´ Steel Curtain Rising: September 2009

Who deserves the game ball for the Steelers victory over the Carolina Panthers

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

John Stallworth’s Improbable Journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers: From Player to Owner

John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both.

You can chalk his latest exploit to the latrer.

Steelers ownership restructuring became public last July, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.” We’ve known who that person was to be for a while, but last Thursday it became official.

Former Steelers wide receiver and Hall of Fame legend John Stallworth is now part of owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

John Stallworth has proven that you can come home again.

The paring of Stallworth’s name with the extraordinary is nothing new, as this seven part story reveals:

After Super Bowl XIV, injury, age, and retirement began to erode the Super Steelers’ edge as it does to any dynasty.

Now his trajectory has taken him to the Steelers ownership suite…

Here is a long look at one of the truly great Pittsburgh Steelers, and his improbable journey.

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Haul - Stallworth Falls to Pittsburgh

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, Steelers Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Mike Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl IX set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called hook and go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980’s

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancy Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened '87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weggie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth caught 42 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth's success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, Mike Webster is a perfect example, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame....” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teamate into enshrined in Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring him into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve assended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

It will be an uphill battle. But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

Thanks for visiting. Be sure to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Watch Tower: Fallout From the Steelers First Loss in Paul Brown Stadium in 8 Years

This was one of those Monday mornings when the desire to read about Sunday’s game was zero. Nada. Zip.

Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh dailies offered an interesting hodge-podge of interpretations of Sunday’s devastating defeat.

Tribune-Review

Over at the Tribune-Review, John Harris picked up on a theme echoed yesterday by Steel Curtain Rising, namely that the Steelers of ’09 bear a startling resemblance to the Steelers of ’06.

  • Curtain’s Call: Obviously we have some sympathy for Harris’ position, but the reporting backing up his story did not cover much new ground.

Scott Brown weighed in later in the day with his View from the Press Box blog. Brown took Tomlin to task for his decision to go for it on 4th and 4 at the end of the first half.

  • Curtain’s Call: We did not mention this, but Brown is right. Tomlin does not coach sacred, but Brown makes a good point about how Tomlin didn’t hesitate to kick on 4th-1 at other times. Great point, as this was the moment when Cincinnati got back in the game.

Post-Gazette

Over at the Post-Gazette, Ron Cook led off, squarely placing the blame on the Steelers defense, wondering aloud if the Steelers defense is perhaps aging before our eyes. Cook points to a number of cases where players like Aaron Smith, James Farrior, or Deshea Townshend were a moment late or a step short.

  • Curtain’s Call: Cook is right, as the defense’s inability to protect a 14 point lead is inexcusable, for whatever the (very real) faults of the offense might be. His argument about aging is interesting, but it is too early for the conclusion.

Gene Collier took a completely different track. Collier argues that the Bengals won by “simply bungling” less. That might not be so clear to Steelers friends, but a buddy of mine from Cincinnati “Bob” made the same argument. Each phase of Cincinnati’s game looked awful at times.

  • Curtain’s Call: Collier’s correct, but even the truth here is of little consolation. The Bengals did look atrocious at times. That makes the Steelers look the worse.

Blogesphere:

Blitzburgh from Behind the Steel Curtain wrote a well-thought out piece, arguing that one of the reasons why the Steelers are faltering is because they have so many rookies playing.

  • Curtain’s Call: Steel Curtain Rising gives BTSC credit for innovative thinking. Seriously, who else thought of that? But at the end of the day, the Steelers lost because guys like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Aaron Smith, couldn’t get to the QB, and because guys like Ike Taylor, Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed couldn’t hold on to balls thrown right to them.

Undoubtedly, if the Steelers continue to lose, theories to explain their losing ways will multiple exponentially with each loss. Let's hope this never comes to pass.

Steelers Bow to Bengals 23-20

The Pittsburgh Steelers bowed in defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium today for the first time since 2001. In doing so they lowered their record to 1-2, dropped a game to a division rival and now sit two games behind the Baltimore Ravens.

The most poignant aspect of this is that the Steelers deserve every bit of their 1-2 record.

Steel Curtain Rising says that because a team deserves to lose when…

  • you drive to your opponents 1 and 6 yard lines and come away with two field goals
  • you can only register 2 sacks, force no fumbles, and make no interceptions
  • you give up two fourth quarter touchdown drives – for the second consecutive week
  • you let your opponents convert two fourth downs while protecting a five point lead
  • you come out on the wrong side of a three point margin between victory and defeat even after you (partially) block a field goal and your opponent misses an extra point

Yours truly is seldom given to sensationalism, but what you see above isn’t sensationalistic. As Mike Tomlin will say, its brutal honesty.

Steelers Continue to Give Games Away

Thus far the Pittsburgh Steelers have given away two very winnable games. Give all the credit in the world to Marv Lewis, Carson Palmer and the rest of the Cincinnati Bengals. They may not have dominated. They may not have padded stellar stats sheets.

But the Cincinnati Bengals did three very important things that the Steelers could not:

  • They over came their mistakes
  • They protected their quarterback when it mattered
  • They kept together their poise to make plays when it counted

Where’s the Defense?

Going into the season people asked “Can the Steelers defense get better? The Curtain’s Call was that the defense could and would be more dominant.

No one expected this.

The Steelers 2008 defense got all kinds of well-deserved accolades for leading in numerous statistical categories – total yards allowed, total passing yards allowed, fewest points allowed, among others.

Those numbers are pretty, but statistics do not define great defenses. Great defenses define themselves in their ability to marshal physical force against an opponent. They strip balls, sack quarterbacks, stuff runners for losses, and intercept balls.

Save for stuffing the run, the Steelers defense has done next to none of that in 2009.

Sure, missing Troy Polamalu hurts, but is he the only playmaker the defense is supposed to have?

Pressure Sans Sacks is Not Enough

Phil Simms pointed out that the Steelers were getting good pressure on Carlson Palmer, even if they were not getting sacks. To fess up completely, Steel Curtain Rising made a similar observation last week after the Steelers loss to Chicago.

Today’s game revealed the limits of that truth. Pressuring a quarterback without actually sacking him only goes so far. It works under normal circumstances and/or against average quarterbacks.

But Carlson Palmer is no average quarterback.

A sack would have been devastating on any number of snaps on the final drive. But if there were any number of black and gold uniforms buzzing around him, they never reached the signal caller.
Hence you get two fourth down conversions, a four yard touchdown pass, and a successful two point conversion.

Familiar Story

In two weeks now we have seen the Steelers establish a pattern that has already become disturbingly familiar. The Steelers start gang busters. The defense forces quick punts. Ben leads the team down the field to score an early touchdown.

Things continue to go well. The Steelers reach the goal line, but have to kick. Fear not, the defense continues to hold… until the opponent scores in the last two minutes of the first half. The Steelers play Cat and Mouse with their opponents in the third quarter. Steelers Nation senses that Pittsburgh will prevail, but the Black and Gold fails to pull away....

Then the Steelers once vaunted defense gives up two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

Déjà vu 2006 Style

If the scenario above is a little too disquieting for comfort, consider this:

To a man, the 21 Steelers veterans who remain from Super Bowl XL vowed to avoid a repeat of 2006

Today those pledges ring hollow. Consider:

  • the 2006 team started with a Thursday night win,
  • lost a close one the next week on the road,
  • then lost to the Bengals in week three

And like those 2006 Steelers, the 2009 Steelers face San Diego in week 4 on national TV...

  • ...the ’06 Steelers lost that game 23 to 13.

The oft quoted cliché is "those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it."

Mike Tomlin loves history. He spent the summer studying the 1975 Steelers. Although he refuses to use the word, he was hoping to gain insight into repeating.

Steelers Nation now must hope that those studies have given Tomlin the wisdom he needs to keep Pittsburgh from repeating a less pleasant, but more recent chapter in team history.

