You are here


Throwback Thursday 12/13/1997: Mayhem in Massachusetts

Behind the Steel Curtain - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 10:05am

Looking back at a classic game from the days when beating the Patriots was more of a reality.

To blatantly steal from the advertisements for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, what if I told you that there was once a time when the Pittsburgh Steelers could, and would, actually beat the New England Patriots twice in the same season? The first happened in one of my favorite regular-season Steeler games in my viewing history.

So with that being stated, let’s set the Delorean’s time circuits for a time when radio stations were blaring Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping incessantly, audiences were gearing up for the release of the epic Titanic which was a mere six days away, Bill Clinton was president and his secret of White House debauchery and shenanigans was just barely being kept quiet, Charles Woodson defeated Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy and I was in my West Virginia apartment nervously gearing up for a first date with a woman that I was really excited about.

As intrigued as I was for the date, I was just as excited for a rare Saturday Steeler game on NBC. The Steelers, winners of nine of their previous eleven, had just come off of a huge win at home against the eventual champs, the Denver Broncos, to extend their record to 10-4. The game in Foxborough was crucial because the Steelers were embarrassed there in the fog eleven months before in the playoffs, and this game with 9-5 New England would decide home field advantage and a bye in the upcoming AFC tourney.

The game started off with both teams impressive defenses flexing their muscles early. After five combined punts and a Lawyer Milloy interception of Kordell Stewart setting the Pats up at the Pittsburgh 27 in the second quarter, Drew Bledsoe hit his stud TE Ben Coates on the third play of the drive for a TD of 18 yards. On the ensuing drive, Stewart was picked off again by Willie Clay and Bledsoe hit Sam Gash on a one-yard pass. Just like that, it was 14-0 New England.

Still unable to get started, Josh Miller punted again for the Steelers. After the home team had their drive end with a Tom Tupa punt, the Steelers got the ball back with 3:57 remaining in the half. Stewart capped off a twelve-play, 72-yard drive with a one-yard plunge. At the half, “the black-and-gold” were down 14-7 and set to get the ball back to start the third.

The third quarter was fairly uneventful besides a Norm Johnson field goal of 36 yards and a Darren Perry pick of Bledsoe that saw the Steelers set up shop at the Patriots 45. The Steelers stretched the drive into the fourth, where Johnson finished it off with 12:55 remaining with a 34-yarder through the uprights. The Steelers cut the NE lead to one.

On the very next drive, Bledsoe wasted very little time and found the diminutive David Meggett on a desperate heave that looked to be errant. But Meggett reacted, adjusted and leapt to snag the ball and race 49 yards for a score and a 21-13 lead.

The next two drives for the Steelers failed with Kordell Stewart missing Courtney Hawkins on a fourth-and-six on the NE 36 and then another Josh Miller punt with 3:33 remaining. The game seemed lost.

Next, Bledsoe attempted to drain the clock. He quickly hit Troy Brown for 13-yards on a crucial third-and-long. The Steelers started using their timeouts. After two short gains by Mario Grier, Bill Cowher called his final timeout with Pete Carroll’s Pats facing a third-and-seven from the 50, ten seconds before the two minute warning.

The following was the equivalent of a Christmas miracle twelve days early. The Steeler defense flushed Bledsoe out to the right and he attempted an across-the-body pass in the flat to Meggett. If Megget snags it, the game is likely over. Little-known lineman Kevin (pronounced key-vin) Henry anticipated the pass, intercepted it and rumbled off into the Massachusetts night. With New England closing-in as Henry (cousin of then-WWF superstar Mark Henry) charged towards the end zone, No. 76 risked reversing his good fortune by pitching the ball to Orpheus Roye at the 18. Roye crossed the goal line and Steeler Nation was elated. However, It was ruled a forward lateral and called back. But the Steelers had found renewed hope.

On the other side of the 2 minute-warning, the Steelers were needing eight to force overtime. But they only gained three yards and were facing a fourth-and-seven from the NE 15. Stewart, known more for his legs than his arm, heaved a sideline prayer to Yancey Thigpen. Thigpen, who had his finest season of his career with 1,398 yards in ‘97, made a brilliant and difficult grab and got both feet in to move the Steelers to the NE 4. On first down, Stewart took the ball to the one. He hit Mark Breuner for a one-yard TD and the Steelers were forced to go for two. Stewart, who notoriously had a habit of throwing low, did just that on the 2PC. However, Thigpen made a tremendous, sliding grab to rescue the ball from the Foxboro turf to tie the game with 38 seconds left. A Bruce Armstrong holding penalty backed the Pats back to their own 15, leaving not enough time and too much real estate to do anything but kneel out the clock.

