´ Steel Curtain Rising: January 2010

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

Friday, January 22, 2010

Steelers Higher Al Everest as Special Teams Coordinator

As has been reported, the Steelers highred Al Everest as special teams coordinator, making him the first coach to hold such a title.

Everest most recently coached in San Francisco, with mixed success. He did however win special teams coach of the year honors in 2002 when he was with the New Orleans Sanits.

Mike Tomlin continues to interview candidates for the vacant defensive assistant position and the vacant wide receivers position.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fichtner to Coach QB’s, Olsavsky and Holmes Interview for Assistant’s Job

Mike Tomlin did not have to look to far to find Ken Anderson’s replacement, tapping former receiver’s coach Randy Fichtner to fill that role. The Steelers also appeared to be close to closing in on signing Al Everest as their special teams coach.

Both moves had been expected for several days. The move must be regarded as a promotion for Fichtner, and it perhaps, just perhaps is a sign that Mike Tomlin is laying in a back up plan for Bruce Arians’ eventual replacement. Steel Curtain Rising has no sources to confirm this, but Fichtner was mentioned as a possible replacement for Arians.

Jerry Olsavsky to Return?

Perhaps the biggest news is that former Steelers linebackers Jerry Olsavsky and Earl Holmes interviewed for the defensive assistant “aka quality control” coaching spot vacated when Lou Spanos left to coach linebackers for the Washington Redskins.

Jerry Olsavsky twice interviewed for the Steelers linebacking coaching job during Bill Cowher’s tenure, and most recently coached linebackers for Youngstown State. Readers of Steel Curtain Rising’s recent series on the 1989 Steelers (click here to read) know that I am a big fan of Jerry O.

Olsavsky joined the Steelers as an 10th round pick out of Pitt in 1989 and made several All-Rookie teams for his work in relief of injured Hardy Nickerson, including a key goal line stop of Kansas City’s Nigerian Nightmare Christian Okoye. He also made key special teams play in the Steelers playoff upset of the Houston Oilers.

Despite the fast start, Olsavsky got stuck on the depth chart behind David Little and Hardy Nickerson and did not join the first team full time until 1993. His career appeared to be over because of injury later that year, but he came back to play key roles on the Steelers 1995 and 1996 teams.

Holmes and Olsavsky, Rivals Again

Like Larry Foote, Olsavsky pushed for his release from the Steelers because he did not want to be stuck behind a high draft pick, who was none other than Earl Holmes, the man Jerry O is now competing with for the assistant coaching job.

Holmes holds his on place in Steelers linebacking history, as it was reported that his response to Bill Cowher’s “Welcome on board, we drafted you” call with “Congratulation to you for picking the best linebacker available.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

What Went Wrong for the Steelers in 2009?

How did it happen? How did the Steelers fall so far, so fast?

12 months ago they stood atop all pro football. Victory in Super Bowl XLIII transformed the Steelers into the NFL's sole posseser of Six Lombardi trophies.

Pittsburgh had no peer.

Stairway to Seven was supposed the song of 2009. 20 plus veterans from Super Bowl XL were to negate any chance of a Super Bowl hang over. Instead, the Steelers would embarrass ESPN for prematurely picking the Patriots as the decade’s dominate team.

None of it happened.

There are many reasons for this. No one has a definitive answer.

Steel Curtain Rising offers one interpretation here. Some of it objective, some is subjective, and the rest a mix between the two. Everything is interelated of course, but the reasons for the Steelers failures breakdown along these five themes:

Falling Off the Edge
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
Less Bang for the Buck
"...Wars are not won by evacuations."
Into the Looking Glass Mike Tomlin

Falling Off the Edge

Sample Steelers fans for the Steelers 2009 season’s defining image, and they’ll likely suggest:

  • Carlson Palmer’s completion on 4th down late in the fourth quarter in week three
  • Return men scurrying through the Steelers kick coverage units in route to the end zone
  • The dropped interceptions against Kansas City and Oakland
  • Ray Rice’s 40 yard plus scramble to keep Baltimore's game tying drive alive
  • Ben Roethlisberger getting sacked on the Steelers final offensive play against Cleveland

These were pivotal plays in the Steelers 2009 season, all are worthy of mention.

But Steel Curtain Rising has one you won’t find else where:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown to Hines Ward that put the Steelers up 10-7 in the 2nd against KC.

Think back to the play. The Steelers were in the Red Zone. The line was giving Ben a ridiculous amount of time, and the Chiefs had totally blow the coverage, as Ben found Ward standing still in the end zone.

It was beautiful. In scoring the touchdown the Steelers displayed the nonchalance of Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And that’s the problem.

