Author Archives: Rebecca

Memories of Ivan, from Michael Bean

For those of you who are truly old-timers, Michael was the person who began Behind the Steel Curtain, back somewhere in the mid-2000s. He is also one of the main people who is directly responsible for my Steeler fandom. Whether he should be congratulated or execrated for this I leave to you all to decide. 

Ivan was a giant in my eyes because he embodied many of the characteristics I hoped to be better at and grow into as I progressed through life. Pragmatic but optimistic. Serious but with a funny streak. Welcoming to others but intensely loyal to those in his original orbit.

On the website, everyone always wanted to raise their game a little bit when Ivan was involved in a conversation. To try to be a little more thoughtful with their analysis, a bit more crisp with their writing, and definitely to leave the ad hominum nonsense at the door.

Ivan brought people together. In my small little sandbox of the website, that meant bringing more readers into the site and making more people feel emboldened and safe to share their thoughts in a respectful way.

When I asked Ivan to write for the preseason magazines we did for three years, I learned through the stories he shared in his pieces that Ivan was the type of guy everyone knew and respected, no matter the neighborhood, no matter the campus, no matter the setting.

This impression has been strengthened in my cherished conversations with Ivan’s friend Mike Silverstein, who explained to me just recently that Ivan was able to connect him to a whole new wide range of fellow Yinzers even decades later.

Even though we never got to meet in person, I certainly felt like I knew Ivan. We talked like friends, but I always made a point to treat him like an elder whose respect I had to earn. I cherished our phone calls over the years, and I am especially thankful that Keith Thomas alerted me to the importance of trying to reach out a few months ago when Ivan was not feeling well. On every call we would talk football first and foremost, but he would ask about my life, my girlfriend (and now wife), and he would always have a new story to share about his daughter. Then we’d get back to football and I’d learn something new, or reconsider something I was passionate about with that year’s team or upcoming opponent.

So even though we never met, and even though it’s been awhile since I’ve been involved with the whole Steelers fan writing community, I say from the bottom of my heart that I loved the man.  I couldn’t be more appreciative of everything he taught me about the game, about how to tell stories, and about how to be a man at a time in my 20s when I was craving for role models just like him.

RIP Ivan and thank you for everything you meant to me.

A Tribute to Ivan Cole

by Mike Silverstein

His name on Behind the Steel Curtain was Rick(VA), and he was a regular contributor. Mine was HomerJ, and so was I. We were both rock solid Steeler fans.

He was from the East End of Pittsburgh. And so was I.

We were both living in the DC area, and we decided to take in a Steeler game together at one of the many Steeler bars in the area. 

It turned out we grew up in the same general area at about the same time, that his brother was a classmate of mine, and many of his closest friends in the DC area were high school friends and classmates of mine. Some of us had been friends since grade school. There was a strong connection.

Ivan and I grew up during the time of the great Civil Rights movement, when there was so much hope. Ivan, the introspective football player, navigating his way through high school and college as a black kid, seeking new opportunities. For me, the world brought opportunities my parents never had. Both of us had done relatively well professionally, 

And now, forty-some years later, we were able to reflect on our lives – the parallels and the differences, how race, class, and so many other factors came into play. And, from day one, we felt comfortable talking about these things with a liberating sense of honesty.


Ours was a deep and abiding friendship, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were the river that ran through it. Read more

In Memorium

Like many of you reading this, I “met” Ivan Cole many years ago on Behind the Steel Curtain, first through his comments (always intelligent and to the point) and then through his articles. After a while I noticed when he published a new article that the topic was frequently something I had been mulling over in my mind for a possible article. Ivan had basically written what I would have, only better. I commented to this effect after it happened several times, and he was kind enough to note that he felt the same way about some of my pieces.

We continued to communicate through the medium of BTSC articles and comments until one summer Ivan, an ex-pat Pittsburgher, expressed an interest in driving up from Virginia and attending training camp. I invited him to stay with my husband and me. Although my husband is lamentably uninterested in the NFL, he is interested in people, and he was also curious to meet Ivan.

Ivan showed up at our house the afternoon before we were scheduled to go to camp. I’m guessing he was, like me, slightly apprehensive as to what he’d gotten himself into, but mostly was excited to finally meet in person. The rest is history. Ivan was a “brother from another mother,” as my kids would say. Read more

RIP Ivan Cole

For those of you who don’t know, our longtime contributor and dear friend Ivan passed away last Wednesday. He had an injury last December which required surgery, and somehow things went from bad to worse—complications, multiple surgeries, and more. Eventually his body couldn’t support his great soul any more.

