´ Steel Curtain Rising: August 2009

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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Steelers Shut Out Bills 17-0 in Preseason Action

The Pittsburgh Steelers shut out the Buffalo Bills 17-0 with the starters seeing their most significant action since Super Bowl XLIII.

Showing no signs of injury, Ben Roethlisberger went 15-19 and led the team on two scouring drives. 2008 first round pick Rasshard Mendenhall also won praise from the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette despite losing another fumble and being held to a three yard per carry average. Mendenheall did score the team’s first touchdown and did post a nice 12 yard run. Overall, he was 16 for 48 on the evening.

Backup quarterback Charlie Batch also looked sharp, going 7 for 9 for 79 yards, and fourth string quarterback Mike Riley went 3-3 for 35 yards.

Consistency Elusive for Isaac Redman

Isaac Redman, an undrafted rookie free agent from Bowie State University in Maryland, was the star of the team’s first preseason game against Arizona. Against the Cardinals, the previously unknown Redman scored twice during goal line situations. He followed that up with an impressive showing against Pittsburgh’s first team defense in goal drills at St. Vincents.

Since then, however, Redman has struggled to find consistency. Against the Redskins in the second preseason game of the year, Redman had two carries for 3 yards. Last night against the Bills Redman got his most extensive work carrying the ball 13 times for 31 yards for a 2.4 yard average.

The game was not broadcast in Steel Curtain Rising’s neck of the woods (Buenos Aires, Argentina), so we’ll add the caveat that these stats could be misleading.* But judging purely on the numbers, it does not appear that Redman has managed to build any momentum for his case for making the team. (Perhaps he’s a good candidate for the practice squad?)

Stefan Logan, All About Momentum

Another once dark horse candidate to make the team, Stefan Logan, seems to be making the most of his opportunities.

Logan, a small but fast CFL stand-out, caught attention during training camp with his return abilities. Last week against the Redskins, Stefan Logan tore it up as both a punt and kick returner. The Steelers coaches gave him another look as a punt returner, and he returned four kicks for 63 yards, including one which he brought back for 27 yards.

Logan did not get a chance to return any kicks – but that is certainly not an indictement of what the coaches think of him – the only time the scoreless Bills kicked off was to open the game!

Scott Brown Getting Upper Hand in 'Battle of the Beat Writers?'

Earlier in the preseason Steel Curtain Rising commented on the fact that the beat writers for the Pittsburgh’s rival news papers, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review had offered dueling assessments of Logan’s chances of making the team.

Ed Bouchette, dean of the Steelers press corps, did not think Logan had much of a shot while the Tribune Review’s Scott Brown thought highly of Logan.

At this point it looks like Scotty Brown has the upper hand over Bouchette.

*Hey folks, I am sure that plenty of you saw the game. Let us know what you think about Redman, Mendenhall, Logan, or any other Steeler hopeful. Click here to leave a comment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Watch Tower: Willie Parker Dissed by Steelers? Not So Fast

If one human year equals seven dog years, then three weeks must amount to a millennium in internet time.

Nonetheless, the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik wrote something back on August 5th that Steel Curtain Rising has been itching to respond to.

Smizik of course has been one of Pittsburgh’s top columnists for decades, working out of the Pittsburgh Press and then the Post Gazette. The truth is yours truly has disagreed often as agreed with him, but Smizik indisputably has good insights and always has something interesting to say.

Smizik’s blog post in question extolled Willie Parker’s genuine humility despite his incredible undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero story. So far, so good.

He then takes the Steelers to task for dissing Fast Willie Parker. To make his case Smizik marshals the following evidence.

Drafting Rasshard Mendenhall in the First Round of 2008 Draft

Smizik explains:

The Steelers had far greater needs on the offensive and defensive lines, but they bypassed those to take the successor to Parker. NFL teams don’t use No. 1picks on players they expect to be backups for any extended period…

Offensive and defensive lineman were certainly the Steelers top need entering the 2008 draft. But lineman came off of the board in droves during the first round. No first-round quality lineman remained when the Steelers turn came to pick late in the first roud.

Is Bob Smizik suggesting the Steelers should have reached just to get a lineman?

  • Or, more to the point, is Smizik suggesting the Steelers should have reached simply to avoid hurting Willie’s feelings?

Smizik’s argument continues by questioning the Steelers explanation that any championship team needs two starting quality backs, pointing to the fact that the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII without Mendenhall and with Parker injured for much of the season.

Wait a minute. When Pittsburgh started the 2007 season with an all undrafted backfield, didn't the pundits come down on the Steelers for being a franchise that fashioned an identity on running the ball only to repeatedly fail to use premium picks on rushers?

Ignoring Willie’s Accomplishments

Smizik’s next argument is that Parker is now the team’s third leading rusher and, at age 28, a man entering his prime. He contends that the fact that Parker cannot get talks started, let alone a contract offer from the team amounts to disrespect on the part of the Steelers.

That is a compelling point in Parker’s favor, but does it amount to disrespect?

The Example of Jerome Bettis in 2000

Jerome Bettis' situation nine years ago offers an instructive example.

Prior the 2000 season Jerome Bettis was also 28 and the already second leading rusher in Steelers history. Like Parker, Bettis was also heading into the final year of his contract. As they're now doing with Parker, the Steelers made no attempt to resign The Bus before the 2000 season.

  • Does that mean that the Steelers were dissing Jerome Bettis?


The Bus toured Steelers Nation by storm in 1996 and 1997. But Bettis' numbers dipped in 1998 and 1999 (although primarily because of the offensive line). With Amos Zereoue, Richard Huntley, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala on the roster, Steelers management chose caution instead of a proactive attempt to keep Bettis from reaching free agency.

One could argue, “Well, Bettis had a lot more wear and tear on him at that point than Willie Parker does now.” True, Bettis did, not only from more years of playing in the pros, but from more years of playing in college.