As Steel Curtain Rising mentioned during training camp, the 2008 were never more dangerous then when they looked to be hopelessly on the ropes. Against Jacksonville, San Diego, Dallas, twice against Baltimore, and of course in the Super Bowl against Arizona, these Steelers found themselves behind late in the 4th.

Each time they rallied for victory, and each rally was more dramatic than the last.

Such experience can fortify a team’s will, often it does.

  • But perhaps there’s a fine line between coolness under fire and complacency or, at the very least, a lack of urgency.

In 2008 the Steelers lived on the edge and thrived on it. Instead of stepping up on the edge in 2009, the Steelers fell off it.

This tendency was just as apparent in the fourth quarter meltdowns, as it was in the failed third down conversions on offense, in large gains given up on third and short by the defense, in the lack of turnovers, and in repeated Red Zone possessions that went for naught.

The killer instinct that served the Steelers so well in 2008 was absent in 2009, and it cost them dearly.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Mike Tomlin’s “unleash hell in December” declaration will be debated elsewhere. For all of Tomlin’s bluster, he was taking about something he did not control.

Tomlin’s comments about things he could control are far more interesting, such as:

  • The disparity between the treatment of Jeff Reed and Santonio Holmes
  • Commitments to give special teams equal footing with everything else
  • Promises to make roster changes that seldom materialized

There is an apparent disparity between Tomlin’s words and actions. This disparity did not cause the broken plays that spelled doom for the Steelers. But discontinuity between a coach’s words and deeds rarely results in continuity on the field.

Less Bang for the Buck

“Blitzburgh” from Behind the Steel Curtain has made an excellent point about how the salary cap affected Pittsburgh in 2009.

“Blitzburgh” did detailed research and spent serious time putting the piece together, and Steel Curtain Rising will do him courtesy of recommending that everyone read his post (click here to read.)

In a nutshell, the essence of his argument is easy to summarize. Because players like Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison had much, much higher cap values in 2009, the Steelers were forced to release men like Carey Davis and Anthony Madison in favor of rookies like Frank “the Tank” Summers and cheaper veterans like Keiwan Ratliff.

  • The Steelers quickly regretted and repented both moves.

Success in the salary cap era is about getting the most bang for your buck. The Steelers had much greater difficulty pulling that off in 2009 than in 2008.

...Wars are not won by evacuations
- Winston Churchill, June 4th, 1940; following the miracle at Dunkirk

Respect for sacrifices made for freedom and justice demands recognition that the stakes in Europe in 1940 and for the Steelers in 2009 are in no way analogous.

But if that’s true, then it is also true the Steelers would be wise to heed the moral of the message. Churchill’s was telling Britain that however miraculous the rescue of 300,000 men might have been, Britain had only managed to live to fight another day.

And so it is with Pittsburgh today.

The Steelers were a team in a total tail spin following the loss to Cleveland. They were learning to lose. Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola as much concluded that the team had quit on Tomlin.

But Tomlin broke the team’s nosedive. The players fought tooth and nail until the very last play of their final three games, and all three contests were decided on the final series.

As Art Rooney II told the Tribune Review’s Scott Brown:

It showed something about Mike that he's not going to let a team give up on itself. That's the kind of coach we thought he was, and I think he obviously had a significant challenge to get us through this year. While there were disappointments about the season, that aspect of it was a good sign for the future.

Rooney is right.

Finishing the year with an eight game losing streak would have had repercussions lasting into 2010 and beyond.

Credit Tomlin for rallying the troops, but be clear that it only means the Steelers would live to fight another day. Mike Tomlin still has some soul searching to do.

Into the Looking Glass Coach Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is an excellent coach.

A rookie coach doesn’t take a team furious over the departure of their coach, number one linebacker, and impending departure of their only All Pro guard to a division title in his first year and then for, an encore, win a Super Bowl during his sophomore season.

The knock on Tomlin during 2007 was that his team played down to the competition after they dropped games to the:

  • 7-9 Broncos
  • 5-11 Ravens
  • 4-12 Jets

No one leveled that criticism in 2008 but, then again, the Steelers 2008 schedule didn’t include many soft spots.

This year the Steelers lost to the:

  • 7-9 Bears
  • 5-11 Browns
  • 5-11 Raiders
  • 4-12 Chiefs

2009 made it bitterly apparent:

  • Mike Tomlin teams do in fact play down to the level of competition.

This is a problem. Great teams, even good teams, win the ones they’re supposed to. Consistently.

The Steelers have yet to do that under Tomlin.

The Steelers must address needs on both lines, on special teams, and in the secondary.

All are important, but Tomlin has no greater imperative for this off season than to rectify his team’s tendency to under perform against subpar competition.

If Mike Tomlin takes care of that, many of the other issues mentioned above will fall into place.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Keith Butler to Stay with Steelers; Ray Horton Out?