The Steelers late-game fortune continued as they won the coin flip. But it didn’t look to continue as a pass on first down to Bruener fell incomplete and Jerome Bettis lost five yards on second down. But on third down, Kordell’s heroics continued as he hit Courtney Hawkins on third-and-15 for 41 yards. After a 16-yarder to Bruener and three runs for nine yards from Bettis got the Steelers to the Patriot 13, Norm Johnson kicked true for 31, and the Steelers escaped snow-glistening Massachusetts with a 24-21 victory.

The two teams met again in the playoffs a few weeks later in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers winning 7-6. They fell to Denver in the AFCCG at home a week later and their season was over.

To me this was a beautiful victory that I hold dear. The Steelers adhered to the lyrics of that hot song by Chumbawumba. "I got knocked down and I get up again and you're never gonna keep me down". Elated I headed off to my date. Much like the Patriots haunting and hindering the Steelers for the majority of time after that fateful night, my postgame victory party did I divorced that women seven years later and left WV for good.

All ended well though, as I eventually found a way to pull a Chumbawumba myself.

Make a nomination for the 2018 Hall of Honor News - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 10:00am
Steelers Nation Unite members can submit their nominations for who they think should be recognized as part of the team's upcoming Hall of Honor class.

'We have to be better,' says Steelers GM Kevin Colbert - Steelers/NFL - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 9:34am

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert isn’t satisfied with the team’s failure to win a playoff game after the 2017 season.

Mock Draft: 7-round prediction has Steelers taking back-to-back ILBs

Behind the Steel Curtain - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 8:52am

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a strong need at inside linebacker, and that is why the latest prediction has the team taking two in the first two rounds.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of needs heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, but of those needs it is pretty clear inside linebacker in the biggest. The absence of Ryan Shazier was noticeable, to say the least, and the team will try to find a way to fill his gigantic shoes.

This isn’t to suggest Shazier is done playing football, but the team needs to prepare for the 2018-2019 season as if he were not going to be part of the team.

With that said, there is a strong chance the team will have another strong defensive draft class, a trend which has continued the past few years under Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin. Along with inside linebacker, the team would need to address the safety position, edge rusher, and possibly nose tackle — and that is just on the defense.

Offensively, the Steelers could potentially add a wide receiver, tight end and you can never have enough quality depth along the offensive line.

Will they be able to address all those needs with 7 total picks? The latest mock draft from Ray Fitpaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7-round mock draft has the Steelers attacking some major needs early in the draft. Check out who he has tabbed to the Steelers at every pick, as well as some other players he considered each step along the way.

For more insight as to why Fittipaldo made those selections, click on the link above.

1. ILB Rashaan Evans of Alabama

Also considered: S Ronnie Harrison of Alabama

2. ILB Josey Jewell of Iowa

Also considered: S DeShon Elliott of Texas

3. S Quin Blanding of Virginia

Also considered: WR DaeSean Hamilton of Penn State

4. No pick

5a. (via San Francisco) WR Cedric Wilson Jr. of Boise State

Also considered: TE Tyler Conklin of Central Michigan

5b. TE Troy Fumagalli of Wisconsin

Also considered: WR Javon Wims of Georgia

6. No pick

7a. (via New York Giants) DL Lowell Lotulelei of Utah

Also considered: DT Christian LaCouture of LSU

7b. C Will Clapp of LSU

Also considered: G Kyle Bosch of West Virginia

Weighing the pros and cons regarding the retention of Le’Veon Bell

Behind the Steel Curtain - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 7:35am

The Steelers should absolutely keep Bell, but the concerns about the practicality of doing so are valid

Thanks to some shrewd and arcane books-managing, the Steelers have created somewhere in the ballpark of $14 million in immediate cap relief, making it all but certain that free-agent-to-be Le’Veon Bell will be on the roster in 2018. This is an encouraging development because Le’Veon Bell is an exceptional football player and his presence in the backfield makes the Steelers a better team.