The stories of how his life became intertwined with some of ours, and what he meant us, can be found in various locations. My piece and one by Mike Silverstein are below. I know that several other people are writing about him for other sites, and when I get locations for them I will update this with links to the other articles.

I hope those of you reading this will also take the opportunity to look at some of Ivan’s work. I’m going to link a few of my favorites below, but there is much more available.

Training Camp for Fans Part 8: What is the Steeler Way?:

Comments on the Tree of Life shooting:

Training Camp for Steeler Fans, 2018:

The Real Issues Facing the 2018 Steelers:

The NFL’s Problem:

Packers@Steelers—Something for Everyone:

Pittsburgh Peculiarities, Part One:

Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part V—Coaching in the Fog of War:

Roasting the Goose, Part 3

 

Fresh Eyes: Part VI

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 9.48.09 PMphoto Karl Rosen, Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

Question #6: What might the path to a championship look like for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019? 

Though the 53-man roster and practice squad are basically set as I begin to write this, matters still feel as if they are in a state of flux. Nonetheless, the major disclaimers have been accounted for and most questions concerning how this particular team will address this season’s challenges have either been answered or clarified. The purpose here is to frame the issues that may make the difference between success and disappointment in the coming weeks. 

Talent, or specifically its lack, will not be the determining factor for 2019. If anything, with one glaring exception (tight end), the Steelers have, broadly speaking, an embarrassment of riches across the roster. When I have been asked about this team over the past weeks my response has been consistent: “They’re loaded”. 

Consider who got cut or were considered to be on the bubble. What other year would players the caliber of Eli Rogers and Johnny Holton be cut (with Holton being eventually retained on the practice squad), not for substandard performance but a lack of spectacular play? The same could be said regarding Brian Allen, with Marcus Allen and Trey Edmunds salvaged to the practice squad. Just as interesting is that there was conversation about pushing out Roosevelt Nix, Tyler Matakevich, Artie Burns and Anthony Chickillo, though there has been no discernible drop off in performance (and in the case of Burns, a return to a higher level). Sutton Smith is just gone. 

The perception that talent would be the problem centers upon the departure of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The media, particularly the national media with many fans obediently following their lead, decided that this would be a crippling blow. This reflects, in my opinion, a shallow understanding of what is important to championship success. 

In Part II of this series I advanced the theory that, apart from their level of talent and entertainment value, some players are more essential to team success than others. In other words, their absence due to injury is more problematic. You could be forgiven if, based upon the promotional hype surrounding the concept of the Killer ‘Bs’, concluding that Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger were equally valuable to the fortunes of the team. They are not.

In Part V I point out that the efforts of some of the greatest running backs to ever play the game did not, generally speaking, translate into championship appearances or trophies. Haven’t done any research, but the impact of wide receivers would seem to me intuitively to be even less. 

I don’t want to hit on this too hard. It would have been better to have them than not. And if you do have them you would be foolish to not maximize their ability to produce. But it is on this point that an illusion exists which would encourage us to believe that their outsized contributions makes them  essential to an extent they are not. The Patriots, just to cite one easy example, have managed to win championships with running backs and receivers that are more pedestrian. Absent AB and Bell, the Pittsburgh front line skills players are quite good. 

Offense 

Quarterback 

I outlined my thoughts about this position in Part V, but let’s review some of the events of the 2010 season which may add some useful perspective. 

If Steeler Nation has developed some unrealistic expectations about the quarterback position, this may well have been its genesis. There were four QBs in camp: Ben, Byron Leftwich, who was viewed as a legitimate Franchise quarterback in his own right based on his previous experience with Jacksonville, Charlie Batch, a solid, starter who helmed Detroit previously and Dennis Dixon, a bright young talent with plenty of potential. 

Ben was slated to serve a six-game suspension at the beginning of the year (later reduced to four). The belief was that Leftwich would be the logical backup, with Dixon being # 3 and Batch being the odd man out. Batch wasn’t even getting any reps in practices or games. Probably no disrespect intended, but whoever the selected replacement was would need to have plenty of reps. Then both Leftwich and Dixon suffered injuries, and Batch, 4th on the depth chart, led the team to a 4-1 start on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. 

Who cares who is #2 behind Ben? 

As for Ben, what should be encouraging for Steelers fans is that there is no need to over-compensate for the absence of AB and Bell. In fact, if the team that has been constructed for 2019 can deliver at or near its potential, particularly on defense, then all that is necessary is for Roethlisberger to remain healthy and perform at a typical (for him) level, nothing more. 

