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Saunders: Steelers Leaders’ Show True Ability in Response to Tragedy

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UNITY TWP., Pa. — When a football team goes through any type of struggle, players will naturally look to their leaders for guidance.

That’s particularly the case when the leaders of the team are among the longest-tenured and most-respected around the league at their positions.

But according to the narrative that surrounded the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last nine months, the team’s leaders — most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin — were responsible for the drama and dysfunction that surrounded the team. For many, it was an indictment of their abilities as leaders of men.

We now have overwhelming evidence that narrative was shortsighted, if not completely incorrect. First, Antonio Brown has shown completely and without any shadow of a doubt that he was the cause of most, if not all, of the drama that surrounded him with his continued antics, disruption and legal issues while with the Oakland Raiders.

But more importantly, the Steelers’ leaders were faced with a far more difficult challenge during this year’s training camp than dealing with an acting-out wide receiver. The death of coach Darryl Drake on Sunday hit the team hard, particularly those that were closest to him.

That group certainly included Roethlisberger and Tomlin. Tomlin had known Drake for years before they became coworkers and was visibly upset when talking about his former friend this week.

“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant, but personally, it’s even bigger,” Tomlin said Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake all feel that way.

“In ’97, I was a young wide receiver coach at Arkansas State. He was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game. I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, or that’s how he’d described it, in being my friend. I was too persistent.

“He extended courtesies to me like he does to a lot of young guys like myself in the profession and that’s why we talked about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport and things went from there.

“Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways, to the men that he worked with, not only now, but over the course of his career, which spanned decades.”

Roethlisberger, similarly, spoke of how deeply he was effected by Drake’s influence.

“I only knew him for a year and a half, but in that year and a half, he meant more to me than some people that I’ve know my whole life,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “I know he was an amazing football coach, but he was an even better man, better husband, better father and better man of God than he was a football coach. So, what he brought to this team and our relationship together, is truly something that could never be replicated and he will be very dearly missed, but we know that he is with us and we know that he’s in a better place.”

But despite their personal relationships with Drake, and the individual pain they have been going through, Roethlisberger and Tomlin have bought into their role as healers and leaders on the squad. Photographer Ed Thompson caught a glimpse of Roethlisberger consoling JuJu Smith-Schuster in the rain during practice on Tuesday.

He spoke Thursday about the importance of that job.

“Just try to be there,” he said of his role. “Listen. I think that’s sometimes the best that you can do with grief is just to listen. So many times, we get caught trying to talk and telling people that it’ll be OK. But grief isn’t about being OK. It’s about grieving and talking and communicating, so I’m just trying to be a good communicator and listen.”

Tomlin led the team forward, saying “we intend to march” through the grief and pain to continue to fulfill the team’s professional obligations, while also recognizing that the pain needed real, professional healing. Tomlin brought in grief counselors, saying such methods were “not for the weak, but the wise.”

And so it went up and down the veterans of the Steelers’ locker room, from soft-spoken voices of experience like Alejandro Villanueva to the raw emotion of Ryan Switzer, all following the examples laid before them of acknowledging their grief and the importance of open communication and togetherness in times of trouble.

A star wide receiver that wants the ball more and can’t control his own ego? That’s a first-world problem, and an invented problem at that.

The death of a friend, a co-worker, a mentor and an important member of an organization? That’s as real as it gets.

When the Steelers’ leaders were tested with a real issue, they showed their true ability.

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Saunders: T.J. Watt Not among Long List of Steelers’ Issues this Offseason

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Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, unhappy with the way the 2020 season ended, chose not attend his exit interview with the team, according to a report on Monday by WXDX-FM host Mark Madden.

Watt denied the report, saying that he had in fact met with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator and de-facto outside linebackers coach Keith Butler before leaving the city at the close of the season.

Let’s make no mistake, the Steelers have a lot of problems this offseason.

• They chose not to retain three coaches and another retired. The general manager, head coach and defensive coordinator are all working on year-to-year contracts.

• Tight end Vance McDonald has already retired. Center Maurkice Pouncey looks like he’s leaning that way.

• Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t made his decision public yet, but he’ll either retire or return and contribute to a salary cap crunch that already has the team operating way in the red.

• And that’s before any of the Steelers’ 19 free agents gets a chance to re-sign. 

All told, at least a half-dozen starters are unlikely to return along with several key rotational players. 