One of the perils of blogging is thinking you’re smart to upload some tid-bit while eating breakfast before work…

…Only to come home to discover that what you wrote is now irrelevant.

And so it is. In Friday’s morning’s post Steel Curtain Rising’s waxed on the impending loss of linebackers coach Keith Butler, along with some other assistants.

In spite of his name, Dolphins coach Tony Soprano was unable to make Keith Butler an offer he couldn’t refuse. At least when it came to assistant coaching positions. The Dolphins offered Butler their defensive coordinator position, but he declined, meaning Butler will be back with the Steelers next year.

This is a mild surprise, as position coaches normally leap at the chance to become coordinators. Butler has been mentioned as a possible successor to Dick LeBeau, so perhaps, and this is pure speculation opted to stay with the Steelers out of a desire to get first crack at the Steelers defensive coordinator’s position.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero information, but we will ask this question of the PG’s Ed Bouchette and/or Gerry Dulac should they conduct chats next week. Stay tuned.

Additional Coaching Moves

The Tribune Review is reporting that the Steelers are interviewing former San Francisco 49er’s special teams coach Al Everest. I neither know anything about Everest nor about the state of San Francisco’s special teams over the three seasons that he has coached them.

Anyone with ideas, please feel free to chime in on the comment box.

Like Everest, yours truly is not in a position to opine on Sean Kugler, the Steelers new offensive line coach. However, Bltizburgh, from the website Behind the Steel Curtain, has written and extensive post praising the Steelers for the hire. Click here to check it out (and WHERE does this man find the time to write such thorough posts?)

Ray Horton's Headed Out?

Finally, Gerry Dulac reported in PG Plus yesterday that one of the reasons why Ray Horton is interviewing for the University of Houston’s defensive coordinator job is because Tomlin may not have decided to retain him….

Friday, January 15, 2010

Steelers Miss Out on April, In Danger of Losing Kahn, Butler, and Horton

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now experiencing another of the pitfalls of losing: Otherwise successful organizations pay the price for a down year by seeing their coaching staffs pillaged.

The Steelers suffered no turnover during Tomlin’s first two seasons in part because they made the playoffs those years. By the time things were over for them, fewer and fewer teams had staffs in flux.

The Steelers of course missed the playoffs this year, and the rest of the football world is enjoying a crack at Pittsburgh's coaching and front office staff.

Lou Spanos, a defensive assistant since the mid-1990’s, has left for the Redskins. Omar Khan, the Steelers Business and Administration Coordinator, is one of two finalists for the Seattle Seahawks general manager position. Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton has a shot at being the University of Houston’s defensive coordinator. Linebackers coach Keith Butler competing with Al Groh to be the next defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins

Here are some quick comments on each loss/prospective loss:

  • Lou Spanos: stayed in the same, lower profile and presumably low paying position, for 16 years – either there’s a good reason for that, or he soaked up a lot of defeisve knowledge for the likes of Johnny Mitchell, Jim Hasseltt, Tim Lewis, Dick LeBeau, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.
  • Omar Khan: is the Steelers capologist and has negotiated a lot of contracts. Tough to lose a guy like that, but they need to let him seek his opportunity.
  • Ray Horton: Promoted from assistant DB’s coach under Cowher to DB’s coach under Tomlin. It is hard to really measure the impact of losing him considering the erratic play of the Steelers secondary during his tenure.
  • Keith Butler: This one might hurt the most. He’s been with the Steelers since 2003 and has a history with Mike Tomlin that dates back to their time at Memphis together in 1996. Has coached some of the most effective linebacking corps. in the NFL during his time here. He has been mentioned as a possible successor to Dick LeBeau.

As with Khan, the Steelers need to let their coaches seek out better opportunites when they can find them. The only real way to prevent that is to keep winning…

Sean Kugler to Replace Larry Zierlien

The Steelers announced that Mike Tomlin has hired Sean Kugler as the team’s offensive line coach. Kugler most recently worked for the Bills, where his 2009 line suffered devastating rash of injuries.

However, when Kugler had a healthy line in 2008 the Bills ranked 14th in rushing. Restoring the power running game to the Steelers is perhaps not the foremost of the Kugler’s challenges. He also needs to devise blocking schemes that afford protection to Ben Roethlisberger despite the fact that he holds on to the ball much longer than the average NFL quarterback.

April to Philadelphia

Alas, one of Kugler’s colleagues from will not be joining him in Pittsburgh. Ace Special Team’s coach Bobby April has accepted an offer to coach the Philadelphia Eagles special teams after interviewing earlier this week with Mike Tomlin.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Steelers Lose Shipley, Interview April

A.O. Shipley, a Pittsburgh area native and former center for Penn State, has refused a contract offer from the Steelers and instead signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, reports the Post Gazette.