Of course, “Le’Veon Bell” has become more of an idea than a person at this point, and the to keep not to keep argument has become one rooted in vitriol and contentiousness. Personally, I think it is absurd that a sizable pocket (perhaps even the majority) of Pittsburgh’s fanbase seems to be totally cool with letting arguably the NFL’s best running back chase greener pastures, but I recognize that some of these contrarian opinions are highly logical. The salary cap ramifications, for example, come to mind, and it’s definitely fair to wonder how a long-term Bell for deal will impact the team’s financials down the road. While I remain resolute in my desire to see Bell on the Steelers in 2018 and beyond, I am cognizant of the pitfalls. Here are some pros and cons.:

Pro: Le’Veon Bell is a one-man platoon

My favorite “let Bell walk” argument is the “Super Bowl participants” argument, which supports the notion that championship-caliber teams don’t actually need an All-Pro running back. What this stance fails to recognize, however, is that one of the Super Bowl participants boasted perhaps the league’s deepest roster, and the other had the greatest quarterback/coach duo in NFL history. In other words, it’s easy to make a backfield platoon work effectively under these circumstances. Of course, this isn’t an indictment of Pittsburgh’s current anatomy—the Steelers have at least as much star power as the Eagles (though debatably less depth), and Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin form an objectively formidable gruesome twosome—but rather an acknowledgment that the New England and Philadelphia models are not necessarily some neatly replicable things.

Don’t get me wrong: whether rooted in luxury (Saints, Eagles) or necessity (Patriots, Titans), platoons absolutely do work. As it stands, though, the Steelers do not have an abundance of backfield riches (James Conner seems like an alright player, but nobody can really say one way or another at this point). But isn’t as if they need 3-4 “good” running backs, either. Bell has firmly established himself as the most versatile running back in the NFL, acting as both an extension of the offensive line and the receiving corps, and he’s proven capable of handling a workload that is utterly goofy by 2017 standards (Bell had 321 rushing attempts in 2017; LeSean McCoy, who finished second in the league in rushing attempts, had 287). However, it’s important to consider how that workload may impact Bell moving forward.

Con: God, that’s a ton of carries

Bell has 1,229 career rushing attempts and 312 career catches (he’s actually already climbed to no. 8 on the Steelers all-time receiving list, which is bananas), which amounts to somewhere in the ballpark of 24 offensive touches per game and 400 offensive touches per season, playoffs notwithstanding. That is so, so many touches. Bell turns 26 later this month, so if the Steelers do manage to sign him to a long-term contract, it would be reasonable to assume that Bell will not touch the football 400 times in 2018. I think he won’t, anyway. Running a $15 million/year investment into the ground does not strike me as a particularly sagacious business move, especially when he would hitting the dreaded age-29 roadblock in the fourth year of the contract.

(As an aside, the Steelers could really screw Bell pretty royally by tagging him again next month. I don’t want to completely denigrate the Steelers too harshly on this (business is business, or whatever), but by tagging Bell in 2018, they would effectively prevent him from hitting the open market until after his 27th birthday, which could really throw a wrench in his plans to secure a lucrative, long-term contract.)

Pro: Sustained workflow!

The core components of Pittsburgh’s offense are under contract through 2019, which should allow them to remain in the championship picture for at least another couple of seasons. Bell has proven to be the focal point of this attack, so it makes little sense to fracture it, especially since a) the Steelers don’t seem to have a particularly salient contingency plan in place and b) they would receive nothing in return for losing Bell, save for a draft pick (which may or may not yield an actual NFL player—for every JuJu Smith-Schuster, there are at least as many Senquez Golsons).

Con: A long-term deal may hamstring Pittsburgh’s short-, medium-, and long-term financial flexibility

Pittsburgh’s front office, which is composed of a guild of unassailable financial warlocks, routinely performs miracles with the payroll. But paying a bunch of star players a ton of money while simultaneously trying to fill holes elsewhere is an entanglement to say the least. Rookie-scale salaries are a thing of beauty, but when those rookies transform into generational, Hall of Fame-caliber players, the piper must eventually be paid. The Steelers may be able to field a thermonuclear offense for the next few years, but the defense could include Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and whatever combination of young and old dudes the team can scrap together in free agency and the draft.

Does Le’Veon Bell deserve a massive, record-setting contract? Make no mistake, he absolutely does, and he should not feel compelled to accept a hometown discount. The Steelers will, of course, have their own pros and cons to weigh before arriving at a decision. Fortunately, we’ll know soon enough.

Pittsburgh's Irish to honor Dan Rooney News - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 7:01am
The St. Patrick's Day Parade will be dedicated to late Ambassador Dan Rooney.

The Steelers aren’t just a football team, they are family

Behind the Steel Curtain - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 5:48am

The death of a family member helped this BTSC editor realize how the Steelers are not just another team.

For those who pay close attention to the quantity of content released here at BTSC, you might have noticed over the weekend things were slower than usual. Sure, weekends in the offseason are normally as slow as molasses, but we strive to give you quality content all year long.

