Pro sports teams often reflect the city they play in. The ’80s Showtime Lakers or the big-money, all-business Yankees teams of the early 2000s are perfect examples. Possibly the best example in history is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers have long exhibited a toughness that reflects the blue-collar Pennsylvania city the team calls home. In 2021, that seems to no longer be the case, and former New England Patriot and current NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi shared three statistics on the Week 13 ESPN pregame show that proves the Steelers are no longer the tough guy team they’ve long claimed to be.
The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t playing traditional Steelers football
The Pittsburgh Steelers are synonymous with toughness.
The Pittsburgh Pirates started playing pro football in 1933 and officially became the Steelers in 1940. For the first almost 40 years of the franchise, the team incredibly only made the playoffs once.
That all changed when the Steelers leaned into toughness in the 1970s. The team made the playoffs every year from 1972-79 and won a staggering four Super Bowls in the process.
It did this with some of the toughest players to ever step on an NFL field.
On offense, 6-foot-2 230-pound battering ram Franco Harris led the team’s rushing attack along with literal war hero Rocky Bleier. Terry Bradshaw, a quarterback with a linebacker mentality, conducted the passing game.
The defense was even more fearsome.
The 1970s “Steel Curtain” defense is widely considered one of the best and toughest defensive units in NFL history. The ’70s Steelers D was stocked with skilled tough guys from top to bottom. Many of them became Hall of Famers. This includes “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Donnie Shell, and Mel Blount.
The next Super Bowl-winning period in Steelers history also coincided with building a toughness that was second to none in the league.
The 2005 and 2008 Super Bowl teams both had tough guys up and down both sides of the roster. Offensively, there was 6-foot-5, 240-pound QB Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, and tough-as-nails WR Hines Ward.
Defensively, the organization’s newest Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu, joined James Harrison, Brett Keisel, and Ryan Clark are just a few of the hard-as-steel defenders to get Super Bowl rings in the 2000s.
All seven of these Steelers Super Bowl teams also have one more thing in common. They had tough-guy head coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin.
Former NFL tough guy Tedy Bruschi called out the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ NFC North rival Baltimore Ravens have taken the mantle from the Steel City squad as the bullies on the block in recent years.
The Ravens, who the Steelers play in Week 13, have ranked higher than the Steelers in scoring defense the last five seasons in a row and seven of the last eight. They’ve also out-rushed Pittsburgh the previous four consecutive seasons.
On Week 13’s NFL Sunday Countdown on ESPN, former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi discussed Baltimore being tougher than Pittsburgh these days.
Ryan noted that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin bragged about how “he put the pads on his team this week” in practice.
“Well, you know what? So did Baltimore,” Ryan said. “They just don’t have to tell you about it.”
Bruschi concurred, saying he’s “through with the tough talk” coming from Pittsburgh. The Super Bowl champ said that the Steelers are not tough anymore and shared statistics to back his claim up:
We do not throw around the word “soft” very often, but I’m using it to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers because, let me tell you, there is a statistical way to measure softness in the National Football League. And these are the three categories: the ability to run the football, the ability to stop the run, and the ability to cover kicks. That is all-encompassing your tough guys on your team, alright? The Pittsburgh [stats]: 29th in yards per rush on offense, 31st on yards per rush on defense, 26th in yards allowed per return. These aren’t tough guys in Pittsburgh, and they haven’t shown it all year. That’s who they are.Tedy Bruschi on the Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s hard to argue that the Steelers of 2021 aren’t nearly as tough as the Steeler teams of yore. While that might doom this year’s version of the team, the Steelers’ hierarchy may soon have a chance to remedy the situation.
There is about to be a franchise makeover in the Steel City
The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers represent an end of an era.
NFL insider Adam Schefter is reporting that Ben Roethlisberger, who has helmed the Steeler QB spot for the majority of the last 18 years, is likely to hang it up after this season:
Ben Roethlisberger privately has told former teammates and some within the organization that he expects this to be his final season playing quarterback for the Steelers, league sources told ESPN.Adam Schefter on Ben Roethlisberger
While this has to be scary to both the organization and its fans, it does give the team an opportunity for a needed reset.
As Tedy Bruschi noted, the team is soft. The offensive line isn’t strong, and the key offensive players are now finesse WRs like Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington. Only rookie RB Najee Harris has shown Steelers toughness this season. This makes him a good building block moving forward.
On the opposite side of the ball, there’s not a lot of grit either, but there is a little more to work with.
T.J. Watt is unquestionably tough and a star, and Joe Hayden and Cameron Heyward are classic Steelers defenders, although both 32. That side of the ball also features promising youngsters like S Minkah Fitzpatrick and LB Devin Bush.
If the front office can do this rebuild right — and history suggests it can — the Steelers can once again be tough and once again be on top of the AFC North faster than most.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference