´ Steel Curtain Rising: December 2009

Why Did the Steelers Lose to Tampa

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Emperor's Last Hurrah - the 1989 Steelers Defeat Oilers 26-23 in the Playoffs

Noll and His Nemisis

20 years ago Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers played Jerry Glanville's Houston Oilers for the AFC Wild Card, in the Houston Astrodome. The only thing missing was the steel cage.

Chuck Noll was a model of serenity. Jerry Glanville was flamboyant for the sake of flamboyance.

Noll represented everything honorable about the game, even criticizing his players in court once for being part of the NFL's "criminal element."

Glanville served as Noll's anti-hero. Glanville encouraged dirty play, drawing an angry rebuke from Noll on the floor of the Astrodome.

The Oilers had humiliated the 1989 Steelers in the Astrodome to the tune of 27-0. With the benefit of a fourth time out, Houston won the second match up at Three Rivers.

The date was December 31st. 1989.

It was the final NFL game of the 1980's, the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers were again playing in the "House of Pain."

And this time it was for all of the marbles.

Missing Opportunities and Making Opportunities

Houston won the toss and drove straight down the field until the Pittsburgh defense stopped them at the 40. From there, Jerry Glanville attempted a 55 yard field goal which fell short.

Unable to take advantage, the Steelers were forced to punt the ball back. But the Oilers did very little and Glanville sent out Greg Montgomery to punt.

Untouched, rookie Jerry Olsavsky stormed through the middle of the Houston line and blocked the punt with Pittsburgh recovering at the Houston 23. The Steelers advanced to the Oiler's 9 yard line, until their drive stalled at 4th and 1.

Chuck Noll went for it.

At the snap Brister pitched the ball to Tim Worley who forced linebacker Robert Lyles to miss and ran untouched until the one where he plowed through Pro-Bowl safety Bubba McDowell for the game's first score.

With 2:36 remaining in the first quarter, Chuck Noll's delivered a message:

  • Pittsburgh's playing to win.

Field Goal Kicking Derby

Houston’s responsed agressively, driving 96 yards to the Pittsburgh 3, but there Rod Rust defense, a Mike Munchack penalty and a Haywood Jefferies drop in the end zone
forced the Oilers to settle for 3.

The Oilers defense struck next, stripping the ball from Tim Worley and regaining possession at Pittsburgh’s 41. Moon drove his team to the Steelers 17 yard line only to see Jerry Glanville lose his nerve when Rust’s defense forced 4th and 1; another Tony Zendejas field goal made it 7-6.

  • Merril Hoge helped Pittsburgh increase its lead late in the first half when transformed a draw play into a 49 yard scamper by breaking two tackles and evading a third.

The Steelers advanced to the Houston 9, but two plays only yielded a single yard. With 1:57 left, facing a 4th and 1, Chuck Noll opted to kick, giving Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead.

Houston narrowed the score in the third quarter, again relying on the leg of Tony Zendejas after a short drive, making the score 10-9.

The Steelers answered in kind later in the third quarter, making the score 13-9 on another Gary Anderson field goal, this one for thirty yards which capped a 7 play 30 yard drive.

Pittsburgh got the ball back quickly, and after a nine play 33 yard drive, Gary Anderson booted in a 48 yard field goal – one that split the uprights with about ten yards to spare….

Three Touchdown Fourth Quarter

The Oilers might have been down 16-9 in the fourth quarter, but they were not out, as Glanville turned the game over to Warren Moon and his quartet of Pro-Bowl caliber receivers.

  • They rewarded their coach by tying the score on a 10 play 80 yard drive that ended with a 18 yard touchdown pass to Ernest Givens at 16-16.

After a three and out and 25 yard punt by Harry Newsome (eat your heart out Mitch Berger), Moon and his receivers went to work again, this time with a 5 play 38 yard drive that ended with 9 yard touchdown to Ernest Givens, giving Houston a 23-16 lead.

Merril Hoge Responds to the Call

With 5:16 to go, the Steelers started their final drive in regulation from their own 18. Bubby Brister declared to Merril Hoge “Its time to find out what we’re made of.”

And find out they did.

Brister hit Louis Lipps for 10 yards, and then Tim Worley ran 7 more.

  • Brister hit Hoge for another 3 yards and another first down.
  • Then Worely gashed Houston for another 11 yards.

Brister handed off to Hoge, who darted to his right and handed it to Dwight Stone -- Tom Moore went to his bag of tricks – and the Oilers gave up another 22 yards on Stone's reverse.

  • Worley ran for six more.
  • Hoge ran for another six

A Houston offsides penalty brought the Steelers to the Oilers 12 yard line as the two minute warning loomed.

  • A three yard pass to Worley brought the Steelers to the 9.
  • Merril Hoge lowered his helmet for more 8 yards.

Noll called Hoge’s number again, and Number 33 bowled through the line for a 1 yard touchdown to tie the game at 23-23, with 46 seconds left in regulation.

Greg Lloyd - Foreshadowing the Future

The game almost never made it to overtime, after running a couple of plays, Houston opted to go for it with 7 second remaining. Clearly, they had not counted on Greg Lloyd...



Lloyd of course had been pushed out of bounds, but Number 95 had foreshadowed things to come....

An Overtime for the Ages

The Steelers won the toss in overtime, but failed to capitalize on offense, and another horrendously poor punt gave the Oilers the ball at the Pittsburgh 45. The Steelers story book season, it appeared, was about to end.

For the entire game the Oilers had been running right. But on their first play in OT, tight end Chris Verhulst lined up next to the tackle, a tendency the Steelers defense knew signaled run to the left.

David Little screamed “Ohio!” warning of the impending run.

The ball was snapped. Warren Moon handed off to Lorenzo White.

Gerg Lloyd filled the gap at tackle, forcing White to the Outside...

  • ...Out of nowhere Rod Woodson rocketed into Lorenzo White.

As he told Sport’s Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, “This is a sell out game. If you don’t sell your body now and go flying at someone you’ll never do it.”

  • As Woodson throttled White high, Tim Johnson hit him low, the ball popped lose, and Woodson recovered, and returned it to the Houston 46.

The Steelers looked to Number 33 again, and Merril Hoge again answered in the affirmative, dragging Houston safety Jeff Donaldson for the last five, for a first down. Hoge then added three more, taking it to the Houston 33.

Third down brought the Steelers nothing.

It was Gary Anderson’s time.

Gary Anderson Kicks One For His Father

As Chuck Noll said, “thank God we’re in a dome” -- Anderson had not attempted a 50 yarder the whole season.

Houston called a time out. Tunch Ilkin approached Anderson and confided “I wouldn’t want anyone out here kicking this but you.”

Anderson dedicated the kick to his father, the man who’d taught him how to coach, who was in San Diego, suffering from a rare lung disease.

Brian Blankenship snapped to Harry Newsome, Anderson’s foot hit the ball clean and the kick was off.

The ball sailed 50 yards across the Astrodome, splitting the uprights with at least 5 yards to spare.

The Steelers had defeated the Oilers 26-23 to win the AFC Wild Card Game.

Repercussions...

Knocked out of the playoffs and having dropped three straight, a dejected Jerry Glanville trudged toward the locker room with his head hung low – with a security escort by his side.

Glanville hid behind injuries to explain the loss – Houston owner Bud Adams wasn’t buying however, and fired Jerry Glanville a few days later.

... and After Glow

Meanwhile the Steelers sidelines erupted, as teammates circled to embrace Gary Anderson. The normally stoic Chuck Noll threw off his head gear and ran over to pat Anderson on the helmet.

Noll later confided “It was a very emotional thing for this team. It was a gut check.”

The fact that they’d pulled this off despite their horrendous start was lost on no one. When asked how the 1989 Steelers pulled off this feat, Joe Greene's explianation was simple and concise “They believe.”

Believe they did. And in the process, the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers delivered the Emperor Chuck Noll one Last Hurrah!

Thanks for visiting. To check out the entire series on the 1989 Steelers, click here and scroll down.

Mike Wallace Wins Steelers Rookie of the Year - How Will the Rest of His Career Go?

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced today that rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace has won the 26th Annual Joe Greene Great Performance Rookie of the year award.

