a 49 yard Field goal.

Nov. 11th, vs. the Browns (Steelers win 31-28)
Ben goes 34-23-1-2 for 278. Roethlisberger leads not one, but two fourth quarter go ahead scores, one with his feet, and another TD to Heath Miller, as special teams reveal their determination to keep all games interesting for the Steelers.

Dec. 2nd, vs. the Bengals (Steelers win 24-10)
Ben goes 32-21-2-2 for 184 yards. Despite two picks, but Ben puts the Steelers in control of the game with a touchdown run, and two more touchdown passes.

Dec. 9th, vs. the Patriots at New England (Patriots crush Steelers 34-13)
Ben throws 32-19-0-1 for 187 yards. Ben and the Steelers put up good numbers, cannot put them up on the score board, as Tom Brady torches the Steelers secondary (thanks Antonio Bryant) for four touchdowns.

Dec. 16th, vs. the Jaguars (Jaguars beat Steelers at Steelers football, 29-27)
Ben tosses 32-15-0-3 for 142 yards. Again, Ben looks good in defeat. After rallying the team in the fourth, the defense cannot hold, he goes get another chance, but is unable to convert.

2007 Post Season

AFC Divisional Playoffs at Heinz Field
Jan. 5th, vs. the Jaguars (Steelers let victory slip away, 31-29)
Ben heaves 42-29-3-2 for 337 yards. A tale of two Bens. Special teams breakdowns (again) in the first half put Jacksonville right in the game. Ben tries to do too much in reaction, throwing three picks. Plays a phenomenal second half, but he sees a would be 18 point come back get frittered away by poor defense.

Analysis of Roethlisberger’s 2007 30 Plus Passing Games

How to evaluate Roethlisberger? While 2007 does give a much more normal set of circumstances for evaluating Roethlisberger, you can also make the argument that Ben’s 3-5 record in 2007 reveals that statistics can be misleading. Which is it?

On the one hand he failed to rally the team against the Jags at home. Twice. Neither could he defeat Phoenix, nor could he spur the team to victory over New England.

On the flip side, Ben did rally the team to victory against Cleveland, in spite of some atrocious special teams play. He’d also brought them from behind against Denver and Jacksonville, only to have special teams disasters and/or defensive breakdowns undo his work.

Which stat hold more value? Ben’s 3-5 record in 30 plus games in 2007 is a little misleading. He wasn’t flawless, but its hard to hold him accountable for breakdowns that occur while he was on the sideline.

Roethlisberger's 30 Plus Passing Games in 2008

Oct. 5th, vs. the Jaguars at Jacksonville (Steelers win 26-21)
Ben throws 41-26-1-3 for 309. Barely able to lift his arm during the week, absent his top three running backs starting guard and left tackle, Ben rallies the team to victory in the final moments for what is perhaps his most heroic regular season performance.

Nov. 11th, vs. the Colts (Colts win 24-20)
Ben goes 41-29-3-0 for 280 yards. Knocked out the previous week against Washington, Ben does not practice and it shows. Ben’s turnovers are costly, although the last one could have (and perhaps should have) been a game winning touchdown.

Nov. 16th, vs. the Chargers (Steelers win 11-10)
Ben tosses 41-31-0-0 for 308 yards. The offense seems capable of doing everything in the same, except scoring. Ben does not throw downfield much, but he does put Jeff Reed in position for the winning score.

Nov. 20th, vs. the Bengals (Steelers win 27-10)
Ben throws 30-17-0-1 for 243 yards. Ben gets time again, and goes deep. Could have had an even better night statistically if not for the drops.

Nov. 30th, vs. the Patriots at New England (Steelers win 33-10)
Ben throws 33-17-1-2 for 279 yards. Given the Steelers domination of New England, it is a little surprising to see Ben passing so much, but despite an early pick, he played very well.

Dec. 7th, vs. the Cowboys (Steelers win 20-13)
Ben throws 33-17-0-1 for 204 yards. The offense sputters, converting 4 turnovers into 3 points, and unable to punch it in from the goal. Steelers Digest assessment of Ben’s performance is spot on: “Stats vs. making plays at critical times — the latter is always better.”

