When the story of the 2015 NFL season is written, there will a number of narratives. The excellence of the Patriots and the sudden emergence of the Panthers. Peyton Manning finally tapping out to Father Time. The huge gape in parity between the league’s elite teams and the ones struggling to get above .500.
However, the overriding story of the 2015 NFL season will be how it’s been marred by major injuries to a host of star players. NFL 2015 – the Season of Crippling Injuries.
Of course, we don’t have to tell fans of the Black and Gold. I’ve been watching the Pittsburgh Steelers since the late 80s and I’ve never seen a year remotely like this. Every year you lose guys but never at the level or rate we’ve lost them this season. It’s to the point every game I expect another shoe to drop.
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Ah, good old St. Louis. Pittsburgh sports fans have already spent the better part of the summer cursing their baseball team for being a thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Sunday, they get the chance to earn the ire of local football fans as well when the Pittsburgh Steelers travel out to take on the St. Louis Rams. That city has a chance to become very hated very fast here in the ‘Burgh.
Of course, the big news going into this game is the return of running back Le’Veon Bell from his two game suspension. The Black and Gold currently has the top ranked offense in all of football without the best all-around back in the game. Poor DeAngelo Williams now retreats to a back-up role having only putting up numbers good enough to be the league’s second leading rusher during Bell’s absence. He filled in admirably but he’s no Bell, although I’m sure the team will give him work if only to hopefully stave off last year’s situation where an injury to Bell put the kibosh on their chances of making a run in the playoffs.
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It’s been awhile since we checked in on Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin‘s weekly
time-waster press conference. While I admit quoting some of the preposterous stuff that comes out of Coach T’s mouth brings me great joy, I must also admit it’s hard to argue with the job he’s done these past few weeks. Sure, he has two excellent coordinators in Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley (yeah, I said it) but the final calls rest with him. If I’m going to give him the criticism when the team sucks, I gotta give him credit when they win.
Coaches coach and players play is a cliche albeit an accurate one but a hallmark of good coaching is putting players – and teams – in position to succeed. While our coordinators have great leeway in their jobs, I doubt any major decisions are made without Tomlin’s approval. Rookie Martavis Bryant playing ahead of free agent pick-ups like Lance Moore or Cortez Allen relegated to watching from the sidelines are two of the biggest reasons for the team’s sudden resurgence. It’d be foolish to think Tomlin had no say in those moves. Likewise, I gotta give him a ton of credit for learning from prior mistakes and going for a kill shot TD to ice each of the team’s past two victories.
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On day two of the 2013 NFL draft, Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler had plenty of time to get to know first round pick Jarvis Jones, who was in town to meet with the media yesterday. They definitely weren’t needed in Pittsburgh Steelers draft headquarters as yesterday was the Todd Haley Show. Coming off one of their worst offensive showings in years and faced with several notable losses via free agency, the Black and Gold began the process of rebuilding the offense with both their second and third round picks. They also signed their first notable free agent.
In round 2, the Steelers selected Michigan State running back Le’veon Bell. To be completely honest, I find myself less than thrilled about this pick. Bell was only the second back taken so saying the Steelers had their choice of the RB crop is hardly an exaggeration. They chose a guy not radically different than two of the guys already on the roster. Bell is a big (6’1 230, although he played at 245 in college) physical back who projects as a straight ahead downhill runner. Granted he’s probably more athletic than Isaac Redman and won’t have to run to the sideline after every three carries like Jon Dwyer but his running style doesn’t seem markedly different from either of them.
Todd Haley likened him to Eddie George although George had the shiftiness and breakaway speed to break off big runs. The big knock on Bell is his relatively plodding 4.6 40. When you consider he dropped 15 pounds prior to the Combine in hopes of improving his speed, one shudders to think what he’d run at his natural playing weight. Naturally the comparisons to Jerome Bettis have already begun which is a fool’s errand that has trapped the Steelers with a sub-par running game for years now. His game highlights actually remind me more of Michael Turner, who enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career with the Falcons.
In round 3, the Steelers tapped Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton. In a nice bit of serendipity, Wheaton’s NFL.com scouting report lists his closest NFL comparison as Antonio Brown. At 5’11 189 and running an acceptable 4.45 40, he certainly fits the AB/Manny Sanders mold of small quick guy with good hands who runs good routes. Haley is already talking him up as a weapon out of the slot where he played a lot in college. I’m sure part of the thinking with this pick is having a potential replacement for Sanders already in the system should he leave after the season. Again, like the Bell pick, there are no glaring negatives with Wheaton other than he doesn’t really bring anything to the team that they don’t already have. He’s not a field stretching speed burner like Mike Wallace nor is he a big target like Plax.