It was first reported that Shipley declined to sign with the Steelers when the team could not tell him who his position coach for 2010 would be -- which many took as a sign that Larry Zierlien's days were numbered.

However, A.O. Shipley told Mike Bires of the Beaver Times that he was looking for a team that would give me the best chance to make a 53 man roster. Shipley was a 7th round draft pick for the Steelers in 2009 and spent the 2009 season on the team's practice squad.

Tomlin Interviews Bobby April

The search to replace fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky is on and, although there is not much out there on his replacement, what little news there is, is encouraging.

Ed Bouchette reported in Post-Gazette Plus yesterday that Mike Tomlin was interviewing Bobby April. April severed as the Steelers special teams coach in 1994 and 1995. He was last seen on a Steelers sideline running up to Bill Cowher and encouraging him to call a surprise on sides kick during Super Bowl XXX.

The kicked worked, and today still forms an important part in the legened of the greatest comeback that never was.... (Thanks Neil...)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

’89 Steelers Drop Playoff Game to Denver, 24-23

The first weekend of January 1990 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers in a place that no one expected them to be – playing in Mile High Stadium for the right to contest the AFC Championship.

No one, it is, except for themselves.

Steelers director of pro personnel Tom Donahoe, perhaps revealing himself to be at least a latent doubting Thomas, characterized the Steelers’ attitude this way: “These guys are amazing. They actually think they’re going to the Super Bowl, and at this point, don’t put anything past them.”*

This group of men had suffered the indignity of a 92-10 start, followed by numerous ups and downs during a stretch where the team would be shut out 3 times and the offense failed to outgain its opponent for ten straight weeks.

  • As opposed to weakening them, the entire ordeal only galvanized their resolve.

Donahoe again explained, “…the most amazing thing about these guys is how much character and guts they have. They’ve had so many opportunities to say, ‘We’re too young, we’re too, we’re too that. Let’s wait until next year.’ But they don’t want to wait until next year.”

So, when the Steelers sat at 4-6 after ten weeks and Chuck Noll proclaimed the playoffs to be his team’s target, the rest of the league smirked. The Steelers buckled their chin straps and won five of their last six, and upset the Houston Oilers in the AFC Wild Card game.

The NFL Meets Merril Hoge

With Merril Hoge leading the way, the Steelers immediately took control of the game, giving every impression that another 1984esque upset was in the making.

During Pittsburgh’s disastrous 5-11 1988 campaign, the fact that the Steelers featured a starting running back named Merril Hoge became fodder for analysts and color commentators. Steelers Nation, however, knew better.

Merril Hoge was the Hines Ward of his day – he might have lacked a little in the measurables, but he compensated for it by working harder and playing harder – on every play.

  • Never was that more apparent than when Hoge ran against Denver in the playoffs.

The 1989 Broncos had not allowed a hundred yard rusher all year, but that was about to change. The Steelers jumped to a 3 nothing lead after a 32 yard Gary Anderson field goal. Hoge had broken out for a 10 yard bust on that drive, and he was only getting started.

Hoge opened the Steelers’ second quarter Hoge by exploded on the first play from scrimmage for a 45 yard gain, the longest of his career. In total, he gained 60 yards on four carries during that drive, and capped it off with a 7 yard touchdown that put the Steelers ahead by 10.

The Broncos fought back, however, as Elway led them on a 12 play, 75 yard drive that ended with a one yard Melvin Bratton touchdown, making he score 10-7 Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were ready to yield nothing, however, as Bubby Brister took the reigns on a 12 play 77 yard drive, where he hit Mike Mularkey for 25 yards Louis Lipps for a 9 yard touchdown pass. Rookie Tim Worley also notched his own double-digit run of 19 yards on this drive, which put the Steelers in control 17-7.

Denver’s two minute offense evened the score to 17-10 at the half with a David Tredwell field goal, but Merril Hoge had already stolen the show.

  • By the time the two minute warning arrived, Hoge had already amassed 100 yards, leaving the Denver defense stupefied.

One Bronco defender was over heard saying in the huddle “that guy number 33, Hode, Hogg, whatever his name is, he’s killing us.”

Broncos defensive end Ron Holmes candidly admitted to thinking “What in the world is it with this guy?” Holmes’s sentiments were shared by Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was “amazed” that Hoge kept getting up because “we really put some licks on him,” confessing that,

At one point I even called a blitz because I knew [Hoge] had been hit hard the play before, and I didn’t think there was any way he’d run again. But darned if he didn’t. And darned if that play didn’t go for a big gain.
Chuck Noll, not one wont to lavish excessive praise, compared Hoge’s performances to Franco Harris and Rocky Bliers, explaining:

Merril exemplifies this whole team. He runs with great determination. You could see it, you could feel it…. We may have had a running back make more yardage [in a playoff game], but not with a greater effort.

