Wednesday, June 15, 2022

1952 PITTSBURGH STEELERS: "Don't Confront Me With My Failures"

By TJ Troup 
Tomorrow is Iain Matthews's birthday, and his rendition of Jackson Browne's "These Days" gives us the title for today's saga. A saga that was able to dig real deep on research due to having so many sources. Since there are so many sources, where to begin? 

How about a quote? David Neft & Richard Cohen in their Pro Football: The Early Years on page 200---"(T)he Steelers came out of the dark ages this year, led by a coach from the 1930's". Joe Bach left the Pittsburgh Pirates since he would rather coach at the college level. 

Since Micholesen failed in '51 the "Chief" Art Rooney brought him back. Chuck Cherundolo and Walt Kiesling coached the lineman and linebackers, but not sure who was the architect of the defense? Keith Molesworth helped coach the backfield, yet the key assistant coach use to employ Joe Bach in Detroit when he was head coach. That man Gus Dorais had a deep understanding of the passing game, and especially how to use backs as receivers along with the ends. 

Dorais and Bach would never complain, but both men had severe health issues. Thirty-six men suited up for the Steelers in '52 (only 35 are listed on roster sheets), with 12 of the 35 in their last or only year. The Steelers never had an opening day like September 28th of '52 as the Eagles and Steelers combined to gain 536 yards passing! When did Pittsburgh ever become involved in a passing game shootout to begin a campaign? 
On opening day at home against the Eagles the Pittsburgh defense was aligned in a 5-3-3. George Hays will start five games at left defensive end in his last year with the team. Hays always gives an effort but is not what you need in a strong side defensive end against either the run or pass. Rookie George Tarasovic starts at right linebacker for the first two games of the campaign, yet when he is moved to left defensive end he has found his niche. 

Powerful, surprisingly quick for a big man, and quickly learns the nuances of the position. He is always around the ball, is a hitter supreme, and demonstrates pass-rushing ability. Big George will go on to have a long and distinguished NFL career. Lou Ferry starts at left defensive tackle every week and battles hard. His long fumble return against the Cardinals is featured in the highlight film. He is not much of a pass rusher, and at times struggles shedding blocks, but is able in pursuit. 
Bow-legged lean Dale Dodrill mans the middle guard post and is asked to shoot gaps while playing against much bigger men. He is one of the many Steelers who contributes in the kicking game; as his blocked field goal touchdown return is also showcased in the highlight film. Fireplug d-tackle Alex Smail starts opening day against the Eagles, and then is released. 

The man who plays right defensive tackle for Pittsburgh is Ernie Stautner. His technique is interesting to say the least, yet much more important is his undeniable effort down after down. He is a relentless but not very effective pass rusher, but his ability to pursue is a key for any Steeler success on defense. Ernie earns his first pro bowl berth. 
Bill McPeak also earns his first Pro Bowl berth at right defensive end. Bill gives maximum effort, and though you see him on film closing in on the passer, he sure is not in the class of Len Ford in taking down quarterbacks. Dick Fugler plays some right d-tackle, and some offensive tackle in his only year in Pittsburgh. Since the Steelers record only 220 yards in sacks, the men in the secondary are sure under fire. 
Jack Butler finished his rookie year in 1951 playing well at right corner, but he starts slow in '52, and just not sure how many plays he misses the first few weeks of the year (especially opening day against the Eagles). Jack records just one interception the first seven games, and the highlight film shows him getting beat in man coverage, and being called for interference. Butler is a fierce run defender, and as the season progresses he begins to show what he will become—just one damn fine right corner—he was also the only player in the league that caught a touchdown pass, and intercepted a pass in the same game in the 1952 season.

Ed Kissell plays top-notch safety the first half of the season and ranks among the league leaders in interceptions. Strong in pursuit and a fine tackler, he is sorely missed the second half of the year. Rookie Claude Hipps starts at right corner opening day and also starts at left corner during the first half of the campaign. He is the starting safety the second half of year, and has the game of his life in the victory over NYG as he pilfers three passes. Claude is an average tackler at best, and he is out of position too many times to count. 

Veteran Howard Hartley usually is the starter at left corner. Hartley is never going to be selected for the Pro Bowl, but he is consistent. When a team in this era aligns in the 5-3 the linebackers have varied responsibilities against both the run and pass. Though he booed at times in his last year Frank Sinkovitz is the starter at right linebacker. He hustles, yet he rarely is a factor when the Steelers are playing strong defense. 

