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Exclusive with Steelers Great Mike Wagner

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Steelers Now’s Ron Lippock spoke with legendary Steelers safety Mike Wagner. Wagner was the Steelers’ 11th-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft out of Western Illinois, but went on to a 10-year NFL career, winning four Super Bowls and was selected to play in two Pro Bowls. After football, he got his MBA from Pitt and worked in the financial industry in Pittsburgh.

First, can you let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your NFL days?

Well, I retired from my day-to-day job recently. I don’t go to work any more. When I left football I went into the business world in Pittsburgh but the decline of the steel industry hurt. I then went into the finance and investment and private equity business and real estate as well. When I look back and see my history, I worked for about six or seven companies and it was quite an experience. I was able to pay the bills and retire, so I’m very happy with it.

How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?

It was quite a challenge. I liked playing football and worked hard at it. I set a goal after I retired that after ten years I would catch up to the people I graduated with to where they were in their careers. I wanted to be able to do that. The real world is no easier than the NFL though. With family and business, it’s not easier than sports.

The great thing about football was that if I was frustrated or stressed I could go and just knock people down. It’s harder to get rid of your frustrations in the business world.

Yes, they do frown on that in the business world!

Ha yes! I’m sixty-eight years old now. Life is a challenge. It’s extremely difficult for athletes who retire. Often times their futures are not thought out or planned out. But I survived it, for sure.

You also had a coaching stint as well at Pine-Richland High School. Tell me about your coaching approach?

Yeah I really more just helped out. When I was working real estate I could set my own time so I thought about helping kids learn the fundamentals and techniques taught to me by my high school coaches. My high school coaches taught me things my NFL coaches never could or thought I needed to learn. How to read whether pulling guards and tackles run deep or shallow and what that means for a defensive back, route progressions …

So, I asked the local coach if he’d like some help and tried to stay out of his way from actual coaching. It was rewarding helping fourteen- and fifteen-year-old kids. They are growing physically, mentally, emotionally. To be able to watch it happen. I got rewards from that.

I’m debating going back to it. To do it full time. I don’t know if I want to make that commitment … I may want to go golfing one day but couldn’t with a commitment. … Plus the local high school just were state champions. I don’t think they need my help!

Stepping back some here. Tell me about being drafted by the Steelers. Were you surprised?

So, I went to school at Western Illinois University, which was in the cornfields of Western Illinois. Nothing but cornfields there then this giant modern campus near this little town. It was hard for scouts to get there. I didn’t have a scholarship when I got there. They didn’t have cell phones then. If you lived in a dorm or fraternity, you may have had a phone in the hall.

So, I didn’t find out I was drafted for a couple of days. They called my coach who tracked me down and told me to call the Steelers. So I did and Ralph Berlin called me back and said congratulations, and told me they were going to negotiate a contract with me. I told him that was great and asked him to contact my agent. There was this pause. And then he said “Agent? You’re an eleventh round pick. You have an agent!?” I just told him that, with all respect sir, yes, to please call him and he’ll take care of it!

How did high school and college prepare you for the NFL?

I didn’t make my high school football team until my junior year. I went to a Catholic school (Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois) — like Central Catholic in Pittsburgh. Over two-hundred kids went to the school and 110 tried out for the team. When I finally made the team I played defensive back and played well my junior year. My dad was a factory worker and I didn’t get a scholarship, so I went to state school.

As a freshman, once I got my grades in order, I got bored and decided to try out for football. I knocked on the coach’s door and asked if he needed an extra body, and he said sure. The program wasn’t very good at the time and I ended up starting at defensive end and played pretty well. I made the all-freshmen team.

The coach said see you next spring training once the season ended and told me he wanted me to play linebacker. I asked him for a scholarship and he said they couldn’t give me one so I told him I either play defensive back or no spring training. I told him I needed a job to play for my tuition. So I played well as a sophomore defensive back, and the next year they got a new coach.