Finally, the Steelers rounded out their running back corps by signing ex Pitt Panther LaRod Stephens-Howling, formerly of
Pittsburgh West the Arizona Cardinals. Wait, we can sign former Cardinals? Next thing you know they’ll be calling us Arizona East!
Stephens-Howling had the misfortune of attending Pitt at the same time as Shady McCoy so he never got a chance to play as much as he should have. He ended up carving out a nice niche for himself as a third down back and excellent kick returner with the Cardinals. He’s basically filling the role vacated by Chris Rainey except he’s a little more versatile in terms of being able to run the ball out of traditional sets. Considering every other back on the roster is a lumbering oaf, it’s nice to have at least one speed guy in the backfield.
With LaRod and Le’veon in the mix, the Steelers have five backs in the mix for next season. Looks like they’ll spend the remainder of the draft trying to fill holes at other positions. I’ll be back on Monday with a complete Steelers draft recap and analysis complete with pictures!
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The phrase of the day is “trap game.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that spoken on sports talk radio the past few days, I could probably afford season tickets to Heinz Field.
I’m not really sure Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs qualifies as a trap game. Granted, it does come on the eve of the Black and Gold’s first meeting with the hated Baltimore Ravens. And it does come on the heels of the team surging to a three game winning streak, topped by an impressive victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. Actually, maybe this is a trap game…
After losses to two of the most abysmal teams in the NFL, I’m sure the Steelers know better. There’s no way to justify losing to crap teams like the Titans and Raiders but there were mitigating circumstances. For whatever reason, the trip out to Oakland always messes up the Steelers while the Tennessee game came on a short week (Thursday) which has also proven to trip up the Black and Gold (see the Browns game a few years back).
Also, trap games usually occur when you’re playing a scrappy opponent. The Chiefs are circling the drain right now. They’re shuffling quarterbacks in and out. Romeo Crennel, who replaced Todd Haley as head coach last season, just recused himself as defensive coordinator. The team is in utter disarray. If anybody is motivated this week, it’s Boss Todd, who surely wants to make KC pay for making his life a living hell.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs CHIEFS OFFENSE
For whatever inexplicable reason, the Chiefs think they have something in Brady Quinn. Perhaps it has something do with Crennel being the same coach who made the mistake of drafting him in the first round when he was the head coach of the Browns. Whatever the logic, KC has all but given up on the Matt Cassel experiment. With the frail and effeminate Quinn nursing a concussion, Monday night may very well be Cassel’s final shot as a starter.
When Patriots GM Scott Pioli moved over to KC in 2009, he brought Cassel with him to be his QB. Cassel was coming off the season where he led the Patriots to 11 wins after Tom Brady was lost for the year. He got off to a rocky start, throwing 16 TDs and 16 INTs but rebounded in 2010 to toss 27 TDs against only 7 INTs. It’s been all downhill since then. Injuries marred his 2011 campaign and Haley’s insistence on starting former Pitt Panther Tyler Palko in place of Kyle Orton after Cassel was placed on season ending IR eventually led to his ouster.
Cassel has struggled this season, leading one of the league’s most anemic offenses (29th in points scored) and throwing a ton (11) of picks in the process. Chiefs fans had gotten so fed up that they cheered when Cassel was knocked out of a game a few weeks back, drawing scorn from one of their own players. I would’ve said something about it at the time but Pittsburgh is the city that cheered when Terry Bradshaw got knocked out so we don’t really have room to talk.
The bottom line is Cassel has struggled mightily this season. On paper, the Chiefs have the weapons to be a decent offense. WR Dwayne Bowe is a big time playmaker. Former Pitt standout Jon Baldwin is lazy but talented. And the Chiefs have one of the most dangerous weapons in the league in RB Jamaal Charles. Charles is among the league’s rushing leaders and is also a force out of the backfield.