Dec. 14th, vs. the Ravens at Baltimore (Steelers win 13-9)
Ben goes 40-22-0-1 for 246 yards. Intense. Dramatic. Heart stopping. The kind of drive that gets you into Canton. And it was only a warm up for Super Bowl XLIII. The drive in numbers: 11-7-89-0-1 for a 119.1 with under 3 minutes to play, in a hostile stadium.

December 21st, vs. the Titans at Tennessee (Steelers lose 31-14)
Ben throws 39-25-2-2 for 329 yards. Ben not only throws two picks, he cough up several fumbles. His bumbling, stumbling performance seemed to set the tone for the rest of the team.

2008 Post Season

AFC Conference Championship

Jan 18th, vs. the Ravens (Steelers win 23-14)
Ben throws 33-16-0-1 for 255 yards. The entire offense was thrown by the loss of Hines Ward, yet Ben hooked up with Santonio Holmes for one touchdown, and averted any major mistakes on offense, as the Steelers we headed for Super Bowl XLIII.

Super Bowl XLIII
Feb. 1st, vs. the Cardinals (Steelers win 27-23)
Ben goes 30-21-1-1 for 256 yards. If Ben only ever played this game and none other, this one would give strong argument for his induction into Canton. Aside from the 70% completion rate the statistics look pretty pedestrian, but Ben’s ability to take the team 80 yards with two minutes to play for the go ahead score is breath taking even to think about.

Analysis of Roethlisberger’s 30 plus passing games in 2008

Hard to argue with 8-2, especially when Ben was getting clobbered so much of the time. Beyond the 8-2 record, it was the way he did it. Five of those 30 plus passing games were last minute, come from behind victories.

Final Word

Clayton’s essential point was correct, the Steelers and Ben Rothelisberger were a perfect match (ok, like you didn’t know that already.) But perhaps Ben’s performance in games where he had to throw 30 or more times isn’t the best gauge. On the face of it prior to 2008 he did appear to struggle when forced to throw 30 times or more, but when you take a closer look, he more than held his own in those games, especially if you put the 2006 season into context.

Steve McNair, Long Time Steelers Tormentor, 1973-2009

You will seldom see Steel Curtain Rising focus on a non-Steeler. But you will seldom find players who excel in their role as the Steelers nemesis as Steve McNair did.

McNair was drafted in 1995 by the Houston Oilers and saw action as a rookie against the Steelers. The Black and Gold may have had some luck against the Steelers during the franchises final years as “the Oilers” but McNair would grow to become one of the Steelers worst nightmares.

How Good was McNair?

His record starting against the Steelers was 11-5 or a .688 winning percentage. To put that in proper perspective, consider that the Steelers cumulative winning percentage during the seasons where McNair started against them was .594.

Steve McNair simply had the Steelers number. Those 11 wins as a starter do not include the day he ripped the heart out of much of Steelers nation.

McNair Pushes Steelers to 0-3

It was the third game of the 2000 season. The Steelers had already dropped two games, first getting their teeth kicked in by the Ravens, and then losing a heartbreakers against the Browns. The defending AFC Champion Titans were coming for their last visit to Three Rivers Stadium.

McNair could not start. Neil O’Donnell stood in his place. Heavy underdogs, the Steelers went toe-to-toe with the Titans. Pittsburgh and had the upper hand going into the games’ final moments. Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf. Number 14 stumbled to his feet with blood streaking down his face.

Steelers Nation cheered, finally sensing they’d finally get revenge against the man who’d cost them Super Bowl XXX and then took the first bus out of town.

Steve McNair had other ideas. He replaced O’Donnell, and with just three passes and two runs brought the Titans from behind and led them to victory.

McNair in Baltimore

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only time that the Steelers present-day rival Baltimore Ravens ever swept the series was 2006, the year they were quarterbacked by Steve McNair.

Steelers Nation did gain a modicum of revenge in 2007, when they thoroughly dominated both McNair and the Baltimore Ravens during the team’s 75th Anniversary celebration.

While Steelers fans did savor that victory, now none of it matters.

McNair, who retired at the end of the 2007 season, was found shot dead in Nashville, Tennessee on Saturday July 4th. Although Steel Curtain Rising certainly does not celebrate McNair’s success on the field against the Steelers, we do recognize that he was a true competitor and honor him as a proven winner.

We hope that the rest of Steelers Nation will join us in offering our thoughts and prayers to McNair’s wife Mechelle and his four sons.