´ Steel Curtain Rising: January 2014

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

14 Reasons to Put Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame in 2014

It is time to induct Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

By all rights, Bettis should have been a first ballot Hall of Fame selection.

Yet he undoubtedly suffered from the fact that fellow Pittsburgh Steeler Rod Woodson was selected the year before and at a time when Dermontti Dawson’s candidacy was gaining momentum.
  • They can deny it all they want, but a “We already have too many Steelers” mentality dominates the much NFL Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
Case in point, Steve Tasker, who was a special teams demon and little more gets serious consideration, yet L.C. Greenwood who had more sacks than Joe Greene remains ignored.

Fortunately the selection committee isn’t ignoring Bettis, nor should they, they just haven’t selected him. That needs to change, and it must change now.

14 Reasons to Induct Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame in 2014

1 – No other NFL player carried the moniker “The Bus.” While he was nibble on his feet, Bettis was a bruiser, one rare running who dragged defenders with him.
2 – In two seasons following his 30th birthday, Bettis led the Steelers in rushing as a non-starter.
3 – His 3.9 yards per carry average supposedly works against him. 41 yards would bring Bettis average up to 4.0. What about all those 1 yard touchdown runs or 3rd and inches conversions? You want those or 41 more garbage yards?
4 – Bettis made four Pro Bowl appearances as a Steeler.
5 – QB’s started for the Steelers during his tenure. Of those he essentially carried, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Kent Graham and helped nursemaid Ben Roethlisberger
6 – Only six rushers are above him on the NFL’s all time list.
7Franco Harris, who is already in the Hall of Fame sits right below Bettis’ spot on the All Time list at number 7. How can you out gain the author of the Immaculate Reception and not be in the Hall of Fame?
8 – The Bus posted 8 1000 yard plus season in his career, and was only a hair short in two others.
9 – There are NINE rushers who have fewer yards than Jerome Bettis who are already in the Hall of Fame – explain that one.
10 – Bettis played 15 or 16 games in 10 separate seasons. Durability is a hallmark of the great ones.

Need anyone say more?
12 – Bettis made appearances in a 12 playoff games before the Steelers “Took him home” to Super Bowl XL. All told Bettis playoff totals look like this: 205 carries, 675 yards and 9 touchdowns, the latter number tying Bettis for 5th.
13 – The average NFL running back's career is 2.57 years. Jerome Bettis played for 13 years, and in 11 or 12 of them he probably could have beaten out all but perhaps a half dozen of the running backs in the league for a starting job. Longevity is a hallmark of the greatest.
14 – Fourteen other players have all rushed for 12,000 plus yards and are enshrined in Canton. Bettis is the lone exception. That must change.

Steelers Circle the Wagons

The Pittsburgh Steelers are somewhat of a “conservative organization” when it comes to promoting their own players. (Contrast that with the feel-good stories Dallas’ PR team pushes on Tony Romo.)

Yet the Steelers organization has gotten behind the ball and is mounting a campaign to get Jerome Bettis over the top. Bill Cowher has spoken out. Dick Hoak has as well. So as Mike Tomlin and even Tom Donahoe has offered his two cents.

But Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II said it the best: “He needs to be in there…. Its time.”

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

James Saxon's History Vs. the Steelers....

“The Story” on recently hired Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach James Saxon is the Steelers-Vikings coaching swap of Kirby Wilson for Saxon. That’s fine because such coach-for-coach flips are rare in the NFL. But Saxon was also present for some key moments of Steelers history, albeit as a player for opposing teams.
  • In that sense, Saxon stands in good company. 
Newly hired offensive line coach Mike Munchak played against the Steelers with the Houston Oilers, and then coached against them with the Oilers and then Titans.

Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Ray Horton, Dick LeBeau, Bill Cowher, and Chuck Noll both played and coached against the Steelers before coming to Pittsburgh. Darren Perry played and coached for the Steelers and coached against them. Mike Mularkey hold’s the grand slam here, having played both for and against the Steelers AND having coached for and against them.
  • So Saxon’s past history vs. the Steelers isn’t to be held against him, but rather explored, if for no other reason than lack of real Steelers news.
Saxon Helps (or at Least Doesn't Hurt) the Emperor's Last Hurrah

Saxon’s first game against the Steelers came in late November of 1988 as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs. KC’s record stood at 3-9-1 – and they were favored. Yes, Noll’s Steelers were nursing a 2-10 record, yet they were to go 3-1 during the final quarter of ’88, offering a latent prelude to the 1989 revival. Saxon logged one run for zero yards – yep Gerald Williams and Keith Willis were tough ones, but he did catch 4 passes for 35 yards.

And Saxon again earned himself a footnote in that ’89 Steelers story book season, serving as the understudy to the sensation sweeping the NFL, Christian Okoye. The real story of that game of course was Bubby Brister’s unexpected return from injury, and rookie linebacker Jerry Olsavsky filling in for injured Hardy Nickerson and stopping Okoye single handedly during a late 4th quarter Steelers goal line stand.
  • Saxon only had 2 carries for 10 yards that day – maybe things might have been different had Marty given him one more?
Saxon, Present at the Dawn of Cowher Power

The next time Saxon would face the Steelers would be in 1993, as a member of the Miami Dolphins. Records, however, do not show Saxon recording a catch or a carry, in the game where Rod Woodson made of his Hall of Fame caliber game-sealing interceptions.