But it is also true that Bettis had only missed one game due to injury in the two years leading up to his 2000 contract year. Parker has missed 6 games in the last two years. And on balance, Bettis overall value to the offense in the year 2000 was greater than Parker’s is in 2009.

The Steelers weren’t being disrespectful to Bettis in the summer of 2000, they were just being prudent.

Difficult Decision to Make on Fast Willie

Steel Curtain Rising is a Fast Willie Parker fan. One cannot help but love his underdog story. Number 39 has proven his value to the team, time and time again.

It says here that Steel Curtain Rising wants Willie Parker to retire as a Steeler. Parker has the attitude and blue collar work ethic that embodies that makes Pittsburgh what it is.

The cold hard fact is that we may not get our wish with Willie Parker.

The Steelers face some cold, hard choices about impending free agents. Brett Kiesel, Casey Hampton, Desha Townsend, Jeff Reed, Ryan Clark, among others hit the free agent market with Willie Parker next March.

  • All of them cannot return.

That means tough decisions and calculated risks for Steelers management.

Getting Willie Parker locked down to a long-term contract might seem like a wise move, but what if Mendenhall tears it up this year? The Steelers have the luxury of giving him that chance.
Its possible that Mendenhall will be a bust and that Fast Willie Parker will bolt out of town.

The flip side to the argument is the possibility that Willie is already fading. He broke his leg in 2007. He bounced back with a vengence in early 2008 until he got hurt again. He regained his strength for the playoffs, but his overall production in terms of yards and rushing average was down.

Willie Parker has never quite reached the number of carries (350) that seems to correlate to a sharp drop off in rushing production, but his recent injuries and the four consecutive years of a declining rushing average make it impossible to ignore that stat.

Might Fast Willie have a monster year and prove the naysayers wrong? Absolutely. Steel Curtain Rising hopes he does. Could a nightmare scenario unfold that has Willie running strong elsewhere while Mendenhall fails to produce here? Without a doubt.

Steelers Decision Comes Down to Prudence

Bob Smizik has the right and a lot of compelling reasons to argue that signing Willie Parker now makes good football sense.

But there are also good football reasons for the Steelers to take the risk of holding off on making an offer.

  • The Steelers reluctance to resign Fast Willie Parker before the 2009 season comes down to one thing: Prudence.

And a seasoned-pro like Smizik should understand the difference between prudence and disrespect.

Thanks for visiting. Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower casts a critical eye on those who cover the Steelers. Click here to read all articles in the series.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Steelers Lose to Redskins 17-13; Starters Look Strong

The Washington Redskins defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-13 in tonight’s pre-season match up in Landover, Maryland. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the game as a precaution, but the team scored a touchdown with the first team offense under the direction of Charlie Batch.

The Steelers first string defense held tight in an early goal-line stand, and Redskins starting quarterback only completed one pass out of seven throws.

Dixon Plays Well But Is Injured

Dennis Dixon also put in another solid night of work, completing 8 passes and rushing three times for 20 yards. Dixon however, was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury. The severity of the injury is not known, but it did give fourth string quarterback Mike Riley a chance to play and he completed 2 of 5 passes, and ran for 25 yards on two scrambles.

Mendenhall Has Better Night, Stefan Logan Shines as Kick Returner

Rasshard Mendenhall carried five times gaining 26 yards, which was a significant statistical improvement over his effort against the Phoenix Cardinals in the Steelers first preseason game.

Former CFL running back Stefan Logan got his opportunity to showcase his talents. Logan returned four kickoffs for 157 yards, for an impressive average of 39.3 yards per return. He also returned four punts for 48 yards, giving him a 12 yard average.

Unquestionably a long shot to make the team, Pittsburgh’s two beat reporters have diverged sharply on just how realistic of a chance Logan has. It would seem like Logan improved his chances this evening.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Steelers Training Camp 1989: Prelude to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah

Playoffs 1989
- Bubby Brister, scribbling on a St. Vincents college black board, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989

Potentially, we have a good team,”
- Chuck Noll, opening press conference, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989

What could animate a quarterback and coach coming off a 5-11 season to commence training camp with such daring declarations? One could write off Bubby Brister as a the cock-sure fiery young quarterback.

But Chuck Noll? The man who epitomized understatement?

Had The Emperor become delusional? Or mightChuck Noll know something the rest of the football world didn’t?

For much of 1989 season many convinced themselves of the later but, by season’s end, the group of Steelers assembling that summer at St. Vincents had vindicated Chuck Noll’s faith.

The Emperor’s Last Hurrah!

Steel Curtain Rising will commemorate the Steelers 1989 season this year. Each week during the regular season, you’ll have the chance to re-live Chuck Noll’s final, roller coaster playoff season through the memories of a high school student growing up in the DC suburbs.

I’ll confess at the outset that the waning moments of the week five game against the Bengals were the only regular season action I caught on TV. Pittsburgh had no Sunday or Monday night games in 1989, and national coverage was sparse.

In fact, many, if not most, weeks I only discovered if the Steelers had won by leafing through the Monday morning paper, as homework and family dinners took precedence over ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime in our family (and I'm better for it.)

Despite those obstacles, I was hooked. I read everything, in the Washington Post, in the USA Today, in Sports Illustrated, or anything else I could get my hands on. I even had my grandfather clip and mail down Monday sports sections from the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette.

I think we’d have trouble with a grade school team right now.”
- Chuck Noll, at the depths of the Steelers 1988 5-11 season

Few outside of the Steelers expected playoffs during the summer of ‘89 and for good reason. The Steelers had gone 5-11 in 1988, their worst since 1971. This was long before free agency gave teams the ability to quickly reinvent themselves. In the Steelers case, conventional wisdom held that they’d yet to hit rock bottom.

Bubby Brister became starting quarterback in 1988, heralding a new era under center. Brister represented a vast improvement over Mark Malone. Which was scary.

Brister earned a 65.3 passer rating in 1988, completing a meager 47% of his passes while throwing 11 TD’s and 14 interceptions. (For the record, Malone had posted a 46.7 passer rating, throwing 6 TD’s and 19 picks in 1987.)

