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Who belongs on the Steelers “Team of the Millennium”? Part 1: Offense

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Who would appear on a 53-man all-star Steelers roster from the last twenty years?

Super Bowl XLIII
The Steelers offense runs a play against Arizona in Super Bowl 43

With the changing of the decade this winter, the Pro Football Hall of Fame released its “Team of the 2010s” list, and many other venues followed suit. As always, when I see lists of this type, I thought, “what about a Steelers version?”

It seems to me that a Steelers-specific “Team of the 2010s” wouldn’t be that instructive, since many men played the bulk of the decade in one position. But the two decades since 2000 are a little different.

In many ways, the NFL changed at the millennium. Rules began to favor quarterbacks more than ever just as icons like Steve Young, Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Dan Marino retired, and new blood (the Mannings, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Big Ben) entered, and stuck around. That makes the last two decades a little more coherent than, say, asking about another random two-decade sequence, such as “team of the 70s and 80s together.”

The Steelers also turned over a new leaf in 2000, hiring Kevin Colbert and enduring a significant roster turnover following a pair of losing seasons in 1998 and 1999. The 2000 season began a resurgence, and they’ve only finished below .500 once this millennium. Since that point, they are the second-most successful franchise, and their 15 postseason victories, three conference titles, and two Super Bowl wins, all tie for second in the league over this stretch as well. This century’s Steelers have been a formidable squad for a long enough stretch of time to get some real argument going. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Below I’ll post my version of the All-Millennium team — starters, but also backups to fill out a 53-man roster, and ten-player practice squad. I’ll also toss out the other names I considered, and an explanation for why one guy got the nod and another didn’t. Then it’s off to the comments to argue it out.


Part 1: The Offense

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger throws against the Baltimore Ravens in 2014, his second consecutive week of throwing six touchdowns.

Starters

QB – Ben Roethlisberger
RB – LeVeon Bell
WR – Antonio Brown
WR – Hines Ward
WR – Santonio Holmes
TE – Heath Miller
C – Maurkice Pouncey
OG – Alan Faneca
OG – David DeCastro
OT – Marvel Smith
OT – Alejandro Villanueva


Quarterback (3)

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
Rookie Ben Roethlisberger looks to pass during a 34-20 victory over the New England Patriots on Halloween 2004.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger (starter)

Tommy Maddox
Kordell Stewart

This was, of course, the easiest starter to name. Big Ben is the winningest quarterback in team history, and holds nearly every single-season and career passing record. He’s one of the best to ever play the position.

Maddox and Stewart both have mixed reputations among Steelers fans, but both played admirably as starters. Stewart made the Pro Bowl in 2001, throwing for 3300 yards and 20 touchdowns, on top of 576 yards rushing in leading the Steelers to a 13-3 record and the doorstep of the Super Bowl. Maddox, meanwhile, earned Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2002, leading a ten-win team to a wild playoff victory over Cleveland.

Also considered:

Charlie Batch (the consummate backup – experienced, reliable, humble, and a good teammate; but you’d be foolish to start Batch over Maddox or Stewart).

Byron Leftwich (the most competent and impressive backup QB the Steelers have carried, the former #7 overall draft choice in Jacksonville just didn’t do enough in Pittsburgh to warrant inclusion here).

Mason Rudolph (a better backup, to my thinking, than Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs, or Michael Vick, Rudolph posted a 5-3 record in relief of Big Ben, and very nearly recorded a comeback against Seattle off the bench. I’d still take Tommy Gun or Kordell over him ten times out of ten).

Kent Graham (Ha! Just kidding).


Running Back (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers
Le’Veon Bell stretches for a walk-off touchdown against the San Diego Chargers, on the game’s final play, October 2015
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

LeVeon Bell (starter)

Jerome Bettis
Willie Parker
Rashard Mendenhall

It may seem like heresy to start Le’Veon Bell over the Bus, but we’re talking about 2000-2019. Most of Jerome’s best years came in the late 1990s, as injuries (2001-02) and questionable coaching decisions (2003 – starting Amos Zereoue instead) slowed his production. Bell, meanwhile, was arguably the best all-around back in football between 2014-17. A two time first-team All-Pro, Bell led the AFC in rushing and scrimmage yards in 2014 (setting a Steelers record in the latter), and carried the team to the playoffs in 2016. Along the way, he gave us some all-time games, and some all-time moments.