If the Steelers can keep Charles under wraps, they should have a pretty evening. Early in the year, the D was getting gashed on the reg. They’ve tightened that up as of late so let’s hope the pattern continue. The secondary was also victimized by big plays but Ike Taylor has shaken off his early season malaise and returned to the shut down Ike of old. As long as they don’t Charles move the sticks on the ground or Bowe get loose for a big hitter in the secondary, I don’t see Cassel being able to make enough plays to hang in.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs CHIEFS DEFENSE
Ben Roethlisberger has already told reporters that Boss Todd is almost salivating at the opportunity to put the screws to his former team. Some NFL coaches play by a set of unwritten rules which dictate respect for the game and their opponent. Then there are the assholes like Todd Haley. I’m sure Mike Tomlin would rein Haley in if he looked to run up the score but then again Tomlin has no control over his players, why should he try to control his coaches?
The Chiefs have a couple decent linebackers in Tambla Hall and Justin Houston. They inexplicably cut a pretty good corner in Standford Routt so a secondary that was a nominal strength may not be any longer. They’re in the bottom third of the league against the run although they have forced a surprising number of turnovers (6 INTs and 12 fumbles).
If Big Ben and the offense can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, they should have a pretty good game. The revolving door at RB continues as Jonathan Dwyer returns with Rashard Mendenhall said to be another week away from reclaiming his starting job. Isaac Redman will start but unlike last week will probably have to share some carries with the Minibus.
Antonio Brown is probably going to sit out after suffering a dreaded high ankle sprain last Sunday. High ankles only heal with rest so I suspect we may not see him for a couple weeks. Luckily the Steelers are extremely deep at WR with Jerricho Cotchery, who could probably start for most teams, ready to slide in the slot. Manny Sanders, who’s quietly putting together a nice season, will start. For those who remember back, Sanders actually played a ton as a rookie while AB didn’t come on until the playoffs. Sanders has been set back by injuries but now is his time to shine in front of a national audience.
In fact, it’s time for the entire team to introduce themselves to the nation. After getting off to a slow start this season, the Steelers have quietly crept back into the playoff conversation. If the season were to end tomorrow, they would be one of the AFC’s two Wild Cards. For the Black and Gold to firmly establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders, they need to string together wins. A victory on Monday night and a four game win streak going into a showdown with Baltimore would be a nice place to start.
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If you’ve been a football fan for more than a handful of years, you’ve probably heard of the fabled “Quarterback Class of 1983.” The NFL was a different animal back in 1983. Quarterbacks were always important but they didn’t usually carry as much of the offense back then as they do today. That’s why teams could win a Super Bowl with an average signal caller like Mark Rypien or Jeff Hostetler.
So one can imagine how crazy it must have seemed back in ’83 when six QBs were taken in the first round. The first overall pick, John Elway, was selected by the Colts but he didn’t want to go there. He subsequently was traded to the Broncos were he went on to win two Super Bowls over a Hall of Fame career. The final QB picked was Pittsburgh’s own Dan Marino, who never won the big one (and was passed over by his hometown team due to rumored drug use) although is still considered among the best QBs ever. The remaining four picks varied from another HOFer (Jim Kelly) to a total dud (Todd Blackledge).
Despite the media’s attempts to attach the fabled tagline to other drafts, the last truly remarkable QB class was back in 2004. And the parallels are downright spooky. First overall pick Eli Manning was taken by the San Diego Chargers but didn’t want to go there. He was swapped to the Giants for the fourth overall pick, quarterback Phillip Rivers. The eleventh player chosen was a QB by the name of Ben Roethlisberger. JP Losman was also taken in the first round but we’ll forget about him and pretend Matt Schaub, taken in the 3rd round, was part of that class instead.
Big Ben has always felt disrespected by the fact teams slotted him as the third option behind Rivers and Manning. That chip on his shoulder enabled him to come out the gate strong, winning a Super Bowl in only his second season. By 2007, Ben was an established star and perhaps the most clutch QB in football. Eli struggled mightily his first couple years, the insane NY media even throwing around the B-word (bust) a few times. But in ’07, Eli silenced his critics (and won my never-ending admiration) by leading his Giants to a Super Bowl victory over the undefeated New England Patriots.
Eli’s MVP performance in XLII was a comeback for the ages. Ben answered that with an epic comeback of his own the next season, winning his second Super Bowl with a legendary last second drive against the Arizona Cardinals. Both QBs firmly established themselves as elite signal callers with Ben’s second ring the only thing separating their resumes. After Ben flubbed his third shot at a Lombardi Trophy, Eli evened the ring count last season with another comeback against the Patriots.
It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two at this point. Ben has long been called the most clutch QB in football but I dare anybody to find a player who has led more big comebacks the past three seasons than Eli Manning. Ben has never beaten the Patriots in a meaningful (ie playoff) game. Eli has done it twice. Ben has appeared in one more Super Bowl but Eli was MVP of both of his. Yeah, Ben should’ve been MVP of XLIII but he was little more than a spectator in the first one.