The announcement of the award came as little surprise to Steelers Nation, who have come to know Wallace well during the Steelers 2009 season. Wallace has played 14 games, and recorded 37 catches including 5 touchdowns.

Those are impressive numbers for any rookie, but much more so when you consider that he is the third receiver on a team that includes Super Bowl MVP’s Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, and an All Pro Caliber tight end in Health Miller.

His game winning catch against Green Bay was a play worthy of an All Pro.




No One is Saying Mike Who ?

This stands in stark contrast to last year's announcement. Steelers Nation greeted news that free agent linebacker Patrick Bailey was the Steelers 2008 rookie of the year with "who?" or with more general laments over the failure of any of the Steelers 2008 draft picks to generate something on the field.

Steelers Rookie of the Year Winners Have Checkered Histories

Wallace, a third round pick in the Steelers 2009 draft looks like a steal and looks to have a right future ahead of him. Or so it would appear.

For reasons obscure and unclear, the future has not always been kind to Steelers rookie of the year award winners. As you can see below, past winners of the award have either gone on to be:

One Year Wonders
Productive, but Still Disappointing
Decent, but Not Spectacular and/or Over Taken by Other Rookies
They Budded into Super Stars

Simply click on the link above to learn more about the members of each category.

One Year Wonders
1986, LB Anthony Henton - Who? Exactly my response. Had to look him up. Played to years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by fellow rookie and 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.
1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters but then went downhill after that. Also had a penchant for starting fights, never started more than four games after his rookie year.
1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shorly after Super Bowl XXX.
1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.
2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Simply wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he did not want to learn coverages or schemes
2008, LB Patrick Bailey? – Perhaps this is a little harsh, but he was supposed to be a special teams demon… then again, the 2009 Steelers special teams have played like hell…

Productive, but Still Disappointing
1990, TE Eric Green – Green's numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to redefine the tight end position, instead his final year was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.
1991, TE Adrian Cooper - Played well as a rookie when Green was injured and then again 1992 during Eric Green first drug suspension. Justification that a sub par year in 1993 was due to being under paid got him on the first bus out of town.
1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter
1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He was never popular with the fans.

Decent, but Not Spectacular and/or Over Taken by Other Rookies
1985, P Harry Newsome – Not a bad punter, but sadly Newsome was the best player the Steelers selected in the 1985 draft
1988, RB Warren Williams – A solid, dependable number two back, who definitely belong in the rotation back in the days when both the half back and the full back got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Dermonti Dawson and John Jackson
1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Pro-Bowl caliber safety Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team
1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class
2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his ability to reach his potential. Again, Antwan Randal El, Chris Hope, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel at least equaled if not surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.
2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – We still don’t know much about Sepulveda, but Larwence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are clearly now more important to the team than he is.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps -- He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.
1989, SS Carnell Lake -- One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all around great player and class-act
1993, LB Chad Brown -- When Jerry Olsavsky got hurt against Cleveland, heads turned when Reggie Barnes went in instead of Brown. But Brown started quickly thereafter, and distinguished himself on a group of linebackers that included Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, and Levon Kirkland.
1998, OG Alan Faneca – And all around anchor to the Steelers offensive line for a decade.
2000, FB Dan Kreider – Sure, he never went to a Pro Bowl or was selected to an All-Start team, but he was the best blocking fullback in his days, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.
2003, S Troy Polamalu – We’ve all seen the hell the Steelers defense has gone through in his absence.
2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – Doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves, but anyone who doubts his greatness need only click here and scroll down a bit to see proof of his greatness.
2005, TE Heath Miller – He’s always been a great blocking and catching tight end, and how he has the numbers to back it up. Heath is quiet, but he gets the job done.
2006, WR Santonio Holmes – He still has yet to be consistent enough to be considered a dominating wide out, but his skills are superb and he is dependable.

It says here that the odds favor Mike Wallace carving a place for himself in the latter group. However, we would have said the same about Kendrell Bell with even more certainty....

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Watch Tower: John Harris' Renewed Criticism of Tomlin’s Quitting is Way Off the Mark

The site dictionary.com defines “to beat a dead horse” this way: beat or flog a dead horse, to persist in pursuing or trying to revive interest in a project or subject that has lost its usefulness or relevance.

It is a term most of us are familiar with. However, it seems like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s John Harris would do well do to reacquaint himself with the concept.

Or perhaps the idea of beating a dead horse is entirely new to Harris, as the lead in to his article covering the Steelers victory over the Ravens suggests:
See, Mike Tomlin. This is why you don't hang your football team out to dry with four games left in the season.

Steelers 23, Baltimore 20.

You don't throw dirt on your players, no matter how angry you may be at the time, because they're the defending Super Bowl champions.

They might not be what you want them to be, but they're not as bad as you wanted us to believe following the 27-24 loss to Oakland on Dec. 6.

Regular readers of this site will remember that the Watch Tower took Harris to task following the Oakland game. At the time, Harris came down on Mike Tomlin, and came down hard for his admission that he was “just trying to win a game.”

To Harris, that was tantamount to quitting on his players.

We needn’t rehash all arguments as to why Harris is wrong here (click here to read the original post).

We will, however point out that Harris’ harshness is not shared by other members of the Pittsburgh media, as evidenced by Ed Bouchette’s comment in a recent on-line chat.




We’ll also point out that Harris completely fails to support his argument. He simply makes a sweeping condemnation, and then does nothing to back it up while ignoring three glaring facts that contradict his conclusion, namely:

  • The Steelers, however flawed their play might have been, have shown plenty of fight since the Cleveland debacle

  • In the course of two articles, Harris has failed to produce a single quote supporting his thesis that Mike Tomlin hung his players out to dry

  • Harris has likewise also failed to produce an “off the record” or anonymous source for the Steelers locker room or front office that supports his contention

Devoid of such support, Harris argument is mere personal opinion, little more than rantings during a post-game wind down that one might expect in dark corners of a Steelers bar.

Far short of what you’d expect from the sports editor of a major daily.

It was one thing for Harris to vent like this after the Oakland game, it is another for him to revisit the argument while the Steelers are on a two game winning streak.

No Ill Will Toward Harris, But....


Steel Curtain Rising bears no ill will to John Harris. He is a generally a good journalist who works hard and makes some great points. Just a few weeks ago, the Watch Tower commended Harris for being right on the Steelers decision to cut Anthony Madison.

But his current vendetta against Tomlin for the coach’s “I am just trying to win a game” comment is hard to fathom. Perhaps Harris just knows that negativity drives page views. Perhaps he simply does not like Tomlin on a personal level.

The Steelers, both players and coaches, have given Steelers Nation a lot of issues to dissect when it comes to understanding the disappointments of the 2009 season.

Mike Tomlin quitting on his players, however, is not a legitimate issue. And John Harris should know that.


Thanks for visiting. For more criticism of those who cover the Steelers, click here and scoll down to see all Watch Tower articles.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Steelers Defeat Self-Destructring Ravens 23-20

"You know, like I just told the football team, this is our bed, but I like how they’re laying in it."
- Mike Tomlin

For a second consecutive week the Pittsburgh Steelers seized what has been an elusive prize in 2009 – preserving a 4th quarter lead. The offense stepped up against Green Bay, so much so that Mike Tomlin gambled with an on-sides kick that the only path to victory was to ensure that his offense had the ball last.

Tomlin it seemed, his protests to the contrary, had given up on his defense.

Perhaps the pundits should pay more attention to Tomlin, because this time it was the defense that stepped up in the fourth quarter, albeit with a lot of help from a seemingly all too willing accomplice in the Baltimore Ravens.

When this chapter in the history of the Steelers-Raven rivalry is written, Sunday’s game will not do down as a classic. As Mike Tomlin says, “they don’t add style points,” which is fitting because this one was ugly.

Critics of the Steelers effort will argue that the Ravens outplayed the men in Black and Gold, only to let victory slip through their fingers via multiple acts of self destruction.

Perhaps that’s true. But the results of NFL football games come down to “not losing” as often as they come down to “winning.”

Victory goes not just to the team with the great player who steps up at the critical moment (think Troy Polamlu in the 2008 AFC Championship game), but to the team that graps the advantage when their opponents slip on a banana peel (think Kansas City and Oakland’s victories over Pittsburgh this year).

