The Steelers belong to Pittsburgh every bit as much as the old mills and smokestacks, which polluted the air and left buildings and clothes covered in soot, once did.
From the days of stogie-chomping Art “The Chief” Rooney and the Steel Curtain dynasty, to Terrible Towels waving at Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field, to the late Myron Cope on radio, to today, the Steelers have remained devoted to representing and reflecting the black-and-gold collar fans who live and die with this football team.
And now we have a 6-0 Steelers team steeling for another bare knuckles brawl at Baltimore (5-1), lifted by the return of Big Ben Roethlisberger from a thumb injury that cost him most of last season. It has been 12 years since Big Ben won his second Super Bowl, 12 years since the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl championship, and they are driven to win their seventh and break a franchise tie at the top with the Patriots.
Bill Cowher, who won Super Bowl XL, won’t soon forget the Steelers of Chuck Noll — Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and Lynn Swann and Mike Webster and John Stallworth and Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood and Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and Mel Blount — because he grew up 10 miles from Three Rivers Stadium in Crafton, Pa., delivering the Pittsburgh Press in the afternoon from ages 8-12. They called Pittsburgh the “City of Champions” after the Steelers and Pirates ruled the 1979 season.
“No. 1, there’s a tradition of winning that goes beyond when I was there, starting with Chuck Noll with what he did back in the ’70s,” Cowher told Serby Says, “and with that expectation of winning, also there comes a responsibility that goes with that, which is carrying yourself a certain way. I think it starts at the very top, it started with Dan Rooney, it started with The Chief before him, and still continues now with Art Rooney [II, Art Rooney Sr.’s grandson].
“They understand that there’s a core value that you have and certain players that you want to have around that you build off of, that you continually build through. Your type of player that you want to be able to carry on your legacy, and then they teach it to the young players. There’s a certain professionalism that goes with it, there’s a certain selflessness that goes with it, there’s a certain set of expectations that goes with being a Pittsburgh Steeler.”
Defensive end Brett Keisel, who played from 2002-14 for Cowher and Mike Tomlin, was asked for his definition of a Steeler.
“My definition would just be tough, gritty, hard-working, bring your lunch pail, your hardhat, to work kind of mentality,” Keisel said by phone. “That’s the steel industry. The city was founded by men and families of that nature.”
Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. Sometimes, only a Steeler.
“You get a taste of reality when you go to Latrobe [for training camp] and you see Steeler Nation and you see the fight that these men go through just to make the team every year,” Keisel said. “You also see the family side of the locker room, the camaraderie, the brotherhood about being a Pittsburgh Steeler, so you immediately want to have that for your whole football life. It’s a special town to play football for. It’s awesome to feel the buzz right now, because we felt it quite a few times while we were playing there. But the football team means a ton to the city, and when the team’s doing good, we’re doing good.”
The team’s going good, with Roethlisberger looking nothing like a 38-year-old quarterback.
“He looks better than I’ve ever seen,” Keisel said.
Big Ben is getting the ball out of his hand with unprecedented speed. “It’s one of those situations you come back with a renewed refreshness for the game,” Cowher said. “Sometimes you don’t realize what you have till it’s taken away. You’re seeing him become more comfortable with this group of receivers. He’s always seen the field very well, but I’m impressed each week with the accuracy, particularly on some of the deep balls he’s that thrown.”
Rookie receiver Chase Claypool provides Big Ben with a Plaxico Burress-esque weapon.
“Chase is one of those guys that’s a big target, can high point a ball,” Cowher said. “A very selfless player. He can run with it as well. He really is a great complement to Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Washington as well.”
Bruising running back James Conner kills the body so the head dies.
“Looks like a man running with a sense of purpose,” Cowher said. “It’s really nice to know that in the course of a fourth quarter you can finish games, and that to me is what the Steelers have always been able to do. In the National Football League, games are not won in the first, second and third quarters.”
There will never be another Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, and the loss of linebacker Devin Bush (torn ACL) hurts, but Cowher draws a parallel between T.J. Watt (5.5 sacks) and Bud Dupree (5 sacks) and the yesteryear tandems of Greg Lloyd-Kevin Greene, Jason Gilden-Joey Porter and James Harrison-LaMarr Woodley.
“Bud Dupree is a great complement to T.J.,” Cowher said. “When you play that defense in Pittsburgh, it’s about the bookends that you have on that defensive front. These two bookends right now, they complement each other and they know how to set an edge.”
Keisel played with Troy Polamalu and feels that safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, acquired by trade 14 months ago, could have a similar impact.
“I think getting him last year changed everything,” Cowher said. “They got Stephen Tuitt back this year. He missed almost all of last year, and I think under the radar he’s having a Pro Bowl season, along with Cam Heyward. They’re really good at every level.”
Since Noll began his Hall of Fame career in 1969, the Steelers have had three head coaches. Tomlin’s championship came in Super Bowl XLIII.
“Mike has a great feel for his players, and I think Mike has also been able to get a good feel for a coaching staff that he’s put together,” Cowher said. “[General manager] Kevin Colbert’s been there since the year 2000 in the middle of my tenure. Mike has put his own little niche on this football team. It’s about carrying yourself in a professional manner, about representing your city, your organization, your team, doing things a certain way, no one person’s bigger than the team. It’s more of a team than it is a group of individuals.”
Hide the women and children for Steelers-Ravens.
“I think it’s the best rivalry in football,” Cowher said. “They both try to intimidate by the way in which they play the game. They have respect for each other, but there’s without a mutual dislike for one another.”
You don’t need to tell Keisel.
“It’s a bloodbath,” he said. “The trench warfare is brutal. It is brutal, because both these teams believe in running the football, they both believe in having strong, physical, offense and defensive lines, and the games are won and lost right there. So watch the trenches, watch the type of hand-to-hand battle and combat that is going on in the trenches in between the whistles, it’ll scare ya!”
In Pittsburgh, they’ll be expecting a Steel Hurtin’.
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