The special challenges for Ben will be how quickly he establishes the necessary rapport with a very young receiver corps, as well as having to take on an atypical leadership role with this group. Some of this has already been occurring over the course of the summer with Ben being present in the receiver’s room in a mentoring capacity. 

I believe that the role of the offense is returning to something more resembling Steelers tradition, where success is more of a shared enterprise of the offense in partnership with a highly effective defense. This is a shift from the notion that the offense must carry the team and consistently generate a high level of points, which also fed the perception that AB and Bell were essential to the team’s success. 

Because of the bias to focus primarily on the so-called skill positions it may pass unnoticed that the winning difference with this team will probably be the offensive line. It is not mere partisan hype to assert that they may well be the best in a business, which if you have been following this team for the last decade at least is a rather astonishing paradigm shift in itself.

Specifically, this unit serves to minimize two vulnerabilities that could derail the offense: They keep Ben both upright and with time to maximize his strengths, and they can facilitate a balanced attack that is not solely reliant on Ben’s performance. This second point demands emphasis in that it must be accepted that part of Ben’s character is to be tempted by low percentage decisions which result in ineffectiveness at best, disaster at worse. 

Overall, beyond the threat of injury the offense is solid. Even at tight end there is a world of difference between being thin, which is the real issue here, and being incompetent. Keep in mind that, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, Steeler Nation has something of a fetish about tight ends; Heath nostalgia, Gronk envy, who knows? 

The bottom line for this offense is that unless what is brewing on the other side of the ball is a complete mirage, all that will be necessary for success will be to stay in their lane. They must be capable of a balanced attack, which is not the same as saying that they should feel duty bound to do so in any specific circumstance. If the defense delivers on its promise the offense will not have to score as many points, and may have more opportunities and better field position in order to do so. If they can continue to deliver upon their success in the red zone, especially touchdowns, they will be fine. 

Defense 

It is on this side of things where the excitement and the possibilities lie. With the understanding that what passes for defensive dominance is defined down in this era, I am both fascinated and encouraged by what Tomlin and his staff is attempting to do. It remains to be seen if and when they jell, but there can be no question that both the talent and depth is present. If it happens it will probably come as a surprise to many observers. Like the offensive line, defensive excellence can be overlooked, due perhaps to fantasy football values. 

Defensive line 

This group has been overshadowed by both the offensive line and whomever plays behind them, whether they be good or bad. But—and I don’t say this lightly—when healthy there have been moments when this group has been virtually unblockable.  Just as we don’t talk nearly enough about the improvement in red zone effectiveness by the offense, too little is being said about the Steelers pass rush, best in the league I think, and not solely due to linebacker play. 

For me the most surprising and encouraging story is that of Dan McCullers. Frankly, referencing back to scapegoating, count me as one who thought Big Dan was a failed experiment, no matter what John Mitchell said. Overall, this group is on a trajectory to be in a conversation comparing them in ways with Smith/Hampton/Keisel, as well as the original Steel Curtain, as they display positive characteristics relative to both groups. 

Linebackers 

As we know, Mike Tomlin is not one given to making a lot of promiscuous statements of praise, which makes comments he made over the summer concerning rookie Devin Bush and the duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree all the more significant. 

The need to accommodate the potential and depth of this position group was such that its impact has been felt across the entire roster. 

Secondary 

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think the work that is being done with this group makes me feel that someone is playing possum. Solve the challenge of shutdown or takeaway (whichever comes first) and a clear path to a Lombardi presents itself. The pieces they possess for this puzzle are, like the linebackers, qualified and deep. The important question remains—if and when will they jell. 

Summary 

As stated earlier, talent, though crucial to success, will not be the issue on which the 2019 Steelers rise or fall. Consider the following: 