The biggest praise Hoge received came from the Denver locker room, where All-Pro Safety Steve Atwater declared, “It was like we were playing Jim Brown.”

Steelers Stay Ahead in Second Half, Until 2:27…

The Broncos got off to a strong start in the second half when veteran linebacker Carl Mecklenburg and Greg Kragen forced a fumble by rookie Tim Worley. From there it only took John Elway three plays to connect with wide out Michael Jackson on a 17 yard touchdown pass to tie the score 17-17.

Pittsburgh fought back immediately. The Broncos defense keyed on Hoge, limiting him to only 20 yards on 6 carries in the second half, but Number 33 found other ways to do damage.

  • Hoge caught 8 passes for 60 yards, serving as Brister’s check off receiver in a second half that saw Broncos defense turn up the heat.

The Steelers broke the tie before the end of the half with a Gary Anderson field goal on a drive where Bubby Brister completed passes of 19 yards to Hoge and 30 yards to rookie Mark Stock.

Later, on a 26 yard Thomas Everett interception return brought the Steelers to just shy of midfield, the Steelers, conceivably, could have ended it there, but could only manage 34 yards, forcing them to settle for another Gary Anderson field goal that put them up 23-17.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and it looked liked Brister and Hoge might end it, as they hooked up twice to produce a first down. Fate was not so kind to the Steelers on the next series, as Tyronne Braxton tackled Hoge one yard shy of the first down at the Denver 41.

Clinging to a 6 point lead , the Broncos defense had forced the Steelers to punt it back to Elway with just over seven minutes left to play....

Doing what he did best, taking advantage of defenses winded after four quarters of playing in the thin, Mile High air, John Elway led a 9 play 71 yard drive that saw him make completions of 16 and 36 yards.

The Broncos also burned close to five minutes off of the clock by the time Melvin Bratton pushed in the go ahead score from the one.

A Dropped Pass, An Errant Snap and One Point Separate ‘89 Steelers from Victory

Denver held a 23-24 point lead with 2:20 left.

But Bubby Brister had been a force the entire game, playing what was probably the best game of his life. And the Steelers had successfully mounted a similar drive against Houston the week before

…All they needed was 45 yards to get inside Gary Anderson’s range.

On first down Brister rocketed a perfect pass to rookie Mark Stock at the Steelers 41, who made the mistake of looking up field too soon. The ball bounced to the turf, incomplete.

Ron Holmes flushed Brister from the pocket as he fired downfield incomplete to Louis Lipps on second down.

On third down, Brister dropped into the shot gun, an innovation Noll had only grudgingly incorporated into the Steelers offense the summer before.

Dermonti Dawson, who’d go on to be a perennial All-Pro at center, was out of the game. Chuck Lanza stood in his place. Brister was trying to hurry the play, Lanza looked back as Brister yelled ‘hut’ but the snap was too low.

Bubby was unable to recover the snap, and Broncos safety snapped it up, allowing Elway to take a knee as time expired.

The 1989 Steelers story book season had ended.

Down, But Never Defeated

In the lingua franca of Steelers Nation, “Super Bowl” is the word for success. Yet, if ultimate success remained elusive, the 1989 Steelers were no one’s failures.

It was, as Ed Bouchette wrote in the Post Gazette, “A victory over expectations.”

After the game Chuck Noll simply said, “There’s not a whole lot to say, except I’m proud as heck of our football team.” Of the team’s future, Bubby Brister simply said, “we’re headed in the right direction.”

It was a view almost universally shared inside and outside the Steelers locker room, as veterans such as Ray Mainsfield thought the Steelers had planted seeds for future glory with their effort at Mile High.

Greater glory, would of course be much farther off than anyone anticipated on that January evening.

But a victory over expectations and promising future made the Steelers 1989 season special.

*All quotes taken from Post Gazette articles available through Google Newspaper Archives.

Thanks for visiting. This is the penultimate installment in the Steelers 1989 season series. The final article will cover Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton and the subsequent aftermath. In the meantime, click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Watch Tower: Arians' Saga a Victory for Old School Journalism

Steeler Nation waited in pins and needles this past week, as rumors flew left and right concerning the fate of Bruce Arians, the Steelers offensive coordinator.

We heard from Jim Wexell that he was out, as a result of the changed culture brought in by the Steelers new investors. That story was confirmed by ESPN Pittsburgh, who reported several times that Arians was a goner.

Then we heard, it was from Pro Football Talk if I am not mistaken, that Arians himself had been the source of the rumor. Finally, Jim Wexell again tells us that it was Ben Roethlisberger who saved Arians' job.

