Friday, October 21, 2011
Donnie Shell, aka the "Torpedo."
I've always loved Donnie Shell. When I was young, maybe around ten years old, and playing playground football with my cousins, I was always Donnie Shell, or "Mr. Interception" as I called him back then. I did my best to blanket my cousin like Shell did, even though I wasn't allowed to hit him like Shell did. Regardless, I obviously wasn't nearly as good. Didn't matter, he was my man. That's all that mattered.
As I grew and learned more and more about football, I was able to appreciate what a great all-around player he truly was. But one memory stands out above all others: It was a game late in the season in 1978 against the Houston Oilers.
The playoff implications were heavy and Shell was in his first full season as a starter. Houston had already beaten the Steelers on Monday Night Football earlier in the year in a brutally physical game (but weren't all Steelers/Oilers games brutal back then?), but Shell's hit surpassed anything seen in that previous meeting.
Earl Campbell busted through the line for good yardage, spun out of the tackle of another Steeler and BOOM! Shell came out of nowhere and planted his helmet (which would be illegal in today's NFL) firmly in Cambell's ribcage, lifting Cambell off of his feet and slamming him onto the turf. The Torpedo found his target (a hit that, if memory serves, played at the beginning of NFL Live well into the 80s). Campbell left the game with broken ribs and the Steelers went on to win 13-3.
Plain and simple, Donnie Shell was feared. A natural athlete, as he also ran track and played baseball in high school, Shell could fly around the field like Troy Polamalu, and could level hits like no one else. Shell was a special player: he was a ball-hawk, hit like a mack truck, was a great coverage guy and had great instincts to find the ball or the ball carrier.
Shell played strong safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He is considered as part of the famed 1974 Steelers draft though he was signed as an undrafted free agent that year. He's third in Steelers history in interceptions, was named to the Pro Bowl five times (1978-1982), was a three-time All-Pro and retired as the NFL’s career leader among strong safeties in interceptions with 51. An 11-year starter ('77-'87), he was named to the Steelers’ All-Time Team and to the NFL Silver Anniversary Super Bowl Team.
I must note something here: as I've started writing this Blog, I've had to do a lot of research in order to be precise in what I write. So trust me when I say that there are players in the Hall of Fame with fewer credentials. But I digress...
Shell's is almost a forgotten legacy. The early part of his career is overshadowed by teammates such as Mel Blount, the Jacks and Mean Joe Greene, and the latter part is shrouded in the mist that was the haze of the '80s. Because of this, many current NFL and Steelers fans only know no. 31 as Mike Logan, something that is saddening to a student of the game and a true fan. Shell doesn't let it get to him, though. Instead, he just points out that all his "records are in the books." Read more on this humble man in this reflective article: http://www.thestate.com/2008/09/07/516502/understated-shell-lets-the-record.html#ixzz1bNV0GCRQ
Donnie Shell is not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, he has only made it as a finalist a couple of times. Should he be considered more strongly as a candidate for the Hall of Fame? Is he caught in the wave of an anti-Steelers bias regarding the Hall of Fame? Pertaining to the '70s Steelers at least. Possibly. The prevailing current amongst Steelers fans is that the likes of he and L.C. "Hollywood Bags" Greenwood should be in the Hall of Fame. But the tenticles of this assumed bias seem to be reaching their way toward other players as well. Dermonti Dawson, for instance, arguably the best center of his era, has been amongst the nominees for a few years now, has yet to be enshrined. The Steelers as an organization may not have the most Hall of Famers, but they do have the most in the Hall from a particular timeframe. If such a bias really exists, Donnie Shell might be caught in the undertow of this tide.
Regardless of all of this, I simply remember the Torpedo. I remember him fondly. I remember the hits that left ball carriers bruised. I remember the interceptions that left quarterbacks wondering how they didn't see him. But most of all I remember "Mr. Interception", a fearless competitor whom a 10-year old boy always wanted to emulate. Even if I never was allowed to pretend my cousin was Earl Campbell.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
This article is for all the Rashard Mendenhall fans out there. So, those of you who crush him no matter how well he plays, y'all can go on doing what you've been doing. Tweet your hateration for him, or post your doctored pics to Facebook, or upload videos to YouTube of the reasons he sucks or...kick puppies or whatever it is you do to have fun. Just, please, don't tag me in those photos. Unless you superimpose me next to Rihanna or something. That I can deal with.