Steelers 1988 Offense

The Steelers lacked anything close to a 1000 yard rusher, John Stallworth was two years into retirement. Louis Lipps had played well in 1988, but at that point consecutive injury-free seasons had eluded him. Mike Webster was in Kansas City, and during the season it would be revealed that their only Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Tunch Ilkin, telegraphed run and pass plays with his footwork.

As for the '88 defense?

Well, 1987 team MVP Mike Merriweather had been shipped off to Minnesota after holding out for the entire 1988 season. One national publication’s analysis of the Steelers defense consisted of observing that the 1988 MVP award had been shared by Rod Woodson and David Little…. And the defense had finished dead last in NFL in 1988.

Defensive genius Tony Dungy had resigned to work under Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher as a secondary coach.

Special Teams? We Hopped You'd Forgotten to Ask...

Pittsburgh suffered and NFL-leading six blocked punts in 1988.

Early in the 1988 season first-year signal caller Bubby Brister loudly complained that the Steelers offense was “so complex and conservative, we might as well punt on first down.”

After a rainy day in the slog at Cleveland when, in addition to two other severe punting mishaps, an errant snap resulted in punter Harry Newsome getting tackled 50 yards behind the line the line of scrimmage, Brister offered this priceless gem: “I guess we might as well throw on fourth....”

Nonetheless, optimists were on hand at St. Vincent in July of 1989, and these brave few were far from insane.

Even Emperors Can [Reluctantly] Change

Rumors are flying faster than a quarterback can throw them. Is Chuck Noll in or out as Steelers head coach?” - KDKA News, December 26, 1988

Might seem like an odd lead quote for a section on optimism, but it was what greeted me fresh off the Turnpike via Becks Run Road as I strode into my grandmother’s living room on Cedarcove St. 21 years ago.

The quote also reveals Dan Rooney did not take the Steelers 1988 woes lightly. As reported by the CBS News/Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, after the 1988 debacle Dan Rooney asked Noll to fire some assistant coaches.

Noll refused. He called his coaches together and announced his resignation. The news sent Joe Greene directly to Dan Rooney’s office asking “what the hell is going on?” Rooney called Noll to say “Sleep on. You’ve meant too much to the team, too much to me. We can work this out.”

They did.

Noll fired linebackers coach Jed Hughes, guards and centers coach Hal Hunter Sr., strength and conditioning coach Walt Evans, and Special teams assistant Dennis Fitz. He demoted 1988 special teams coach Jon Kolb, to tight ends and strength and conditioning coach. As mentioned before, Tony Dungy resigned rather than accept demotion to secondary coach.

Rooney also promoted Tom Donahue from BLESTO scout to director of Pro Player Personnel and Development. In addition to scouting other teams’ players, Donahue would “advise” Noll on hiring assistant coaches.

The new assistant coaches joining the Steelers were:

  • Rod Rust, Defensive coordinator
  • David Brazil, Linebackers coach
  • John Fox, Secondary coach
  • George Stewart, Special teams coach

In the 1980’s owners frequently forced head coaches to purge staff as opposed to giving the head coach himself the boot. Sometimes this worked, some times it didn’t.

But the winds of change touched far more than the coaching staff in that summer in Latrobe.

By virtue of their 5-11 record the Steelers had their best draft since 1971. As Steel Curtain Rising detailed last month, some of the players from the Steelers 1989 draft would ultimately disappoint, but all of them looked good during training camp, and many looked even better at season’s end.

As Rod Rust and Dave Brazil installed a new defense, Noll also oversaw changes on the other side of the ball.

Taking advantage of the short-lived Plan B free agency system, the Steelers added Mike Mularkey a, get this, pass catching tight end. Noll’s offensive evolution did not stop there. During the middle of training camp reporters sighted Bubby Brister lining up under the shotgun, a first-ever for a Steelers quarterback.

Woodson, Lloyd, Dawson, Hoge, etc... had Foreshadowed ’89 Resurgence

Each of these changes had the potential to pay dividends, but players themselves drive any turn around in the NFL.

For all of the despair and desperation the 1988 season wrought, the play of certain individuals that year spawned seeds of hope that the 1989 version of the Steelers would be better.

When asked to explain his “Playoffs 1989” scribble, Bubby Brister pointed to the fact that the Steelers had come within one point of beating the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. They’d also come painfully close to beating the Jets and Bengals, and even given the Bills a run for their money.

The 1988 Steelers had also won three out of their final four games. Two victories came against mediocre Chiefs and Dolphins squads. But on Sunday Night in early December, Bubby Brister rallied for an overtime victory over the Houston Oilers in the hostile environs of the Astrodome.

An impressed Jerry Glanville speculated, “I think we saw a future star in Bubby Brister tonight.”

If Brister didn't dazzle with his overall first year passing numbers, he’d also done enough to tantalize. In single season as a starter, Brister had authored four of the Steelers all-time longest passing plays, including an AFC best 89 yard bomb to Louis Lipps in a losing effort at Philly.

If Brister never blossomed into the “future star” that Jerry Glanville foresaw, there were others who began to grow into their own in ‘88.

1988 marked Rod Woodson’s first full-season of play, and in one year Woodson had already begun marking himself as a future Hall of Famer.

  • By 89's end, Woodson had given Steelers Nation plenty of reason to fly the "In Rod We Trust" banners inside Three Rivers Staidum.

With Mike Merriweather holding out in 1988, the Steelers got a certain linebacker from Ft. Valley named “Greg Lloyd” on the field. The name rang few bells in the summer of ‘89, but Lloyd rang plenty of bells that fall as he led the Steelers with 7 sacks while adding 3 interceptions and a three-count on concussed Jets receiver Al Toon for good measure.

  • "Avoid Lloyd," "Just Plain Nasty" and "I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition" were about to enter Steelers Nation's venacular

Speaking of Hall of Famers, Mike Webster’s may have gone to Kansas City but, after a one-year apprenticeship at guard, Dermontti Dawson had stepped into his slot at center where he would eventually start 7 consecutive Pro Bowls.