Saxon’s final time suiting up vs. the Steelers came in 1994, when the Steelers played the Dolphins in a game where Bill Cowher shocked the NFL by benching/resting Neil O'Donnell in favor of Mike Tomczak. Tomczak played what was perhaps his best game as a Steeler, leading Pittsburgh to a in what he termed a “shoot out” overtime victory of 16-13.
  • For the record Saxon had five catches for 15 yards in that game – perhaps Dan Marino should have called his number one more time?
What’s the sum total of Saxon’s damage inflicted on the Steelers? Well, take a look:

james saxon career chiefs dolphins stats vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Saxon's games vs. Steelers were nothing to write home about
In other words not much. Saxon was indeed present for some key, if under the radar wins of the late Noll and early Cowher eras of Steelers football, but his role was little more than that of a bystander.

Fear not, Steelers Nation. Saxon will be anything but a bystander in Le'Veon Bell’s development.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Steelers Name James Saxon as Running Backs Coach

Trades in the NFL normally involve draft picks, or at times players. But the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings appear to be trading coaches.
  • The operative word above is “appear.”
Kirby Wilson of course departed from Pittsburgh for Minnesota to take their running backs coaching job. James Saxon held that role until Leslie Frazier was dismissed and with him his entire staff. Mike Tomlin has moved quickly to anoint Saxon as his running backs coach.

With his latest coaching hire Tomlin has again opted in favor of experience over potential. Saxon has 23 years of NFL experience divided between the coaching and players ranks. Saxon broke into coaching in 2000 with the Buffalo Bills, then moved on to coach running backs for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001 to 2007. After that, he coached for the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2010.

Saxon also played as a full back and running back for 8 years, breaking into the league in 1988 as a sixth round pick with the Chiefs, where he played for four season. After that he played under Don Shula for 3 more in Miami, until finishing in Philadelphia with the Eagles.

Overseeing the continued development of Le'Veon Bell will be among Saxon's first tasks in Pittsburgh. Saxon of course has a pedigree with power house running backs, having worked with Adrian Peterson. However, Saxon will also likely have input on whether the Steelers make a play for Jonathan Dwyer or Felix Jones who are set to become free agents this March.

Coaching Swaps Rare, But Not Unprecedented in Steelers History

Such coaching swaps are rare in Steelers history, but similar moves have occurred in the past. Tony Dungy won fame as the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator in the 1980’s, until he resigned rather than accept demotion in 1988.

The man Chuck Noll tapped to replace him was Kansas City’s deposed defensive coordinator, Rod Rust. When Dungy became available Marty Schottenhiemer wasted little time in bringing him along to Kansas City.

But he didn’t bring him to KC as a defensive coordinator, only as a defensive backs coach. The coordinator’s seat of course went a budding young assistant from his staff on the Cleveland Browns – Bill Cowher.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kirby Wilson leaves the Steelers to become running backs coach in Minnesota

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette is reporting that Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson is leaving the team to take the same job in Minnesota under new head coach Mike Zimmer.

Wilson was interviewed last week by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for the team's vacancy at offensive coordinator after Jim Caldwell left to become the head coach in Detriot.

However, after no longer being considered for the position in Baltimore, Wilson was allowed to make the lateral move  to the Vikings.

It's unclear what Minnesota will pay Wilson, but the fact that it's a lateral coaching move is a bit curious.

Former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch made headlines on Saturday for passively speculating on the recent upheaval among the offensive assistant coaches. Maybe this comes from an insider's knowledge of the relationship dynamics that existed between the coaches when he played in Pittsburgh (if anyone would know it would be someone like him) or maybe it was just one of those innocent tweets that most of us make with no real thought behind it, and the reactions to it were a bit over-blown.

Regardless, Wilson's departure for a lateral position is a bit shocking, considering how well-respected he was by the players and the front office--he was believed to be in line to succeed Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator before being badly burned in a house fire two years ago.

Wilson is the second offensive assistant to leave the team since the end of the 2013 season. Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was fired by head coach Mike Tomlin after the regular season, and Mike Munchak was recently hired to take his place.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Steelers set to hire Mike Munchak as offensive line coach

Steelers insider and beat reporter Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is reporting that Pittsburgh will hire Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak to be the team's new offensive line coach.

Munchak, who was the head coach in Tennessee the past three seasons, compiling a 22-26 record before  being fired following the 2013 season after reportedly refusing to part ways with several of his assistant coaches, will take over for Jack Bicknell Jr, who was let go by head coach Mike Tomlin after the regular season.

Munchak played at Penn State under legendary head coach Joe Paterno in the late 70s and early 80s, before landing in Houston in 1982 and playing 12 Hall of Fame seasons that included nine trips to the Pro Bowl and 10 seasons selected as an All-Pro.

After retirement, Munchak stayed on with the Oilers organization as an assistant coach and was named offensive line coach in 1997 after owner Bud Adams relocated his team to Tennessee, eventually re-naming it the Titans.