Pittsburgh's two daily newspapers, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review, stood pat. Both papers reported the story, but refused to confirm. Ed Bouchette, writing in PG Plus, confirmed that there was pressure from the front office for Arians' head, but went no further.

In the background of all of this noise, Bouchette did report something that was based in verifiable fact -- that A.O. Shipley refused to resign with the team, in part based on the Steelers unwillingness to confirm who his position coach would be.

The Magic of Objectivity

Less than 24 hours later, the news broke that offensive line coach Larry Zierlien had been fired, but that Bruce Airans had been retained.

The one story that was based on objective facts turned out to be true; the one simply came from unnamed sources wasn't true.... Funny how that works, isn't it?

This should also serve as a reminder to journalists everywhere how important it is to distinguish fact from truth, to use the differientation made famous by the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee.

When the news broke that Arians was a goner, Arians apparently went to Tomlin for confirmation. Tomlin refused to speak with him according to Jim Wexell, and Arians interpreted this to mean he got the axe. He told someone who went and told some one, and soon enough, everyone knew (even Steelers fans living in Argentina.)
  • Fact: Tomlin refused to talk to Arians

Everything else was all subjective. The repoters who insisted that Arians was out bought into the subjectivity.

  • Turth: Regardless of rumor or pressure, Tomlin had apparently not made a decision

In the end, the turth was a lot less sexier, but true journalism is about letting an audience know the facts, however mundane they might be.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Steelers Fire Bob Ligashesky - Special Teams Coach Sent Packing

During the Steelers 2007 season special teams breakdowns, in the form of returns for touchdowns cost the Pittsburgh dearly.

  • A punt returned for a touchdown ultimately was the difference in a 21-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals
  • A kickoff return for a touchdown cost them a game against the Jets, a 1-8 team that would finish 4-12 (sound familiar?)
  • And of course the kick off return for a touchdown played a huge role in the Steelers 31-29 playoff loss to Jacksonville.

When the dust settled no heads, however, rolled. Mike Tomlin reviewed the film and determined that the Steelers special teams deficiencies were rooted in personnel and not coaching.

The Steelers coverage units improved markedly in 2008, but what had been a bad dream on special teams in 2007 turned into an absolute nightmare in 2009.

And this time it cost Bob Ligasheksy his job. As well it should.

It is true, as John Harris pointed out, that several of the choices the Steelers made for their final cuts came back to haunt their special teams.

But Joe Starkey, Harris’ colleague at the Tribune-Review, pointed out shortly after he was hired, Ligasheksy's prior track record as a special teams coach indicates he does not deserve the benefit of the doubt a second time around.

Who Will Replace Ligasheksy?

The Steelers have made no move to replace Ligasheksy but speculation in Steelers Nation is rife that Bobby April will return. April coached the Steelers special teams from 1994 and 1995 – probably the unit’s best overall period.

April had been special teams coach for the Bills, but was let go along with the entire staff.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Larry Zierlein Axed, Bruce Arians to Stay on as Offensive Coordinator

At the end of the day it was nothing more than a lot of sound and fury, the signified a lot less than everyone expected and many wanted.

For two days rampant rumors circulated reporting that:
  • Mike Tomlin was set to fire Bruce Arians,
  • the front office was pressuring Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians,
  • the new investors in the Steelers ownership group had led to a "changed culture" which mean Tomlin would have to fire Bruce Arians.

There was even the rumor that Bruce Arians himself had leaked the word of his own demise.

Mike Tomlin did begin the Steelers 2010 off season by making the first change of his coaching staff since arriving in 2007. But Tomlin fired offensive line coach Larry Zierlein and told Bruce Airans he would remain as offensive coordinator for another year.

Thanks for visiting. Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this later. Note to regular readers, the final installment of the Steelers 1989 series is due today, but alas it is not yet ready.... Check back soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Watch Tower: Rumors Swirl Over Bruce Arian’s Fate

Two days after the Steelers finished 9-7, but out of the playoffs, the only real news thus far is that Ken Anderson has decided to retire after three years as the Steelers quarterbacks coach.

But no one wanted to talk about Kenny A today....

Agonizing Over Arians

Yesterday freelance journalist Jim Wexell reported that his sources indicated that Bruce Arians was to be fired. The brief Twitter report revealed that Rooney had told Tomlin to resolve the situation in whatever way he saw fit, but that with the new investors “the culture was changing,” which Wexell explained to mean that Arians was out.

Steel Curtain Rising questioned the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette as about Wexell’s report during his daily chat, but Bouchette did not take the question. (He did indicate at other times that he expected Arians to stay.)

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin announced Anderson’s retirement, but refused to rule out further coaching changes.