  • If and when will this team learn how to win. I am not speaking to simply scoring more points than an opponent. The term On Any Given Sunday is correct as far as it goes, but the ability to deliver week in and week out to the point of being a playoff caliber team is something altogether different. Most teams don’t do it consistently. Further, there is a championship level of winning that even relatively great teams fail to reach. Cincinnati, Minnesota, Carolina and Atlanta come immediately to mind as examples. It is this quality that the Patriots possess in spades. And it is this issue, not talent, which will be the principle challenge for Cleveland this season. I suspect it is one of the reasons the Steelers and Ravens react to the Browns threat with yawns. Cleveland has the ability to win individual games, maybe even a bunch of them, but can they transform their culture to change the balance of power over the long haul? Pittsburgh has less ground to cover in this regard and a more supportive culture, but they are the most difficult steps of all. 
  • How do they handle adversity? It doesn’t have to be a big thing: A key injury, an unexpected (trap game) loss or a losing streak. They are already amid such a circumstance in the aftermath of the Darryl Drake passing. 
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Interestingly, the two entities who are probably the most disinterested in the outcome of the Sunday’s opener are the Patriots and the Steelers. Each knows that if there is going to be an important encounter between these teams it will be coming in January. Like a marathon, consistent pace and then ramping it up toward the critical portion of the race (December) is key. This is part of the formula of learning how to win at a championship level 
  • Leadership. All the above necessitates a lot of good leadership stepping to the fore. There is a core group that includes the captains (Ben, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and Rosie Nix) and a few others (Ramon Foster, Joe Haden, Vince Williams). Some more will have to assert themselves. My votes go for Alejandro Villanueva, Donte Moncrief, James Connor, T.J. Watt and Sean Davis. 

Fresh Eyes: Part V

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 10.49.05 PMKarl Rosen photo, Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

Question # 5: Heading into the 2019 season, what is fantasy and what is reality? 

During a recent program that was covering the Democratic Primaries for president it was mentioned that voters of that party tended toward a desire to ‘fall in love’ with a candidate as opposed, presumably, to a more calculated decision process. 

That struck me as an accurate description of many Steelers fans during the preseason. We are looking to fall in love and that impulse leads us to identify those who will be ‘camp Darlings’. And in a compensatory manner we also select scapegoats and anti- heroes who must be cast out if we are to reach the Promised Land. 

Read more

Fresh Eyes: Part IV

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 2.14.24 PMRebecca Mehling photo, Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

Question # 4: Why isn’t Roger Goodell and the NFL smart enough to utilize Alejandro Villanueva to help with its image problems?

When you first heard of it you couldn’t help but smile. I know because that was how Rebecca and Homer first reacted when they heard. ICYMI, early in the first week it was announced that the camp had experienced its first fight. The combatants? Any number of hotheads and bad actors might scroll through your head. Your first guess probably wouldn’t be defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

Then the mind goes giddy as it absorbs the concept: The son of Iron Head in single combat with a 6’9” army ranger. Both men are as affable and likeable as you could want, but it is entirely possible that, unlike other encounters of this sort, someone could end up dead. Now admit it. You might not drop a nickel to attend a practice, but you’d pay good money to see that fight. Wouldn’t you love to have a license to promote a rematch? How did it come to this? Villanueva’s explanation after the fact was precious: They had a disagreement over the ending of The Game of Thrones. (Question from Rebecca—how soon can this man be persuaded to run for public office?) Read more

Fresh Eyes: Part III

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 1.58.44 PMTevin Jones; Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com*

by Ivan Cole

Question # 3: Will the road to a championship in 2019 run through the Steelers wide receivers room? 

A week or so ago this would be a somewhat over the top question, but not by much. If you subscribed to the idea that the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown would be critical factors in the ability of the Steelers to compete then there is some relevancy here. Additionally, the circumstances for the receivers would be different those for the running backs, who have already had to cope with the absence of Bell. This brought to bear a series of complex questions concerning how this group, with JuJu Smith-Schuster as the centerpiece, would respond. 

And then Darryl Drake passed away.  Read more

Fresh Eyes: Part II

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 9.27.16 AMSteven Nelson and Sean Davis: Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

The Disclaimer. It has always been my standard practice when discussing the possibilities of any new season to caution that all is subject to change based upon the potential impact of an unavoidable factor in the NFL dynamic: Injuries. 

Usually I have spoken of this in the manner of those commercials where a narrator in rapid fire fashion attempts to slip past you the possibility that in addition to the wonders provided by the product they are selling, there is also a chance that it could kill you. In this segment there will be a deeper dive into the Disclaimer, providing a more specific set of arguments and information related to just how injuries might play out as anything from an annoyance to a derailment of the 2019 Steelers’ championship aspirations. 

Question # 2: Who do we not want to see on a long-term injury report?  Read more

Fresh Eyes: Part 1

Screen Shot 2019-08-14 at 9.26.23 AMphoto: Rebecca Mehling/Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

As Rebecca has already mentioned, life has slowed both of us down a bit but that should not be construed to mean that interest has been lost in the fortunes of the Steelers. For me it represents an opportunity to approach the upcoming season in a manner opposite from that which has been the case since I have been privileged to communicate with you concerning the fortunes of what I believe to be a model of what a first class organization, in sports or any endeavor is, as it strives to reach its goals. 

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