  • If justice exists, Dawson someday will follow Webster into Canton

When the Steelers were struggling mid-way through the 1989 season, commentators made light of that their lead running back had the unmacho name of "Merrill Hoge." Yet, Hoge's valiant 1988 effort had not gone unnoticed in Steelers Nation.

  • Number 33 had the last laugh when he became the first Steeler to run for 100 yards in back-to-back playoff games

Other players of course stepped up during the 1988 season, and Steel Curtain Rising looks forward to reminiscing over how they banded together in 1989 to give the Emperor Chuck Noll one final Hurrah!

We will celebrate Chuck Noll’s final playoff season all year. The first installment looked in depth at the Steelers 1989 draft. Check back with Steel Curtain Rising for regular additions to the series.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Steelers Training Camp 2009: Unasked Questions

Steelers training camp is in its second week, and we know the drill. a little more than a week old

12 months ago when the Steelers assembled in Latrobe for Camp Tomlin II, they did so under a cloud of questions, about special teams, about their defense, about their running game, and about Mike Tomlin himself.

What a difference one year makes.

The Steelers are now defending Super Bowl Champions. They had the number 1 defense last year and Pittsburgh’s toughness and tenacity in 2008 was second to none. And no one questions Mike Tomlin.

Like every team, the Steelers enter training camp questions to answer. Will this group of Steelers avoid a Super Bowl hangover? Can the offensive line sustain its 2008 gains? What, if anything, will the front office do about players set to become free agents?

These issues have been discussed to death, so Steel Curtain Rising chips its two cents in, but the main focus of this post is on the unasked questions that the Steelers face this summer in Latrobe.

Questions like, is there any discontinuity in the philosophies between Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians? What is Carey Davis’ Role? Will this be that year that the Steelers day 2 draft slip ups come back to haunt them?

We'll dive into these questions after quickly commenting on the others.

“You’re judged not so much on how you deal with failure, but how you deal with success.” – Mike Tomlin, during his first year as coach, reflecting on his post-Super Bowl experience in Tampa Bay

Success can breed complacency; Tomlin knows this and set the tone accordingly.

Not 24 hours removed from winning Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin relegated the 2008 squad to the past, banished the word “repeat,” and declared 2009 to be a new year, with a new team, with a renewed goal to win Lombardi Number Seven.

Mike Tomlin’s good fortune brings him 20+ Super Bowl XL veterans. These men lived through 2006's 2-6 start, struggle to finish 8-8 and, perhaps worst of all, both drubbings from the Ravens.

  • The Steelers may falter in 2009, but don’t bet on compliancy being a cause.

In 2008 the Offensive Line Gained, Now Can It Sustain?

Two facts were lost in the late season clamor to declare the Steelers offensive line as failure.

  • This was a line that was rebuilt in training camp, and then rebuilt again at mid-season.
  • The line did improve during the latter part of 2008.

While progress can carry over from season to season, this is not guaranteed. While the line’s work in Latrobe is important, they won’t face any real tests until the regular season, and then we will know if Larry Zierlein succeded in building upon 2008's foundation.

What About the 2010 Free Agents?

Include Jeff Reed, and at least six Steelers starters can become free agents come March 2010.

Losing any one would be a blow. All of them? A disaster.

A bigger disaster would have been losing James Harrison, Max Starks, Hines Ward and Heath Miller, whom the Steelers resigned this year.

  • This story has legs, and Steel Curtain Rising will say more later as time allows. But for now, just remember that the Steelers will have options come 2010.

Is There a Clash of Philosophies Between Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians?

Perhaps this question isn’t being asked for a good reason. Perhaps there is no controversy. Winning Super Bowls tends to overshadow a lot of disagreements.

The fact remains that the Steelers struggled in short yardage situations last year. In Arians defense, a big reason for these struggles is that the Steelers offensive line could not support a power running game.

Mike Tomlin also responded to Willie Parker’s complaints about the team’s running game by pointing out that the Steelers had Super Bowl titles, not rushing titles.

Still, Tomlin left little doubt that he was not happy with the team’s running game late in the season.

Whether this question gets asked depends in large part on the development of the offensive line and Rassard Mendenhall, as the early returns indicate the Steelers air game will continue to fly.

  • If Parker stays healthy, Mendenhall improves, and the line is better but offensive consistency still eludes the Steelers, it is going to be interesting to watch how Tomlin reacts.

What in the World is Carey Davis’ Role?

OK... asked or unasked, this is not a burning question. Fair enough. But what IS Cary Davis’ role with the team. One of Bruce Arian’s first acts as offensive coordinator in 2007 was to phase out full back Dan Krieder in favor of Carey Davis.

Coaches argued that what Davis gave up in blocking ability he made up for in rushing and pass catching ability.

In 2007, Davis had 17 carries and 12 catches. In 2008, with Willie Parker hurt much of the time and Mendenhall out for most of the season, Carey Davis’s production dropped to 12 carries and 5 receptions.

When the Steelers cut Gary Russell, Steel Curtain Rising asked why Russell and not Davis. OK, non-football reasons drove the Steelers decision to cut Russell, but this doesn’t obscure the fact that Davis’ role with the team seems to be shrinking, not growing as Sean McHugh serves as their primary full back (when the use one). Mewelde Moore is a far more accomplished number 3 back.

Cary Davis has guys like Hank “the Tank” Johnson, Stefan Logan, and Isaac Redman behind him.

  • At age 28, the 2009 camp could bring Carey Davis' “now or never” moment.

Will the Steelers mistakes on draft day number #2 come back to haunt them?

Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have done an excellent job on day one of the draft. For evidence look no further than Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The 2008 draft did little, if anything to help the Steelers get Lombardi Number Six, and hence the focus on the development of that group this summer in Latrobe.

But Colbert Record on day two has not been as stellar.