The middle linebacker is stumpy Darrell Hogan, and his responsibilities against the pass are sure unique. When Pittsburgh anticipates a pass due to down and distance Hogan leaves the middle and is aligned the left flat. Does this make him a corner? No, not really, and can only surmise he is to take the flanker or back out of the backfield man to man or play the short zone. Hogan does make some interceptions, yet he is out of position or beaten too often to count. He does not shed blocks well, and is an average tackler at best. 

Lou Levanti comes off the bench against the Browns in November in his only year and stands out on film due to his effort, and physical play. Surprised that another team did not give Lou a chance in '53? Levanti came in to replace Jerry Shipkey at left linebacker. He is again chosen for the pro bowl in his last year as a Steeler, and he ends his time in Pittsburgh playing linebacker the way it should be played. Savvy, strong, skilled in all facets of linebacker play...Shipkey is by far the best defensive player on the Steelers. Overall Pittsburgh ranked 11th in yards allowed, and ranked 10th in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 62.2 (league average was 57.7). 

When the Steelers won it was simply because the offense was productive and scored enough. The Browns traveled to Forbes Field for a Saturday night game in week two, as Cleveland held on to win. Losing the return match to a vastly improved Eagle team in week three buried the Steelers in the American conference basement. 

The last play of the game Bobby Walston lined up to attempt his fifth successful field goal, but a bad snap denied him tying the record. There were four lead changes, yet here they are in last place. Returning home to take on a Redskin team that no one would mistake as a contender—the Steelers are beaten 28-24. 

Quoting Rich Tandler is his book " Paul Lipscomb ended a Steeler drive with a shoestring tackle of Ed Modzelewski at the Washington 45 and the Redskins soon had the ball back. An eight-yard pass from LeBaron to Gene Brito kept the drive alive by converting a third and six. As the clock ran down to two minutes, Washington faced a fourth and three at the Pittsburgh 34. LeBaron appeared to be trapped as he faded back to pass, but eluded several would-be tacklers and zipped a pass across the field that Julie Rykovich caught and then the receiver successfully fought for the first down. 

After that, The Washington drive was a success—even though it didn't result in any points—as the Redskins drove to the two before allowing time to run out". Over the course of the next three weeks the Steelers are outgained 1,197 yards to 680, but they win two of the three. The Black and Gold are being pummeled by Cleveland in the second meeting, but this is a team that has a never say die attitude as Jim Finks engineers 28 points, yet alas they fall short by a point. Shall we take an in-depth look at who played for Pittsburgh on offense? 

Before leaving for the military rookie Rudy Andabaker started at left guard for the first five games. Though undersized he was excellent at the trap block, and battled much bigger d-tackles as a pass protector. John "bull" Schweder began the year as the starter at left offensive tackle and then moved to left guard to replace young Rudy. Schweder was not as effective as Andabaker at pulling or trapping, yet was consistent in performance all year. In his last year Earl Murray took over at left tackle. Murray was adequate at best as either a pass protector or drive blocker. 

Bill Walsh was no longer a Pro Bowl center, yet his experience and savvy were sorely needed. Pete Ladygo started at right guard all year, and was joined on the right side by George Hughes. Hughes was selected for the Pro Bowl in '51 and '53, but not this year. Pittsburgh finished dead last in team rushing with just 1,204 yards. Opponent pass rushers took down Pittsburgh passers for 313 yards (league average was 302). 

Simply stated the Steeler o-line was a consistent yet very average group. Since the Steelers finally scored 300 points in a season, the firepower had to come from somewhere, and the offensive backfield was talented, productive, and made an abundance of impressive plays during '52. First-round draft choice Ed "Big Mo" Modelewski ran hard, blocked, and could catch, yet he just did not provide much overall. 

Opening day he gained 45 yards rushing on just nine carries, and the rest of the year you ask? Why 150 yards on 73 carries. Veteran Fran Rogel got plenty of playing time, and as always ran hard straight ahead, and caught a few passes. Jack Spinks was granted an opportunity in the fourth week of the year, and gained 84 yards on just 17 carries over the course of two games, and then played sparingly. The rotation at fullback did not help the Steelers in offensive production. Tom Calvin played some halfback and defensive back early in the year and then was basically a special teams player. 
The two halfbacks in Pittsburgh both earned a Pro Bowl berth, and were deserved. Ray Mathews and Lynn Chandnois would run inside when asked, yet that was not the strength of their game. Mathews would be flanked out as a receiver, sometimes go in motion, and ran the sweep play very well. He ranked among the league leaders in receiving all year, and though he dropped a pass sometimes, he was swift enough to get open deep and make big plays. 