It so it was that the Steelers, unable to play dominant football, stepped up and made plays when Baltimore faltered.

With that sentiment in mind, Steel Curtain Rising salutes the players who made the Steelers 30th meeting with the Baltimore Ravens a victorious one.

James Farrior

James Farrior gave the Steelers their first interception in eons, ending Baltimore’s first series.

  • Fairrior returned the pick to Baltimore's 8, but the offense only mustered a measily field goal, but Pittsburgh’s margin of victory was in fact three…

Ike Taylor

Ike Taylor joined a highly select squad of starting NFL cornerbacks who have more sacks than interceptions 15 games into the season.

  • Taylor came up with his sack on a critical 3rd and 6 situation that forced the Ravens to punt.

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace

On third and 12 from their own four, Ben Roethlisberger saw the off sides penalty on Terrell Suggs and took advantage of the free play by hitting rookie Mike Wallace in single coverage for a 45 yard gain.

  • That gave the Steelers 1st and 10 at the 49 with 54 seconds left. Four passes later and Santonio Holmes and Roethlisberger hooked up to make it 20-10.

LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Mundy

Woodley atoned for an off sides penalty that nullified another Ike Taylor sack, by helping Ryan Mundy break up a would be touchdown pass to Todd Heap.

  • The Ravens instead were forced to settle for a field goal – a significant accomplishment when one considers that their drive began at the Pittsburgh 37 after a Terrell Suggs nullified a pick six with a penalty.

The Entire Pass Defense

The Ravens dominated in every way in the third quarter, limiting Pittsburgh to just five offensive plays – including a punt and Roethlisberger’s interception.

Yet, it all began to fall apart before the third had ended, starting with a 15 yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee that Washington nullified with a holding penalty. Derrick Mason, after beating Desha Townshend, dropped an easy touchdown pass in the end zone.

After that, two Baltimore penalties pushed them back from the Pittsburgh 21 to the Pittsburgh 41.

  • Along the way, the Steelers defended two passes and forced Baltimore to burn a time out, all of which transformed what was at least a sure field goal into a punt.

Ziggy Hood

The drive was not going well for Baltimore. They’d started at their own 30, but after penalties negated some nice plays, they found themselves on their own 31 with third and 9.

  • Ziggy Hood stepped up and registered his first NFL sack, he only caused a two yard loss, but that forced a punt, which in turn set up the next series.

Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, Rashard Mendenhall, and Tyler Grishman

As drives go, this one was rather ho hum. But with 9 minutes left to play, Rashard Mendenhall ran twice for 11 yards, Santonio Holmes caught one ball for 24 yards, and Tyler Grishman caught his first NFL pass for 14 yards to convert a 3rd and 3.

  • The Steelers drive sputtered at the 20, but Jeff Reed’s Field Goal made it 23-20

LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood

The Steelers had no sooner secured the lead with just over five minutes left to play and their old Achilles heel struck again in the form of a 48 yard kickoff return that only ended because Jeff Reed found it in him to push the returner out of bounds.

But unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense was up to the challenge.

The Ravens made one first down, but then LaMarr Woodley took over. On first down, James Farrior stopped Ron McLain for a one yard gain. Then Woodley and Ryan Mundy limited Ray Rice to two yards.

  • LaMarr Woodley sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 7, and then came up big on 4th and 10 with a strip sack that Ziggy Hood recovered for Pittsburgh.

Steelers Play in Prose, Not Poetry

The record will of course reflect that the Steelers were less than stellar in their efforts to run out the clock, and that the Ravens would have gotten the ball back had they not nullified an interception with another penalty (in Ben's defense, he says he saw the penalty flag against Baltimore and so he tried to make the throw anyway.)

But those are the breaks.

The lore masters of Steelers Nation would like nothing more than to spin a narrative that sees the Steelers snap their 5 game losing streak by stringing together dramatic victory after dramatic victory.

Alas, Pittsburgh’s story is more pedestrian.

  • The Steelers gave up their first 100 yard rusher in 32 games
  • They failed again to establish rhythm in their own running game
  • The offensive line’s protection of Ben was leaky, at best

Despite that, the Steelers took advantage of the opportunites Baltimore gave them, and kept their playoff hopes alive for another week.

Given how bleak things looked after the loss to Cleveland, still having a pulse is plenty reason to be proud.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

1989 Steelers Make Playoffs, Finish 9-7 After Beating Tampa Bay 31-22

Prelude

Saturday December 23rd, 1989. With a temperature near zero three Wheaton High school wresters head home from the Lackey Tournament in Southern Maryland. Jim, an Eire transplant, is destined to place fourth in the states. Tom, an immigrant from Vietnam, is destined to win Montgomery County’s coveted Richard Monisera Award for most career points in the county tournament. The other is destined to a 5-15 record (including forfeits), but will nonetheless win the team’s most improved award.

All are Steelers fans. The Oilers-Browns game is on. If the Oilers win, the Steelers road to the playoffs is easier as the Steelers’ record would have trumped Clevelands.

Fate does not smile upon the Steelers that night. Cleveland works up a 17-3 lead at half time, only to see Houston score 20 unanswered points out of the “Red Gun” offense. But Bernie Kosar and Kevin Mack rally, to bring the final score to 24-20.

Now in addition to winning their final game, the Steelers need the Indianapolis Colts to lose to the New Orleans Saints, and the Los Angeles Raiders to lose to the New York Giants, AND the Minnesota Vikings must knock off the Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers Head to Tampa Bay

The Steelers final regular season of the 1989 season was held on Christmas Eve. The fans had their tie-breakers memorized, the Steelers were simply focused on what was necessary to win.

It would be poetic to say that the team entered and left Tampa firing on all cylinders, but that would also be incorrect.

The Steelers did, however, start strong with a 72 yard kickoff return by Rod Woodson. Bubby Brister and the Steelers offense made quick work of a short field as Tim Worley scored the first touchdown.

But Tampa answered quickly with a 7 yard pass from Joe Fergerson to Mark Carrier.

The scoring really took off in the second quarter, as Bubby Brister put the Steelers back ahead with a 79 yard touchdown pass to Louis Lipps. Tampa responded with a field goal, but Brister and Lipps were to hook up again, this time on a 12 yard touchdown pass.

Rod Woodson struck again before the end of the half, picking off one of Fergerson’s passes and setting up a Gary Anderson field goal.

Tampa got on the board first in the second half, but only with another field goal, bringing the score to 24-13. But the Steelers answered immediately, as Tim Worley scored his second touchdown giving Pittsburgh 31 points.

Things looked to get a little dicey in the final two minutes as a blocked punt gave Tampa another two, and then Joe Fergerson and Mark Carrier hooked up to give Tampa 7 more.

But the on-sides kick failed, and the Steelers ran out the clock, having defeated Tampa 31-22, and finishing the regular season 9-7.

Christmas Comes, both Early and Late

Although the New York Giants really had nothing to play for, they defeated the LA Raiders, 34-17, sending Al Davis’ boys packing for the summer. The New Orleans Saints were also playing for pride, but they devastated the Colts, to the tune of 41-6.

If the Steelers went to bed Christmas Eve knowing their playoff hopes were alive, they were forced to wait until Christmas night to see if Santa were to deliver all of the goodies on their Christmas list.

Playing the Bengals in the Metrodome, the Minnesota Vikings amassed a 22-7 half time lead. But Cincinnati fought back, making narrowing the gap to 22-21. But that was not enough, as the Vikings scored a final touchdown to win the final game of the 1989 regular season 22-29.

The 1989 Cincinnati Bengals had gone 5-1 in the AFC Central. But loss to the Vikings dropped them to 8-8 whereas the Steelers finished 9-7.

That meant that the 1989 Steelers, the same team that lost its opener 51-0, lost its second game 41-10, suffered three regular season shut outs, went ten weeks without out gaining its opponents, and set all sorts of records for futility en route to an NFL last 28th ranked offense, were going to the playoffs.

And their opponents were none other than Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers.