The Steelers very well might have the oldest defensive line in the NFL, and picks like Ryan McBean, Orien Harris, Shuan Nua, and Eric Taylor contribute to this distinction.

The Steelers secondary is younger, and features a smart mix of accomplished veterans and enticing potential. That is good, but Pittsburgh might not need to bank so much on untested potential had guys like Anthony Smith and Ricardo Colclough stepped up.

Looking at it another way, 2004 draft picks Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks are entering the primes of their careers. These are the only two guys from that group that have made a name for themselves in the NFL.

The same can be said for the 2006 draft. Santonio Holmes came into his own in the 2008 playoffs and Willie Colon has been OK, and still has an upside. But aside from Anthony Smith and Willie Reid, even the most avid Steelers fan is likely to read the rest of 2006 draft roster and ask, who?

No one is talking about this, in part because the 2007 draft is delivering results, and because, there is little that can be done. But it’s a legitimate question.

In a sense, the question is being asked every time someone brings up the Steelers 2010 free agent class. The Steelers would have more options had an up and comer, or even a could be up and comer, to step into Hampton, Kiesel, or Clark’s shoes. That they don’t can be traced, at least in part, to disappointments on day two of the draft.

  • At the end of the day however, barring injury the impact of this probably won’t be felt until 2010.

Thanks for visiting Steel Curtain Rising. Thinking of other “unasked questions” for training camp 2009? Leave a comment and let us know.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Case of Rashard Mendenhall

Looking at the numbers, the Steelers 2008 first round draft pick did not have a good night in his first action since being injured last year against Baltimore.

Rashard Mendenhall didn’t play much. But on 9 carries he only ran for 24 yards, leaving him a 2.7 yard average, with his longest run coming in at 7 yards.

Yet, Post-Gazette Columnist Ron Cook declared that Mendenhall “Ran hard” and then quoted Mike Tomlin as saying “I thought he made some nice runs.”

The Danger of Judging a Game by Statistics

ESPN.Deportes did not show the game in Buenos Aires, where Steel Curtain Rising is based. Hence the observation that Mendenhall’s performance might be an “Ominous Sign” was born solely out of the numbers.

But numbers can be misleading.

That’s where you come in. A good number of you reading this saw the game, and undoubtedly saw Mendenhall run.

So we turn it over to you.

What can we make of Mendenhall’s performance against Arizona in the preseason? Is there cause for concern, or did he look pretty good in spite of the 2.7 yard per carry average. Or perhaps its simply too early to tell.

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Isaac Redman “Stars” as Steelers Top Cardinals 20-10 in Preseason Rematch

The Steelers and the Cardinals met again tonight for the second time in six months. Last the stake was nothing less than the Super Bowl, this time, it was, nothing….

The Steelers were successful in their first exhibition season. Not because they scored more points, although that is always nice, but because they appear to have avoided major injury.

According to ESPN.com, the star of the show was undrafted rookie free agent Isaac Redman, who scored twice in late 4th quarter goal-line situations. ESPN reports that Redman not shyed away from taking on the Steelers All-Pro linebacking corps, and further informs that he scored in two goal line drills in training camp.

The drive was set up by an interception return by rookie corner Joe Burnett, who picked off a Brian St. Pierre pass and returned it to the three, setting up Redman’s first touchdown.

Third string quarterback Dennis Dixon, who for the record was 10-19 for 112 on the night, later led an 80 yard drive that resulted in another Redman touchdown.

Mendenhall’s Performance and Ominous Sign?

In what could perhaps be an ominous sign, 2008 first round selection Rashard Mendenhall started the game, but was held to 24 yards on 9 carries which amounts to a 2.7 yard average.

Isaac Who?

With Willie Parker, Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Cary Davis ahead of him, Isaac Redman would figure to be a long shot to make the team. But the former stand out from Bowie State in Maryland does have precedent on his side.

Steelers Director of Football Operatioin Kevin Colbert has shown a penchant for finding undrafted free agents who bud into NFL stars, Willie Parker and James Harrison being only two of many.

Transparency disclaimer: Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. ESPN.Deportes did not carry the game, and hence we didn't see it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rod Woodson's Hall of Fame Games as a Pittsburgh Steeler

Rod Woodson is supposed to be one of the NFL's best all-around players for the next ten years.” -Curt Gowdy, September, 1988, during the Steelers-Redskins game

Commentators love sweeping statements like these, but this shows that even legends like Curt Gowdy can fall far off target.

“Off target” not because Woodson didn’t dominate, but because he dominated for far longer than a decade.

This weekend Rod Woodson took center stage in Canton, Ohio for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Woodson joins the select few who not only embodied excellence, but who were privileged enough and talented enough to make the game better because of their play.

Rod Woodson's NFL Records

Woodson’s talent was so rare that Chuck Noll told his scouts not even to bother scouting him. The Steelers picked 10th in 1987, and Noll knew that Woodson would never fall that far.

He did.

Woodson arrived at a team with an established legacy of defensive dominance. He did not merely live up to the Steeler’s legacy, Rod Woodson helped redefine it.

Consider Woodson’s current NFL records:

  • 11 Pro Bowls, a record for a defensive back

  • Most interception return yardages (1,483)

  • Most interceptions returned for touchdowns (12)

  • The first player to earn Pro Bowl slots at kick returner, cornerback, and safety

  • Tied for most fumble recoveries in a game (3)

Rod Woodson was also only one of five NFL players to make the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.

Moments that Define a Play Maker and Game Changer

Nice numbers, but they never truly measure a player’s excellence. Greatness means stepping up with the game on the line. The truly great ones alter the course of games when the outcome remains in doubt.

Rod Woodson did that time and time again as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Here are a few moments that stand out.

Rod Woodson returned his very first interception for a touchdown. He had Chuck Noll’s back during the dark days of 1988. Woodson helped special teams spark rallies and added the exclamation point to Chuck Noll’s final playoff victory in 1989. He helped seal shaky victories in 1990 and 1993, and Rod Woodson shut down the great Jerry Rice in 1990.