Ok, to back to you guys. I don't know about y'all, but I really don't get all the Mendenhall hate. I really don't. I mean, he just won the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award and they still won't give him his due. What's he done to deserve the hate? Is he fragile? Has he been injured a lot? Does he constantly turn the ball over? A low yards per carry average? Well let's just break it all down.
To give a bit of a background, Rashard Mendenhall played at the University of Illinois and in his final season with the Illini he rushed for a then school record 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns with a 6.4 ypc average. Throughout the 13 game season, he also had 318 yards receiving and two touchdowns on 34 receptions, Mendenhall was then drafted 23rd overall by the Steelers in the 2008 NFL Draft and was looked at as being a complement to Pro-Bowl running back Fast Willie Parker.
An injury to Willie Parker, though, put Mendy, as fans have taken to calling him, into the starting lineup September 29, 2008 against the rival Baltimore Ravens. It didn't go well. He was forced to leave the game with a fractured shoulder in the third quarter after a huge hit by Steelers fans' favorite criminal, Ray Lewis. (Ok, ok..."accomplice") Season over. Thanks for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you. (Namely a Super Bowl ring. Number six, if you're counting.)
Since then Mendy has been a very good running back, even great at times. He did have the fumblitis issues early on, but he's taken care of that, despite what James Harrison said. (Mendy only fumbled once in 2010.) Yeah, I know he fumbled in the Super Bowl, I'll get to that too.
Upon coming back from his injury, Mendy ran for nearly 2,400 yards for a 4.25 ypc average in 28 starts over the last two years. He also had 20 touchdowns in that timeframe. He even led the Steelers in scoring last year. Bastard! Franco Harris never did that. Oh, wait...yeah, he did. In 1976 he led the Steelers in scoring with 84 points. Well, then, that can't be the reason people hate him. I may need help in figuring this out.
Could it be a tougness issue? After all, I did just state that he was injured virtually the entire '08 season. Nah, he can't be faulted for being out for the season after that hit. If Ray Ray had hit me like that I'd be out for a year too. But really out. Like 'being fed intravenously' out. Like my mama crying, "Oh, Lord Jesus, they done killed my baby!" out. Plus, he hasn't suffered any real injuries since then. So it can't be a matter of toughness. He neither shies away from blocking nor runs out of bounds just to avoid a hit. (You hear that, Franco?) Anyway, I just can't see it being that. What else?
I talked before about the fumbles Mendy had early in his career and especially the one in the Super Bowl. As was said before, he conquered his fumbling problems and hasn't had them since. But, he did fumble in the Super Bowl last year. Yes, it happened. As it would have with any running back. Think back to the play.
Keeping it in simple terms, the Steelers were in 13-Personnel with a designed guard pull to the right. David Johnson, no. 85, lined up as fullback and led the right side run as Doug Legursky, no. 64, pulled out to engage the linebacker, Clay Matthews, and defensive end, Ryan Pickett, respectively. They missed. Badly. They actually split them. Don't ask me how, but they split them. In two-and-a-half steps Mendy had Pickett's helmet and Matthews' right shoulder right on the ball. Breakdown by the offensive line caused the forced fumble that was recovered by Green Bay.
Such breakdowns in the offensive line have been the norm since Mendy has been in Black and Gold. Let's face it, the Steelers don't have the offensive line they once had. This isn't the the 1997 Steelers Line that had Jerome Bettis running behind it. He saw more gaping holes than at an AVN porn convention. He also had a designated full back, but that's for another article. As I was saying, the Line isn't always very good and it's caused him to be indecisive in his runs. He just doesn't hit the holes, as few as they may be, like he should. Which might just be the reason for the hate. The typical Steelers fan would rather see a plodding, big running back. Thus the clamor for Isaac Redman.