This came on the heels of an ESPN Radio report indicating that Arians would be fired in the near future. Post Gazette blogger Bob Smizik indicated at mid-day that ESPN was backing off their report, but later he indicated ESPN was standing behind their story.

Just the Fact, Please....

Writing on PG Plus, Ed Bouchette confirmed a few facts, but not the story itself. He indicated that if Arians has in fact been fired, neither he nor the front office know this yet. Bouchette, like Smizik, went at great pains to point out that the ESPN Radio reporter who broke the story is a serious journalist and not someone to traffic in rumors.

However, Bouchette also confirmed that “the front office” wants Arians out, but Tomlin does not. Just who “front office” is remains unclear. It could be Kevin Colbert or Art Rooney II or both.

(Bouchette also reported that Tomlin has fought successfully to save the job of one of his special teams coaches following the 2007 season, a fact was not widely known before today.)

The Tribune-Review's Scott Brown reporting paints a similar story, that Arians has not yet been fired and may not be fired, although Brown hones in on the fact that neither Tomlin nor the Steelers have issued reports affirming Arians' continued employment with the team.

Brown also informed his readers that Tomlin was in the process of meeting with his players, one-by-one, and then would move on to meet with each coach individually.

Both Brown and Ed Bouchette informed readers that no final decision on Arians is likely until Tomlin has completed those meetings, something which might not happen until the beginning of next week.

Of Pundits and Peanut Gallaries

Regardless of whether he ultimately stays or goes, the news that Bruce Arians could be about to go has generated a firestorm.

The Tribune-Review's Joe Starkey, who was critical of many of Tomlin's coaching hires, has written an excellent piece that about the dilemma created by Arians.

As if almost on cue, Ron Cook from the Post-Gazette is defending Arians, contending that it is simply unfair to use Arians as a scapegoat.

As expected, the internet is where the fire burns the hottest. The website Behind the Steel Curtain, one of the best, if not the best fan-run sites, post revealing the Jim Wexell news drew close to 84 comments. The post discussing the ESPN Radio report drew 134 comments, and counting.

That of course only measures the volume on one site out of hundereds, meaning this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Larry Zierlein's Job Also in Doubt?

Bouchette also reported that the Steelers were attempting to resign several practice squad player, specifically he mentioned A.O. Shipley, the man the Steelers drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 draft. Shipley apparently would not sign until the Steelers could confirm who his position coach would be.

The Steelers were not able to make that confirmation today.

Hence, offensive line coach Larry Zierlein could also be on the chopping block.

Thanks for visiting. Time allowing, Steel Curtain Rising will weigh in soon on what should happen with Arians.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Steelers Miss Playoffs, But Dump Dolphins 30-24

"How about a little adversity, huh? That game right there is kind of a snap shot of how it’s been for us." – Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin

Scout’s honor, I’d already thought of something similar before reading Tomlin’s post-game quotes.

In their victory over Miami the men in Black and Gold gave Steelers Nation the perfect snap shot of what was their 2009 season.

They started with a bang, but followed by going toe to toe for a while. Then they got hot, and looked on the verge of putting it away, only to see a seemingly inferior offense embarrass and humble a once proud defense.

Then, amidst the din generated by a chorus of opposition, the Steelers fought back, with a rebound that was at once imperfect and impressive.

The only difference was that while the Steelers second effort sufficed against the Dolphins, it was not strong enough to secure an opportunity to defend the Super Bowl title.

The Steelers 30-24 victory over the Dolphins not withstanding, the Baltimore Ravens did what the Steelers failed to do in the regular season, eliminating the Steelers from the playoffs by defeating the Oakland Raiders.

Steel Curtain Rising will offer a full diagnosis of what when wrong for the Steelers in 2009, but the Miami game, and truth be told the Steelers 3 game winning streak, have taught us something important, which we detail below….

This Is Why You Need to Be Able to Run It...

Miami had pulled within three. Ben Roethlisberger had just taken a sack/fumble and done something nasty to his arm on the way down. Recovering deep in Steelers territory, a best-case scenario had the Dolphins tying the score.

The Steelers defense uncharacteristically reversed that outcome by netting a turnover. – Good.

The Steelers had the ball back at their three, with just over five minutes left, and their franchise quarterback was in obvious distress. – Bad

Enter the Steelers running game, which accounted for 74 yards of the 83 that the Steelers gained on the final drive which end up consuming all but 40 seconds off of the clock.

Rasshard’s For Real

Rasshard Mendenhall looked as good as he has all year – which is to say it is a lot easier to understand why the Steelers ignored needs on both lines to pick him first in the 2008 draft.

Mendenhall ran for just shy of one hundred yards, including a 36 yard burst and he added a 26 yard pass reception to bring his yards from scrimmage to 120.