I asked the new coach for a scholarship and he told me that I was already there. If he gave me one he’d have to give everyone else one. I told him that wasn’t my problem and that I would look to transfer, so he gave me a scholarship. It worked out well for them!

My senior year though I got clipped in practice and limped around most of the year. I was beat up. I knew I just needed a chance to prove myself in the NFL. I thought I was big and fast enough.

Pittsburgh wasn’t a great franchise when I got there. They had three rookie safeties that year make the team. Me, Glen Edwards, and (Ralph) Anderson. The three of us ended up playing the two safety positions on a regular basis.

Tell me a bit about communication. As a safety, that was a big part of your role there and something you hear this current Steelers team struggles with.

Football is about execution. It’s based on tendencies. We broke down the offense with a chart that listed what plays each team ran from what formations. That changes week to week and even in games, so that takes communication. You all need to be on the same page.

In my era, I communicated the formations to my teammates. Glen Edwards played running back in college, he never played safety, so I had to be sure to help him understand what he needed to do. But first, I needed to know what I needed to do.

I remember in the papers there was a picture of me making a V with my fingers, The caption read that I was celebrating a win with my team. That’s not what I was doing. I was telling the team to run a cover 2.

There are eleven guys on both sides of the ball trying to confuse the other side. It’s what they call the perfect game. It’s about mental performance and execution and physical performance. You see many formations and more motion now. Linebackers and defensive backs rotating and defensive linemen moving round. The offense is trying to snap the ball before the defense can make the adjustment.

I remember in one of the Super Bowl games versus the Cowboys, they scored a touchdown on a play we saw on film and talked about how to defend. But I didn’t get the coverage called in time before the snap. That was my fault.

You have fans and players yelling, everyone moving around and limited time … it can be pretty hard to do.

As a rookie, who or what helped you most to adjust to the NFL? Any mentors?

(Terry) Bradshaw early on, and (Jack) Ham once the preseason started. But hmmm. Mentors? Not sure. My goal was to make an impression on the coaching staff. My dad told me when they aren’t yelling at you I should worry. It’s when they are yelling at you that you know they are interested.

So I decided from rookie camp that I was just going to start hitting everyone I could until they told me to stop, and not make any mental mistakes. I wrote all of the defensive calls on tape on my forearm and hit people until they told me to stop and tried to make no mental mistakes. It worked I guess.

So give me a few good stories of your time there!

In the old locker room we didn’t have a phone. The only phone was in the equipment room on the wall there next to the locker room. The equipment manager then was Tony Parisi. He was a great guy. If you needed anything he’d get it for you. He was also very interested in how people made their money. Always looking for opportunities.

When we’d have phone conversations, he’d often listen in. Whether we were talking to our families, doing business. …  So one year I pretended to have a business. I got on the phone for five or ten minutes before or after practice every day…this was when they had the tax shelter programs so you could form limited partnerships and strike it rich in the oil and gas industry.

So every day I’d get on the phone and pretend to have a conversation. “Really? How many barrels? How much was that check for?” I’d continue it on for a couple of weeks and draw Parisi in.

So one day, I’m sitting on my stool in the locker room and look up and see Ernie Holmes striding towards me. He pulls up a stool and asked me what was going on. Then he says, “Hey Mike, I want a job at that oil company you have.”

Ernie was from Texas, and he thought I had an oil well there! I told him it was just a joke I was playing on Tony, but he wouldn’t believe me. It took me two weeks to finally convince Ernie that I didn’t really own an oil well!

Let’s talk a bit about playoff preparation. How did you prepare for all of those playoff games?

There was no rah rah or jumping up and down. It was just business to be done. It was real calm. Chuck (Noll) didn’t want us to get those emotional highs because he didn’t want the downs that came with them. Not that it wasn’t intense, but we rarely jumped up and down to celebrate plays.