Bettis, meanwhile, may have been in the decline after the millennium, but he still had enough in the tank to lead the league in rushing through 10 games in 2001 (before injury ended his season), and average over 100 yards per start in 2004 (a season he started on the bench) for the 15-1 Steelers.

Fast Willie Parker is the third all-time Steelers rusher, and drove the Pittsburgh offense for four years, including two Super Bowl titles (and also still holds the record for longest Super Bowl run). Mendenhall gets a lot of flak on this site, but he was a two-time 1000 yard rusher, and a better back than many remember.

Also considered:

DeAngelo Williams (the prototype for a veteran rental, D-Will filled in like a star in 2015 and 2016; if he’d have been available during the 2015 playoffs, that team had a very good shot at Lombardi #7).

James Conner (still a work-in-progress and a mixed bag, Conner has a Pro Bowl on his resume and plenty of talent, if he can stay healthy and hang onto the ball).

Deuce Staley (a short-term star, Staley led the league in rushing in 2004 before a bad thigh bruise against New England cut his season short).

Mwelde Moore (a personal favorite; I don’t think the Steelers win Super Bowl 43 without his relief efforts mid-season against Jacksonville and Cincinnati. He was also a valuable 3rd down back, and part time punt returner. If I was assembling a real team, I might even take him over Mendenhall because of his diverse skill set).


Fullback (1)

AFC Divisional Game: New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
Jerome Bettis runs behind the blocking of Dan Kreider against the New York Jets during a 20-17 AFC playoff victory.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Dan Kreider

Kreider powered those rushing offenses for Bettis and Parker. There’s not much to say about a quiet battering ram, except that there’s no one who was better to run behind in this era.

Also considered:

Roosevelt Nix (not used as a blocker enough, he was effective there anyway, and a special teams star).

Will Johnson
Carey Davis
(Johnson and Davis played small roles in the offense after the FB was phased out).


Wide Receiver (6)

Divisional Playoff - Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Hines Ward congratulates Antonio Brown after AB caught a 58-yard pass on 3rd and 19 against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, January 15, 2011. The Steelers won 31-24.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Antonio Brown (starter)
Hines Ward (starter)
Santonio Holmes (starter)

Mike Wallace
Plaxico Burress
JuJu Smith-Schuster

Brown and Ward are undoubtedly the two best WRs to wear black-and-gold since John Stallworth retired. Ward was a fearless and savvy vet who always seemed to find the sticks (or draw a useful retaliation penalty). A Super Bowl MVP is a hard thing to argue with already, but when the league changes the rules to account for your devastating blocking, you’ve got a spot on my team.

Brown, meanwhile, had the single greatest six year run for a WR in NFL history, and (if he hadn’t lost his mind) could have retired in the conversation with Jerry Rice, Don Hutson, and company. His heroics started with his first touch (a kickoff return touchdown), and first playoff game (which he iced with a 58 yard helmet catch against Baltimore on 3rd and 19 in the final minutes), and carried through superhuman efforts such as his otherworldly 2015 game against the Denver No Fly Zone (16 catches 189 yards, two touchdowns), and his make-or-break Immaculate Extension against Baltimore to clinch the 2016 playoff berth.

The third starter was tougher to settle on. Santonio Holmes’ potential was probably never reached, as he was still in ascendancy when his arrest record finally caught up with him, and the Steelers shipped him off to New York. But his 2008 playoff run was sublime – not just the Super Bowl MVP performance, but also huge scoring plays against San Diego and Baltimore to get the Steelers down to Tampa in the first place. He was a big-game player, and that matters on a perennial playoff team.