Don't get me wrong, I love Redman. I just know he isn't as good as Mendy. Mendy has power, moves and speed. Real speed. Speed that Redman just doesn't possess. Plus, when Mendy sat out the Titans game with a pulled hamstring, it was both Redman and Jonathan Dwyer who filled in for him. Redman, whom everyone wanted, only had 13 rushes for 49 yards. He's nowhere near the dynamic runner that Mendy is. But the typical fan always wants the backup.
Should Redman maybe be used more? Yes, he definitely should be. But Mendy haters shouldn't think for a moment that he could do what Mendy does. It's ludicrous to even suggest that he could. Those who truly know never lost faith in Mendy. Least of all Mendy himself. When asked of all the backlash he's been receiving lately, Mendy said, “If you paid attention to that stuff, it would drive you crazy.” You can read the rest of the article this quote comes from here: http://www.timesonline.com/sports/local_sports/mendenhall-quiets-critics-after-sunday-s-performance/article_9c8adebf-6d1f-5943-b3a9-c951c36ee5da.html
Look, Mendenhall is a dynamic runner. He is an NFL starter. Period. Deal with it. And with the likes of him as the starter, Redman simply won't start. Not that he couldn't elsewhere, he just won't be a starter in Pittsburgh. So go ahead and hate, haters (if any of them kept reading, that is). Unless Mendy pulls a Barry Foster, we can expect to see him for a long time. Now I don't mean to make anyone go and boil someone's bunny over this, it just happens to be the truth.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
It was recently suggested to me that the 3-4 defense the Steelers run had lost it's effectiveness and that it was time to move on from it. As preposterous as it sounded at the time, I've never been one to summarily dismiss a notion without first considering the facts. So neither will I do so here. Let's actually look at the two defenses, examine the differences and consider what experts have to say about the two.
The history of 3-4 defense in NFL dates back to 1974 when former Oklahoma Sooners coach Chuck Fairbanks introduced it in his second season as head coach of the New England Patriots. He used the 3-4 on nearly every down that season with Ray Hamilton as his Nose Tackle - the first one ever seen in the modern NFL. Though the Sooners mainly used a 5-2 defense up through the early 1970s, Fairbanks, considered the Grandfather of the "30 Front" 3-4 defense, introduced the basis of the 3-4 as early as the 1950s. Because of that, other coaches did pick up on this new style of defense. There were quite a few teams, therefore, who used it before the Steelers. Among them were New England, Miami, Denver, Oakland & Buffalo.
For a brief synopsis of coach Chuck Fairbanks and his Oklahoma years, follow this link: http://www.eteamz.com/WNBA/news/index.cfm?cat=746490&subsite=5678765
It should be noted that Joe Collier, NFL coach and defensive coordinator for 30 years, coached with the Bills for seven seasons, from 1962 to 1968 in the AFL. It was there, at least as far as pro football is concerned, that the 3-4 was born, with Collier using it as first defensive coordinator and then head coach. “We initially used it in 1964, but we used it quite a bit against San Diego in 1965 in the AFL Championship Game,” Collier said of a 23-0 Bills victory that gave them their second straight title game victory over the Chargers, the top-scoring team in the league that year. “But for the most part, we didn’t use it. It was not a big part of our defense, maybe for just five or six plays." So this was the first time that pro football, not the NFL, but pro football saw the 3-4 defense.
So the suggestion of dumping the 3-4 defense begs the question: Is the 4-3 defense better? Or more pointedly, was the 1970s Steelers' 4-3 defense better? The Steelers switched to the 3-4 because of injuries and retirements. It wasn't as if Noll had a sudden stroke of genius, rather it was out of necessity. But with some tweaking and a player or two playing somewhat out of position, the 3-4 in Steeltown had begun. The Steelers are, in fact, the only team to strictly use 3-4 for last 30 years. But does that mean it's better than the 4-3? Well the Steelers defenses of the '70s were stellar to say the least, and full of hall of famers. The 1976 defense for instance is considered by some as the best defense ever as it allowed only 138 points over a 14 game schedule and completely blanked 5 of it's last 9 opponents. That calculates out to just 9.85 points per game. Simply devastating. The 1978 Steelers defense only allowed 195 points for a 12.19 points per game average as well. The Steelers also accomplished something no other team in the modern era has in representing the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three straight years. No other team since the merger has accomplished this.