The reason for the dip in production was due to a death in my family. My last living grandparent, my grandmother, passed away at the age of 90. It has been a shock to the system, to say the least, and plenty of time over the past few days, and weeks ahead, have been spent with family.

As things slowly revert back to some sense of normalcy, I find myself thinking back to the craziness which was this past weekend. While sadness gripped us all, I couldn’t help but look around and see what turned out to be a family reunion. Cousins, aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen in months, some years, gathered together to say goodbye to a lady we all loved a heck of a lot.

At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with football.

I’m getting there.

I’ll never forget meeting at the funeral home for the final family visitation, and as we awaited the attendants to make the final preparations, I sat talking with my cousin’s husband, who is a Patriots fan from Boston.

I gave him my very half-hearted apologies over the Super Bowl, told him I was happy the Patriots lost and added how Josh McDaniels is a giant turd — yes, I used those words at the funeral home. We laughed, talked football, and with him living in Pittsburgh he knew plenty about the Steelers’ situation heading into next season.

From there, after the funeral we all meandered down to the parish hall for a reception. Here is where my family was just getting started. Surrounded by my cousins and uncles, we talked about what the Steelers need to do to get to the Super Bowl next season. I laughed at my cousin suggesting the team would be better off without Le’Veon Bell, we talked about whether Ryan Shazier could, or would, ever play again, and we discussed how long until the team needs to draft a quarterback.

We talked about a lot more than that, and this conversation/debate wasn’t brief. I’m sure many of you reading this know exactly what these type of conversations are like. A war room of personalities all with the same goal in mind — the Steelers getting No. 7.

It made me realize how this isn’t just a game, and it isn’t just a team. No, this is family. The Steelers have become ingrained into our beings, and that is something which can’t be undone. The love we all share for this team is deep enough to be a common denominator throughout the toughest of times in our lives.

I guess what I’m trying to say throughout this story is how the Steelers aren’t just a football team. Not to me. No, the Steelers are family.


Asked and Answered: Feb. 15 News - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 5:00am
Another installment of Bob Labriola answering your questions about the Steelers and the NFL.

Black and Gold Links: Haley says all the right things as he begins his tenure with the Browns

Behind the Steel Curtain - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 4:46am

The former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator now turns his attention to his new job with the Cleveland Browns.

The Pittsburgh Steelers let former offensive coordinator Todd Haley walk after the 2017 season, and he didn’t have to wait long, or go far, to find a home. The Cleveland Browns named him their offensive coordinator, and Haley spoke to the media for the first time Wednesday.

Haley said all the right things during the question and answer session, especially about his time in Pittsburgh.

“I have nothing but fond memories,” Haley said. “After sitting down and talking, it was obvious it was time for me to move on to a new challenge.”

Fond memories indeed, although Haley and the Steelers never claimed a Super Bowl title during his tenure in the Steel City. When asked what he felt he accomplished while with Ben Roethlisberger and company, Haley believes a lot was accomplished.

“I was brought in to do a job, and I felt like I did that job or more,” Haley said. “I did a lot of really good things. We developed arguably the best receiver in the league. We developed arguably the best back in the league, one of the top quarterbacks in the league consistently did a lot of good things. We scored a lot of points.

“To be able to go to Pittsburgh and have six really good years was something I really enjoyed. That being said, I’m looking forward, not back.”

The Steelers will be looking forward too, with Randy Fichtner taking over as the offensive coordinator, a promotion from quarterbacks coach.

Time to see what else is going on in Steelers Nation outside the walls of BTSC...

The Steelers hired Tom Bradley to coach their defensive backs. Bradley was Penn State’s defensive coordinator from 2000-11 and would be that school’s head coach today if not for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Bradley did stints at West Virginia (2014, defensive line coach/associate head coach) and UCLA (2015-17, defensive coordinator) between Penn State and the Steelers. He is renowned as a one-on-one teacher, able to get through to today’s athlete, and seems emblematic of a trend by the Steelers to hire career coaches instead of ex-players as assistants. Bradley replaces former Steelers defensive back Carnell Lake.

Besides Bradley, the Steelers also recently hired Karl Dunbar to coach the defensive line. Dunbar worked at Alabama the last two seasons. He previously coached with four NFL teams.

Outside ‘backers coach Joey Porter and inside ‘backers coach Jerry Olsavsky have so far survived this new direction. Porter should be fired. He still postures like a player, behaves like a mascot and has overseen the abject lack of progress made by former first-round pick Bud Dupree.

Many Steelers fans were upset at the cavalier dismissal of concerns surrounding the team’s defense from owner Art Rooney II last week.