Thanks for visiting. To read the entire series on the 1989 Steelers, click here and scroll down.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Joey Galloway, Jared Retkofsky Join Steelers

The Steelers today took steps to shore up their ailing receiving corps. as Joey Galloway joined the active roster. This move came one day after Limas Sweed was ruled out for the rest of the year for "personal reasons."

It was also announced that Hines Ward's hamstring is still bothering him and rookie Mike Wallace bruised a knee during Sunday's victory over Green Bay.

The Steelers had attempted to sign Galloway during the off season, but he opted to play for New England instead, where he caught 7 passes before being released in October.

Jared Retkofsky also returned to the roster from the practice squad to the 53 man roster, to replace long snapper Gerald Warren.

Retkofsky served as the team's long snapper in 2008 following the injury of Warren against the Colts all the way through to Super Bowl XLIII.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Greg Warren, Limas Sweed, Out For the Year

Yahoo! Sports is reporting that both Greg Warren and Limas Sweed are out for the year. Warren injured his ACL on the final play of the Steelers 37-36 victory over the Packers.

Limas Sweed has been sick with the flu. It was believed that it was just regular flu, which makes the team's decision to place him on the non-football injury reserve list interesting.

Regardless, Sweed has had a disappointing sophomore year, consisting of little more than dropped passes at key moments. While the team must still hope to get something out of their 2008 number two pick, he was unlikely to help them much this year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Steelers Gut Out 37-36 Win Over Packers

During six of the Steelers seven loses during the 2009 season, Steelers Nation watched in agony as the men in Black and Gold let fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead slip away in spite of themselves.

  • Today against the Green Bay Packers the Steelers reversed the course of events finding a way to a last minute victory in spite of some, perhaps, questionable coaching.

The Steelers and Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises, and so it is fitting that the two teams would play one for the ages on the first occasion that Pittsburgh-native Mike McCarthy brought the Packers to Heinz field.

Please, spare me any analysis of how this game affects any playoff results, not because the Steelers still have a long, long way to go before that can become relevant, but rather because this game revealed something far more important.

Defenseless

The phrase “The Steelers and the Packers played one for the ages” conjures images of hard hitting, smash mouth football, of tyrannical coaches like Vince Lombardi, of mean and nasty players like Ray Nietzsche and Jack Lambert.

These images only intensify when you factor in that the Packers entered the game with the number two defense, and the Steelers entered the game with the number four defense.

Instead, the two teams put on an air exhibition worthy of the legacies of Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs.

The word from the pundits all season long has been that today’s NFL is all about offense and passing and that defense and running have gone by the wayside.

Purists like yours truly has hopped that something would come along and disprove this thesis. Ironically, on Sunday Post Gazette ran a feature highlighting the success of the defense that Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, and Marv Lewis installed in Pittsburgh back in 1992; the same defense Green Bay fielded.

  • If any two teams could show that this 2009 obsession with passing was just a fad, it would be Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Alas, their play gave the pundits ample ammunition.

Be that as it may, things change quickly in the NFL, and what is in vogue one year can be old hat the next, and so it may be with the demise of defense and rushing.

But one thing that cannot be disputed is that:

  • the Steelers defense, without Troy Polamlu at least, has no hope of defending the pass.

Was Mike Tomlin Crazy, or Calculating?

Which brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Steel Curtain Rising had prepared to condemn Mike Tomlin with moral indignation for on-sides kick, irrespective of the final out come.

Tomlin seemed to ignore the very lesson that the Packers most recent trip to Pittsburgh so clearly demonstrated: Trick plays can give an effective team an edge, but can be equally fatal for a struggling unit (click here for a full recount of the lesson Ray Sherman’s offense left us.)

It seemed like raw emotion, rather than reason, had gotten the better of Tomlin, and that the team was going to lose another one in the fourth not because of poor plays, but because of poor coaching decisions.

But then I read Tomlin’s explanation.

I’ll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn’t get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score.

Plan A didn’t work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it. We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That’s why we took the risk when we did. [Emphasis added]

There you have it folks. In so many words, Mike Tomlin knew his defense had no chance of stopping the Packer’s passing offense – the Packers made little or no pretense of running the ball in the second half.

So his logic was cold and calculating. Either get the ball back and hope to add to the lead, or give them a short field to work with so that they can score quickly.

It is not pleasing to think that the defense has fallen so far that coaches need to take those game gambles, but they did, and it worked. Barley. But as Tomlin says, “they don’t add style points.”

Why They Call Him BIG Ben

Tomlin’s gamble worked because his players pulled it off. Losing is never pleasant, but during the Steelers five-game streak it was difficult to gauge whether each loss was more ignominious or more demoralizing. Bob Labriola, the editor of Steelers Digest, himself all but said the Steelers had quit against the Browns.

Credit Mike Tomlin for rallying his players. There was fight in this Steelers team, even among the units that failed to acquit themselves well (namely the entire defense, the coverage teams, and the offensive line.)

As Tomlin stated during his pre-game press conference, if you fail to play dominating football, then you’ve got to make plays.

  • And Mike Tomlin’s players made plays, starting with Ben Roethlisberger.

Less than ten days ago authorities of no less stature than Bob Smizik and Jim Wexell were calling out Ben, claiming that generous love handles he had put on were impeding his both mobility and ability to improvise.

Well, Ben showed he can still improvise, and then some.

Games like this make you want to track down ESPN’s Thomas Neumann and Scott Symmes who wrote prior to the 2007 season, explaining why Ben would never make it to the Hall of Fame:

Roethlisberger proved to be an effective game manager in his first two pro seasons, and he has a Super Bowl ring to show for it…. Now the Steelers are losing personnel from their championship team, and nothing to this point suggests that Roethlisberger can carry an undermanned team on his shoulders…. [Emphasis added.]


Oh really?

On a day when Ben got no help from his offensive line, no help from the defense, and had little running game to lean on, he put up 503 yards passing – without throwing an interception, putting him in the exclusive company of Warren Moon and Y.A. Tittle.

Ben did more than carry his team. He had the commanding presence of a general on the battlefield. He adjusted protections, called audibles, and chewed out teammates, goading them to fight on.

As Santonio Holmes put it, "Only one guy was talking in huddle, and that was Ben. No other voice was spoken. No one had an opportunity to talk. We were dead tired."

  • Ben must have been tired too, but he did not let them stand in his way.

As Roethlisberger himself declared, “We didn’t quit, everybody believed that we could do it…. That is kind of a Pittsburgh mentality, we don’t quit no matter what.”

Amen.

At 7-7 this Steelers team has some issues to resolve, but fortunately, attitude is not one of them.

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Watch Tower: Recognizing Dom Capers... But for the Right Reasons?

The arrival of the Packers today not only marks the Green Bay Packer's first visit to Hienz Field, but it also brings Dom Capers back to Pittsburgh.

Capers of course was Bill Cowher's defensive coordinator during the 1992, 1993, and 1994 seasons, a time which saw the Steelers defense evolve from merely being very good to dominant.
Since then Capers has been around the NFL, including two failed stints as an NFL head coach, once in Carolina in the 1990's and again in Houston this decade. He has also served in any number of assistant-level coaching positions.

The Post-Gazette is giving Capers's a lot of coverage, and their article on Capers return is well worth the read. However, Steel Curtain Rising's got two points to make:

  • It is ironic how the current fortunes of a team can impact coverage. For so long, the not-so-subtle tone of coverage of the Steelers defense was that it was LeBeau who was really the genius behind the Steelers defenses in the 1990's. Now the papers seem to be leaning back toward giving Capers credit
  • The PG has an extensive graphic, discussing how the Steelers have done following Capers-Cowher's decision to "install" the 3-4 in 1992

Excuse me?

Since when did 1992 mark the first year the Steelers began using the 3-4. I am not sure of the precise year, but the Steelers made the transition to being a 3-4 team in the early 1980's. I believe that it was 1983 with the drafting of Gabe Rivera.

Since then they've used the 3-4 consistently, with the exception of some marginal dabbling by defensive coordinator Dave Brazil in 1990 and 1991.

Now, if they're talking about the fire zone/zone blitz based defense that is a different subject. But if that's the case, then they should call it that, as it is possible to run a 3-4 without running a fire zone.