Then as all the stars of the '70s Steelers dynasty faded, the much dimmer '80s were endured. The team had meager success, only making the AFC Championship game once, after the 1984 season. The Steelers simply weren't as strong or intimidating either. From 1985-1992 the Steelers only recorded more than 40 sacks in a season once. In fact, in 1988 they only recorded 19. If you go simply by those numbers, awards and results, it would seem that a 4-3 defense is something the Steelers might want to consider again considering the pourous defense that has been witnessed so far this season. But as an analyst on the four-letter network is fond of saying, "Not so fast, my friend." There's a gentleman who might like to make an argument in favor of the 3-4. His name is Dick LeBeau.
Fans in Steeler Nation refer to the team as Blitzburgh because of LeBeau's Zone Blitz schemes in the 3-4. For years before LeBeau first became the defensive coordinator, he was the defensive backs coach. His impact, though, could still be felt as the likes of current Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson terrorized offenses. Then when LeBeau was elevated to defensive coordinator, all he did was coach the defense to the no. 3 and no. 2 defenses respectively and a trip to the Super Bowl in 1995. Dick LeBeau, Coach Dad as he is also referred to at times by teammates and pictured above, left after two seasons as defensive coordinator, but returned in 2004 and has been here since that time. Under LeBeau the Steelers have only once failed to be in the top five in the NFL in defense, no. 9 in 2006, and have been the best in total defense three times. He's also coached two Defensive Players of the Year, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, and has been to the Super Bowl 4 times, winning 2 of them.
More information on the actual comparison of the two defenses is in an article written by NFL.com senior analyst, Pat Kirwan. You can read the article here: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d80d6974b/article/effectiveness-of-34-vs-43-is-found-in-the-numbers
LeBeau, though, is himself a Hall of Famer and, quite simply, a legend. His Zone Blitz 3-4 schemes, mentioned earlier is built on confusion. Organized confusion. The fact of it is that it’s usually hard to decipher for opposing offenses. Pass rushers come from all different directions in a myriad of situations. On one play, they come from the left, then the next play from the right, or the middle. Sometimes, a lot of them will come, and on other occasions, few, or maybe even no one. There are so many things going on all at the same time, so many stunts, so many linebackers and safeties moving in and out of spots as the quarterback barks out the signals, that it can become a blur in trying to figure out who’s going to do what, and when. For years it's been that way. Until this year...
The 2011 version of the Steelers defense has only one turnover and only 7 sacks. Worse yet, the defense is being gashed on the ground, giving up two 100-yard rushers in 4 games. Not teams, individual runners. That is something that Steeler Nation simply isn't used to seeing from it's defense. At all. Since 2007 the Steelers had only allowed three 100-yard rushers. Again, there have already been two in four games this year alone. Thus the reasons for the article being written in the first place. Are these really signs that time has caught up with LeBeau and the 3-4? Is it time to revert back to a 4-3 defense? After all, Coach Tomlin did have major success with a 4-3 Cover 2 defense at his previous stops. Is this a possibility?
To answer this properly you'd have to ask whether the deficiences on defense are actually scheme related. That's key. Because, let's face it, the tool is only as good as it's user. If the defense is sound but the execution is flawed, then the fault lies not in the scheme. The best examples of this come from the Texans game in week 4. The Steelers found themselves succeptable to the stretch play on multiple occasions and were caught in a slant regularly. In one instance the nose tackle Casey Hampton was cut, and the outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley was hooked into a seal block. Because the inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons overplayed to the strong side, the running back Ben Tate found a wide open lane for a big gain. In the fourth quarter Arian Foster was allowed to run basically untouched 42 yards for a touchdown because Polamalu arrived late to the play and Woodley was caught embarrassingly out of position because he bought full-price the bootleg that Schaub was selling. So much so that whatever remaining chance Polamalu had of making the play, Woodley took it from him by colliding with Polamalu, freeing Foster completely. Things of this nature happened all game long.