Regardless of whether he did or didn’t attend his exit meeting with the team last week, T.J. Watt is not one of those problems.

The all-everything linebacker was the best player on one of the best defenses in the league all season, is scheduled to return for his fifth season in black and gold in 2021 and is the player most likely to be offered a long-term extension by the club between now and then.

Even despite the loss of cohort Bud Dupree and sitting out a meaningless finale in Cleveland, Watt led the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits, he was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. He remains the odds-on favorite to become the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Watt is coming back, he’s still going to be really, really good, and nothing said or not said in an interview would have changed that.

The rest of the team? 

Who knows.

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Saunders: Steelers’ ‘Standard’ Makes for Tough Evaluations

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PITTSBURGH — “The standard is the standard.”

Of all of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s unique sayings, that might be the most ubiquitous.

It’s also the one that’s just as much about the place that Tomlin coaches than it is about his particular style.

In Pittsburgh, the standard is the Super Bowl. That’s a standard that was set long before Tomlin arrived in the Steel City and will likely remain long after he’s gone. 

When you’re the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies, anything short of adding to that case is a disappointment.

On Sunday, the Steelers suffered that disappointment, in somewhat spectacular fashion, giving up four first-quarter touchdowns to before dragging their way back to a respectable final score in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

That is, respectable anywhere else. Not in Pittsburgh, where first-round playoff losses, even on the heels of 12-4 regular seasons, draw ire and not adulation.

While that standard is a well-earned one when it comes to the level of play that the football team has shown it is capable of achieving, it’s not a particularly good one when it comes to evaluating the participants.

On Sunday, the Steelers’ first play of scrimmage saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball 20 yards over the head of his quarterback and into his own end zone for seven Cleveland points. If it wasn’t so horrifying to watch for the Steelers faithful, it would have been hilarious. You couldn’t even make such an absurd way to start the game.

As the game went on, and the Steelers defense faltered time and again on the way to giving up 48 points on the day, it was undrafted rookie corner James Pierre and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, freshly plucked from Indy’s practice squad, playing big roles, as injuries and COVID-19 conspired to leave the once-ridiculously strong defense a feeble parody of its former self.

Those aren’t excuses. Every team has dumb and weird things happen. Every team has injuries and absences. Truly great ones find a way to overcome those things in the big picture.

On the small scale, though, that’s more than enough to cost a team one game. And in the playoffs, you don’t get a mulligan. So while the focus on this season-ending Monday is rightfully on the team’s 0-1 playoff record, the 12-4 regular season probably provides a better picture of how good and how successful this truly team was.

One-game playoffs are by their nature very random events. It doesn’t take a lot for a good team to be beat a great one or a mediocre team to beat a good one.

“You know, it’s always a cumulative body of work,” Tomlin said. “One performance can put an exclamation point on decision making and things. We also assess the cumulative.”

So when Tomlin was asked after the game how he should be held accountable for failing to win a playoff game in his second straight postseason appearance, he leaned on another one of his pet sayings.



“It is what it is,” Tomlin said. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”

The record is what it is. The Steelers had a wildly successful first three-quarters of the season, stumbled down the stretch, and face-planted in the postseason. That means that in Pittsburgh, the team failed to meet the standard for success, and that has many talking about Tomlin’s future.

Fortunately for Tomlin, the Rooney Family also seems to have a pretty keen understanding about the volatile math of the playoffs. After all, grading every season on a Super Bowl or bust, pass-fail grading scale, would involve a lot of failing grades. But the Steelers have had more stable leadership than any other NFL team, with just three coaches going back to the 1960s.

Chuck Noll went four years without winning a playoff game twice, once from 1980-83, going 0-2 and didn’t make the playoffs at all from 1985-88. Bill Cowher missed the postseason three straight years from 1998-2000. Tomlin is on his second such four-year span, going 0-2 from 2011-14 and now 0-2 from 2017-20. That’s a lot of failing, and a lot of guys that kept right on with their jobs.

The standard may be the standard in the fans’ eyes, but it’s clear that in the evaluation of coaches, the Rooney family has other methods. Perhaps Tomlin has failed in some of those areas, as well. His strategy on Sunday was questionable in many facets and in-game management has never been a strength. The way the game started, with a 28-point deficit and the fact that it came at the hands of the Browns likely did Tomlin no favors.

“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that. That’s football and that’s life.”