This isn't a big deal, but it is surprising to see this kind of mistake from the Post-Gazette.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Steelers vs. Packers History - Tales from the NFL's Two Most Storied Franchises

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises. The latter defined winning and excellence in the 1960’s; the former defined the term “Dynasty” for the NFL in the 1970’s. Both franchises were fortunate to hit their respective peaks as the NFL was coming of age.

Yet, due to the conference and division realignment which followed the NFL-AFL merger, these two teams have seldom faced off.

In fact, in the last 20 years, the teams have only met four times, but those meetings have contributed much to the lore of both franchises, including:

Bill Cowher Reveals Himself as a Head Coach
Steelers So Close, Yet So Far
Look What Happens When You Try to Get Smart
Never Under Estimate the Importance of Back Ups
Rookie Mike Wallace is a 60 Minute Man Too
Steelers Fall Short in Quest for 7

Below, you can find a recap of each of those encounters.

Bill Cowher Reveals His Identity as a Head Coach
9/17/92 @ Lambeau Field, Packers 17, Steelers 3
History will long remember this game as Brett Favre’s first NFL start. Conversely, it was also Rod Woodson’s career worst and Bill Cowher’s first loss.

Although the words “Hall of Fame” and “Rod Woodson” were already being collocated in 1992, Woodson fell flat in almost every conceivable way possible on this day.

If you have a strong stomach for memories you’d rather forget, you can watch the game summary from NFL Prime Time.



For Steelers fans the significance of this game is in what Bill Cowher revealed about himself.

Near the end of the game Cowher approached Woodson. Rod turned away fearing a tongue lashing. Instead, Cowher consoled him, saying that “You’ve had a bad day at he office. When that happens, you don’t quit the job, you analyze what went wrong and bounce back.”

Steelers fans loved Cowher for his fire, brimstone and in your face bravado, but…

  • ...in his first loss as a head coach, The Chin showed that he was a head coach who was smart enough to know when to kick a player in the a_s, and when to pat him on the back.

Steelers So Close, Yet So Far
12/24/95, @ Lambeau Field, Packers 24, Steelers 19

The Steelers playoff position was set, while the Packers still had something to play for. Bill Cowher benched many starters – Fred McAfee and Steve Avery were the Steelers starting backfield.

Yet this was a hard-fought, knock down drag out game. Kevin Greene hit Brett Favre so hard that he appeared to be coughing up his brains at one point. Jim McMahon did come in for a few snaps, but Favre refused to stay out long.

The Steelers second string almost pulled it off, as Yancy Thigpen dropped a sure touchdown pass as time expired.

  • It was a metaphor for things to come as the Steelers took Dallas to the brink in Super Bowl XXX, until Neil O’Donnell threw it away…

Look What Happens When You Try to Get Smart...
11/9/98 @ Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers 27, Packers 20

Kordell Stewart and the entire Steelers offense had suffered and struggled under Ray Sherman’s offense all season. That seemed to change on Monday Night Football as Steelers amassed a 27-3 lead in the first three quarters.

As the fourth quarter began, Pittsburgh appeared poised to make it 34-3, until Sherman decided to get cute on the goal line. Sherman thought it would be smart to revive Slash, and sent Mike Tomzack under center with Kordell lining up as a receiver. All went well, until the snap….

A bobbled exchange leads to a fumble, which Keith McKenzie returns 88 yards for a touchdown. The Packers score 17 unanswered points, but Pittsburgh holds on.

  • The moral of the story there is that trick plays can give an already efficient offense a lethal edge, but they can be just as lethal for a struggling unit.

Never Under Estimate the Importance of Back Up
11/6/05 @ Lambeau Field, Steelers 20, Packers 10

Ben Roethlisberger is out, so is Jerome Bettis. Willie Parker suits up, but only lasts for 5 carries. But Bill Cowher a deep bull pen to fall back on. Charlie Batch starts, and while his numbers aren’t pretty, he avoids critical mistakes.

But the star of the day is Duce Staley, who gets his first carry of the year that day, and adds a total of 14 more for 76 yards and including a long run of 17 and a touchdown. He also catches to passes for nine yards.

  • As Bill Cowher said the day Pittsburgh released Stanley, “If we don’t have Duce, we don’t win that game. If we don’t win that game, we don’t make the playoffs, and never get to Super Bowl XL.”

The Steelers signed Duce Staley to a generous contract in 2004, and he only ended up playing 16 games over three season. But in the end, it was money well spent.


This Wallace is a 60 Minute Man Too
12/20/09 @ Heinz Field, Steelers 37, Packers 36

This installment of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Packers had been billed as the battle of the defensive titans, as the two teams were leading the league in defense. To add an exclaimation point, it pitted Dick LeBeau vs. Dom Capers, the two architects of the Steelers defense of the 1990’s.

But it was anything but a defensive struggle.

The Steelers and Packers combined for 936 yards and the lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter as Aaron Rodgers passed for 383 yards. Ben Roethlisberger did him better, however, passing for 503 yards and in doing so only becoming only the 10th NFL signal caller to break the half-century mark.

Hines Ward and Heath Miller both broke the 100 yard mark, but the star of the game was Steelers rookie of the year Mike Wallace. Wallace bookended his game with touchdown catches. Taking his first pass for 60 yards to the end zone, and he did it again with his last pass, hauling in a 19 yard grab with 0:03 seconds remaining.

Stairway to Seven Will Have to Wait

And that brings us to Super Bowl XVL and the Steelers ill-fated quest for Lombardi Number Seven.

The Steelers made some early mistakes and, as Mike Tomlin, ever the class act, insisted, the Packers made some tremendous plays that put the Steelers deep in a hole.

The men in Black and Gold fought back furiously and were alive until the game's final minute. But, when the final gun sounded, the Packers simply showed themselves to be the better team and, to their credit, the Steelers acknowledged as much.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

1989 Steelers Squash Patriots, 28-10

In the late 1980’s “Dave the Predictor” of the “Harris in the Morning” show on Washington’s WCXR offered “Office Pool Picks” every Friday morning. With the internet years away and the Steelers getting little national coverage, I listened intently to the picks, hoping to gleam a shred of insight into the Steelers fortunes for the coming Sunday.

Although I fondly remember “Dave the Predictor,” up until that point he had gone the entire 1989 season without picking the Steelers once.

And despite the fact that the Steelers were 7-7 and the Patriots were 4-10, "Dave the Predictor" still picked New England over Pittsburgh.

WCXR’s signal certainly did not reach from the Washington area to Pittsburgh, but perhaps a fair number of Pittsburghers shared in the skepticism, as only 26,594 people braved the -12 wind chill, making it the Steelers smallest crowd on record at Three Rivers Stadium.

Banner Day for the Steelers Offense

What a shame that so few turned out, because this was the first in a series of contests between the Steelers and Patriots that marked either important milestones or turning points for the men in Black and Gold (to read more about Steelers-Patriots history, click here.)

In this case, it was the the game where the Steelers offense, much maligned through out the NFL during 1989, came alive.

Tim Worley had his second 100 yard game and scored a touchdown. Merril Hoge was close behind, adding 63 yards, and two touchdowns. Louis Lipps added 58 more and another touchdown on a 58 yard reverse.

Bubby Brister only managed 165 yards passing that day on 16 attempts, but Brister made each pass count. Hitting Mike Mularkey twice four 40 yards, and rookies Derrick Hill once for 33 yards and Mark stock another time for 23 yards.

The Steelers defense relentlessly hammered the New England Patriots as Tim Johnson, David Little, and Aaron Jones each sacked Mark Wilson. Cornerbacks Dwayne Woodruff and rookie David Johnson each nabbed interceptions.

The Steelers in fact kept New England out of the end zone until giving up a garbage yard touchdown in the game’s final two minutes.

It was the Steelers best day offensively, and it was also the day that the team perked its record above .500 for the first time.

That was good, but they were still last in the AFC Central, as Bud Carson’s Cleveland Browns defeated the Minnesota Vikings to improve their record to 8-6-1. Cincinnati trounced the Houston Oilers 61-7, improving their record to 8-7, but the Oilers retained a 9-6 division lead.

Thanks for visiting. To read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire tribute to the 1989 Steelers, click here and scroll down.