-KT
President,
Pittsburgh Steeler Fan Club of Buenos Aires

To regular readers: Last week we promised an indepth look at John Stallworth. We didn't get to it last week, but check back for with Steel Curtain Rising on Monday or Tuesday.

Friday, September 25, 2009

1989 Steelers Shock NFL, Vikings 27-14

Either we just played the two best teams in football, or it is going to be a long season.”
- Chuck Noll, reflecting on his team’s 92-10 start to the 1989 season.
The third week of the Steelers 1989 season brought the Minnesota Vikings to Three Rivers Stadium.

I can still [almost] quote from memory an article I read the Monday article on the game:
This game went exactly as it was scripted. A disgruntled teammate getting revenge against his former team. Dominating defense matched with effective, if not explosive offense….
The Steelers had lost their first two contests by a score of 92-10. If possible, the numbers behind that lopsided score were worse.
  • Collectively their rushers were averaging less than three yards a carry
  • Opponents had sacked Bubby Brister 12 times
  • Greg Lloyd owned the entire Steelers sack total, which stood at one
  • Injuries forced John Rienstra, a life long guard, to switch to tackle, while rookie Tom Ricketts, a life long tackle, sifted to guard
  • Starting linebacker Brian Hinkle was out. Unable to reclaim no-name linebacker Darren Jordan from the waiver wire, the Steelers would start a rookie in his place.
And the Vikings, although 1-1, still stood as Super Bowl contenders. They’d also brought Mike Merriweather with them, the Steelers 1987 team MVP, whose bitter contract dispute with Dan Rooney resulted in a hold out that spanned the entire 1988 season.

The game unfolded as scripted. Except, as the Washington Post pointed the next day out, this script had a surprise ending.

Minnesota, Myron and Mularkey in Route to Maryland on the PA Turnpike

Yours truly was actually in Pittsburgh the weekend of the game, and listened to the game's first half on WTAE driving home on the turnpike. During the early going Mike Mularkey and a Viking, I believe it was Mike Merriweather, got into a scuffle… you KNOW Myron Cope couldn’t, wouldn’t and of course didn’t resist.

“And there’s Mularkey saying, ‘now don’t you give me any of that Mularkey’” boomed through the speakers in the backseat. One more classic Myron memory to cherish.

Scuffles are one thing, but scoring wins games, and quickly thereafter Mulakery drew first blood on a 15 yard pass from Bubby Brister. Minnesota scored on its next drive, but the Steelers answered with an eight yard touchdown run by Tim Worley.

On the next series, it looked like things took a turn for the worse, when a Vikings defender sacked-stripped Brister and returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. For the third time in just six quarters at Three Rivers Stadium, an opposing defending was advancing a fumble into the end zone.

Faced with a perfect opportunity to fold… the Steelers marched straight down the field and just as WTAE’s signal began to fade, Jack Flemming’s voice boomed, “Merrill Hoge scores the go ahead touchdown.”

My folks tried to pick up the second half but the signals of the Altoona and Johnstown stations simply weren’t strong enough. An unfortunate occurrence.

The Steel Curtain is Robust with Rust

Entering the second half protecting a 21-14 lead to start the second half, Steelers unleashed the defense.
Revitalized by new defensive coordinator Rod Rust, the Steel Curtain decimated the Vikings. Hardy Nickerson, Tim Johnson, and yes, Jeroll Williams, that rookie standing in for Brian Hinkle, collected four of their five sacks. Steelers also picked off Wade Wilson twice, and held Anthony Carter to 5 catches.

When the dust cleared, the Steelers had completely shut out the Vikings in the second half.
Significant?

You bet.
Some Players You Remember, Some Players You Forget

It might seem strange now, but in 1989 many regarded Minnesota’s offense as second only to the 49ers in terms fire power.
Although not an elite quarterback, Wade Wilson was nonetheless a Pro Bowler, as was tight end Steve Jordan. Hassan Jones was likewise considered a top number 2 receiver, and Anthony Carter was seen as on the verge of greatness.

Save for Wade Wilson, few remember their names now, and that’s in part because they couldn’t get the better of players like of Lloyd, Nickerson, Lake, and Woodson. Names the NFL remembers 20 years later.

The NFL noted the Steelers upset, but generally waited to see if it meant something or if it was just another case of On Any Given Sunday.

Time would prove those league pundits wise, as the roller coster ride that was the Steelers 1989 season was just getting revved up...

You can read Steel Curtain Rising's entire season-long tribute to the 1989 Steelers by clicking here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rooneys Close Steelers Ownership Restructuring, Announce New Partners

What started with a bang that rocked Steelers Nation in July of 2008 ended today without much fanfare.

The Post-Gazette reports that the Steelers announced that they had closed the ownership restructuring process that became public in July 2008, but really began several years ago when the NFL ordered the Rooneys to divest themselves of their gambling interests or else give up the team.

The new ownership group will be headed by Art II and his father Dan Rooney. Also staying on board are brothers John Rooney and Art Rooney Jr. who will maintain about half of their former 16% ownership stakes. The McGinley family will also remain as significantly stakeholders, although they will now apparently control less than the 20% they previously owned.

Rooneys Still Control the Steelers

Details of the deal were not made public, however, it is believed that the new deal is structured to so that the Rooney and McGinley families still maintain controlling interest.

They will also bring on a host of new partners, several of which were announced the for the first time today: David Tepper, the Paul Sams Family, Ben Statler, and Mike Wilkins.

Ealier this spring the Steelers announced that these investors would join the group: James Haslam III, the Paul Family, Thomas Tull, Bruce Rauner, and the Varischetti Family.

The latter group also included a familiar face: Steelers Hall of Fame Wide Receiver John Stallworth.

Check back tomorrow (or perhaps the day after tomorrow), as Steel Curtain Rising will take an indepth look at John Stallworth and his career with the Steelers

To follow the entire thread on the Steelers ownership restructuring process, click here to view everything under the Rooney brothers tag.

Vultures Circle Three Rivers Stadium after ’89 Steelers 0-2 Start

The day after Chuck Noll retired a journalist for the Pittsburgh Press, whose name escapes me (it was probably Gene Collier), most eloquently summed up Steelers Nation’s collective reaction to the Steelers 0-2 by a margin of 92-10 start:
…the once unthinkable question was on everybody’s mind, and it was no longer ‘will Dan Rooney fire Chuck Noll,’ but ‘How long will he wait?’*
The vultures were out in full force.

The Steelers reacted to loss of Brian Hinkle by seeking to resign linebacker Darin Jordan, a veteran of the 1988 season whom they’d waived prior to opening day.

The San Francisco 49ers beat them to the punch, signing Jordan before the Steelers. According to Pro Football Reference, in 1988 Darrin Jordan started two games, played in 15, had one interception, but recorded ZERO tackles.

Bob Smizik, then writing for the Pittsburgh Press lambasted the move, sharing with readers that the Steeler’s explained their attempt to resign Jordan this way:
When you ask them why they wanted to bring back Jordan, they’ll look you in the eye and answer with a straight face and tell you it’s because “he knows the system.” *
The system? Smizik asked, explaining to readers that the same “system” had failed to produce more sacks for the Steelers than their opponents for well over a season. He concluded his article, imploring Jordan not to share any of his insight on “the system” with the rest of the NFL.

The national media got into the act too, with ESPN’s NFL Gameday sending the late Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh to chronicle the Steelers woes. Axthelm’s pice was objective, but there was no doubting the tone.

In an on camera video with Chuck Noll, Pete Axthelm pointedly asked Chuck Noll:

“Has the game of football passed Chuck Noll by?”

Noll, stoic as ever, responded:
When they ask you questions like that, there’re the same as questions like ‘why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shot gun?’ What they’re really asking is, ‘why don’t you win?’*
On the heels of back to back humiliations at the hands of the Bengals and Browns many in Steelers Nation were asking that very same question. And with the then Super Bowl favorite Minnesota Vikings coming to Three Rivers Stadium in week 3, most expected to have the occasion to keep asking that question for quite some time.

*These quotes are from memory, and are cetainly not exact. All apologies for any errors.

Check back tomorrow recap of the 1989 Steelers game against the Vikings, or click here to read the entire 1989 Steelers tribute.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Snake Bitten Steelers Fall to Bears 17-14 at Solider Field

The defending Super Bowl Champions were coming off another Ben Roethlisberger-led never-say die dramatic come-from-behind victory. The Chicago Bears were coming off a beating at the hands of arch-rival Green Bay Packers where star quarterback Jay Cutler threw 4 picks.

The Steelers were 1-11 in Chicago, but had won their last three games against the Bears.

Which trend would prevail?

Today, the long-term memory of this series, which began in 1934, carried the day as the Bears beat the Steelers 17-14.

In professional sports, however, trends do not assert themselves, but rather those who play on the field create them.

Thus was the case Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they squandered a host of opportunities and in the process yielded sole control of the AFC North to the Baltimore Ravens.

Yes, it was a game of sloppiness that led to missed chances, and provided ironies both spoken and unspoken.

Roethlisberger is Mortal

Ben Roethlisberger started the game in clockwork fashion, leading a 13 play 92 yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. After the Steelers defense forced a punt, he looked set to do it again, until he went deep and badly underthrew Mike Wallace then Cedric Tillman picked him off.

Whether it was because this was his first pick of the season, or for some other reason, Ben sort of seemed to fall into a funk. The stat sheet shows that Ben had a decent game, completing 65% of his passes and going one-for-one on picks and TDs.

But he’s lucky he did not have more interceptions, as far too many passes were high, short, or just off target.

Certainly Ben was the victum of at least one too many drops, namely Santonio Holmes drop in the endzone. But as Gerry Dulac pointed out in his 2 Minute Drill, Holmes had 14 passes thrown in his direction. He had 5 catches, 3 drops, which leaves seven errant passes...

The irony here is that Steel Curtain Rising not only spent the summer defending Ben, but we finished our summary of the victory over the Titans concluding that the game represented a sterling reaffirmation of Roethlisberger’s ability to deliver.

But Ben failed to deliver against the Bears.

That’s no reason to bail on Ben: He simply had a subpar game, revealing that Roethlisberger is in fact mortal.

As the Pass Rush Goes, So Goes Cutler
In contrast, Jay Cutler threw as if his hands had been touched by God, completing over 70% of his passes, and hitting two very good touchdowns.

Culter deserves every ounce of credit he gets for making swiss cheese of the Steelers pass defense. But those pretty numbers do not belie another fact – when the Steelers pass rush got in his face, he was unable to move his team.

It really was that simple.

Bettis Vindicated, Half Way
Jerome Bettis lashed out at the Steelers running game last week, and categorically declared that the defense would not be able cope with the loss of Troy Polamalu.

It seems like everyone had a piece of the Bus’ commentary, from Dan Giger’s Blog and Gold to Ron Cooks column. And herein lies the silent irony: Steel Curtain Rising was set to chime in with its own assessment, but did not have time.

Perhaps its better that way, as we were prepared to agree with the Bus on the running game, yet take issue with him on the defense.

As it turns, out, the opposite happened.

No, the running game has not returned to its former glory, not by a long shot. But it did show signs of life. (Mendenhall also showed heart on that pass reception, and then followed it up with a nice 39 yard run.)

As for the passing defense, it is hard to assess how much the Steelers are missing Troy Polamalu.
Steel Curtain Rising harshly criticized Tyrone Carter after playoff loss to Jacksonville, and he was the primary cover man on both receivers who scored touchdowns. But really, both of those touchdowns were more cases of excellent throws by Cutler than anything else.

But even if its not right to come down too hard on Carter, it's also hard, very, very hard not to think “Troy would have broken up at least one of those passes up….”

Snake Bitten Special Teams
Can the Steelers return a kick without a penalty? And what’s up with Jeff Reed? This man regularly makes long kicks under pressure in the slog at Heinz field, the most difficult place to kick in the NFL. It is rare for him to miss one kick, but two?

Stefan Logan showed that he really does have the talent to be something special as a return man. But he also revealed that he has a lot to learn. In a couple of cases it looked like he was trying to do too much.

And he needs to protect the ball. He did well enough on that final return to give Ben a decent shot at a Hail Mary, instead the game ended with Chicago taking a knee.

What Does Sunday's Defeat Mean?
As Steel Curtain Rising mentioned during our profile of recent Steelers-Bears history, games against the Bears have frequently marked turning points for the Steelers.

Victories over the Bears were key to streaks to the Super Bowl in 1995 and 2005.

Interestingly enough, wins and losses themselves are not always sign posts, as the 20-0 shut out in 1989 preceded a run to Chuck Noll’s final post-season appearance, and the lack-luster victory over the Bears in 1998 foreshadowed the demise of the Steelers' Cowher-Donahue era.

What significance will Sunday’s defeat hold?

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and company will make that determination.

Thanks for visiting. Be sure to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Steelers vs. Bears, a History of Sparing Between Two Storied Franchises

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears are two of the NFL’s most storied franchises whose origins go back to the founding of the league itself. Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas are both members of the NFL Hall of Fame.
  • And as is the case with many older franchises, the Steelers series record leaves them at a decided disadvantage 
In fact, the Steelers are 2-11 in Chicago, and 7-20-1 against the Bears overall. That lopsided record is due to woefulness of the pre-Chuck Noll Steelers.

The Steelers fare much better if one focuses on the more recent history of these two storied franchises, although they have had their difficulties against the Bears in “recent” season. The Steelers have faced the Bears six times in the last 23 years, and Steel Curtain Rising has neatly summed those meeting up below:

Ditka Takes the Wind over the Ball in OT
Bears defeat Steelers 13-10, at Solider Field, November 30, 1986

The 4-8 Steelers gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears a run for their money, even though they did not score an offensive touchdown. But that was good enough to force overtime when…

Iron Mike elected to kickoff, trusting in the wind and his defense. The Bear’s defense vindicated their coach, forcing a punt and setting up Kevin Butler’s winning kick.
  • Fun Fact: The Steelers only touchdown came in the third quarter on a fake field goal from Harry Newsome to tight end Preston Gothard.
Steelers Suffer Third Shut Out of 1989 Season
Bears Shut Out Steelers, 20-0 at Three Rivers Stadium, November 11, 1989

Aliquippa native Mike Dikta gave himself a hell of a home coming during the only game he coached at Three Rivers Stadium. His Bears netted 6 turnovers, wracked up 203 rushing yards, and held Pittsburgh to 54 rushing yards during their 20-0 shut out.
Cowher’s Achilles Heel or Mike Singletary’s Final Game in Chicago?
Bears defeat Steelers, 30-6 at Solider Field, December 13, 1992

Under rookie head coach Bill Cowher, the 1992 Steelers took the NFL by storm. They traveled to Chicago with a 10-3 record and a chance to clinch their first AFC Central Title since 1984. Cowher Power had rejuvenated the Steelers, and the sky was the limit. Or was it?

The Steelers fell flat on their faces. And then the Bears stomped all over them, to the tune of 30-6. Barry Foster ran 12 times for 25 yards. The Bears sacked Bubby Brister 5 times and picked him off twice. Worst of all, Pittsburgh looked lethargic and unfocused.

NBC commentator Bill Parcells attributed the result to the emotional surge occasioned by Mike Singletary’s final game in Chicago, sharing something to the effect, “I was in the Bear’s locker room prior to the game, and this was a team clearly ready to play.”
  • Cowher’s Admission: During Cowher’s early tenure, over confidence was his Steeler’s chronic Achilles heel. Cowher would perhaps dispute this general observation, but a number of years later he admitted that the 1992 game against the Bears was one of the few times the team had not been mentally prepared to play.
Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. I - Super Bowl XXX
Steelers Defeat Bears, 37-24 at Solider Field, November 5, 1995
The Steelers 1995 Steelers started 3-4, and looked ugly doing it. After a particularly egregious loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Cowher declared it was now a “9 game season.” Having beaten the Jaguars in week 8, they traveled to Chicago to take on the 6-2 Bears.

This was one of the most exciting games the Steelers have every played. The lead changed 5 times and the score was tied 3 times as the Steelers and Bears fought back and forth in this titanic struggle.

Hope faded for the Steelers when Barry Minter returned an interception to put the Bears up 34 to 27 late in the fourth. But Neil O’Donnell rebounded, taking the Steelers the length of the field capping off the drive with a 11 yard strike to Ernie Mills to tie it up just inside the two minute warning.

Cowher seemed ready to gamble it all when he sent in the 2 point conversion unit, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. The Steelers kicked the extra point instead, and Willie Williams picked off Eric Kramer in OT, to set up Norm Johnson’s game winning field goal.
  • Cowher’s Quote: When asked if such a dramatic victory might have been a character building exercise for his recently struggling Steelers, Cowher’s response was concise and correct – “Games like this do not build character, they display it.” That character carried the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX
Steelers Start 1998 season 2-0, But…
Steelers Stumble Over Bears, 17-12, at Three Rivers Stadium, September 13, 1998

The 1997 Steelers had finished 11-5 and only two Kordell Steward goal line interceptions away from the Super Bowl. They’d beaten the Ravens 20-13 the week before, but had not looked good doing it.

The Steelers defeated the Bears 17-12 on the strength of Jerome Bettis 131 rushing game.
  • Cause for concern: Kordell Stewart went 17-30-1-1. Not bad numbers, but he only threw for 137 yards and was only 4-4 rushing. Whether it was because Ray Sherman didn’t know what he was doing, or a lack confidence, but this was the beginning of a tentative and timid Stewart, as opposed to the swashbuckling Slash that Steelers fans had seen before.
Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. II
Steelers Smash Bears, 21-9, at Heinz Field, December 11, 2005

The Bears were coming off an 8 game winning streak. Despite their 7-5 record, the Steelers were coming off a 3 game losing streak, and looking at the possibility of needing to run the table to make the playoffs. The Steelers were up to the task, as the Bus led the march that ended with One for the Thumb in Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers totally dominated the Bears in the snow at Heinz Field. Bettis ripped off 101 yards as he plowed through Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense. Willie Parker was close behind him with 68 yards. Ben Roethlisberger hit seven different receivers, as the Steelers out gained the Bears by almost 100 yards, and dominated time of possession to the tune of 37:19 to 22:41
  • Bettis Final 100 Yard Game: This was Bettis’ 50th 100 yard game with the Steelers, a team record. It was also to be the Bus’ final 100 yard effort, and he gained all but one of them in the second half. He also scored 2 TD’s for the 16th time in his career, which brought him to 4th on the Steelers all-time scoring list.

Super Bowl Champion Steelers Slip, Signal Things to Come…
Bears Defeat Steelers 17-14 at Solider Field, September 20th, 2009

The defending Super Bowl Champions had won their opener doing what they had done during the previous season – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But this trip to Solider Field showed that things would not be so easy for the 2009 Steelers.

The Steelers got on the board quickly with a clockwork like opening drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw an interception and he was off after that, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers and throwing balls that were either too low or two high. Roethlisberger had help however,
  • Santonio Holmes had several drops
  • James Harrison got called for an inane illegal contact penalty for merely brushing up against Jay Cutler
  • Cutler made swiss cheese of a Troy Polamaluless Steelers secondary
Despite that, the Steelers hung in and appeared to be set to repeat history – pull out a win at the last moment.

Unfortunately Jeff Reed missed a long field goal, giving Chicago a victory. Unlike their ’08 brethren, this was to be the first of many last minute losses for the ’09 Steelers….

27 Years of Sparing

The Steelers and Bears are two of the NFL’s storied franchises. The Bears owned them during the glory days of Papa Bear George Halas. The two teams played infrequently during the Steelers Golden Age of Noll and Co. but not surprisingly the Steelers have made more success since then.

Since then, the two teams paths have crossed sparingly, but in one way or another each game has served an important part in the Steelers lore, if not determining a season’s fate.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Steelers Begin ’89 Season Losing 92-10, Fall to Bengals 41-10 in Week 2

20 years ago today the Steelers traveled to Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium for the second game of the 1989 season, reeling from the 51-0 shutout inflicted on them by the Cleveland Browns the week before.

Although the Bengals were defending AFC Champions, the Steelers had won in Cincinnati as recently as 1987, and harbored aspirations of showing the NFL that they were better than their opening day debacle.

The Steelers failed to realize those aspirations.

The Monday morning after the game my friend BBD approached my locker suggesting that "I think the Steelers should fire their defensive coordinator."

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10.”

I responded, “If 34 of those points came directly off of the offense, you can't come down too hard on the defense too hard, can you?”

Truthfully, if offensive self-destruction had defined the 1989 Steelers first game, dismal defense defined their second.

Boomer Esiason threw for 328 yards while Tim McGee and James Brooks had 100 yard days receiving and rushing respectively.

But the Steelers defense could not get out of its own way. The Steelers committed a record 144 yards in penalties 144 yards and handed the Bengals 7 of their 30 first downs. Worse yet, the Steelers failed to force the Bengals to punt even once.

This was the first time a Chuck Noll team, including his 1-13 team from his 1969 rookie campaign, had failed to force a punt.

Signs of Hope?

The difference between losing 41-10 and 51-0 is cosmetic at best.

Yet had the Steelers given their faithful fans some hope to hang on to?

Steel Curtain Rising applauds no one’s injury, but on defense Greg Lloyd and Thomas Everett had teamed up to deliver a devastating hit on Icky Woods that unfortunately derailed is career.

On offense, Bubby Brister, despite taking 6 sacks for the second consecutive week, completed 54% of his passes, and did not throw a single interception. Louis Lipps caught 5 passes for 122 yards and scored the team's only touchdown.

Lipps has been a familiar target in 1988, but Brister hit a total of eight receivers, as Dwight Stone, Rodney Carter, and newcomer Mike Mularkey began to make their presence in the offense felt.

Putting faith in these kinds of stats would constitute rose-colored glasses optimism on steroids; 20 years later they remain nothing more than glorified garbage time numbers.

Brian Hinkle’s Statement

But hard numbers do not carry the day in football games or football seasons.

The Tuesday after the game the Washington Post ran a little one inch, 4 line blurb on titled "Man of Steel."

It revealed that linebacker Brian Hinkle had played a full two quarters during the second half of the Bengals game on a broken fibula.

Brian Hinkle’s resolve and determination made a statement for the few with the savvy to listen.

Losing their first two games by cumulative score of 92-10 may have humiliated the team, but the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers were very far from defeated.

Thanks for visiting. Steel Curtain Rising will pay tribute to the ’89 Steelers all season long. Game posts appear on Thursdays. To read the entire series click on the Steelers 1989 season tag. Leave a comment sharing your thoughts and memories.

Watch Tower: Simzik Shifts on Fast Willie Parker…?

Early this morning, the Post-Gazette’s Bob Simzik dedicated a sizable blog entry to the woeful state of the Steelers running game. He provided an excellent summary of analysis from around the league.

He then commented on Willie Parker’s problems. He didn’t limit himself to Parker’s tentative performance against the Titans, but detailed Parker’s troubles dating back to last season.