There are many questions about what the Steelers team will look like after an offseason that is sure to be full of turmoil and turn over. It’s possible that may include change at the head coach position, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it will not. It’s hard to argue with what has led the Rooneys and Steelers to so much success. It’s part of why the standard is the standard.

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Steelers Now Staff 2020 Season Predictions

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Here are our Steelers Now staff predictions for the 2020 season. Think you know better than we do? Leave your prediction in the comments.

NICK FARABAUGH, STEELERS NOW ANALYST, REPORTER

The Steelers boast an impressive defense. They return most of the guys from last year except Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron, but they do add back in Stephon Tuitt. This is still a defense that has playmakers at every level. From T.J. Watt and Heyward to Devin Bush to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, this is a defense that offensive coordinators do not want to face, period. This team had an astonishing 38 turnovers forced last year, and I have to think while they may not repeat that number, they’ll get close to it. It was a nice depth signing to bring on Sean Davis as well in case of any injuries to the safety group. I don’t see this defense taking much of a step back.

However, the offense should take a step forward. After a year without Ben Roethlisberger, he is back and by all reports looks great. The additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool give him an even more expansive group of weapons than he had coming into last year. The offensive line depth looks fantastic thanks to the signing of Stefen Wisniewski and picking Kevin Dotson in the 4th round. This team has a lot of schematic flexibility. With Matt Canada bringing his motion and play-action concepts with him as well, this offense has a lot of upside to it. I think this offense takes a big step up this year, especially in the red zone.

The Steelers prediction is not too tough on paper. The NFC East is an OK division, and while the NFC South has some tough teams, the Steelers are very capable of winning all those games. Not pulling the Chiefs is a pretty nice bonus, too.

Season Prediction: 11-5

Three other predictions that I will throw out:

• Eric Ebron will lead this offense in receiving touchdowns. He’s going to be a huge threat in the red zone for this team.

• Steven Nelson gets 3+ interceptions this year. It was a bit of a down year in terms of ball production for him last year, but that changes this year.

• James Conner stays healthy enough and gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

ALAN SAUNDERS, STEELERS NOW MANAGING EDITOR, BEAT WRITER

With a very, very weird offseason, I think the beginning of the 2020 season is going to be tough, even for good football teams. We’ve already seen that through Week 1, with the San Francisco 49ers dropping a game to the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles finding ways to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins.

But the Steelers have been blessed with a very light open to their season. They’ll get the New York Giants, fresh off a coaching change, followed by the listless Denver Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, setting the team up for a potential 3-0 start before facing a pair of playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Later non-division games at Jacksonville, against Washington, at Buffalo and against Indianapolis all seem very winnable.

Divisional play should also lean the Steelers’ way, as Cleveland has not significantly improved, and while Cincinnati will be much better, they were so bad last season, it would hard to be worse. They should be favored in four of six division games.

From a team standpoint, they certainly got better than last year, simply by the addition of Roethlisberger. If this defense can drag the offense to an 8-8 record without Roethlisberger, how good can they be with him? Truly, the sky is the limit, as there isn’t a single game on the Steelers’ slate that seems unwinnable at the outset of the season.

The lone stumbling block will be a Baltimore Ravens team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last year and also got better in the offseason, adding defensive lineman Calais Campbell and five top-100 draft picks from the 2020 NFL Draft. The Ravens are the best team in the division, and even Roethlisberger won’t be a sure thing to change that math in the Steelers’ favor.

Season prediction: 11-5, No. 5 seed in AFC, loss in AFC Championship Game

Bonus Steelers predictions:

• Diontae Johnson will be the team’s leading receiver.
• Three Steelers will have more than 10 sacks.
• Chase Claypool will score more than four touchdowns.

Bonus NFL predictions:

• The New England Patriots will have a better record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• The New York Jets will finish in last place.
• Joe Burrow will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

MIKE VUKOVCAN, CO-FOUNDER

12-4. The Steelers will win the AFC North and will play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl. The team’s biggest offensive weapon will be Ebron.

MIKE ASTI, DIGITAL CONTENT MANAGER

11-5. I have Steelers winning AFC North because of actual stability at quarterback and another year together for the defense. Roethlisberger will also be more efficient than he’s been because of the addition of Ebron in particular, who will be among best offseason additions throughout league.

CALE BERGER, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER

11-5. Win AFC north. lose to Chiefs in AFC championship. Defense will be stellar. Diontae Johnson team MVP

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