Some people are calling Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants the tiebreak. That’s silly. I’m sure Ben dusted off that chip and Eli, who is said to be a quietly fierce competitor, wants to win just as badly. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another regular season game.
No, there’s only one way to end the argument. One true War to Settle the Score. That would be in the Super Bowl. Let’s hope some day, some way, the stars align so we’re treated to Big Ben vs Elite Eli, winner take all for the biggest prize in the sport. Until then, Sunday will just have to do.
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As the NFL kicks off the a brand new season, this past weekend was all about saying good-bye. Good-bye to former members of the Pittsburgh Steelers who, in the immortal words of coach Chuck Noll, are moving on to seek their life’s work. And also good-bye to two former Steelers and one Pittsburgh native who earned pro football’s highest honor, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. In both cases, it was a busy weekend for Steeler Nation to bid old heroes a fond farewell.
On Friday, the Steelers held a “Friday Night Lights” evening practice as a sort of thank you to the horde of faithful who make the pilgrimage up to Latrobe for training camp. Fans were treated to a quarterback skills competition where Byron Leftwich evidently impressed with his ability to hit a garbage can at twenty yards and an impromptu heavyweight boxing match broke out between Mike Adams and Cam Hayward. There was also a pregame ceremony with four former Steelers officially retiring as members of the Black and Gold. The photo above shows (from left to right) Joey Porter, Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, and Aaron Smith bidding farewell to the fans.
Some cute chick who does video work for Steelers.com later conducted a short sit-down interview with all four which you can watch by clicking here.
On Saturday, Steeler Nation descended upon Canton, Ohio in what is probably going to be a yearly trip as many of the great Steelers of the Aughts become eligible for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. I’ve been to the HOF a couple times and if you’re a football fan you really owe it to yourself to make the trip at least once in your lifetime. It’s a tremendous facility full of great exhibits, many of them paying tribute to either the Steelers or the rich history of football in Western Pennsylvania. If nothing else, the HOF busts room is a must-see because you literally can’t take three steps without running across a former Steeler.
Speaking of busts, did anybody else notice how amazingly lifelike the busts were this year? It used to be sorta hit or miss (Franco, for example, looked creepily like Shia LaBouf). Guess the NFL has finally started to employ some of that laser scanning technology they use to make action figures look exactly like movie actors. Whatever they’ve done, those likenesses looked amazingly spot-on.
Anyway, the first Steeler to the podium wasn’t a recent retiree but rather veteran’s selection Jack Butler. Butler, who I wrote about extensively on my old site after being contacted by his son, finally achieved the honor his family wanted so badly for him. A defensive back for some wretched Steelers teams from 1951-59, Butler nonetheless retired with the second most career interceptions (52) in an era when teams barely passed more than dozen times per game. His legacy endured, however, as he was named to the Steelers All-Time team, 50th Anniversary team and 75th Anniversary Legends squad.
Butler’s family definitely won the night by wearing those damnable Bumblebee throwbacks with Butler’s name and number on the back. Once again, I can’t embed the video so if you want to catch a snippet of his excellent speech, click here.
Then we had the man who continued the Steelers long tradition of excellence at center, Dermontti Dawson. Dirt, as he was fondly called by teammates and fans, was a seven time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s All-90s team. He, along with Rod Woodson, were the two players who bridged the twilight of the Noll era to the unparalleled success of the Cowher years. I caught Dermontti’s speech live and he gave a very touching tribute to the legendary Mike Webster (who was still here in 1988, moving Dirt to guard his rookie season) but NFL.com decided to cut that bit from the highlights for some unknown reason. You can watch what they kept by clicking here.
Finally, the night’s most memorable speech came from Curtis Martin. Martin never played for the Steelers but he grew up in Pittsburgh and played his college ball at Pitt. Martin’s speech, particularly his asides about not liking to play football and especially not wanting to play hurt, finally explained some things for those who remember his injury plagued and, frankly, badly underachieving tenure with the Panthers. But Martin’s words went well beyond football, talking for the first time in pretty harrowing detail about how he grew up watching his mother being abused by his father and some of the incidents he escaped while running the streets with less-than-desirable friends. His story is truly one of rising from nothing to make good for you and your family and I’d encourage everybody to give it a listen by clicking here.