Is this the same journalist who devoted a lengthy blog post to taking Steelers management to task for not making Willie Parker a lucrative, long term contract offer? Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower already disputed Simzik’s declaration that the Steelers were “dissing” Fast Willie Parker, so we will not rehash that here (you can click here if you missed it.)

But it is a little ironic that Simzik suddenly is going to great lengths to document recent examples of Parker’s diminished production.

Who watches the watchmen? The Watch Tower. Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower does media analysis of press coverage related to the Steelers. You can follow the entire series by clicking on the Watch Tower tag.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Watch Tower: SteelersLive.com Goes Dark as Tribune-Review Pulls Plug

This is old news to many, but the Tribune Review has pulled the plug on the SteelersLive.com site as of September 1, 2009.

SteelersLive.com was originally home to one of the first Steelers websites back in 1995, although it carried a different domain name. I am not sure when the Trib. changed the URL to SteelersLive.com, but for many years it severed as the paper’s primary Steelers page.

Then, in 2005 (or perhaps 2004) the Tribune-Review split their Steelers sites in two, SteelersLive.com became a combination premium, pay-per-view site dubbed SteelersExtra which shared space with a section dedicated to user generated content.

As mentioned when Mike Prisuta resigned from the Tribune-Review, yours truly paid for a subscription to SteelersExtra for at least a year, if not two, just to read Prisuta’s columns. When Prisuta moved to the free section, I stopped paying.

A Blow Steelers Nation’s Blogging Community

The SteelersLive.com site was the Trib’s attempt to corner the market for all things Steelers in cyberspace. Fans could upload photos, create polls, run their own blog, and upload news links to any article that interested them.

It was a great idea, and the Tribune-Review was ahead of the Post-Gazette in terms of inviting two-way interaction with readers.

The news link section was perhaps the most popular feature. Steel Curtain Rising probably had close to a hundred posts listed there, and they were a huge generator of traffic, both for new visitors and repeat traffic. Without SteelersLive.com, who knows where this site would be today?
I can tell you our unique visitor total would be way, way down. I am sure that many other sites, such as Steelers Today, can say the same thing. SteelersLive.com will be missed by many.

Short Sighted Strategy?

Setting Steel Curtain Rising’s self-interest aside, one has to wonder if this is the smart business move for the Tribune-Review.

Newspapers are getting hammered, and Steel Curtain Rising has gotten second hand confirmation that Tribune-Review did indeed pull the plug on SteelersLive.com to cut costs.

Many newspapers have tried and most have failed to charge for access, so the demise of SteelersExtra surprises no one.

But what is the logic of dismantling the user-driven portion of the site? The Trib. simply took down the site. For about two weeks it was impossible to access it, then they simply directed people to their main Steelers page.

It wasn’t until the second week of September that I found a note on the main Steelers page informing that they’d killed SteelersLive.com. The sparse announcement says something about informing paid subscribers via email, but the Trib. made no other announcement nor giave advance notice to anyone.

I honestly do not know how much it would have cost to maintain the user-generated portion of the site, but going soley on the traffic Steel Curtain Rising from them, SteelersLive.com had a steady stable readership.

Managing space on a webpage can be tricky business, but one would think the Tribune-Review could have worked some of the user-generated elements into their main Steelers page.

In fact, they never seemed to do much to integrate the two pages. Shockingly enough, they did not even cross link them, which I always thought was a mistake.

Today's economy is battering newspapers, and the Tribune-Review was losing money before the DOW and NYSE went south. I supposed the brass in the Tribs' business department had their reasons, but simply letting SteelersLive.com go dark from one day to the next seems rather shortsighted.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

’09 Steelers Defeat Titans in OT, Pick Up Where ’08 Team Left Off

Of the many things that characterized the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl Championship run, one was offensive inconsistency tied to a chronic inability to run the ball well, and a second was an uncanny ability to step it up when the game was on the line.

The Steelers gave every indication during last Thursday night’s victory that they’re more than ready to pick up where they left off and in they've process left us a couple of lessons.

2008 Steelers vs. 2009 Steelers, a First Look

Hours after Super Bowl XLIII Mike Tomlin declared the 2009 Steelers to be a new team. That is a great way to focus the players, and its also true, particularly in the era of free agency.

Of the four losses the 2008 Steelers suffered, only two can be said to be cases where Pittsburgh got beaten. Give all the credit to Indy and New York for their victories, but the Steelers basically beat themselves in both those contests.

Not so against the Eagles, and less so against Tennessee. Both of these teams manhandled the Steelers. The Steelers certainly made their share of mistakes against Tennessee last December, but the Titans sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice, forced five fumbles, and otherwise dominated in their 31-14 victory.

Measured by that standard, the Steelers 13-10 overtime victory represents a resounding improvement.

Victory against a probable playoff contender is always cause for celebration, but the Steelers nonetheless have some concerns.

What Ails the Running Game?

Watching games on tape delay when you already know the outcome yields few benefits, but one is that you know what to look for. When I read Gene Collier’s column on the Steelers running game, the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh boy, the offensive line… here we go again.”

  • But Objectively you cannot pin the Steelers 1.6 rushing average on the line.

Its tempting, when all three rushers averaged 1.533 yards per carry. The Titans certainly got good penetration behind the line of scrimmage on plenty of plays, and cut Willie Parker off at the pass before he could get to the outside at other times.

But there were also times when the line did create day light, but Parker seemed tentative, and unable to hit those holes.

Mendenhall’s Moment?

Rasshard Mendenhall did not look much better, but I will give the young guy a plug. Colliding with quarterback on your first carry of the season is as boneheaded as you can get, but...

  • After bumping into Ben, Mendenhall muscled through a would-be tackler and turned a certain 3 yard loss into a one yard gain.

Clearly you expect more from a number one pick, and Steelers Nation should be concerned that he is not delivering more, but Mendenhall’s reaction revealed good instincts, strong legs, and some heart. Give him that.

In Defense of the Offensive Line…?

Ben Roethlisberger got sacked 4 times and knocked down quite a few others. That works out to 64 for a season….

Still, the line’s protection was good, save for the times when Tennessee came with the house.

During the 2007 season apologists for the offensive line argued that Willie Parker was the NFL leading rusher, so the line couldn’t be nearly as bad as Ben’s sack total. Could word for this season be that since pass protection has improved, the cause for the anemic does not lay with the offensive line?

Week one is way, way too early for such a conclusion, but it will be interesting to see if the argument comes full circle in 2009.

Steelers Defense, Sans Polamalu

In one half, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu put on one-man clinic showing why he is perhaps the Steelers greatest playmaker on defense since Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. In 1990, Steelers Digest ran a cover with Rod Woodson dressed in a Superman costume. But against the Titans, Troy Polamalu offered evidence that he simply may not be human.



Then he promptly got hurt.

Fortunately it does not look to be a serious injury, and the Steelers successfully closed out the second half without him. The Steelers will certainly miss Troy Polamalu.

Special Teams Boost?

Preseason special teams standout Stefan Logan proved that he can play in the NFL, averaging 29 yards on kickoff returns, and 11 yards on punt returns. Dan Sepulveda boomed off a couple of good punts, but he also benefited from a very, very generous bounce.

Close games often come down to field position.

Was special teams the difference maker here? Hard to tell after only seeing 2 and a half quarters.

Holding James Harrison, the Tradition Continues...

Has the NFL taken the Toalla Terrible’s faux announcement legalizing holding of James Harrison to heart? It seems so. What else explains Willie Colon horse collaring a Titan defender and riding him to the ground then getting flagged, only to have a Titan do the same to James Harrison only to find no flags in sight?

Week One’s Lesson

Ben Roethlisberger gave Steelers Nation a lot to be proud of. For all of the garbage about Ben “not being able to carry a team” or “Ben is only a game manager” he stepped into the breach and delivered, completing 14 straight passes at one point and delivered his 20th fourth quarter comeback.

So what does week one tell us?

  • For the short term, the defense must continue to find ways to win without its number one playmaker.
  • For the long term, a dramatic improvement in Pittsburgh's running game is an absolute necessity if the Steelers want to win consistently.

Those are two “ifs,” albeit the second bigger than the first. One thing is not an if.

Curtain's Call: The Steelers can count on Roethlisberger and his receivers. Steelers Nation knows that, but the reassurance offered by the Titians game is welcome all the same.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Steelers Defeat Titans on "Buenos Aires MNF Special," Sort of

One of the benefits of being a football fan outside of the US, is that it is possible to tape games and watch them later, with little worry of accidentally finding out the result.

Of course, you have to be able to tape the game first.

For whatever reason, DirectTV Plus was not showing the Steelers Titan's game on its programing schedule Thrusday night/Friday morning, even though ESPNDeportes clearly showed that they were showing the game on tape delay from 4:00 am to 7:00 am.

Which meant I had to get up and manually set it, which was not a problem as my wife and I were rising early for a long weekend in Punta del Este.

Sure enough the game was on at 5:00 am. I hit record, and it should have recorded the entire program....

Breaking the Seal

Despite my vow not to check the final score, I could not resist. Once I saw them go up by 7 before the half, and then give up an easy TD, and THEN heard that Troy Polamalu got hurt, there was no avoiding it.

Which is all well and good, as Direct TV only tapped until the middle if the third quarter....

Which means I missed Ben's latest heroic comeback, among other things. Ah....

Hard to complain too much about Direct TV when they've apparently decided to give Argentine NFL fans the full NFL Sunday Ticket as opposed to the "6 Games Every Sunday" half-baked option they've offered in the Cone of South America for the last three years.

Still, it would be nice to set the system to record during specific times on specific channels, because its programing schedule does not always match what the channel is already showing....

Tune in in a day or so for Steel Curtain Rising's "full" analysis. (Click here to read about lessons learned from the Titan's game.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steelers and Titans Open Season on Monday Night Football… In Buenos Aires

For decades the NFL gave the sitting Super Bowl Champion the right to begin its title defense on Monday Night Football.

Early in this decade, the league began the season on Thursday night, slotting the Super Bowl Champion in a marquee match up.

So it continues this year…. Except in Buenos Aires.

What’s that?

An errant entry by the Toalla Terrible?

Not quite, but rather more pedestrian stab at humor, if the truth be told.

Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. And tonight, ESPNDeportes (which carries NBC’s games internationally) is showing Rafel Nadal vs. Fernando Gonzales, in other words a match up between a Spanish and Chilean soccer teams.

The Steelers vs. the Titans will be broadcast on tape delay at 4:00 am (God only hopes this will not continue for Sunday and Monday nights games.)

It’s a pain, but I am sure it makes good business sense for them.

Under normal circumstances, yours truly would be crazy enough to get up at 4:00 am to watch the game, but I will be on the road until late Sunday night…

…So, the Steelers game will be “played on Monday” night in this little corner of the world.

In the meantime, enjoy, and feel free to leave your commentary on the game, as I will not be checking the score or returning to Steel Curtain Rising until after I have seen it!

Until then,

KT
President,Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires

Steelers Begin Quest for Super Bowl Number 7 Against Tennessee

Can we do it again?

Mike Tomlin may have banned the word “repeat” from the team’s vocabulary less than 24 hours after winning Super Bowl XLIII, but that is none the less the question occupying everyone’s mind in Steelers Nation.

Always difficult, repeating as Super Bowl Champions is much greater challenge in the free agency era.

The Steelers were decidedly not up to the task following Super Bowl XL.

  • They had no depth to speak of behind Willie Parker.
  • Ben Roethlisberger was coming of a near-death motorcycle accident with an emergency appendectomy thrown in for good measure.
  • And the fans and the media spent much of the season focusing on whether Bill Cowher was soon to be in Carolina.

That was 2006.

This is 2009.

Not only do the Steelers return all but two starters, but their replacements seem more than capable, and the Steelers look to count on some contributions for this year’s rookie class.

They also return more than 20 holdovers from Super Bowl XL. These men remember the toll exacted by the “post-Super Bowl hangover” and have dedicated themselves to avoiding another one.

Nonetheless, if the Steelers are to repeat they must meet some distinct challenges.

Living on the Edge

The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers lived on the edge.

Playing the NFL’s toughest schedule in decades, they had to rally from behind in the fourth quarter FIVE times in the regular season. They did it again in Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Any naysayer who would take this as a sign of weakness is sorely mistaken.

The Steelers ability to win the close ones is a sign of their strength.

Need proof? Look no further than the 2007 New England Patriots, who dominated for 18 games, but then could not pull out a close one in Super Bowl XLII.

I’ll take five cardiac arrest inducing wins in a 12-4 and that ends in a Super Bowl victory over 18-1 any day.

The Steelers do not play the NFL’s toughest schedule in 2009, but that may not matter. As defending Super Bowl Champions they will get their opponents best.

  • Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola has pointed out that, almost to a team, opposing quarterbacks, rushers, and defenses had their best games of the 2006 season against the then defending Super Bowl Champions.

Complacency and over confidence does not seem like it will be an issue with Mike Tomlin at the helm, as it was sometimes under Bill Cowher (particularly early in his tenure.)

As the NFL Films narrator said of the Steelers Super Bowl XIV squad, “Great teams do not have to be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” The 2008 Steelers helped breath new life into that mantra.

Curtain’s Call: To repeat in 2009 the Steelers are going need to be great more consistently, because any opponent that smells blood is going to relish the chance to KO the defending Super Bowl Champion.

The Offensive Line, the Running Game, Protecting Ben, et. al.

How many times has Steel Curtain Rising written about the offensive line? Too many to count.

Much of the Steelers inconsistency on offense in 2008 can be traced to the line, and its inability to open regular holes for Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. And while Ben’s style of play does cause him to take more sacks, the line’s pass protection frequently left a lot to desire.

Still, this line was good enough to win the Super Bowl with. It improved in 2008 and continued improvement will follow.

But there is one feat that the Steelers will be unlikely to repeat in 2009. Last year the Steelers rebuilt the offensive line twice. Once in training camp, and then immediately after the Baltimore and Jacksonville games.

Having Max Starks, one of your highest paid players, sitting on the bench as your number one back helped.

Larry Zierlein has no such rabbits to pull out of his hat this time around.

Curtain’s Call: To repeat in 2009 the line must continue to improve, and it must stay healthy.

Defending the Nation

The Steelers finished the 2007 season as the NFL’s number on defense. But their weak finish had all the bang of a wet firecracker going off inside a cream puff.

A year ago critics (including this site) looked at that finish and asked "has the Steel Curtain gone soft?"

The Steelers defense came very, very close last year to becoming the first defense since the 1990 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the league in Total Defense, Pass Defense, and Run Defense.

This year the question is, can this defense actually improve?

Sure they’ve lost Larry Foote and Bryan McFadden, but Lawrence Timmons was pushing Foote for playing time, and William Gay alternating with McFadden.

The all ready mature defensive line is a year older, but there is no reason to expect a sharp drop off, and Ziggy Hood should be able to rotate in to give the starters a breathing spell.

A year ago offensive coordinators were worrying how to stop James Harrison. During the playoffs LaMarr Woodley put them on notice that they’ll now have to watch out for him.

Troy Polamalu continued to train in Southern California during the off season, as he had done in 2008 when he had his best year ever.

Curtain’s Call: The Steelers defense can be more dominating.

The X Factor

As the name suggests, the X Factor is the unknown, intangibles, and luck. Sometimes the ball bounced the Steelers way in 2008, other times it did not (all of the non-holding penalties on James Harrison, the 13-1 penalty game against San Diego.)