Ray also had the most productive rushing game by a Steeler all year when he gained 76 yards in the loss to Washington. Lynn Chadnois would usually be aligned as a halfback in the backfield, though once and a while would be flanked out or aligned as a wingback. This alignment gave Pittsburgh a single back look, and stretched the opponent defense in attempting to cover both of the fleet Steeler backs. Chandnois had a 100-yard receiving game against the Lions, and was effective on circle routes or up the sideline on deep routes. 
The last few weeks of the year he was much more involved and productive in the Steeler ground game. Chandnois was a willing blocker, but Mathews was never going to be asked to do this. Jim Finks will tie Otto Graham for the league lead in touchdown passes with 20, and film study shows he is ready to lead this team from the T-formation, or the "spread" when Bach & Dorais wanted to attack opponent defenses from this formation. 

Jim Finks was also chosen for the American Conference team for the pro bowl. He could and did rifle the ball when needed, and he displayed touch on his passes while having the requisite arm strength to go deep. Finks and Mathews even took a few turns in the secondary when asked. Rookie George Sulima and Dick Hensley shared the left end post for Pittsburgh. Sulima caught some passes the first half of the year, but down the stretch the position belonged to Hensley. Dick had a game for the ages against NYG in late November in his only year in Pittsburgh. Veteran right end Elbie Nickel was the captain of the team and sparkled all year. Nickel was a polished route runner, and just never ever dropped a pass. 

The visual of him with his short choppy strides breaking open to nab a Finks pass was the highlight for this team all year. Week twelve Pittsburg now with a record of 5-6 was in Los Angeles to take on a Ram team that also became rejuvenated and could earn a playoff berth with a win. Nickel before the largest crowd to ever see the Steeler play (74,130) caught 7 passes for 154 yards in the second half(he grabbed 3 for 46 in the first half). 

Captain Elbie was also one of the seven Steelers selected for the pro bowl, and he would be my choice for offensive MVP. Ed Kissell was the kicker to begin the year, but was not very accurate as a field goal kicker, and was replaced by backup rookie quarterback Gary Kerkorian. Gary got some playing time as the triggerman, and his unique short punch style as a kicker was effective as he made a few field goals. 

Left-footed Pat Brady was a superb booming punter, and even completed a pass from punt formation in the blowout win over NYG. Mathews on punt returns, and Chandnois on kick-off returns were valuable weapons in the Steeler arsenal. Pittsburgh was adequate in covering kick-offs, and as the year progressed improve dramatically in punt coverage. Opponents returned 23 punts for just 176 yards in the five Steeler victories.


  1. Coach TJ, as always great summary.....from the 52 highlight film and a couple of those Browns games featured on YouTube, a couple things jump out at me personally....Ray Mathews and Lynn Chandnois are relative revelations....knew the names, but those guys are really good athletes....Elbie Nickel has great hands.....if the "touchdown" on blocked kick you mention is the one from the Rams game, Dale Dodrill did not was a very long (70+ yards?) return, but he was tackled by Deacon Dan Towler by the facemask....damn near had his head swiveled/torn off and to compound the indignity, a couple Rams dive on top of him a couple seconds after what in modern NFL would have been the we've spoken often, the 50s were a much wilder and woolier mention Stautner's "relentlessness"....he just goes 100% at his defender ever play.....perhaps a student of Napoleonic naval history, $70...Nelson was once memorably quoted; "never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them!".....Kerkorian's stubby kick style reminds me of Lou (highlight film) to see footage of Tom Landry in the late-season slaughter of the Giants, and Harry "Bud" Grant catching a couple passes (including a td) for the Eagles in the opener....thanks, about those 52 Texans and their game footage......

  2. oh....Bill Walsh at center....won't say he fought Mr. Bill WIllis of the Brownies to a standstill, but held the guy off about as well as humanly possible since the Browns Tazmanian Devil is basically unstoppable

  3. Coach, where do you rank Elbie Nickel relative to the HOF/HOVG “Golden Age” receivers? I think he’s in the mix and I’ve nominated him for HOVG a few times, but it seems the majority opinion is that he is a notch below. I sometimes think the era is over represented, but at end, you have two pretty good ones in Howton and Wilson not in the HOF.

  4. Excellent piece, Coach TJ. I love how you give us an opportunity to get to know good teams of the past and insights into their strengths. Gained a nice appreciation for this '52 Steeler team and many of its players.