Kemoatu Out, Polamalu Out, Redman Rejoins Practice Squad

It appears that the rumors that Troy Polamalu might be out for the year could be correct. In speaking with reporters earlier this week, he confirmed that his target return date is the Steelers final game against Miami, although he said he hoped he might be back soon.

Either way, Polamalu will not play this week against Green Bay.

Last week conflicting press reports either had Poalmalu on the verge of returning or perhaps out for the year.

The Steelers beleaguered offensive line got more bad news this week, as Mike Tomlin also ruled Chris Kemoatu out for the Green Bay game. Ramon Foster will start in his place.

But, in perhaps might be a piece of good news, Post-Gazette correspondent Ed Bouchette informed during his weekly chat that Isaac "Red Zone" Redman returned to the Steelers practice squad. Redman had been cut prior to the Raiders game to make room for Justin Vincent.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Watch Tower: Calling Tomlin Out, ...For the Wrong Reason

Last Friday the Tribune Review’s John Harris called out Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

As well he should. Mike Tomlin deserves to be called out for a number of reasons.

Harris, however, honed in on the wrong one.

Let’s take a look at Harris’ argument:
Win or lose, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin should have attended Thursday night's news conference with his mouth taped shut.

After seemingly giving up on the season following Sunday's loss to Oakland when he flippantly cast aside his team's fading playoff chances, Tomlin promised lineup changes entering last night's game against the Cleveland Browns. [Emphasis added.]

OK. Harris is absolutely on the mark in berating Tomlin for promising to make sweeping lineup changes, and then failing to deliver. Steel Curtain Rising will go into depth about that in a later post.

But that’s not where Harris directs most of his fire. Later on he asserts:
No coach should ever publicly give up on his team when there's still a mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs, no matter how slight. It was
Tomlin's responsibility to keep his players going, even when the well appeared dry. [Emphasis added.]

Harris is right. Tomlin’s job is to keep the players going, and Tomlin has failed thus far. But did Tomlin give up? Not content to leave it there, Harris attempts to draw a contrast between Tomlin’s response to a losing streak and that of his predecessor:
To say that Tomlin jumped the gun in writing off the season is stating the case mildly.

What if former coach Bill Cowher had taken that approach when the Steelers were 7-5 and struggling late during the 2005 season? No way the Steelers would have won Super Bowl XL, much less qualified for the postseason. [Emphasis added.]

There is not question that Tomlin’s attempts to motivate the team are having the opposite effect. The Steelers performance against the Browns represented one of the worst performances in team history.

Tomlin richly deserves criticism for that.

What is at issue here is Harris’ interpretation of Tomlin’s statement, following the Oakland debacle, that he is “just trying to win a game.”

That was Tomlin’s answer in response to a question about how the loss to Oakland affected his team’s playoff prospects.

"I'm Just Trying to Win A Game."

Considering the circumstances, Tomlin’s response was appropriate. He wasn’t writing off the rest of the season. He was simply making clear to everyone that dreams of the grandeur and glory that the playoffs bring were not appropriate for a team coming off of a four game losing streak.

Harris’ argument would have some teeth, if say, he’d gotten a player, even an inactive list dweller like Tony Hills or Sunny Harris, to say “yeah, to hear coach throw in the towel like that, that was de-motivating.” Barring that, he could have cited off the record, unnamed sources.

But he didn’t, thereby transforming his argument into a piece of conjecture.

2009 Is Not 2005

Harris’ analogy to the Steelers situation in 2005 is also inappropriate. Yes, the Steelers were reeling from a three game losing streak. But those losses came to Baltimore, whom the Steelers played without Roethlisberger, an undefeated Colts team, and the eventual division champion Cincinnati Bengals.

When the Steelers losing streak stood at four, two of those losses came to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. NFL bottom feeders if there ever were ones.

Steelers Nation is angry and wants answers, and Harris is trying to provide them.

The Steelers 2009 season is spiraling down in a nosedive with no end in sight. Tomlin is losing, or has already lost his players, as Pittsburgh’s pathetic performance Thursday night so starkly demonstrated.

Mike Tomlin stands squarely in the bulls eye. In losing 5 in a row (and counting) he’s opened all of his decisions and all of the choices he has made since the morning after Super Bowl XLIII to question.

But to say that Tomlin, by simply declaring that he “was just trying to win a game” had quit on his players or written off the rest of the season, is one piece of criticism that is unjust.

For more criticism of those who cover the Steelers, click here and scroll down to read more from Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Monday, December 14, 2009

’89 Steelers Shut Out Jets 13-0, Greg Lloyd Makes His Presence Known

With three games remaining in the 1989 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves dead last in the AFC Central, with a 1-5 division record. Yet unlike their 2009 successors, this 6-7 Steeler team was learning how to win games and it was a team on the rise.

The loss to the Oilers in the preceding week did nothing to alter that reality.

It goes to show you just how much mindset melds with momentum in the NFL. The fact that the Oilers had won by no small virtue of an extra time out in the first half could have broken the team, much the way the coin toss game in Detroit broke the 1998 Steelers.

But these Steelers had indeed turned the corner with Merril Hoge’s go ahead touchdown on 4th and Goal three weeks earlier against San Diego.

The Steelers were going places, and the New York Jets, who were coming off a two game winning streak of their own, had no chance of standing in the way.

On offense the Steelers set the tone early, by driving straight down the field on their opening possession. First round draft pick Tim Worley capped off the drive by ripping off a 35 yard touchdown run to open the scoring.

As it had for much of the year, the Steelers offense struggled, as the Jets defense kept them in check for the balance of the first quarter and the entire second and third quarters. Worley in fact would only add another 29 total yards to his touchdown sprint, while Hoge added 43 yards of his own.

But Tom Moore kept New York Jets defensive staff guessing, running a total of five reverses netting 49 yards for Louis Lipps and Dwight Stone.

Bubby Brister did his part, going 15 of 29, but he spread out the ball out to Lipps, Hoge, Worley, rookies Derrick Hill and Mark Stock, tight end Mike Mularkey, and Mr. “Go Out and Get Open” Rodney Carter.

The Steelers certainly did not put up pretty numbers, but they did control time of possession, and the managed to out gain their opponents for the first time since week four against Detroit.

The NFL Meets Greg Lloyd

The December 10th game against the Jets represented the year's most dominating performance of Rod Rust’s defense, and it perhaps also marked the day that that Number 95, Just Plain Nasty, Greg Lloyd, forced the rest of the NFL to take notice of the man who was not hired for his disposition.

Whenever the Jets moved the ball, the Steelers made them pay.

Joe Walton opted to start veteran Pat Ryan that week, and Lloyd made Ryan regret that decision, sacking him on only his fourth pass attempt, and knocking him from the game with a concussion.

That only opened the hard hits, as free safety Thomas Everett throttled Jets Receiver Al Toon – in the chest -- and knocked him out with a concussion. No sooner did Everett pancake Toon, and Greg Lloyd was there giving him a WWF/WWE style three count.

Consciousness about concussions in 1989 wasn’t what it is today, but if Lloyd’s 3 count was a little over zealous, number 95 was nonetheless establishing himself as a someone to be reckoned with.

Lloyd had more to do that day, ending a Jets drive with a 16 yard interception.

Dwayne Woodruff also a hauled down another pick, and Rod Woodson blocked a field goal.

Tack on Gary Anderson’s two field goals of 42 and 45 yards – this was the Meadowlands in December mind you – and the Steelers defense had turned the tables. After being the shut outee three times in 1989 season, the Steelers had shut out an opponent for the first time in 75 games, and the first time on the road since 1977.

And there’s no coincidence the Steelers accomplished that with the likes of Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd leading the way.

Foreshadowing Things To Come, in More Ways Than One

The fact that the Jets were weak opponents in no way diminished the statement that the 1989 Steelers defense had made. They were for real.

Yet, that was not all that the day foreshadowed, and not all of it was good. While the Rod Rust’s defense was holding the Jets scoreless, chants of “Joe Must Go,” echoed through the Meadowlands. “Joe” of course was Joe Walton. Joe would go, much to Pittsburgh’s peril.

Thanks for visiting. To read Steel Curtain Rising's entire Steelers 1989 series, click here and scroll down.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Watch Tower: Press Sifts Through the Rubble of the Steelers 2009 Season

The Steelers may have three games remaining, but that is not stopping anyone from sifting through the rubble of the season.

Ed Bouchette not only declared the season dead, but also declared his era of Steelers football to be dead.

Get Out Your Geritol

It is a grim conclusion, and one that tempts the reader to say, “isn’t he going too far.” Yet, Bouchette marshals good, if somewhat exaggerated, evidence to support his cause.

Here are the ages next year of some starting defenders: Casey Hampton, 33; Brett Keisel, 32; Aaron Smith, 34; James Farrior, 35; James Harrison, 32; Ike Taylor, 30; Ryan Clark, 31. And the ages of their top replacements: Tyrone Carter, 34; Deshea Townsend, 35; Travis Kirschke, 36; Chris Hoke, 34; Nick Eason, 30.
That is ancient in football terms.

While generally accurate, the Steelers do have an age problem on defense, the portrait of a gerontocracy in the making on the Steelers line is a little exaggerated. Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark, and Deshea Townsend are all free agents who will probably find other homes next season.

Bouchette is likewise on to something in highlighting that Steelers lack of quality depth on defense. But he is too quick to dismiss Joe Burnett and Kennan Lewis, and he ignores other up and coming promising up and comers such as Keyron Fox, Patrick Bailey and Sunny Harris who show varying degrees of promise.

But Steel Curtain Rising does not wish to quibble too much with Bouchette’s description of the task that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin now face.

His assessment of the offensive line is excellent. At mid-season, when commentators were praising this group as one of the better units in the league, the decision to invest in the current personnel looked like a stroke of genius. After the 8 sack fiasco in Cleveland, it now looks like the Steelers braintrust have married themselves to mediocrity.

Quantifying the Quit Watch

Over at the Tribune-Review, Joe Starkey’s focus was more immediate, asking whether the Steelers will fight to the end or simply choose to mail it in. Starkey quotes Jerome Bettis, who criticizes the players for quitting Thursday night, and insists that attiude starts at the top.

No qualms with that. But Starkey, like Bouchette, exaggerates to make his point:
Bettis fondly remembered the 2000 season, when the Steelers started 5-6. The playoffs were gone, but, unlike the previous two seasons, the Steelers finished with some fight, winning four of five. One game was especially memorable - a come-from-behind, 21-20 victory over a very good Oakland Raiders team.

The Steelers battled like crazy that day. Quarterback Kordell Stewart won over the locker room by playing through an injury. That would lead to his MVP-caliber campaign of 2001, when the Steelers finished 13-3.

That's what can happen during a stretch of so-called meaningless games.

I remember that game, and that season fondly. The Steeles did fight like cornered animals. It was one of Cowher’s most impressive coaching jobs, as the team started 0-3, but never, ever quit.

Remembering The Good Old Days

But Starkey misses a key point. The Steelers indeed started 5-6, but they were not eliminated from the playoffs at that point, in fact, their playoff hopes were alive right up until the final weekend.

In fact, had the Minnesota Vikings knocked off the Indianapolis Colts – something they looked poised to do until Bubby Brister came in for an injured Dante Culpepper, the Steelers would have made the playoffs.

  • The point being that the Steelers last five games of the 2000 season, including the Oakland game -- which was one for the ages -- were very far from meaningless.

Starkey also recounts the 2003 and 2006 season, seasons where Steelers fought to the bitter end despite no having playoff hopes.

Excellent examples which speak directly to Bill Cowher’s prowess as head coach. But Starkey also ignores the meltdowns of 1998 and 1999, two seasons where the Steelers rank and file did quit and quit badly, while the playoffs remained a possibility.

None of this is to meant to defend Tomlin.

All of the evidence indicates that Mike Tomlin has lost this group of players and the possibility of an 6-10 eight game losing streak is just real, but likely.

But in framing the present Starkey seems to want to embellish the past, if just a little. The Good Old days were indeed good, but not quite as good as Starkey would perhaps have us remember.

To read more criticism the Steelers' press coverage, click here and scroll down for more from Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Understanding the Steelers Downward Spiral

A number of non-Steelers fans have emailed asking “How could the defending Super Bowl Champions fall from 6-2 to 6-7, losing to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns?”

It is a hard nut to crack, no doubt.

But in sports the concept of “learning how to win” is quite important. To find an example, look no further than the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that faced tremendous adversity.

Given numerous opportunities to quit, the team fought on, bounced one of its division rivals from the playoffs, and came a dropped pass and a muffed QB-center exchange from going to the AFC Championship.

The naked truth is that the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers are learning how to lose games.

From my vantage point, the Steelers have lacked an edge all year. I’ve been waiting for them to “snap out of it” and they seemed to do that against Minnesota, and then in the second half against Denver.

But the 6-2 record after the win at Denver offered a false hope.

Instead of finding an edge, they quickly found a way to fall of the edge. And the best way to explain why is through analogy, and one that we’ve all been through before.

Imagine this:

  • You woke up late.

Then because you were rushing, you dropped your coffee mug and cleaning it up delayed you even more.

  • Then, because of that, they got out of the house even later, but you win such a rush that you forgot something vital you needed for work.

So, in the process of cursing yourself for forgetting, you miss a key turn because you couldn’t change lanes on time.

  • When you finally pull in the drive way, you’re in such a hurry that you lock your keys inside the car -- with the motor running.

Then you realize your cellphone is inside the car. So you had to look for someone who would let you make a call.

  • Then when you finally do, you discover that you'd inadvertently let your AAA membership lapse....

It may be overly simplistic, but I think it sums up where the Steelers are. If you go back to the analogy above, at each phase it is the coaches job to step in and make sure a team does not compound on its error.

But the Steelers have done that. The run defense falters in Baltimore. Tackling gets sloppy. Normally sure handed players muff punts.

They're in a spiral. Tomlin has not been able to break them out of it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Steelers Fall to Browns 13-6, Nose Dive Continues - With No End in Sight

It is official. The defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers 2009 season is now over.

Perhaps there are some mathematical calculations that have them qualifying for the playoffs, but this team is as done as a team can be. Losing 13-6 to the Browns puts an exclamation point on a awful, ugly season.

The game was not shown here in Buenos Aires, and even the local bar which carries US sports was not showing it.

I had to settle for a live stream from SkyNetwork in the UK on the internet, with passable quality. Still, there were lots of stops and starts, which was fitting, as the Steelers were bumbling around looking nothing remotely like the team that drove 90 yards in less than two minutes to win Super Bowl XLIII.

Sky showed a stat of cases where teams more than 10 games below .500 had defeated a Super Bowl Champion.

One of those was Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys upset of the Redskins on Monday Night Back in 1988. Growing up in the DC area, I remember that game well, and it seemed a fitting metaphor. The Redskins looked every bit lost and hapless that night in giving Jimmy Johnson his first NFL win, as the Steelers looked in dropping their first loss to the Browns since 2003.

The Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage on offense, and their ability to protect Ben was laughable, although Ben's decision making left a lot to be desired, as did the play calling.

As for the defense? Well, it almost looks as if Joshua Cribbs beat them all by himself. And of course the night would have have been complete without some special teams screw ups, which the Steelers special teams were only too happy to provide.

Quit Watch is On

Now the watch is on to see if the players quit on Mike Tomlin, and if so how badly and what does he do about it.

His promise/threat to bench starters appears to have been empty, which is not a good sign. The Steelers quite simply have forgotten how to win games, and this tendency has snowballed.

It is difficult for a coach to pull his team out of a total tailspin. Tomlin has clearly not been up to the task.

It is a very open question as to whether his men respond.

Consolation?

The record reflects that Bill Walsh followed up his first Super Bowl victory with a 3-6 effort in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

He came back for two more Lombardi Trophies.

Parcells followed his 1986 Super Bowl with a 6-9 effort in the 1987 season, and he got another ring.

Tomlin is often erroneously put on the Bill Walsh coaching tree, (where he has NO place, click here to read why) but he is much more of a cerebral coach in the mold of Walsh, Noll, and Gibbs.

Hopefully the can learn from this. Perhaps he can follow suit.

But first he needs survive the next three games, which do not look to be pretty.