  • Munchak coached the offensive line for 14 seasons before taking over for Jeff Fisher as head coach in 2010.

According to Bouchette, Munchak coaches a zone blocking system, similar to what the team wanted to implement last season after drafting running back Le'Veon Bell in the second round.

Munchak becomes the Steelers fourth offensive line coach since Tomlin was hired in 2007.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kirby Wilson to interview for Ravens offensive coordinator job

Last week, there was speculation that Steelers long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler was a likely candidate to be the defensive coordinator in Tennessee under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, who served on the same staff as Butler for several seasons.

This week, there is more than speculation that Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson could leave for the offensive coordinator job in Baltimore. It was reported on Tuesday by several outlets-- including ESPN.com--that Pittsburgh has given Ravens coach John Harbaugh permission to interview Wilson this week in Mobile, Alabama, while both coaches are in attendance for the 2014 Senior Bowl.

Wilson, who was once considered a likely successor to Bruce Arians, would never get his chance after a house fire in January of 2012 left him severely burned and incapacitated for several months, while he recovered from his injuries.

Instead, after Arians and the team parted way, weeks after Wilson suffered his accident, Todd Haley was hired as the new offensive coordinator, and has held the position for the past two seasons.
  • Wilson returned to the team for the start of the 2012, remaining running backs coach, through 2013.
The OC job opened up in Baltimore, after Jim Caldwell, who was hired near the end of the 2012 season to replace a fired Cam Cameron, was named  the Lions new head coach last week.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Steelers Nation Rooting Guide to AFC and NFC Championships

Championship Sunday is upon us. And has been the case since 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers are spectators leaving legions in Steelers Nation to wonder, "Who to root for?"

As it did last year, Steel Curtain Rising is happy to provide its Championship Sunday rooting guide for Steelers Nation.

This year's guide is a little different as the Steelers Nation has something to root for, as opposed to having something to root against. And there is plenty to root against.

Steelers Nation Skin in the Game?

As pointed out recently, John Fox is a member of the Chuck Noll coaching tree, which gives Steelers Nation some semblance of a "Skin in the game." A Super Bowl victory for Fox would bring the Noll coaching tree's collective Lombardi total to 7 (4 for Noll, 1 for Tony Dungy, 1 for Mike Tomlin.)

Of course Fox's ties to Pittsburgh are not terribly deep, having only coached on Chuck Noll’s staff from 1989 to 1991 and having coached at Pitt from 1986 to 1989.

Citizen's of Steelers Nation shouldn't be expected to roll out the towels for Denver, but even if they don't find this as a compelling reason to root for Denver, there are others to root against everyone else.

Championship Sunday Rooting Guide

Denver gets top priority, not only because of Fox's ties to Pittsburgh, but also because of who he is up against. That is of course the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick.

New England, as always, looks unstoppable. It has lost its last two Super Bowls, but it fought them both the wire. Yet, it’s been over ten years since New England won the Big Dance. Tom Brady has shown no signs of slowing, but he's now closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And that raises the imperative of defeating New England in the AFC Championship.

Brady is an honorable player and if he can tie or break Terry Bradshaw's Super Bowl record, and put his own Lombardi count beyond Ben Roethlisberger's grasp, then more power to him.

But the same cannot be said about his coach. Bill Belichick is a cheater. And this cheater stands poised to tie Chuck Noll's record as the only coach who to win four Super Bowls. He must be stopped.
  • Chuck Noll's record is not the only one at stake.
The San Francisco 49er's enter the game with a chance to tie Pittsburgh's 6 Lombardi's.

To some in Steelers Nation this might seem like smaller potatoes compared to defending Chuck Noll's legacy. But the Lombardi count will be broken or tied at some point by some other team. There's no assurance that Bill Belichick will catch The Emperor.
  • So that's why Steelers Nation should back San Francisco over New England, if it comes to that.
Seattle also offers something of interest. Should they win, perhaps the Seattle Seahawks fans can finally quit their excuse making over Super Bowl XL.

So Steel Curtain Risings Championship Sunday rooting guide reads like this:
  • Root for Denver over New England
  • Should Denver win,
  • Root for Seattle
  • Should New England win,
  • Root for whoever you think can beat New England (yours truly leans towards the 49er's, but that's only guess.)
There you have it folks. Enjoy Championship Sunday.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Steelers Interview Munchak for Vacant Offensive Line Position

Is was reported on Friday by several outlets that the Steelers interviewed former Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak for the opening as their offensive line coach.
Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who spent 12 seasons with the Oilers before retiring following the '93 season, stayed with Houston as an assistant coach in 1994 and became the offensive line coach in 1997 after owner Bud Adams moved his franchise to Tennessee, eventually re-naming it the Titans.

Munchak served as offensive line coach for 14 seasons, before getting the nod as head coach in 2011 after long-time head coach Jeff Fisher departed.

However, after three mostly underwhelming seasons, in which the Titans finished a combined 22-26, Munchak was fired following the just completed 2013 regular season when he reportedly refused to part ways with several of his assistant  coaches.