Much of the X-Factor is out of the team’s control. God know one serious injury to any of a half a dozen players could wreak havoc with the team’s fortunes.

One area that the Steelers do control where they can make a difference is special teams.

The coverage units had been a horrendous liability in 2007. They improved dramatically in 2008. The same could not be said of the return game.

What was scarier than seeing short-yardage specialist Gary Russell returning kicks in 2008? Let’s start with the fact that he was probably the best guy they had to do it.

If Dan Sepulveda’s preseason performance is any indication, the punting unit should be giving the defense significantly longer fields to work with.

As for the kick return unit? Well, if the return magic that Stefan Logan showed in preseason is no mirage, then Steelers fans could be in for something special.

Limited Window of Opportunity?

The saying that NFL teams in the free agency have a “limited window of opportunity” to make a serious run is often exaggerated, but also has a lot of truth to it.

The Steelers do have a good mix of youth and veterans, if one that leans a little toward mature, particularly on the defensive line.

Management has done an excellent job getting key veterans signed, but this could be the final year for Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Jeff Reed, and Ryan Clark.

Likewise, the NFL is heading into the final two years of its collective bargaining agreement and the prospects of an uncapped year and a lockout-strike loom. While one year in an uncapped system might actually benefit the Steelers, after that it is anyone’s guess.

  • The Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder’s would like nothing more than to do away with the revenue sharing that gives mid-market teams like the Steelers the chance to compete.

They might not get their way, but they make no secret of their desire to make the NFL’s business model more like Major League Baseball’s.

The time is now.

Management knows it, hence their decision to keep proven depth (Nick Eason) over promising potential (Sonny Harris.)

The road to Lombardi Number 7 is long and difficult…

Curtain’s Call:…But Steel Curtain Rising likes our chances!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Browns Pummel Steelers 51-0 to Begin ’89 Season

20 years ago the Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 1989 season in front of 57,928 fans at Three Rivers Stadium against the Cleveland Browns. The game was not televised in suburban Maryland, but at half time I turned on NBC to see if I could spy the score while doing my situps.

I remember Bob Costas’ voice greeting me as the TV came into focus as if it were yesterday:
Bob Costas here at half time here with the Juice and let's update you on the scores, starting with Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are getting juced 31-0 at half time by the Browns....
I watched the highlight reel of fumbles, interceptions and other mishaps in dismay but held out hope for a second half rally.

None came.

Worst Loss in Steelers History

The Browns totally dominated the Steelers, dealing them their worst loss ever, to the tune of 51-0. They suffered their first opening day shut out in 40 years.

  • The Steelers did nothing right, setting records for fewest yards gained and fewest first downs.

Rookie Tim Worley had three fumbles, one of which Clay Matthews returned for a touchdown, the other set up a touchdown, and the other a Browns field goal.

The Browns scored two more defensive touchdowns, one on a 28 yard sack-fumble return, and another off of one of Bubby Brister’s three interceptions. The Browns also sacked Brister 6 times.

Brister himself gained some notoriety, after catching one of his passes for a ten yard loss after it had been batted back at the line of scrimmage.

Clay Matthews Calls Steelers Plays

The Browns should have surprised no one by recording 8 turnovers. After the season, Mike Mularkey recounted that Matthews, then starting his 12th year for Cleveland, stood at the line of scrimmage and, correctly, called out the plays the Steelers were to run based on their formation.

  • In November of 1988 Sports Illustrated had run a cover story featuring Tom Landry and Chuck Noll with the headline “Will they ever win again?”

Jerry Jones already had answered that question, firing Tom Landry and hiring Jimmy Johnson before even completing his transaction to buy the Cowboys.

Dan Rooney had taken a different track, standing by his man Noll, although for the first time in 20 years, Rooney did force Noll to make staff changes.

  • Earlier in the year commentators ridiculed Jones for his ignominious treatment of the Cowboy’s legend, while praising Rooney for his ability to navigate a sticky situation.

By the end of opening day 1989, more than a few in Steelers Nation agreed that Rooney should have followed Jones' example, at least in form if certainly not style….

Steel Curtain Rising will celebrate the Steelers 1989 season all year long. Feel free to leave a comment sharing your thoughts, insights, and memories. Click on the Steelers 1989 season tag to view the entire series.

Steelers Sign Hartwig to 4 Year 10 Million Dollar Deal

In what amounts to a minor surprise, the Steelers announced that they had come to terms with center Jeff Hartwig for a 4 year 10 million dollar contract extension which includes a 2.1 million dollar signing bonus.

The move is almost certainly the Steelers final contract of the year, as they will soon begin their contract negotiation black out policy once the regular season starts.

Although the Steelers have made it a regular practice to make 11th hour signings, the Hartwig contract is a surprise because most news sources reported that the Steelers contract extension with Brett Kiesel would be the team’s last.

However, a few days ago it was reported that Jeff Reed and his agent rebuffed an offer from the Steelers. Unable to lock down Reed, the Steelers apparently moved on to Hartwig.

Why Hartwig and Kiesel?

When the Steelers signed Brett Kiesel the word was that the made the move because it offered the best value between quality of play and signability. Hartwig certainly falls under that category, as 2.5 million per year is not high for a starting offensive lineman.

Given that, Steel Curtain Rising wonders aloud if the Steelers perhaps couldn’t have used the money to sign both men toward resigning a higher value player like Ryan Clark?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Retrospective on The Steelers 1989 Season – An Introduction

As regular readers know, Steel Curtain Rising is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Steelers 1989 season.

Our first article detailing the Steelers 1989 draft ran in July. We followed in August, with another article which provided the backdrop to the 1989 season.

Judging by the number of Google hits and the number of reader comments, this is going to be a popular series, and Steel Curtain Rising is excited to bring it to you.

Why the 1989 Season?

Steelers Nation is fortunate to follow a team with a very simple definition of success: Did Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl? Yes = a successful season. No = No.

Given that, might be odd to celebrate a season that ended with a loss in the divisional playoffs?

Perhaps so.

Much about that the Steelers 1989 season defied normal. After all:

  • The 1989 draft class made a tremendous impact...

...only to fade quickly in later seasons, save for a few gems.

  • Opposing teams out gained the 1989 Steelers for 10 straight weeks...

...yet the Steelers went 4-5 during that stretch.

  • The Steelers offense was shut out 3 times during the season...

...on three other occasions, the Steelers offense brought the team from behind.

  • They started out losing to the Browns and Bengals by a score of 92-10...

...those same Steelers finished a dropped pass away from the AFC Championship game

An Incredible Story

How were they able to do it? No one knows for sure, but look deeper and you’ll see a story of men, players and coaches who believed in one another and believed in themselves, and who always refused to say "Quit."

Ultimately, it is a testament to the coaching genius of the Emperor, one Charles Henry Noll.

That’s an incredible story. And one that does not always get its due. When Noll retired in 1991, if memory serves, only one Pittsburgh columnist (Gene Collier I think) gave 1989 season significant attention.

The brief bio on Chuck Noll that followed the NFL Films 1992 Steelers highlight film only devoted a sentence to the 1989 season.

And, if memory serves, the Post-Gazette’s Steelers 75 Year Anniversary series didn’t do a full-length article on it either.

Steel Curtain Rising is Happy to Fill the Void

On the Thursday of each week, Steel Curtain Rising will post an article telling the story of the game that was played on that day 20 years ago. (This week we’ll run the article on Wednesday, in deference to the Steelers home opener.)

Player profiles and other goodies will come as time allows.

Along the way you’ll be able to follow the entire series by clicking on the Steelers 1989 season tag. And of course, Steel Curtain Rising invites you to share your memories and insights from that season.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Dilfer Disses Roethlisberger in Otherwise Excellent QB Rankings Article

What will it take for Ben Roethlisberger to get the recognition he deserves?