Wallace, meanwhile, may have been a one-trick pony, but when he was performing that trick in Pittsburgh, he was a Pro Bowler and one of the league’s best. For a deep ball king like Ben Roethlisberger, Wallace was deadly. Burress, meanwhile, put up 1000 yards catching passes from both Stewart and Maddox, and if the Steelers had found a way to keep him in town, would certainly have been a big-time performer as Big Ben matured. JuJu Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, is mostly a “potential” pick. I think he got a bad rap in 2019 – it’s hard for a WR to play like a star when he’s catching passes from backups and practice squad guys. But JuJu was fast becoming Roethlisberger’s favorite target in 2018, and put up one of the team’s best statistical years ever. I’m betting he’s got more of that in him when Ben comes back.

Also considered:

Martavis Bryant (if I cut JuJu, Bryant is the first name in. His presence made the 2015 Steelers deadly, and his absence slowed the 2016 edition badly).

Antwaan Randle El (Randle El was never a big-time WR, but he was an asset as punt returner and gadget QB. If Kordell Stewart wasn’t already on this team, I might have bumped Randle El up just for his ability to run the unexpected).

Emmanuel Sanders (Sanders had a much better career after leaving Pittsburgh. He was talented, but his hands always seemed suspect as a Steeler).

Jerricho Cotchery (Cotchery also didn’t do much as a Steeler, but he did manage to catch 10 touchdowns in 2014 on only 46 receptions).


Tight Ends (3):

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Heath Miller breaks a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Heath Miller (starter)

Vance McDonald
Mark Bruener

Heath Miller was another no-brainer. The team’s all-time best tight end, Heath was probably the steadiest performer in town for his entire career. Ben Roethlisberger voted for him every year as team MVP. That’s pretty high praise.

After Heath, there’s a HUGE drop off. I went with Vance McDonald on the strength of his 2018 highlight reel. A hard hitter and big-play receiver, McDonald’s talent is there; he just can’t seem to stay on the field. Breuner, meanwhile, was the consummate blocking tight end. He earns a spot for the short-yardage plays.

Also considered:

Jesse James (a big target with mixed results. James is on the bubble, but not productive enough to bump McDonald or gritty enough to surpass Breuner. In the Steelers tradition of Mel Blount and Hines Ward, he has a rule named after him now, but that’s probably not enough to make the all-millennium team).

Jerame Tuman
Matt Spaeth
(both of these guys were lunch-pail players – 10-15 catches per year and a lot of no-reward blocking).


Offensive Linemen (8):

Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers
Allen Faneca blocks for Willie Parker against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Maurkice Pouncey (starter) – C
Alan Faneca (starter) – G
David DeCastro (starter) – G
Marvel Smith (starter) – T
Alejandro Villanueva (starter) – T

Jeff Hartings – C/G
Max Starks – T
Ramon Foster – G

Pouncey, Faneca, and DeCastro may all three wind up in the Hall of Fame one day. That’s remarkable in and of itself. (And it’s a crime they never got to play at the same time. That interior line would be impossible to breech.) Those spots were easy to settle on; tackle was tougher to tease out. Marvel Smith and Al Villanueva picked up a couple of Pro Bowls, so they get the call. But I feel less secure there.

Off the bench, Jeff Hartings was a Pro Bowler with position flexibility (we’re going to need that). Max Starks was a team emotional leader who started both Super Bowl wins, one on each side. Ramon Foster was also a team leader, and a reliable interior lineman. Having only one backup tackle is dangerous, but Faneca played a season at left tackle and made the Pro Bowl doing it. He could do it again if needed.

Also considered:

Kendall Simmons – G
Willie Colon – T
Oliver Ross – T
Marcus Gilbert – T
Chris Kemoeatu – G
Flozell Adams – T
Keydrick Vincent – G

I have fond memories of a few of these guys, but for the most part this isn’t a murderer’s row. That’s not a huge surprise — the O-Line was a liability for a number of years. That said, I always like how Adams came out of retirement at the eleventh hour in 2010, and started the entire season, including the Super Bowl. Gilbert was Steelers Rookie of the Year in 2011, and played a decent career. Meanwhile Colon and Kemo were good road-graders for a running team, but neither were all that impressive in pass blocking. Otherwise, these guys are pretty forgettable.


Coming soon: the defense and special teams lists. In the meantime, let me know if I missed someone. Go Steelers.