Munchak, who played at Penn State in the late 70s and early 80s under legendary head coach Joe Paterno, was also rumored to be interested in the vacated head spot at Happy Valley before James Franklin got the nod last week.

If Munchak does indeed get the job as offensive line coach in Pittsburgh, it would obviously be an awesome find, as he certainly has the credentials to take the Steelers young and often-struggling unit to the next level. However, after being a head coach for three seasons, Munchak no doubt has aspirations for a head coaching job somewhere, if not in the NFL, then perhaps the college ranks.

Therefore, the Steelers may be looking for another offensive line coach next January, but if Munchak can make a difference for the young hogs up front who are entrusted to protect franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it might be worth that year.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

John Fox: Key Branch on the Unsung Chuck Noll Coaching Tree

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox stands poised to take his second team to a Super Bowl should he defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

And Should he prevail at Mile High, much will be said and written about Fox and Peyton Manning. Little will likely be said about John Fox roots to the Chuck Noll Coaching Tree, a mistake rectified here.

The Rise NFL Coaching Tree 

NFL Coaching Trees are a curious concept. Taken at face value, they're a simple road map detailing who hired who and, as the NFL is the ultimate 'old boys network,' a coaching tree gives outsiders a peak into who is chummy with whom in the league.
  • But since the 1990's coaching trees have taken on a life of their own. 
Coaching trees are used to extend a coach’s influence beyond his won-lost record and/or Lombardi playoff count. Bill Walsh only won three Super Bowls, yet many unquestionably hail him as the "best NFL coach ever."

Never mind that this ranks Walsh above coaches who won an equal number of Super Bowls with lesser talent (Joe Gibbs) or others who both brought home more Lombardi's and owned a head-to-head advantage over Walsh (Chuck Noll.) But try to make that argument, and even citizens of Steelers Nation will respond… “But Walsh has the Bill Walsh coaching tree…..”

Three Super Bowls is a tremendous accomplishment as is the rest of Bill Walsh’s body of work on the field in in the draft room. But “the Bill Walsh coaching tree” gives his greatness an extra air of infallibility that others lack. (if you doubt that try to amend the Wikipedia entry for the tree to suggest that some members perhaps don’t belong and see how long the changes last.)

Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells were not the only NFL coaches to spawn coaching trees, there are others who are less distinguished if not less accomplished, which brings Steelers Nation to a coaching tree with a chance to distinguish itself this winter:  The Chuck Noll coaching tree.

The Under Appreciated, but Not Under Achieving Chuck Noll Coaching Tree

One of the ultimate ironies of Chuck Noll’s distinguished coaching career is that he took pride in role as a teacher of his players. That was one reason for numberless practices – if a player made an error, he wanted assistant coaches to correct them, whether the author of the error was Terry Bradshaw or Joe Greene or a mere mortal such as Walter Abercrombie or Lupe Sanchez.
  • Yet for all his accomplishments as a teacher Noll did not seed a legion of accomplished assistants.
Tony Dungy was the only Noll pupil to achieve greatness as head coach, and the other coaches that ESPN lists on the Noll branch of the Sid Gillman tree were mentored by Dungy (Jim Cadwell, Lovie Smith, Mike McCoy.)
And then there is one other.

And that is of course John Fox.

Fox’s Time in Pittsburgh/with the Steelers

Tony Dungy was a seen has a head coaching commodity before he was even 30. Chuck Noll tapped him to be his defensive cooridantor in the 80’s, and Dungy regularly had the unit ranked near the top. And he did it with units lead by the likes of Keith Willis, Bryan Hinkle, and Dwayne Woodruff – good players but not quite the caliber of L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert or Mel Blount.
  • Then came the 1988 season, where the Steelers defense fell to 28th in the league. 
Management wanted changes, and one of those involved a demotion of Dungy. Dungy balked. (For a more complete account, see Maple Tree Press’s “Nunn Better” by Ivan Cole.)

That left Noll a slot to fill on his staff. And to fill that slot he looked across the river to Pitt, hiring their defensive coordinator John Fox to coach his secondary.

John Fox inherited a unit that included an aging but still productive Woodruff, and budding talent in the form of Rod Woodson, Thomas Everett, and a young rookie named Carnell Lake who made the transition from linebacker.

Fox therefore had a role in molding the 1989 Steelers storybook season. The Steelers defense only improved from 28th to 19th that year, but the Steelers allowed 1/3 fewer touchdown passes in 1989 than it had year before.

Fox’s secondary continued to improve in 1990. Overall the defense finished number 1 in the NFL (by yards allowed) and it was an almost impossible defense to pass against. At mid season, Steelers Digest shot Woodson, Lake, Everett, and Woodruff in the end zone with road block and stop signs. The Steelers secondary was that good:
  • During the entire season, the defense only allowed 9 touchdown passes.
That impressive number becomes more impressive when one considers that 3 of those passes were giving up in a single game (albeit in the final, make or break contest vs. Houston.)

The Steelers defense, struggled during 1991, as the offense and in fact the entire organization was hamstrung by Chuck Noll’s decision to climb Walton’s Mountain. Noll called it a day at the season’s end.