Woodson helped Bill Cowher draw first blood against his mentor Marty Schottenhimer in 1992, and played a role in giving the Steelers exclusive ownership of the AFC Central in a game against Houston at mid-season. Woodson's Career Game came against New Orleans in 1993, and he provided a stark moment of déjà vu back at the Astrodome in 1994. Finally, he returned from an ACL injury in Super Bowl XXX and made Vinny Testaverde pay one last time during his final season as a Steeler.

1987 Woodson’s 1st Interception, First TD vs. Cincinnati, (10/22/87)
Woodson got his first interception in his fourth game as a pro, and he made it count with a 45 yard return for a touchdown that put gave the Steelers a 13-3 lead heading into the half in a game they eventually won 30-16.

1988, Rallying for the Emperor vs. Denver, (10/23/88)
The Steelers were 1-7 and Terry Bradshaw had just called for Chuck Noll to step down. The Steelers vanquished the defending AFC Champion Broncos 39-21. Woodson did his part with 10 tackles, with a 29 yard interception return and 1 forced fumble.

1989, Special Teams Spark, vs. San Diego, (11/11/89)
San Diego had just gone up 10-6. It was only the third quarter, but with the league’s 28th ranked offense, the game looked to be slipping away. Rod Woodson sparked a comeback with a 84 yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

1989 AFC Wild Card game
An Exclamation Point to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah vs. Houston at the Astrodome, (12/31/89)
The 1989 Steelers were in the playoffs in hostile territory. Gary Anderson had just sent the game into over time, but the Oilers won the toss. Houston was advancing, and it looked as if Chuck Noll’s nemesis Jerry Glanville might get the better of The Emperor one more time.

Rod Woodson had other plans. Oilers running back Lorenzo White just began to get separation running to the outside when, out of nowhere, Woodson blasted him, forced a fumble, and returned it deep enough to set up Gary Anderson’s game winning field goal.

1990, Sealing the Game with Special Teams vs. Houston, (9/16/90)
Joe Walton inaugurated his first season as offensive coordinator by directing an effort that failed to score a touchdown during the entire first month. Yet the Steelers started 2-2. David Johnson had already returned an interception for a touchdown, and Woodson’s 52 yard fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown sealed the victory.

1990, Rod Woodson Shuts Down Jerry Rice vs. San Francisco, at Candlestick Park (10/25/90)
Steelers fans will always remember this as the game where Barry Foster stood there and watched a kick off return lay on the turf as it were a punt. But it was also the first match up between Rod Woodson and Jerry Rice. Pittsburgh lost the game 27-7, but Rod Woodson completely shut down Jerry Rice, keeping the NFL’s best ever receiver out of the end zone and holding him to 3 catches for 31 yards.

1992, Special Teams First Strike vs. Kansas City, at Arrowhead, (10/25/92)
After starting 3-0, the Steelers had dropped their next two. They’d rebounded with a win over the Bengals, but they still needed to validate contender status with a win over a legitimate AFC big boy. Woodson helped make it happen by scoring the game’s first points with a 80 yard punt return. The Steelers won 23-3, prompting Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola to declare that the Steelers could now be expected to contend with any NFL team at anytime.

1992, Steelers Own the AFC Central vs. the Houston Oilers, (11/1/92)
Woodson had helped Pittsburgh shock the NFL by going down to Houston and defeating the Oilers in the season opener. At mid-season they battled for AFC Central supremacy. As the Steelers were mounting their come back, Woodson nailed Warren Moon on a cornerback blitz, knocking him out of the game. The Steelers held on to win. NFL Films spied Woodson walking off the field, declaring to jubilant fans “We own the division baby!”

1993, Woodson’s Career Game vs. the New Orleans Saints, (10/17/93)
Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. For an encore, showing incredible concentration, Woodson picked off Wilson’s second pass on a sideline pattern. The New Orleans Saints did not get a first down until the 4th quarter as the Steelers thumped them 37 to 14. ESPN’s Tom Jackson reflected on Woodson’s performance this way “that is a career, in one game.”

1993, A Pick in Time, vs. Miami at Joe Robbie Stadium, (12/13/93)
The Steelers struggled to maintain consistency during the second half of the 1993 season, and this game gives you the perfect snap shot. Pittsburgh had built up a 21-6 lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Dolphins bring the score back to 21-20. The Steelers failed to run out the clock, giving Steve DeBerg one last chance to rally the team. Woodson intercepted DeBerg’s pass and returned it 54 yards as time expired. As Dan Dierdorff said, “Right now Bill Cowher is very glad that Rod Woodson is a Pittsburgh Steeler.”

1994, Déjà Vu All Over Again vs. Houston at the Astrodome, (11/6/94)
The Steelers and Oilers traded field goals all afternoon. Al Del Greco tied the game late in the fourth quarter, and overtime began with Houston getting the ball. The Oilers were threatening to get into field goal range when Rod Woodson forced Gary Brown to fumble, and set up Gary Anderson’s 40 yard game winner.

Super Bowl XXX
Becoming the First Player to Return from an ACL Injury in a Season, vs. Dallas, at Sun Devil Stadium, (1/28/96)
In the season opener against Detroit, Barry Sanders made a cut, and Rod Woodson planted to pivot and pursue. As Woodson says today, “My foot went in one direction, my knee the other.” A torn ACL cost Woodson the season, but Bill Cowher refused to put him on IR.

In Super Bowl XXX, Woodson became the first player ever to return from an ACL injury in a single season, but no one knew how he’d play. Shortly before kick off NBC Steeler-hater Chris Collinsworth derided Woodson’s feat, claiming that Cowboy coaches had told him “he’s slow, he’s tentative, we don’t expect him to make an impact.”

Tell that to Michael Irvin. Woodson shadowed Irvin on several occasions, and on one occasion knocked the ball out of Irvin’s hands and then got in his face.