Steel Curtain will be along for the ride, until the bitter end.

And for those Steelers fans longing for something good, please come back to check out our series on the Steelers 1989 season – the next installment will be up in a day or so. (Believe it or not, the Steelers loss to Cleveland coincided with the 20 year anniversary of their shut out of the Jets.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Troy Polamalu Will Return This Season. Or Else He Won’t….

Pittsburgh Steelers fans, who have seen their team struggle mightily in his absence, clamor to know when is Troy Polamalu is going to return.

This week they got some news.

Or did they?

It depends on which story you read.

ESPN.com (and assumptive other outlets) ran an Associated Press story on Troy Polamalu’s return, which cast doubt on the strong safety’s chances of making it back to 2009 this season.

The source cited was none other than number 43 himself:

Asked what it will take for him to play again this season, Polamalu said, 'A whole lot of feeling. A whole lot of prayers. God willing, hopefully, I'll be able to play. We'll see what the doctor says.'
The article itself then talks about Troy’s delayed rehab and examination schedules. The article also emphasizes the point that Polamalu hasn’t been cleared to practices, much less play.

Fear Not Faithful in Steelers Nation

The faithful in Steelers Nation had no cause to fret for long, because the Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review ran an article yesterday headlined “Polamalu Inches Toward Return.”

Like the AP article, the sources is, you guessed it, none other than Polamalu himself! Troy told Brown he already could be playing but isn’t because:

I don't think I would be a help at all to our team with my current condition. I think if I really felt like I could help this team out, I would be out there playing.
Polamalu also offered some insights into how his presence affects the team.

Who to Believe?

So Troy Polamalu could be playing now if it were absolutely necessary. Then again, he might not make it back for the entire year.

Steelers fans have to wonder, who to believe?

This is particularly difficult, since Polamalu was not only the prime source, but the only source for both stories. Given that Polamalu’s comment are not terribly consistent, either reporter could have cited a source directly or indirectly.

One must suppose that because Polamalu did tell Scott Brown that he could be playing now, perhaps it is safe to believe that 43 will make a return. The other arrow indicating in that direction is Ed Bouchette's reporting.

When asked about the issue in his weekly chat, Bouchette shared with his readers that he had not heard any rumors that Polamalu would not return....

....Stay tuned.

Steelers Cut Tyler Palko, Promote Tyler Grisham, Hines Ward Practices

Charlie Batch is apparently well enough to serve as the Steelers third string quarterback, so the Steelers cut former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko, so reports the Post-Gazette. Another Tyler at the Steelers South Side Complex got good news however, as the Steeler activated former undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver Tyler Grisham from their practice squad.

The Steelers made this move to give them a fourth wide out going into tonight’s game against Cleveland. In a bit of good news, Hines Ward, who injured his hamstring in the loss to Oakland, did practice.

Room for Redman?

The promotion of Tyler Grisham creates a spot on the Steelers practice squad. It will be interesting to see if they fill it by bringing back Isaac Redman, whom they cut last week.

It is also curious to see that the Steelers opted to promote Tyler Grisham from their practice squad in lieu of resigning Shaun McDonald, whom they cut prior to the Baltimore game to make room for Plako.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tomlin Vows to Shake Up the Starting Line Up

Reading the Post-Gazette headline “Tomlin may bench some starters against Cleveland,” brought memories rushing back, back 10 years exactly, to the dark days of the 1999 late season meltdown. Let's take a quick trip back down memory lane...

The Steelers had just gotten upset at home by the expansion Browns, and they were playing in Tennessee. Steve McNair was throwing deep downfield to Chris Samuels. Travis Davis and Scott Shields had him covered, one to the inside and the other to the outside. Both men had perfect position to either take a shot at the ball, or to level a devastating hit.

Instead, both men sort of froze,* and Samuels caught the ball and went 46 yards for a touchdown.

When asked about the play later in the week, Bill Cowher admonished his players, assuring the assembled media that such mediocre play would not be tolerated, nor repeated.

The words sounded hollow at the time, as the latent yet nonetheless apparent question was “Who are you going to replace them with?” Indeed, the starting line up did not change, and less than three weeks later Quardy Ismail lit the Steelers up for 258 yards receiving - empty words indeed.

Lineup Changes Coming in Cleveland

The obvious question for Mike Tomlin is the same. If he wants to sit someone, who is he going to replace him with? About the only back up who has really distinguished himself, outside of the defensive line, is Keyron Fox.

Speaking on Post-Gazette TV, Ed Bouchette outlined a few possible changes.

  • Joe Burnett in for William Gay – Gay is injured so this is almost certain to take place
  • Ziggy Hood to start at defensive end – Hood has looked good thus far
  • Keyron Fox in for Lawrence Timmons – Timmons, has not been bad, just inconsistent
  • Ramon Foster in for Trai Essex – The Steelers rushing attack put up good numbers against Oakland, but those numbers are far, far less impressive after you take out the 60 run
  • Ryan Mundy in for either Tyronne Carter or Ryan Clark – Neither safety has played well lately, but would Mundy be an improvement?

Of course the other change that Tomlin hinted at would be Ike Taylor sitting the pine while Keenan Lewis gets some time. It is funny. Only a short while back, people were saying that interceptions were all that separated Taylor from the status of an elite cornerback.

Nonetheless Taylor’s play has slipped, but so has the play of the entire secondary. Taylor is still their best available player there, and he should continue to start.

Mike Tomlin Speaks

The effect of whatever changes Tomlin makes will remain unknown for another 48 hours, but the way he discussed them in his press conference was interesting:

I think it’s appropriate at this point that we acknowledge that we have an undesirable pattern kind of behavior…. Moving forward this week and beyond, we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing and assume that that pattern behavior’s going to change and those outcomes are going to change, so… [we] are going to be aggressive in terms of looking at potential changes. Not only what we do schematically but who we have do it. [Emphasis added.]

Ok, Mike Tomlin is a little more cerebral than most NFL head coaches, but all in all its pretty much head coach boiler plate stuff for, heads are rolling.

A few questions down the transcript, he got more intriguing:

You have to acknowledge the potential that this can be kind of a shaken group. We’ve swallowed a lot here of late…. I’m going to be looking very closely at these men. It’s going to provide quality information for me, in terms of who, legitimately, is mentally tough and who can stand the test of adversity, because we have some. And who’s going to lead the charge, more than anything, in terms of getting us out of this and winning the football game. I’m going to be very interested to see who those people are, and who those people aren’t. [Emphasis added.]

Take notes, Daniel Snyder. This is why it is important that the men in the locker room know that the owners have the head coach’s back.

Tomlin probably already has an idea of who is starting to buckle and, without mentioning anyone’s name, he is clearly calling them out. He is sending his team a very clear signal – I am going to be here for the long term, if you want to join me, step it up. Now.

At the very least (in as much as one can gleam "tone" from a transcript), Mike Tomlin's words did not have the hollow ring that Cowher's did ten years ago.

Let's hope they produce a better result on the field.

Varium

There’s a lot of analysis floating around, attempting to diagnose what ails the Steelers.

Bob Smizik suggested that perhaps Dick LeBeau has put too much faith into his players. LeBeau certainly did not forget how to coach defense, but Smizik poses a question that few others are asking. He suggests that the answer is for Tomlin take a more active role in the defensive game planning.

Blitzburgh of Behind the Steel Curtain wrote a very expansive article on after the Steelers loss to the Raiders. As always, he made a lot of great points, but he gave his readers a really long look at how Troy Polamalu’s absence is affecting the rest of the secondary.

Finally, Scott Brown of the Tribune Review hails Tomlin’s decision to start more rookies, and suggests that the Steelers be more open to playing rookies. Not a bad idea on the surface, but he misses the point when he contends that Kevin Colbert and company draft players with the idea that they’ll be productive in 2-3 years.

Well, that may be true, but if it is some of it is a function of the fact that the Steelers have regularly picked late in each round because they’ve played so well. One would figure, however, that the Steelers will have better than normal draft positioning in 2010....

*Someone help me here, as my memory is not clear. I can't remember if both men froze, or if it was one of those uncanny plays where both Steelers bobbled an interception, but Samuels came down with the ball and made the TD.