Tom Donahoe lead a comprehensive search for a replacement and word is that Fox was one of those he considered during the selection process. Fox of course, didn’t get the job which went to Bill Cowher, but Chuck Noll’s influence on him was lasting.

When asked the experience of coaching with Noll in by the Post-Gazette’s by Gerry Dulac in 2010, Fox offered this:
“I was very fortunate as a young coach in the NFL, first time in the NFL, to be around a guy like him. I think you become what you've been around and, in that case, I was very fortunate.”
Any doubt as to whose coaching tree Fox belongs on?

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Bill Cowher Coaching Tree (Re)Grows a Limb - Ken Whisenhunt Gets Titans Job

The Bill Cowher coaching tree regrew a new limb on Monday when the Tennessee Titans named form Pittsburgh Steelers tight ends coach and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt  as its new head coach. Whether Whisenhunt will bring Russ Grimm with him to Nashaville or not is not yet know.

Bill Cowher’s coaching tree will never be confused with that of Bill Walsh. Nonetheless, Cowher has mentored more than his fair share of NFL head coaches,
  • Dom Capers, served as Cowher’s defensive coordinator from 1992-1994 and went on to coach the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans
  • Chan Gailey, severed as Cowher’s offensive coordinator in 1996 and 1997 and left to coach the Dallas Cowboys in the ‘90’s, and the Buffalo Bills in the this past decade
  • Dick LeBeau, served as Cowher’s defensive coordinator from 1995 to 1996, and was named Cincinnati Bengals head coach in 2000. LeBeau was not successful as a head coach, but has spawned his own tree of NFL defensive assistants
  • Mike Mularkey, served as Cowhers offensive coordinator from 2001-2003, and left to become the Buffalo Bills head coach and Mularkey also did a stint as the Jacksonville Jaguars coach in 2012
  • Bruce Arians, served as Cowher’s final receiver’s coach from 2004 to 2006, and now coaches Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals
Arians is enjoying a successful run in Pittsburgh West, where he has overseen the rehabilitation of Carson Palmer. Pittsburgh West was of course also Whisenhunt’s first head coaching gig.

His work as Steelers offensive coordinator from 2004 to 2006, and especially his work in developing Ben Roethilsberger, got him the job in Arizona. Yet, while Whisenhunt failed to develop Matt Leinart,he did guide Kurt Warner to a “phoenix like” rebirth (excuse the pun) and together the two took the Cardinals all the way to Super Bowl XLIII.

…All loyalty to the Chin aside, Steelers Nation is happy with how that one turned out.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Steelers Front Office Free Agency: Dolphins Request Permission to Interview Omar Khan

Steelers fans know it is a question of “when” and not “if,” but they’d prefer when be “later” as opposed to “now.”  And for good reason.  But “now” be coming here in the 2014 off season. The event in question is the departure of Pittsburgh Steelers director of football administration Omar Khan for the general manager’s slot at another team.

Although he’s only age 36, Khan is one of the hottest up and coming names in the NFL front office ecosystem. He’s already interviewed for multiple NFL general manager positions, most recently that of the New York Jets in 2013. Kevin Colbert acknowledged that the Steelers loss of Khan would be inevitable at some point, and the Steelers have prepared for that day by bringing in salary cap guru Samir Suleiman.
Art Rooney II will certainly grant permission. The Steelers rarely if ever attempt to prevent their younger asistants from seeking better opportunities. Dan Rooney allowed Tom Donahoe to interview for the presidency of the Seattle Seahawks in 1998. He let Tom Modrak go to Philadelphia shorly after Donahoe declined Paul Allen's offer. Doug Whaley is left Pittsburgh to become the GM of the Buffalo Bills.
  • While Khan is a hot commodity, he is no shoe in to get the job in Miami. 
Brown is reporting that the Dolphins will also interview Cardinals vice president of player personnel Jason Licht, Browns assistant general manager Ray Farmer, Giants vice president of player evaluation Marc Ross and Titans vice president of personnel Lake Dawson. Miami will also conduct an in-house interview with assistant general manager Brian Gaine.

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Special Teams and Coaches

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part III of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers special teams and coaches. Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.
steelers 2013 final report card grades special teams coaches

Special Teams
The Pittsburgh Steelers history of special teams coaches is that of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Staring with Jon Kolb, the franchise has alternated bad special teams coaches with good ones (with the exception of Bobby April-Ron Zook). After the Amos Jones disasterDanny Smith would appear to continue that trend.

In 2013 Steelers Nation got a chance to see what its like to make splash plays, with several key kicks returned for long yardages, a kick returned for a touchdown and a successful fake punt, in addition to a blocked field goal and blocked extra point. Antonio Brown proved himself to be a deadly punt returner, Emmanuel Sanders showed he was a dangerous kick returner, and Felix Jones was solid.