They should be.

“We have made some investments there that we feel still have upside ahead of them so we need to add people to it obviously,” said Rooney II last week. “But by the looks of things in the playoffs it’s not easy to play defense in this league anymore. So it’s something that we are trying to adjust to. (There are) A lot of great offenses out there that we have to be ready to match them. So it’s always a challenge now.”

Exactly what is the boss saying there?

That the Steelers could be better, but let’s not make a big deal of it because his defense was a bit better compared to the other bad ones in the National Football League?

I believed when coach Mike Tomlin said “the standard is the standard”, he meant something higher level than that!

I interpreted that phrase as meaning that the high standard of what the Steelers exemplified is the standard the team was supposed to meet.

The draft is coming to FOX. For at least five years, according to John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal.

The duration hardly is coincidental; FOX recently secured the rights to Thursday Night Football for the next five years. Per Ourand, the price for televising the draft is built into the overall price paid by FOX for the TNF rights.

FOX will simulcast NFL Network’s Thursday, consisting of the first round, and Friday coverage, which includes rounds two and three. It’s unclear what will happen on Saturday for rounds four through seven. Per Ourand, FOX has commitments for the third day of the 2018 draft, and it may not be able to adjust them.

FOX will co-produce the event with NFL Network.

The Steelers are getting new throwback jerseys, Art Rooney II says - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 4:30pm

You might want to start saving for a fresh game-day look.

Rooney, fans talk all things Steelers News - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 4:30pm
Team President Art Rooney II connected with Steelers Nation Unite members during a live fan forum call.

Art Rooney II's wish list: Sign Le'Veon Bell and stop being 'soft' against the run - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 4:20pm

In a question-and-answer session with fans Wednesday afternoon, Steelers president Art Rooney II reaffirmed the team’s desire to sign running back Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract and talked about Bell’s role in the offense under new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.

Todd Haley is with the Browns, and at peace: 'It was time to move on' - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 3:08pm

BEREA, Ohio — Todd Haley sensed his departure from the Steelers was imminent, despite putting up staggering offensive numbers and doing what he said he was brought in to do for Ben Roethlisberger.

Details of the Steelers’ 4-year contract with Roosevelt Nix reported

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:55pm

Some details of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 4-year contract given to Roosevelt Nix are being reported.

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave fullback Roosevelt Nix a new 4-year contract over the weekend, and many fans were wondering how much they paid him for his services as the lead blocker for Le’Veon Bell, and a special teams ace.

While these types of contracts don’t have their details released, compared to contracts given to players like Jimmy Garoppolo, they certainly have an impact on the overall salary cap picture for the Steelers.

Here is what is being reported:

It looks to me like the four-year contract signed by Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix includes a signing bonus of $1.75M, and base salaries of $1M (2018), $1.25M (2019), $1.45M (2020), and $1.525M (2021).

— Ian Whetstone (@IanWhetstone) February 14, 2018

As you can see, this is a very team-friendly contract for Nix, and his annual salary being north of the $1 million mark would put him near the top of the fullback salary list in this regard.

This was a fair contract for both sides. The team didn’t use a fullback often under Todd Haley, but, with Randy Fichtner taking over this year, this could change. On offense, Nix did more in 2017 that he had any of his previous seasons. He finished the season with both a receiving and rushing touchdown, but one aspect of his game which has never ceased is his stellar play on special teams.

The Steelers locked up Nix, but will they get Bell locked up as well? Only time will tell...

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Team Needs 1.0

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 10:16am

The Pittsburgh Steelers have some major needs, and we put them in order of importance as the team heads into the offseason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have needs, just like every other team, and putting them in order of importance can be tricky. First, you have to identify the most pressing needs on the football team, and the order can certainly be debated based on what you feel is the most important to the team as a whole.

This list is certainly not set in stone, as moves made, and not made, can alter the list. For instance, if the Steelers pick up Bud Dupree’s 5th year option, there is a good chance outside linebacker gets bumped down the list, regardless of what fans may think of the team’s decision.

With that said, let’s take a look at the 2018 Steelers Team Needs 1.0:

1. Inside Linebacker

I have always felt a defense was like a wheel, and the inside linebacker duo is the hub of the wheel. Everything else, the outside linebackers, defensive line and secondary stem from those two inside linebackers. This is why the loss of Ryan Shazier was so debilitating to the defense, from top-to-bottom. And this is why I have inside linebacker at the top of the list. Finding someone who isn’t just a run stopper, but a sideline-to-sideline player is paramount this offseason.