That’s just the way Chuck wanted it. His biggest thing he’d tell us before a game was “It’s fun day. Let’s go.” Real calm like that. No pregame speech. So most of my career it was that way for me. I was a laid-back player. I remember the one time, in my second season, I was in the tunnel in Miami ready to go out and play and I got this sudden surge of adrenaline. I didn’t like it. It took a while for it to go away, like caffeine. But once it goes away, you hit that low like caffeine too. You crash.

I used to accuse (Jack) Lambert of being responsible for all of the changes with players celebrating on the field. Stomping his feet, throwing his arms. He’d say “What? What?” and grumble at me. Fans love it though. I remember Glen Edwards, too. If the defensive line wasn’t doing it’s job, which was rare, he’d yell at them — pick the biggest guys to yell at. Me and Ham, we just would shake our heads. …

Another good story about Lambert. In the playoffs, we lost our running backs to injury in Baltimore in 1976. We were looking for the three-peat that season. Well, there were thirty seconds left versus Oakland and we had no chance to win and the defense was on the field. We’re in the huddle and the referee puts his head into the huddle and starts telling us how much he hated seeing us lose and how we were the greatest defense he saw. … Well Lambert just lashes into him: “Get the bleep out of here — we’re trying to win a game!”

The ref ran out of the huddle, he was so taken aback!

Any thoughts on the way the game is played today?

I don’t want to be critical, and certain things are ok to celebrate like a tremendous catch. … But when I see players celebrating for making a tackle they should make, I don’t know. I don’t like it. But I will say once I was in the stands and turned around and looked at the fans instead of the player celebrating, They loved it. I saw that the fans really want to celebrate with the player, especially the young crowd. I get it now.

In reality, the NFL is like a circus. With players instead of animals. The fans are being entertained. Now, there’s a winner and loser so there’s more pride. But it’s just entertainment. That’s all it is.

I got a call this morning from a friend in the Midwest. He asked me what it was like to be an old Steeler. I told him fans treat us like treasures. Their eyes light up. I wasn’t one of the more famous guys. I don’t think its so much about me or the player. I think when they see us they remember the good times we had or so many years. It’s really great to watch their eyes light up like that.

Steelers

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson Graded Best Pass-Blocker in NFL

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Pittsburgh Steelers guard Kevin Dotson has been thrust into action early and often in his first season with injuries to key starters across the offensive line, but the rookie has more than answered the call.

Pro Football Focus has graded Dotson as the NFL’s best pass-blocking interior offensive lineman this season at 88.9.

Dotson has two starts this season, and has seen significant action in relief of starting guard David DeCastro who has missed three games with injury.

The rookie is not the only Steelers offensive linemen to have success in 2020, as the whole unit has done an excellent job of protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through five games. Pittsburgh has allowed just eight sacks thus far, which is the tied for the third-fewest in the league.

The Steelers selected Dotson with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft. Dotson was a four-year letterwinner for the Louisiana Rajin’ Cajuns and named First-Team All-American in 2019.

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Steelers

Tomlin: Derrick Henry ‘Like Bud Dupree Running the Football … Except Faster’

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Derrick Henry can make a would-be tackler look awful foolish. Just ask Buffalo Bills cornerback Josh Norman, who Henry stiff-armed into oblivion last Tuesday night.

He can also make an entire team of would-be tacklers look foolish, as he did to the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon, with the entire squad unable to catch the Titans’ 238-pound back as he raced away down the field.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’s good reason to be fearful of the things that Henry can do on the football field.

“There are people that are intimidated by him,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “There are tangible things to be intimidated by. This is like Bud Dupree running the football. This guy gets into your secondary. It’s like trying to tackle a guy like Bud, except he is faster, obviously, than Bud.

“You can see DBs having issues with that. Hopefully, we minimize the amount of time our guys are in those circumstances, and hopefully, when our guys are in those circumstances, they do what they have to do.”

Of course, the Steelers have done pretty well when it comes to shutting down top opposing running backs.