With that said, the punting unit struggled mightily early on, one punt was blocked and another negated by a blocked kick, and too many long returns were made in critical situations. Shaun Suisham was next to perfect, and while his two misses gave the Raiders their margin, his field goals gave the Steelers insurance in more than a few games. Mat McBride took over for a struggling Zoltan Mesko, and proved himself to be a serviceable upgrade. Grade: B-

Todd Haley was a lightning rod for criticism during the Steelers 0-4 start. Many observed that the Steelers only moved the ball or scored when in the no huddle. Yet, when the offensive line stabilized and Haley got his top tight end and rushers back history repeated itself. During the middle of 2012 when the offensive line stabilized and the running backs got healthy, Haley’s offense proved itself to be very effective. Ben Roethlisberger and Haley clearly have some differences, witness timeouts burned late vs. Miami and Baltimore, but the two are proving good for each other

Somewhere in the bowels of Steelers Nation, someone got the brilliant brainwave that after 50 plus years in the NFL, Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot how to coach defense. Either that, or LeBeau got to the point where his scheming and play calling could only make up for too much age, too much and too many injuries inexperience mixed together.
  • Draw your own conclusions, but Steel Curtain Rising opts for the later.
Yes, the Steelers defense took a step back in 2013, a big one. But losing Larry Foote caused far more disruption than the average fan can fathom. Pulling Troy Polamalu from his strong safety position shifted a lot of responsibility to an aging Ryan Clark and a green Shamarko Thomas. Shifting out Casey Hampton for Steve McLendon didn't provide the boost that many fans felt it would. That was a difficult hand that Dick LeBeau was dealt. But LeBeau was and hopefully will remain part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Finally, there is Mike Tomlin. It’s unknown how much influence Tomlin had in the roster/salary cap choices that left depth so thin that he was forced to shift his number 3 tight end, Kelvin Beachum, to center 8 plays into season (sorry, we told you losing Doug Legursky was a mistake). It’s also hard to know how much responsibility that Tomlin held for the decision to cut lose and recall so many players (see Will Allen, Stevenson Sylvester, and Jonathan Dwyer). These issues are important, as they impacted greatly in the 0-4 start. As was perhaps the decision to arrive in London late and risk jet lag, for which Tomlin was fully responsible.

Tomlin responded to that with the same kind of talk that coaches always pull out in those situations.
  • It’s what is said when the cameras are off that is important. Tomlin spoke, and his team clearly listened. 
Then, after the New England disaster, Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone who wasn’t making an effort. But he made no changes, because his review found no lack of effort. That’s the sign of a supremely self-confident coach who doesn’t feel the need to make change for change sake after the worst defensive effort in team history. Instead, Tomlin took responsibility for it all -- going so far as to throw himself on a grenade with Kevin Colbert's drafting record was questioned -- rolled up his sleeves, and continued coaching.

The Steelers went 6-2 after that, and as Art Rooney II has said, they were playing their best ball at the end. Grade:  B

Unsung Heroes
An offensive line loses its best player, its most experienced player, and its signal caller. 8 plays into the season. Shortly after that it’s clear that it’s all important left tackle is in over his head. So another change needs to be made. This is of course what happened to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.

During all of the ensuring chaos, there were two constants, to players who had a calming influence, two players who were always part of the solution and never part of the problem. Those two players are Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Foster continued his steady play. DeCastro began developing into a very good guard. And for that and for their consistency, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2013 season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Defense

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part II of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers defense. (For part I covering the offense, click here) Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.
steelers 2013 final report card grades defense

Defensive Line
All doubts about the decision to make Cameron Heyward the team’s first round pick in 2011 died this year, as Heyward made tremendous strides. The Steelers return to winning and Heyward’s ascension to the starting line up are not coincidental events. At this point in his career Ziggy Hood is what you see is what you get. He’ll make good plays at some times, but don’t expect anything spectacular. Steve McLendon apparently graded out well against the run and better than Big Snack did in 2013… If you say so, but the Steelers were vulnerable to the run, and that usually starts up front in the middle. Brett Keisel showed himself to be a leader and, yes, a playmaker. While this unit had its moments, there were not enough of them. Grade:  C

Lawrence Timmons lead the team in tackles, and was the units best and most consistent player, in addition to calling the defenses on-the field signals. Jason Worilds was the surprise of the season leading the team with eight sacks. After those two, the unit saw a drop off as Jarvis Jones struggled to learn the nuances of the position, while Vince Williams didn’t get baptized by fire – he was thrown into it. LaMarr Woodley had the makings of a solid year until injuries struck at mid season. After that he was completely ineffective. Again. Stevenson Sylvester made the most of his second opportunity with the Steelers, and Terence Garvin began to make his presence know by the end of the season. While this unit was the most consistent of the defenses, the Steelers still needed more both in terms of pass rush and run stopping. Grade: B-

For years Ike Taylor shadowed the opponents best receiver. When that practice stopped in 2013, the Steelers defense got better. Cortez Allen disappointed early on, but played better late in the season, although his play was not flawless. The biggest surprise was perhaps William Gay, who had a fine year which included two forced fumbles, a pick six, and two sacks. Ryan Clark slowed a step, but still was second in tackles – although it is the nature of his position to make tackles. Troy Polamalu played out of position for much of the year and, if he is not the Troy Polamalu of 2008 or 2010, he still is better than most safeties in the league, forcing 5 fumbles and intercepting two passes, including a pick six. Shamarko Thomas looked good, for a rookie, early on, but Will Allen took his place after his injury, and Allen again stabilized the secondary. This unit saw its ups an down, and must share responsibility for giving up long plays. Grade:  C+
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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Offense