2. Safety

Technically, I could have listed inside linebacker as 1a, and Safety as 1b, but I have this gut instinct the Steelers are not going to cut ties with Mike Mitchell. Mike Tomlin likes Mitchell, and the team likely doesn’t want to have a rookie, or newly signed free agent, alongside Sean Davis. With that said, it doesn’t decrease the need for the team.

3. Wide Receiver

Many of you reading this might think having wide receiver so high on the list is nuts, but if you think about it I don’t think it is. Antonio Brown is the best in the NFL, JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off a great season, and you are only guaranteed one more year of Martavis Bryant’s services. Other than those three, the cupboard is pretty empty, especially with Eli Rogers suffering a torn ACL in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. The team should target a young wide receiver on Day 2 or 3 of the NFL Draft to help bolster the depth at the position.

4. Outside Linebacker

It makes me sick to constantly have EDGE rusher and/or Outside Linebacker on these types of lists year after year. For as great as the Steelers have been at drafting wide receivers, they certainly struggle picking edge rushers. I think the Steelers keep Bud Dupree around, and I don’t see them looking for a pass rusher early in the draft, but if they can grab a pass rush specialist, like Carl Lawson, it would help them on obvious pass rushing downs. You would have Dupree’s athleticism in coverage and on early downs, but the young player to come in and help get after the passer. The combination could work.

5. Nose Tackle

Stopping the run should be paramount for the Steelers’ defensive plans this offseason, and finding a big plug for the middle of the 3-4 defense will certainly be a step in the right direction. Think Daniel McCullers, just with more athleticism and drive. Javon Hargrave is great, but he would be better suited for sub packages where he can use his speed and pass rushing skills to cause havoc in the opponent’s backfield. The nose tackle I am looking for resembles more Casey Hampton, who can take up blockers and help stop the run with regularity.


What positions do you put on the Steelers’ Team Needs list, and how do you rank them? Let us know in the comment section below!

How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ Offense (Part Three: the Passing Game)

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 8:30am

The Pittsburgh Steelers go away from Todd Haley and welcome Randy Fichtner. In this final part of a 3-part series, we dive into what Fichtner might do to help evolve the Steelers’ offense, especially the passing game.

In Part 1 of this series, we speculated on how new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s overall philosophy might differ from his predecessor, Todd Haley. In Part 2, we looked at how Fichtner might structure his run game, particularly the use of gap schemes and an emphasis on “power” football (re-signing Rosie Nix over the weekend may indeed indicate we’re headed in this direction). Here, in the final installment of the series, we will examine how the passing game might evolve under Fichtner. What concepts might he employ, how might he employ them, and how might Fichtner’s passing game differ from Haley’s?

To begin, let’s address an issue that has been a popular source of angst at BTSC for the past few seasons: the propensity of the Steelers to throw the football in 3rd-and-short situations. In 2017, the Steelers put the ball in the air 43-percent of the time on 3rd-and-1. Only a trio of teams from the NFC North, the Lions, Packers and Vikings, aired it out more.

One could argue the Steelers threw so much on 3rd-and-1 because Haley didn’t trust his run game to pick up that tough yard. He may not have thought the offense was physical enough up front, or that Le’Veon Bell’s patient running style wasn’t beneficial in a situation that called for a back to hit the hole against an aggressive defense. That argument doesn’t seem to hold water, however, given the Steelers had four Pro Bowlers, three linemen and the aforementioned Nix, to pave the way for Bell, not to mention 230-pound James Conner as a viable option at running back.

Why, then, did Haley throw so much on 3rd-and-1, and what did it say about his approach to play-calling?

Many of the 3rd-and-1 throws Haley employed were either quick perimeter screens, or deep shots to his wide receivers. In theory, both of these concepts make sense. On 3rd-and-1, defensive coordinators like to get aggressive. They load the box, bring pressure and challenge teams to beat them in coverage. The one-back power run I’ve diagrammed below is not effective against the 4-3 cover-0 look because there aren’t enough offensive players to block all of the defenders in the box. The Will backer (highlighted in orange) cannot be blocked from this formation. If the H shifts into the backfield to block him, the strong safety ($) will come down and now he will be unblocked. So, rather than slam the ball in there and gamble that the running back will be able to beat the unblocked defender, Haley preferred one of two courses: trying to beat man-coverage with a deep route or, as shown below, throwing the ball to the perimeter and betting he could cover up the DBs with his edge-blockers long enough for his athletic receiver to get that yard.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this philosophy. One, deep balls at any level are low percentage throws. It takes flawless execution for a quarterback, with pressure bearing down on him, to heave a ball 30+ yards to a receiver being covered by a man who has been coached to anticipate this exact route. The DB knows in this situation he’s going to get a hitch, slant or vertical concept. If the receiver hasn’t throttled down after about five steps there’s no mystery to what route he’s running. Any DB who can flip his hips and run turns this into a jump ball. Most defensive coordinators will take their chances with that.