1996, Tormenting Vinny on last time vs. Baltimore (9/6/96)
The Steeler’s first game against their two-be rivals also mark’s the last entry on our list. We’ll discuss the irony of that later, but for now consider that the Steelers had opened the week earlier with a 29-9 loss a Jacksonville. They’d began the game with 8 linebackers active and, in addition to losing Greg Lloyd for the season, the linebacker corps was so decimated that Monday after coaches were discussing the possibly of moving to a 3-4.

On the game’s second snap Vinny Testaverde thought he would get cute and test Woodson. Yeah, Right. Rod Woodson punished him by intercepting the pass and returning it 43 yards for a touchdown.

Honor Bittersweet for Steelers Nation

Woodson is the first Steeler from outside of the first Super Bowl Era to enter the Hall of Fame. Although the Hall of Fame is an individual honor, the move is also significant for the Steelers. As one of Steel Curtain Rising’s readers pointed out, the 1987 draft and Woodson’s arrival signaled the resurgence which continues until this day.

But Rod Woodson did not finish his career as a Steeler. He played for the San Francisco 49ers, won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, and lost another with the Oakland Raiders.

Steelers fans like to say, “well, yeah, but it was as a Steeler that Rod made a name for himself.” True. But Woodson added considerably to his reputation elsewhere. In addition to winning a Super Bowl, Woodson netted just under half of his interceptions, and returned more than half of those interceptions for touchdowns wearing another uniform.

To one degree or another, Woodson’s story is merely a sign of the times. Of the few players blessed with longevity, even fewer play their entire career with one team.

The One that [Shouldn’t Have] Gotten Away

Roster turnover is a reality of the modern NFL, and the Steelers have generally managed it well.
But this is one case that Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney wishes he’d handled differently. Woodson left the Steelers in 1996, but less than a year later Rooney was already having buyers remorse, as reported by Steelers.com.

“When Franco Harris went to Seattle, that was the most difficult,” Dan Rooney told The New York Times in 1997. “But this thing with Rod is right up there. I really wish he was finishing his career with us for a lot of reasons. It hurts.”

Woodson Comes Home Again

Like Franco Harris, Rod Woodson and the Steelers made amends, with Woodson returning to Heinz Field to serve as an honorary game captain for the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Woodson, while rightly proud of his accomplishments elsewhere, has even said that if forced to choose, he would opt to enter Canton as a Steeler.

Thanks for visiting. Please vote in Steel Curtain Rising’s Rod Woodson vs. Dieon Sanders Poll or share some of your memories by leaving a comment.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rod Woodson vs. Deion Sanders

ESPN AFC North blogger James Walker wrote a great piece about Rod Woodson in anticipation of number 26’s upcoming induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton.

In addition to a great overall retrospective of Rod’s career, Walker listed each quarterback Woodson intercepted during his playing days (he only picked off Warren Moon 3 times, I’d have thought the number was higher,) and Walker delves into the debate over who was better, Rod Woodson on Deion Sanders.

Walker overviews the arguments in favor and against both men, and quotes any number of league figures.

Walker leaves his readers with no clear answer however, and that is where you come in. So take a moment to vote in Steel Curtain Rising’s poll “Who was better, Rod Woodson or Deion Sanders?”

Watch Tower: Stefan Logan Generating Contrasting Assessments from the Press

If all dreams come true for at least a day during the NFL draft, then training camp is the groggy between sleep and waking when some dreams fade and others come into focus.

It gets interesting when seasoned journalists contrast sharply over who is fading and who is shining.

And that is not only true for draft picks, and new comer Stefan Logan gift wrapped the perfect example this week.

Logan was a CFL stand out at running back and as kick returner who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2009 draft.

For the record, Steel Curtain Rising knew and still knows nothing about Logan, so like most of the rest of Steelers Nation we depend entirely on the professionals.

But in whom to place your trust when it comes to making such judgments?

Ah, that is the complicated question.

Bouchette vs. Brown

This week the two beat writers from both of Pittsburgh’s dailies went head-to-head (in a manner of speaking) over Stefan Logan.

Ed Bouchette entered the fray first during his weekly Tuesday chat. Here’s the exchange:

Viz-Burgh: Ed, what's the word on Stefan Logan? Saw he was activated from PUP yesterday AM & practiced, but then heard he missed the afternoon. Did he practice this AM? Any word on him?
Ed Bouchette: Logan looks like a guy headed for the cut list.

A day or so later, Scotty Brown of the Tribune-Review weighed with his assessment of Logan in his “From the Press Box” feature:

His ability to make the kind of exaggerated cuts you see in video games earned Stefan Logan the nickname "Joystick" last season while he was tearing it up inthe CFL.

It drew "oohs" and "aahs" from fans today at St. Vincent College as Logan showcased the kind of burst and shiftiness that may allow him to play his way onto the Steelers as a kickoff returner/receiver/running back….

Logan is just 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds but he is already showing the kind of toughness he needs if he wants to stick with the Steelers. Put on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list last Friday because of a mid-foot sprain, Foster [sic] started practicing Monday.

Contrasting opinions do not get any clearer.

Bouchette commands a certain respect as the dean of the Steelers press corps, but Scott Brown has shown a knack for hustling for the story.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how this turns out.

In the meantime, if any of you have seen Logan in action in the CFL or on Chuck Noll field at St. Vincents, feel free to share your views by leaving a comment.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Watch Tower Rooney Rift Greatly Exaggerated by National Media

The closing of the Steelers ownership restructuring process offers the perfect chance to debunk the rumor of the Rooney family feud.

The story that the Rooneys were not only restructuring the Steelers ownership but that Dan’s four brothers might sell their shares to Wall Street tycoon Stanley Druckenmiller took Steelers Nation by storm little more than 13 months ago.

Three story lines dominated the coverage: The NFL was forcing the Rooneys to do this because their race track interests conflicted with league anti-gambling rules, the Rooney brothers, all in their 70’s, needed to plan their estates, and there were differences within the Rooney family as how to work out the situation.

Decoding Sports Journalism Today

The ensuing weeks and months provided a case study into how to decode journalism today.