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part I of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season. Note, these are overall grades, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.
steelers report card grades 2013 final offense

Mike Tomlin finished the season saying that Ben Roethlisberger was playing the best football of his career. That’s probably not true. Roethlisberger was very sharp after the 0-4 start, and certainly played some of his most disciplined football of his career. He also accomplished a feat no other Steelers signal caller has pulled off in 61 years. However, during the last three games Roethlisberger reverted to throwing inane interceptions. And even if he was under duress, Roethlisberger caused 9 of the team’s 11 turnovers in the 0-4 start. Those two negatives must be weighed along with some very strong positives. Grade: B+

Running Backs
To get an idea of the kind of year it was for the Steelers running game, their opening day starter Isaac Redman was cut by mid-season, and their number two rusher wasn’t even on the team. Yet in spite of that, their were signs of hope. Le’Veon Bell provided an immediate boost to the offense, even if his yards per carry were low. He also proved to be such a receiving threat that he broke Franco Harris’ rookie yards from scrimmage record. Jonathan Dwyer ran each carry as if it were his last, and looked good doing it, converting numerous short-yardage situations. Felix Jones was respectable number 2-3 back. Will Johnson’s contributions were underrated but he was an asset. Grade:  B-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown vindicated the faith the Steelers showed in him after his sophomore season, and is budding into an elite receiver before our eyes. Emmanuel Sanders likewise showed why the Steelers coaches were fortunate to win the argument with the front office, although Sanders has probably plateaued as a player. As for Jerricho Cotchery? He only catches touchdowns. Derek Moye made to very good catches and dropped a few others, and Markus Wheaton never really emerged. This unit was solid, although it could have been a tad bit more consistent. Grade:  B

Tight Ends
Like the running game, this unit started with its number 3 and number 4 playing first string when the season began. And it showed. David Paulson was clearly in over his head, although he did show some receiving skills. David Johnson just looked to be hitting his stride when he was injured again. Heath Miller’s return transformed the offense, although Miller did struggle at times. Still, in spite of the injury, he finished third on the team in catches. Matt Spaeth returned late in the season, and gave the rushing game a boost. He only caught one pass – for a touchdown. Grade:  B

Offensive Line
The one thing the Steelers could not afford going into the season was an injury to the offensive line. They got it 8 plays into the season when Maurkice Pouncey was lost. Fernando Velasco filled in ably until he too got hurt. Mike Adams floundered terribly at left guard, but Kelvin Beachum stepped in and saved the season. Marcus Gilbert was better, but his play was still inconsistent. This unit was a horrendous liability early in the season, late in the season Roethlisberger had the best protection he’s ever enjoyed, and the run blocking improved. Grade:  C+

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Watch Tower: Gerry Dulac Delivers on Bicknell Firing, NFL Network Can't Backup Claims, Blocks Inquires

The Watch Tower’s lights have been dim since mid-October, in spite of plenty of material to shine its light on from Ian Rapport & the NFL Network’s reporting on Ben Roethlisberger to Tomlin’s sideline shuffle. Alas, if desire and material have been present, time and energy have not.

Yet the Steelers 2014 off season is only a week old, and the Jack Bicknell firing gives the Watch Tower something to focus on that includes everything from scoops to outright blackballing. Read on….

Tomlin Stirs the Pot, Surprises All But One with Bicknell Firing

January at the Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters dull. Sure, January 2010 and 2012 brought their dramas about Bruce Arians and Todd Haley, but that’s outright mundane when contrasted with the annual upheavals in places like Cleveland or Redskins Park.
  • Last Friday however, Mike Tomlin decided to stir the pot.
The news came through, as all good announcements do in 2014, via Twitter. Steelers PR Director Burt Lauten dropped a little bomblet:
That’s right. Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, who oversaw the biggest in-season turnaround of an individual Steelers unit in recent memory, was getting the boot.
  • Now normally, moves like this don’t, or shouldn’t cause too many ripples among the press corps that covers the Steelers. 
These men and women are at the South Side daily. Yes, their official access is restricted, (note how Ed Bouchette travels to NFL spring owners meetings to get an on-the record interview with Mike Tomlin), but their mere presence there gives them all sorts of unofficial access.

The average fan of course has no real idea of what the form, fashion or frequency of these coffee room, watering hole and elevator conversations is.
  • But they do happen, and that is undoubtedly where some of the best stories are born. 
And the Bicknell firing is no exception, because one reporter was obviously talking to the right people.

The Bicknell firing caught the Steelers press corps by surprise. Here’s a sampling of their responses on Twitter:

Perhaps it would be unfair to say that the Steelers beat writers were caught flat footed, but none of them were expecting the news.

Except for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, that is, and Dulac was one of the first to respond on Twitter:
Dulac didn’t just sit back and try to say, “Yes, I was just thinking of something like that myself,” he quickly ran a story which backed up his Twitter commentary, reporting:
... the move is not surprising because Bicknell’s role slowly diminished after the Steelers had problems protecting Ben Roethlisberger and running the football in the first half of the season. In fact, for most of the second half of the season, offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett was doing a lot of the instruction and daily handling of the offensive line – duties normally performed by the offensive line coach.
While its impossible for the Watch Tower to evaluate the accuracy of Dulac’s story, he clearly and an inkling that something was coming, had clearly done his homework, and was ready with a story to give Steelers Nation a little insight into what was a surprising story.