Yet, Mendenhall was not in the game during the Steelers final, critical drive.

Way to Go Willie

Against the Dolphins, for the last time perhaps, Willie Parker was the Steelers feature back. Willie Parker in fact gained 74 of the Steelers 83 yards on that final drive, including a 34 yard scamper that all but assured Jeff Reed’s final field goal.

Why was Willie in? Theories abound. Some say it was because he could grind out the tough yards (Mendenhall’s rushing average drops to 3 per carry when you take out his long one), or perhaps its because Wille’s got more secure hands.

Another explanation perhaps its was the quell any rumors, such as those reported by Ed Bouchette in PG Plus, that the Steelers were intentionally under using Parker to lower his free agent value.

Regardless, Willie got it done.

Secondary Redeems Itself, Sort of…

When Tyler Thigpen stepped in the game and led the Dolphins to two quick touchdowns, it appeared that fourth quarter meltdowns would be the be-all, end-all legacy of the Steelers 2009 season.

Then something funny happened.

The Steelers defensive backs started coming down with – interceptions, as Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor both came down with Thigpen passes.

The counter argument is that Thigpen threw the DB’s “gimmies.” There’s no doubt about that, but against Kansas City and Oakland Clark and rookie Joe Burnett both failed to catch similar “gimmies” either of which would have secured the outcome of those games.

This time the Steelers secondary made plays when it had to. This doesn’t change the fact that this is a major need area for the Steelers, but give the men credit for finishing the Dolphins game.

Steelers Tough Guys Step Up in the Clutch

Hines Ward was playing on not one, but two injured hamstrings, but don’t tell him that. Ben Roethisberger was in visible agony on the last drive, but completed all of his passes, including a key 13 yard pass to Ward on third down from the Steelers 15.

James Harrison likewise was out there playing with one arm, and so on.

The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers opened themselves to a lot of questions with their five game losing streak, but their toughness remains beyond reproach.

Apologies for the tardiness in posting -- last night I went with my wife to get her passport -- you do not know the meaning of "bureaucracy" until you experience an Argentine "tramite." Thanks for visiting Steel Curtain Rising.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steelers Defeat Miami 30-24, Await Fate

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Miami Dolphins today, holding back a 4th quarter surge led by Dolphins quarterback Tyler Thigpen.

In winning the game 30-24, the Steelers finished the regular season with a 9-7 record, however, their playoff fate remains very much in doubt.

The Houston Texans came back to snatch a victory against the New England Patriots, forcing the Steelers to rely on Oakland to upset Baltimore, the Chiefs to upset the Broncos, and the Bengals to defeat the Jets.

Check back with Steel Curtain Rising for a full analysis of the Miami game.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ben Roethlisbergers Wins Steelers MVP Award

Since arriving as a first round pick in 2004, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished many, many things.

  • Ben became the first rookie to win 14 straight games
  • Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl
  • Ben bounced back from a near-fatal motorcycle accident
  • His colleagues in the AFC voted him to the Pro Bowl in 2007
  • Ben became the first Steeler to sign a 100 million dollar contract
  • Roethlisberger led perhaps the most dramatic, come from behind touchdown drive in Super Bowl XLIII

Now, Roethlisberger can add another feather into his cap – yesterday Ben Roethlisberger’s teammates voted him as the Pittsburgh Steelers Most Valuable Player for 2009.

This is the first time Ben has won the award, and that marks a certain sort of milestone. Although most of the press Ben gets has portrayed him in a positive light, there have been rumblings here and there that he was not universally liked in the Steelers locker room.

Those days, for the moment at least, are over, as Ben’s teammates recognized him in a year when he smashed a number of Steelers passing records, including most passing yards in a single season and most passing yards in a single game.

Kordell Stewart was the last quarterback to win the award in 2001, and before him Neil O’Donnell won it in 1995. Following those two, one needs to go back to the 1978 and 1979 seasons to find a quarterback who won that award, when Terry Bradshaw won the award during the seasons when he led the team to victories in Super Bowls XIII and XIV.

It is ironic to note that Stewart’s and O’Donnell’s MVP awards marked their final seasons as starters. Steel Curtain Rising feels safe in saying that, barring injury, a similar fate will not befall Ben.

Not to Nit Pick, But…

Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower hates nit picking, but the Post-Gazette article on Ben winning the Steelers MVP award contains a number of factual errors.

Keying in on the fact that Ben will play in Miami – the place where he got his first start, Ed Bouchette points out that:

While the game was in fact, Ben’s first start, it was actually the third game of the season, not the fourth. And Ben had already thrown two touchdowns and two interceptions the week prior in relief of Tommy Maddox against Baltimore.