From the beginning, certain facts were clear.

  • The Steelers were restructuring both at the league’s behest, and in the interest of estate planning
  • One of the younger Rooney brothers had contacted Drukenmiller, who was very interested in buying controlling interest in the Steelers
  • Dan Rooney and Art II wanted to maintain control

Although the two sets of Rooneys did issue dueling press releases, neither release was incendiary, nor did either contain latent threats or hidden time bombs.

That didn’t stop the media from writing about a “family feud.” Newspapers and websites published a plethora of articles to that effect. Many, generally from the national media, spoke volumes about the growing estrangement inside the Rooney Clan. And what do you know, few of these articles cited any sources on the record!

….Back at the Farm

Meanwhile back in Pittsburgh, Post-Gazette reporters Ed Bouchette and Gerry DuLac along with the Tribune-Reviews Carl Prine published their own stories. Certainly they reported that the restructuring was causing tension inside the family. If memory serves, Carl Prine unearthed some details about a few specific moments.

But these reporters also got plenty of people on the record who generally reported that while this transition was complicated and difficult, there was little real bad blood between the brothers.

For his part, Druckenmiller stayed out of the press, instead delegating unnamed third parties to speak on his behalf. As Steel Curtain Rising observed a little over a year ago, Druckenmiller sought to portray his acquisition as imminent and inevitable. Ultimately neither came to pass.

Five Brothers, One Family

When news broke that the Rooneys had agreed in principle to a deal what would leave Dan and Art II with controlling interests in the Steelers, with Art Jr. and John retaining reduced stakes, and with Tim and Pat Rooney selling out, Dan Rooney downplayed any rumor of strife, saying that fights with his brothers over this hadn’t been any worse than fights over anything else.

By that point Dan’s version of events was certainly credible, but Steel Curtain Rising took a final step by asking Ed Bouchette if he bought Rooney’s explanation. Bouchette responded:

Ed Bouchette: Yes, because I've talked to all of the brothers and I know that to be the case. You want a bitter family feud, this was not close. Remember, those same people who talked about it being bitter might have been the same ones telling you Michael Vick would land in Pittsburgh.
Story That Needs to Be Told

They say nothing sells a paper like a crisis, and my own experience with this blog has shown just how easy it is to attract attention with negative headlines.

But the story of five brothers each sacrificing a little to come to common agreement over how to keep an 800 million dollar asset in the family is a good story in its own right.

It might not generate the buzz that a sexy squabble between warring brothers does, but it is the kind of story that needs to be told.

And Steel Curtain Rising tips the hat to those who did so.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Watch Tower: Mike Prisuta Resigns from the Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist-turned blogger Bob Smizik is reporting that Mike Prisuta has resigned from the Tribune-Review. Smizik informs that Mike Prisuta gave no reason for his resignation, but confirmed that Priusta will continue to cover the Steelers in his capacity as sports director for WDVE.

Leading Voice of Firm Opinion and Thorough Commentary

Mike Priusta has long been a leading “voice” at the Tribune-Review. For years and years he has offered in-depth commentary on the Steelers. In fact, when the Tribune-Review launched its paid subscription “Steelers Live” site a number of years ago yours truly ponied up for the sole purpose of reading Priusta.

Priusta pulled no punches and made no bones about taking unpopular positions. When Kordell Stewart parted ways with the Steelers, Pruista plainly stated that Stewart’s best play as a Steeler had come in his 71 yard touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals in during November 1995.

While his assessment of Kordell enjoys ample of company in Steelers Nation, Priusta also publicly began calling for the Steelers to jettison Jerome Bettis as early as 2003. Steel Curtain Rising did not yet exist or we certainly would have taken issue with him then, but we respect Priusta for standing his ground even as Bettis came within a hair of becoming a 1000 yard rusher in relief of Duce Stanely in 2004.

“Voice” Less Frequently “Heard” by Readers Recently

Although Steel Curtain Rising has kept no numbers of any sort, in the last two years or it seems like Priusta has published fewer and fewer columns in the Tribune-Review.

If our perception is correct, he follows in the footsteps of other famed sports print-journalists who move on to broadcast or on-line media. The Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon and former Washington Post columnist Tony Korenhieser provide two prominent examples.

Caught in the Newspaper Crunch?

Another possibility is that Pruista has been the latest journalist to be squeezed by the newspaper crunch. Even before the current recession newspapers in general were feeling the pinch as circulation declines and advertisers dollars flow on-line or elsewhere. Specifically Tribune-Review’s struggle for profitability has been well documented. It seems like the quantity, although not the quality, of coverage on their main Steelers news page has declined in this year.

Smizik’s reporting makes clear that Prusita is resigning, but a resignation could still be tied to financial troubles at the paper. Steel Curtain Rising has no inside information, so is only speculation.

Regardless of the reason for his departure, Steel Curtain Rising will miss Mike Pruista.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Miller, Polamalu, Stapelton Begin Training Camp with Minor Injuries

Two days after announcing Heath Miller had signed a 31 million dollar contract, the Steelers revealed the tight end had a sports hernia and will be limited at the start of training camp.

Mike Tomlin also revealed that safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Deshea Townsend are nursing hamstring injuries. Justin Hartwig and Darnell Stapelton round out the veterans on the injury report, Hartwig with a toe and Stapleton with swelling in his knee.

New comer Stefan Logan, a running back signed from the CFL, will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin downplays the seriousness of these injuries, insisting that he is being prudent.

Steel Curtain Rising openly questioned Tomlin’s cautious approach a year ago in training camp. As mentioned in our annual Goofs Column, Tomlin clearly knew what he was doing. Following the Steelers weak finish in 2007, Tomlin altered his practice and training camp plans and succeeded in keeping the Steelers fresh for their Super Bowl run in 2008.

Suffice to say, in 2009 Steel Curtain Rising will neither question nor criticize Mike Tomlin should he continue to make liberal use of the injury list while the Steelers are camped at St. Vincent.