This Bud’s for you Gerry.

Dejan Kovacevic Delves Deeper

Although Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s was caught by surprise, he quickly sprung into action. His first bit of reporting came via Twitter, and seemed to contradict Dulac’s report:
Later, Kovacevic expanding on the story via his blog on the Tribune Review. While he reiterated his reporting that refuted that Bicknell’s day-to-day role had been diminished, he did offer his readers fresh news on the story.

First Kovacevic informed that Bicknell remained active in game planning. But he also reported the Bicknell “struggled” with “individual instruction” and offered that “there’s also a sense I get that he might have lost them as a coach — fair or not — when times were toughest.”

While Kovacevic and Dulac’s story do differ on important details, this is a clear cut case of credentialed press fulfilling their role by taking their readers what goes beyond the 140 characters of PR announcement.

(For a discussion on the differing nuances between the two stories, see Neal Coolong's article on BTSC.)

Dejan Defends his Trade, Gets Blackballed (or at least blocked on Twitter) for his Trouble

The Watch Tower must begin this section by taking a bit of our own medicine and admitting to a fib. Gerry Dulac wasn’t the only credentialed press member not to express surprise by the Bicknell firing.

NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala contributed this to the story:
Note the differences in the words Kinkhabwala and Dulac use to communicate their respective reactions to the breaking news.

Dulac’s words were “not surprising” which is to say “I thought it would probley happen and it has.” Kinkhabwala paints her reaction in a much more definitive, encompassing a scope, “what we foresaw some weeks ago.” The use of “we” implies that the knowledge was shared by many, presumable by the NFL Network. “Foresaw” of course implies that the NFL Network knew Bicknell’s firing was in the works.

And there’s one other difference between Kinkhabwala and Dulac. Gerry Dulac backed up his assertion with a supporting story, Kinkhabwala did not.
  • Nor did anyone on the NFL Network.
This did not sit well with Kovacevic, who after retweeting Kihkhabwala, tweeted:
He didn’t stop there. His Twitter timeline is full of tweets made in jest about things that either he or the Tribune Reivew “foresaw.” He even went to the extent of joking that he should have watched the NFL Network to get advance notice of his son’s premature birth. These jokes were interspersed with serious inquiries and requests for them to back up their assertions with reporting.

The result? The NFL Network blackballed Kovacevic:
And then in response to readers questions about the issue:
As mentioned above, Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower simply has not had the time to review Ian Rapport and other NFL Network claims about the Steelers, but Kinkhabwala “foresight” is far from the first controversial NFL Network “news” story relating to the Steelers.

But the evolution of events is pretty simple here:
  • Kinkhabwala implied that she and/or the NFL Network had known the Bicknell firing was coming
  • Kovacevic challenged her to back up the claim
  • The NFL Network responded by blocking Kovacevic en mass on Twitter
So in other words, when challenged to live up to basic journalistic principles by a fellow journalist, the NFL Network’s collective response was to turn away, lower its head, and clamp its hands over its ears the way a nursery school child would….

…If this is to be the journalistic norm that the NFL Network will follow, then the role of the independent, non-affiliated is more vital to sports fans than it ever has been.

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Heads Roll on the South Side: Steelers Fire Offensive Line Coach Jack Bicknell

At this post-season press conference Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin declined to announce any staffing or personnel decisions, instead insisting that he preferred to take his time. Tomlin allowed Steelers Nation to ring in the New Year, but before 2014’s first weekend fell, he pulled the trigger on his first coaching change.
  • After just one season, Jack Bicknell has been relieved of his duties as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach.
Bicknell was hired last year by Tomlin, after a stint as the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line coordinator, and he was brought in because of his experience with zone blocking schemes. The Steelers plans to use those however largely went out the window when David DeCastro collided with Maurkice Pouncey 8 plays into the season vs. Tennessee.
  • That injury forced Kelvin Beachum to play a center, and forced Bicknell to do what his predecessor Sean Kugler had been forced to do – play musical chairs on offensive line. 
The Steelers line struggled mightily during the team’s 0-4 start as Fernando Velasco learned the offense and Mike Adams clearly found himself in over his head at left tackle, as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 35 times in the season’s first nine games.

Yet the offensive line improved markedly. After taking so much punishment, opposing defenses only sacked Roethlisberger 7 times in the final 7 games of the season as the passing game took off. The running game lagged, but by season’s end the team was running the ball with consistent effectiveness.

Surprise to Most, Except One…

Given the line’s improvement down the stretch, Bicknell’s firing turned a lot of heads. ESPN’s Scott Brown cited a league source that said that Bicknell was “stunned by his dismissal.”

The members of the Steelers press corps also expressed their shock and disbelief almost to a man. That is all of them except for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, who termed the move as expected…

…Dulac wasn’t being contrarian, he in fact had a scoop on his hands, which Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower will discuss very soon. Stay tuned.

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