As for why Haley’s perimeter screens often failed, the answer is simple: speed. In today’s NFL, safeties run like corners once did and linebackers run like safeties. It might look easy to throw the ball out to the numbers and expect the receiver to be an athlete and get a yard. But the men bearing down on him are FAST. Coupled with the tendency the Steelers showed to utilize quick screens in these situations, defenses were often prepared to run them down.

The more interesting takeaway here isn’t whether these plays worked but what they say about how Haley called his offense. Haley liked the favorable coverages he got in these situations, and he trusted his Hall of Fame quarterback and his stable of talented wide-outs to make plays against them. Other OC’s with franchise quarterbacks weren’t nearly as liberal. The Patriots threw 30% of the time on 3rd and 1 with Tom Brady. The Saints and Chargers each threw 28% of the time with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. And the Falcons put it up just 19% of the time with Matt Ryan.

Haley, then, looked for the big play in these situations because he believed he had a big-play offense. Consider this: in three of the past four seasons the Steelers finished in the top two in the league in plays of 40+ yards. They have also been among the leaders in yards per pass play, finishing 3rd in both 2014-2015 and sixth in 2017. Haley’s passing game was geared towards deep throws and chunk plays and he believed 3rd and short provided opportunities for each. In Haley’s offense, the Steelers threw it down the field.

The question going forward is, will Fichtner subscribe to the same philosophy? Given Haley’s success in the passing game and the weapons that remain at his disposal, I would expect us to continue to air it out under Fichtner. The nature of those deep throws may change, however. When reviewing film of his Memphis teams, one thing jump outs that immediately differentiates the two OCs: Fichtner was much more committed to play-action than was Haley.

According to Football Outsiders, in both 2015 and 2016, the Steelers used play-action on just 14% of their pass plays. This ranked them next-to-last and last in the NFL in terms of usage rate, respectively. However, when you turn on Fichtner’s Memphis film, you see play-action utilized a great deal. Part of this may have been that the record-setting run game he had with DeAngelo Williams lent itself nicely to play-action as defenses sold out to stop the run. Another part may have been how well play-action meshed with Fichtner’s up-tempo offense. Tempo stresses a defense by forcing them to line up quickly. They have less time to relay calls and information and less time to analyze situations. The pace at which the offense is moving conditions defenders to react faster. These reactions set up play-action passes nicely as linebackers get aggressive on run fakes, freeing up crossing routes and seams for receivers to exploit.

Below I’ve diagrammed one of the play-action concepts Fichtner used at Memphis. It is a version of the classic “Shallow Cross” popularized by Dennis Erickson, who is often credited as being the father of the 11 personnel offense (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) so widely utlilized in the NFL today. Shallow Cross is a great play-action concept, especially against cover-2, because it widens the safeties and then exploits linebackers who create voids in the middle of the field by reacting to the run fake. The outside receivers take the top off of the coverage by drawing the safeties to their vertical routes. The TE runs a shallow cross at 4-6 yards and the slot runs a deeper cross somewhere between 12-15. The quarterback will peek at the post first in case the near safety has bitten on the run action (post is a good option vs cover-4, where safeties tend to be more aggressive against the run). If the safeties don’t bite, the QB looks to the crossing routes, where he reads high to low. That high cross is almost impossible for a LB to cover if he’s reacted at all to the run fake. It just hits too deeply for him to recover. A receiver like Juju Smith-Schuster is perfect for this route because he’s fast enough to get deep and across the field and big enough for the QB to locate. With speed on the outside in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, which is sure to draw the attention of the safeties, and big, athletic underneath receivers like Smith and Vance McDonald (or Jesse James), this is a great play-action route for the Steelers.

Play-action is also great in short yardage, and we may see those quick screens Haley favored replaced with play-action passes out of power formations where receivers like Nix, McDonald or even Juju pose as blockers and instead slip to the flat or up the seam for simple throws from Ben Roethlisberger. Whatever the situation, look for Fichtner’s passing game to incorporate more play-action than his predecessor.