Apparently, Big Ben needs to do a lot more, as recent articles by Joe Starkey and ESPN.com’s Trent Dilfer reveal.

Starkey Rises to Ben's Defense

A while back Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey reported that ProFootball Outsiders Aaron Schatz had declared Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers to be the NFL’s top four signal callers, and that “Ben Roethlisberger didn’t even belong in the conversation.”

Excuse me?

Starkey doesn’t buy it either. He debunks the conventional wisdom that Rivers and Brees routinely get such top billing because they’ve assembled a more compelling battery of statistics.

Starkey deserves full credit for his research, and Steel Curtain Rising will give it to him by not rehashing all of it here. But we will say that he goes far beyond the (extremely relevant) argument that Ben has brought home two Lombardi Trophies. Click here to read Starkey’s vigorous defense of Ben.

Dilfer’s Dump

Trent Dilfer takes a different track in an extended article posted on ESPN.com last week.

Dilfer evaluates 49 NFL quarterbacks and divides them into categories. Unlike most “rankings” Dilfer stratifies quarterbacks based not only on ability but where they are in their careers now.

Dilfer places Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the NFL’s “Elite” quarterbacks. As much as Steel Curtain Rising is tempted to contrast Peyton’s ability to “win the big one” with Ben’s, we won’t. You can’t really fault Dilfer’s analysis of Manning (or Brady for that matter.)

Things get interesting with his “Superstars” category. In Dilfer’s eyes, Superstars are:

Quarterbacks with no holes in their games who have demonstrated an ability to carry their teams. They are a championship ring away from joining Manning and Brady among the elite. There's no game plan these guys can't beat. [Emphasis added.]

In that category, Dilfer anoints Drew Brees and Philip Rivers as the NFL’s sole “Superstars.”

Below them, you get “the Stars” who Dilfer characterizes as:

Quarterbacks who have overcome small holes in their games to produce in a big way and enjoy big-game success. These are consistent prime-time performers, with very little separating them from Superstar status. [Emphasis added.]

So what exactly “separates” the “Stars” from the “Superstars?”

One can only suppose a key differentiating criterion for Dilfer is that “Stars” can have won Super Bowl rings where as the “Superstars” have yet to do so. Steel Curtain Rising makes that leap of faith because he places Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Kurt Warner in that category.

Ur….

Drew Brees is a fine quarterback who excels without the benefit of a stellar supporting cast. Philip Rivers is an excellent quarterback who will only continue to improve. As stated when Steel Curtain Rising called on Steelers Nation to vote for Roethlisberger on an ESPN poll of quarterbacks, we have nothing against Drew Brees (or Rivers for that matter.)

Steel Curtain simply thinks Ben is better. Here’s why.

Not Just Talent, But What You Do With It

Ben Roethlisberger’s (89.4) passer rating is identical to Drew Brees’, and just 3.5 points below Philip Rivers’ (92.9). No one says these players lack ability.

But ask yourselves a question:

Your team has led for four quarters. You get screwed on a holding call that results in a safety. The opposition then goes ahead on dramatic catch and run touchdown pass that spanned more half the field.

You’re down by three. You’ve got 2:36 seconds to drive 80 yards and score or you go home.

How big a game is it? Just to make it interesting, let’s just say its, oh, the Super Bowl.

Do Drew Brees and Philip Rivers have the talent to take your team to victory? Absolutely.

Would they?

...Impossible to know until the time comes.

What about Ben Roethlisberger? …Let’s just watch below and see for ourselves.




Big Ben has the numbers. He has the hardware. Ben Roethlisberger has delivered time and time again with the game on the line.

If Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are “Superstars” so is Ben Roethlisberger. Case closed.

Giving the Dilfer His Due

For as strongly as Steel Curtain Rising takes exception to Dilfer’s ranking Rivers and Brees ahead of Big Ben, considered as a whole, Dilfer’s quarterback analysis is excellent.

He’s clearly taken the time to extensively analyze the players, their history, their mechanics, and their performance. This is clearly no “off the cuff” analysis, but something crafted with a great deal of research, insight, and care.

Dilfer has resisted any temptation to over criticize or to indulge in sensationalism for its own sake. Steel Curtain Rising commends him for that because nothing generates web traffic like negative headlines.

Set aside his ranking of Roethlisberger, and Dilfer’s piece is an interesting read and certainly worthy the investment of your time.

Thanks for visiting. Be sure to vote in our poll and check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Isaac Redman Rejoins Steelers Via the Practice Squad

The Post-Gazette is reporting that undrafted rookie free agent Isaac Redman has cleared waivers and rejoined the Steelers via the practice squad.

Nicknamed “Redzone Redman” by his teammates for his ability to score from the goal line was a surprise hit during the preseason and many Steelers fans took issue with the team’s decision to cut him after his strong showing against Carolina the other night.

Other Rookies Return

The Steelers also resigned rookies:
A.Q. Shipley, Center
Steve McLendon, Defensive Lineman
Justin Vincent, Running Back
Tyler Grisham, Wide Receiver

Two Practice Squad Vets Return

Two “veterans” will also join the practice squad, tight Dezmond Sherrod and linebacker Donovan Woods. Sherrod spent 2008 on the Steelers practice squad with Woods, who played on the active roster for five games.

The One the Got Away

The Steelers were not so lucky with seventh round draft pick Sonny Harris. Pittsburgh waived him and hoped to bring him back to the practice squad, but the Carolina Panthers claimed him off of waivers instead.

Best of luck to you Sonny.

The Steelers have an additional sport remaining on their pratice squad, and are actively shopping for offensive lineman who can provide depth, although it is generally believed that Steelers are looking for guards or tackles who can join the active roster.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Steelers Announce Cuts, Waiver Wire Watch Begins

The Steelers officially made their cuts today with no surprises. Mike Tomlin informed players of their fates’ yesterday, but declined to announce decisions until after submitting the paper work to the league office today at 6:00 pm.

The Steelers also placed FB/TE Sean McHugh on injured reserve, making him ineligible to play during the entire 2009 season. Pittsburgh picked McHugh off of waivers last year from Detroit, thus taking him from a club that went 0-16 to one that won Super Bowl XLIII.

Waiver Wire Watch Begins

Pittsburgh now begins watching the waiver wire with dual interests. First, they want to resign players to their practice squad. Chief among those would be preseason sensation running back Isaac Redman, an undrafted rookie free agent, and draft picks A.O. Shipley and defensive lineman Sonny Harris.

The team’s the decision to place Darnell Stapleton on injured reserve leaves them with precious little depth on the offensive line, so the Steelers are also interested in adding a quality lineman via trade or the waiver wire.

Roy Lewis, Dallas Baker Among Those Sent Packing

Two other men who spent time on the bubble during the past two years also got their walking papers. One was Roy Lewis, an undrafted rookie free agent who caught coach’s attention during the 2008 training camp. Dallas Baker was the team’s 7th round draft pick in 2007 and won praise from Mike Tomlin in the 2008 off season for his development on the practice squad.

Both men moved on an off the practice squad and regular season roster in 2008, but neither man was able to make a case for himself at St. Vincents this summer.

Other players cut include:

Mike Reilly, Quarterback
Justin Vincent, Running Back
Piotr Czech, Kicker
Jeremy Parquet and Jason Capizzi, Offensive Tackles
Steve McLendon, Defensive Tackle
Dezmond Sherrod, Tight End
Roy Lewis, Defensive Back,
Andy Shantz and Tom Korte, Linebackers
Dallas Baker, Tyler Grisham and Brandon Williams, Wide Receivers

NFL players have 24 hours to claim a player off the waiver wire. Like the draft teams with poor records have the first chance at waived players, meaning that the Steelers will be picking last.