It isn't just a matter of being caught out of position, though. There have also been missed opportunities and plenty of missed tackles. James Farrior had a chance to tackle Arian Foster in the backfield on one particular play and seemed to have him dead to rights. Foster fought through the grasp of much to easily and turned a loss into a big gain. These are examples of what has happened all year on defense. These are not scheme issues, these are plainly and simply matters of lack of gap sound execution, poor tackling and not being able to hold blocks that would normally free up the linebackers for pressuring the quarterback.
The good thing about this is that it's all able to be fixed. These are matters of getting back to fundamentals and playing your gaps and not getting caught watching the paint dry. Read, react and keep the feet moving. The Steelers know how to do this. LeBeau knows how to coach 'em up. This is, after all, the same defense that was no. 2 in the NFL last year and that went to the Super Bowl. So this isn't a scheme issue or a "The NFL has passed you, LeBeau" issue. It's an executon issue. This is absolutely something that can be rectified. It's like my poppa always said, "When ya done something wrong, when ya stray off course, what'r the directions back? Turn 'right' and keep goin straight." And the Steelers can certainly "right" themselves. They just have to be willing to roll their sleeves up and actually do it.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Growing up as a Steelers fan I'd always wanted to meet or get the chance to talk to the players I was seeing on the t.v. screen. Players that I followed, emulated, even practically idolized. Living on the west coast for most of my life, though, I've had few opportunities. So those few opportunities that have been presented to me have been cherished.
I remember meeting former Outside Linebacker Mike Merriweather and got and autographed picture from him. I had the ultimate pleasure of meeting and speaking at length to one Robert Patrick Bleier...aka Rocky Bleier...aka Prune Juice. Not only did we have a conversation, and not only did he autograph a photo for me, but he dubbed me "Steeler Jason" as can be seen in the picture above. Thus the reason I go by "SteelerJsun" on certain social websites. Trust me, I could spend the rest of the time writing this blog about that night alone, but that isn't my purpose for this evening's keystrokes.
I've also recently had an exchange with a current Steelers player, though this one will be memorable for a different reason. After sunday's week 4 game against the Houston Texans, a game in which the offensive live gave up 5 sacks and allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be hit or hurried many more times on top of that, I posted on Twitter the following: "@ProBowler53 (Pouncey), @MGilbert76, Essex, @RamonFoster, and Juicy (Kemoeatu)= #Fail". Let's face it, they were seemingly never comfortable and even seemed as if they weren't even always on the same page. There were no holes for the running backs to run through in the first half at all and Big Ben was running for his life in the second half. So I didn't feel I was out of line at all in saying how I felt and would say it again regarding any position or positions if they merited such criticism. As I said, though, there was an exchange.
Some time later as I was attempting to get over the loss, I received a Twitter notification from offensive guard Ramon Foster saying "and ur a #FAILURE at LIFE." Now let me make one thing perfectly clear here: I'm a self-proclaimed "ass". I recognize it, I admit it, and I embrace it. So, trust me, Ramon Foster's reply to me only fueled my fire. I even replied once more to him asking, "Truth hurt?" There was no further reply from Foster. But it turns out that it didn't matter because I started seeing tweet after tweet (what Twitter calls it's posts) of Foster's reply and the comments being made by other Steelers fans regarding it. Most seemed to echo my sentiments as well.
All that having been said, the reason for my Twitter post wasn't to publically undress him or the rest of the offensive line, it was to state the facts of the line's play. To be blunt, they couldn't have have opened a hole for Mendenhall in the first half if it had the name Jenna Jameson attached to it. And while Big Ben may be strong and elusive, you still don't want him running like that-he's no Michael Vick. I've got a rock in my back yard that could beat Big Ben in the 40 yard dash. Plain and simple, the offensive line HAS TO DO BETTER. The lack of blocking is a major factor in the team barely being 2-2. The lack of a run blocking means the Steelers become one-dimensional quickly, and that means teams can pin their ears back and go after Big Ben. That could very easily spell the end of his season. He is already in a walking boot after all.
So to Ramon Foster and any other current player who may read this blog post, this isn't a 'could any of them have played on the better Steelers' OLines of the past' argument. It's simply a calling out of the players to get them to realize that we as fans are paying attention and are concerned. We love our team and will always cherish those opportunities to interact with them...even if they're just snapping at us.