Finally, there is this to consider: the NFL has long been a copycat league, and the hiring of a new offensive coordinator means an opportunity to study new trends and examine some of the schemes that are working. This year’s Super Bowl featured two teams who made considerable use of the intermediate passing game. Philadelphia and New England combined to throw 96 passes, an astounding 73 of which, or 76%, traveled less than 10 yards in the air. What’s remarkable about that statistic is there were 879 yards of passing in that contest. 879 yards of passing when 76% of the throws traveled ten yards in the air or less. What does that tell us? It tells us Philly, New England, and many other teams have gone to more of a college-style horizontal passing game that attacks the width of the field rather than the old-school vertical approach once favored by bomb-throwing teams like the Raiders and Redskins. Todd Haley aside, teams are opting against low percentage throws deep down the field. Rather, they are looking to put their athletes in underneath coverage against safeties and linebackers and having their QB’s get them the ball quickly so they can run in space. The rules banning contact with receivers in these underneath zones have opened them for business and modern NFL offenses are cashing in. I’d be willing to bet that Fichtner, who was on the cutting edge of tempo with his offense at Memphis, will not be left behind when it comes to the horizontal passing trend.

So, to summarize, what might we get from Randy Fichtner? My best guess is we’ll see more use of tempo, more code plays and RPOs, more power run concepts, more play-action pass and a greater emphasis on the horizontal passing game. I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Ben Roethlisberger will become the de facto offensive coordinator. However, considering the nature of their relationship, I suspect Fichtner will include QB7 on more game-planning and will provide him greater leeway to adjust play calls than did Haley. Based on what I saw of Fichtner’s film from Memphis, I’m excited for the 2018 season. Given the talent that returns and the wrinkles I expect Fichtner to add, I think an already dangerous Steelers offense could be more explosive than ever.

In case you missed it:

Part One: How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ offense
Part Two: How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolutionn of the Steelers’ running game

Asked and Answered LIVE: Feb. 14 News - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 7:00am
A live Q&A with Bob Labriola.

Ray Fittipaldo's Steelers seven-round mock draft: Feb. 14 - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 7:00am

What better way to express one’s love for football than with the first mock draft of the year on Valentine’s Day?

Mind Games: Debating whether the Steelers should bring in Malcolm Butler

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 6:55am

Could the Pittbsurgh Steelers take a page out of the New England Patriots’ playbook and sign Malcolm Butler?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary is improved but far from complete. With players like Artie Burns, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, you have a secondary brimming with potential, but also extremely young and raw.

The Steelers might look to free agency to pick up more talent, like they did in signing Joe Haden before the 2017 season, and Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots will be on a lot of teams’ lists this off-season.

Could the Steelers take a page out of the Patriots’ bag of tricks and bring in Butler to help anchor the secondary?

Even if the Steelers want to bring in Malcolm Butler, they would likely throw him a low-ball offer much like what they offered Logan Ryan last season. The only way the move happens is if Butler is so scorned by the Patriots that he takes less money to play for a conference rival and a Super Bowl contender.


Adding Butler bolsters the cornerback unit. Pairing Joe Haden with Malcolm Butler places the Steelers’ cornerback unit among the NFL’s upper echelon. Brian Allen would likely move to safety, leaving Hilton, Burns, and Sutton to battle for playing time in the slot.

Butler significantly improves the Steelers’ ability to run man-coverage. Plus, he’s less likely to get burned on a double move. Butler is much more physical at the line of scrimmage, and a sure tackler. He’ll come into the box to make a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

This move would also build morale because this Steelers team has had a little brother complex towards the Patriots for most of the last decade. Bringing in a talented player from the Pats could give the Steelers roster a big enough jolt that they’d spend less time worrying about the Patriots.


Adding Butler would also mean the Steelers’ brass lost faith in 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns. Burns is only 22 years old and still has time to develop. But bringing in a veteran player with Super Bowl experience could help the Steelers’ championship aspirations. Both Burns and 2017 third-round pick Cameron Sutton could legitimately find their game this off-season. They are both high draft picks that have shown flashes. Butler will need to revert to 2016 form if he wants to line up across from Haden. Otherwise, he might be a very expensive backup.

Butler won’t come cheap. A Restricted Free Agent heading into 2017, Butler only made $3.91 million last season and he’ll be looking to earn his first big payday. The most reasonable contract to base a Butler deal on is what former teammate Logan Ryan received from the Titans. Their stats were almost identical this past season, but both underwhelmed in 2017. Ryan signed with the Titans for 30 million dollars over 3 years.


Clearly not a move of priority. But if the Steelers can lock up their own guys, they might as well place a call for Malcolm Butler.


Subscribe to Steelers Fans of Minnesota aggregator