New York Giants star Saquon Barkley had just six yards on 15 carries in Week 1. Last week, Kareem Hunt totaled just 40 yards on 13 carries.

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Saunders: How Will Steelers Replace Devin Bush? They Won’t.

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How will the Steelers replace Devin Bush?

That was the question on the minds of many the moment Bush left Sunday’s Steelers win over Cleveland, even before it was revealed that the injury to the Steelers up and coming linebacker is serious enough to keep him out for the remainder of the 2020 season.

Now, it’s become a critical question, and as contenders around the AFC have faltered, perhaps the only major one standing in the way of the Steelers becoming a prime contender to play for a Super Bowl title this winter.

The problem is that it’s not a question there’s a satisfactory answer to. Just think about what it took to get Bush in the first place, who in his own way is also an injury replacement.

When Ryan Shazier suffered his season- and career-ending spinal injury in Cincinnati in 2017, the Steelers were left with a gaping hole in their defense that was exploited by Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars of all people as the team with a loaded offense whimpered to a first-round playoff exit.

Sean Spence started the last five games of the season for the Steelers at inside linebacker alongside Vince Williams. Those were the last five games of his NFL career.

In second-year backup Robert Spillane, the Steelers have a player of at least that ilk. Though the Steelers have confidence, his ability will be seen over the next few games. There are other options, as well, in the form of 2019 sixth-round pick Ulysees Gilbert III and converted safety Marcus Allen.

There are players that are free agents or that may be acquired from another team for minimal return that may represent an upgrade to that group, but none of those players are going to replace Bush.

After the loss to the Jaguars, took the Steelers over another year of wading through other options before they were finally able to replace Shazier. In 2018, free agent signing Jon Bostic made 14 starts at inside linebacker, L.J. Fort started two and Tyler Matakevich started one.

The Steelers fell from the No. 7 scoring defense in the league in 2017 to No. 16 with the 2018 unit. The only other starters that changed on the defense were Mike Mitchell and Artie Burns for Terrell Edmunds and Coty Sensabaugh in the secondary, and Sensabaugh did so by beating out Burns while he remained on the roster. The biggest change was the man playing next to Williams at inside linebacker.

Going into the 2019 season, the Steelers knew they needed to do something more. They signed Mark Barron as a free agent, but considered him another stop-gap at best, though perhaps better than the previous options. But a better free agent that would fit into the Steelers’ salary cap crunch could not be found.

Even when focused on the 2019 NFL Draft, there was such a dearth of inside linebacker prospects that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert felt compelled to trade up to get Bush instead of waiting for a player at their spot.

To replace Shazier, it took going through nearly a half-dozen other options and trading up in the draft to get a player that could finally do at least most of the things he was able to do on the field in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. 

Thankfully, it does not appear at this point that Bush’s injury will extend beyond the 2020 season, but replacing him for the remainder of this year will be nearly impossible.

The Steelers were able to pull off something similar to that feat in 2019, trading a first-round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick after safety Sean Davis was injured. It was the first time the Steelers had traded their first-round pick since the 1960s. It’s unlikely they’ll find the combination of a talented player and a motivated seller once again, and even if they do, will Colbert want to trade his first-round pick again? The team has little else it could spare to offer a team to try to get them to part with a top talent.

Instead, it appears that a combination of Spillane, Gilbert and Allen, plus whoever else the team can scrounge up, will have to do when it comes to replacing Bush, and even though they’re unlikely to do a representative job of it, that seems about the best the Steelers can hope for.

With the additions of Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson and the emergence of Bud Dupree as one of the league’s premier pass rushers, this Steelers’ defense might be better suited to deal with the loss of an important cog at inside linebacker. But the way the NFL as a whole, and particularly the top teams in the AFC in Baltimore and Kansas City, likes to put pressure on a defense, it’s likely that the loss of Bush will be felt for quite some time.

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