The Case for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers
by Ivan Cole
Let’s begin by making it clear what this article is not about. As I remind people from time to time, I don’t do predictions for the most part, and I am not starting to do so today. What follows is a ‘What if’ based upon the potentialities that exist when this particular snapshot of the 2015 Steelers is taken. The premise is an optimistic one; what factors could lead Pittsburgh into the post season and possibly a championship.
If I had the energy and the temperament I could also go in the opposite direction and outline how the Steelers could crash and burn, but the line for that type of analysis is quite a bit longer and if you think its necessary to have that discussion you can easily find it elsewhere, don’t you think?
Is there any reason for you to pay one bit of attention to anything I have to say? 2010 may well have been my finest hour doing this sort of thing. Maryrose pointed out to me at that time that I had scooped the Steeler media and blogging establishment by suggesting in the face of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s four game suspension by the league that the answer for his short term replacement might be Charlie Batch.
Those of you who were around will recall that at the time all the conversation revolved around Byron Leftwich vs Dennis Dixon. Batch was considered by just about everyone as the odd man out who was unlikely to even make the 53 man roster. He hadn’t even received any playing time in the preseason to that point. Turns out I was right, but so is the proverbial broken clock twice a day. All I can say that I get lucky from time to time.
Repeating something I pointed out
in piece on the ahistorical fan, there are some interesting synchronicities connecting our current circumstances and that of Pittsburgh’s last championship season in 2008.
Certain aspects of the lead in are identical. After missing the playoffs the two previous years with an 8-8 record, the team put together an uneven regular season sufficient to win the AFC North, but then suffered a first round loss in the playoffs (Jacksonville), at home on a Saturday night.
I watched the game at the same establishment, a place I don’t normally watch Steelers’ games, the Buffalo Wing Factory in Reston, Virginia. (If anyone spots me heading into that place during the playoffs this season please feel free to have me shot).
The Steelers were saddled with the toughest schedule in the league during both seasons. September projects as difficult given that key players will be lost to suspensions and injuries. The preseason performance of the defense was troubling at best. They have to play the defending Super Bowl champions on the road, and said Super Bowl champions will be at full strength.
In 2008, after an impressive opening day win against Houston, Pittsburgh followed up with an unimpressive, uninspiring victory in Cleveland, an awful loss in Philadelphia where they suffered more sacks (7) than points (6), and then sort of hit bottom when the offense was booed off the field at home after the first half of a nationally televised game against the Ravens.
In both 2008 and 2015 a top offensive lineman (Marvel Smith and Maurkice Pouncey respectively) ended up on IR. Top running backs were lost for multiple games (at one point Mewelde Moore was the featured back in 2008). In each year a top receiver (Santonio Holmes and Martavis Bryant) was lost for the game against the defending champions because of off field issues involving marijuana use.
The play on one side of the ball was so abysmal that in 2008 it was a significant challenge for the offense to reach double digits in scoring. (The Steelers scored 11 points against San Diego, but 2 points came on a safety.)
There was no conversation in Steeler Nation of Pittsburgh going to the Super Bowl as the season began in 2008.
While we’re dealing with history it should be mentioned that Steelers Nation will be vulnerable to certain patterns of thought that usually emerge in the early weeks of the season every year. The Steelers are projected, and rightfully so, to lose the opener at Foxboro. As distasteful as it is to have to lose to the Patriots under any circumstances, the truth of the matter is the defending champion should be favored and should prevail at home in this kind of situation. And unless you are of the conviction that having an undefeated regular season is a necessary prerequisite to championship (remember this neither the NCAA nor the WPIAL) then, taking the long view, is there really any problem?
Now I’m going to make myself a liar and offer a prediction. After the first game of the season members of the sports media will dust off the same old tired statistics concerning how it is almost certain that any team that starts at 0-2 will not make it to the world championship and will probably suffer erectile dysfunction as well. [Note from Rebecca—is THAT why there are all those ED ads on sports radio?] By Week Two 16 fan bases go on on suicide watch.
So a reminder and a prediction—the Steelers recently went 0-4 and came within an errant Ryan Succop field goal attempt of making the playoffs anyway. The prediction? Nobody wins or loses the Super Bowl in September. Say it and repeat until the team reaches 0-5 or Columbus Day, whichever comes first. You’ll be fine. And if by chance they get to 0-5 can we just agree this conversation didn’t happen?
I don’t keep up with this as carefully as some, so maybe it’s just my imagination, but have you noticed how aggressive, relative to other years, the team has been in making moves? The number of trades alone seems a significant departure from a more commonly subdued, conservative posture. What can be gleaned is that this is a team that is not satisfied with standing pat. They’re pushing.
What is interesting is why. As I pointed out in the Training Camp for Fans series, front office and coaching activities are black boxes for fans and the media. No one on the outside has close to full knowledge of what goes on inside.
The perfect example would be the selection of Sammie Coates in response to the evolving troubles of Martavis Bryant. Who saw and anticipated that?
The possibilities outlined as follows amounts to pure speculation, but have to be considered if we are to have a comprehensive picture of how the team is going to attack the challenges of 2015.
The Art II, Kevin and Mike team:
Some aspects of transition happen rapidly while others unfold more slowly. A number of observers have been saying that the imprint of Mike Tomlin’s style and personality is becoming a more dominant feature of the team. The same might be said of Art Rooney II as well. The result may well be a new normal where they move more flexibly and assertively to address team issues.
A changing landscape:
There may also be a greater willingness to not buck current league trends, such as the skewing to advantages on the offensive side of the ball.
The Ben factor:
I was only partially kidding when I said winter is coming for the Steelers. The team has a five year window, more or less, depending upon circumstances. Those who think that a smooth transition to a suitable replacement for Ben can be engineered are likely mistaken. Montana/Young or Favre/Rodgers type turnovers are definitely the exception. This is not to say that a competent replacement will not found. But we are more likely talking about the Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart class of quarterback.
So what we may be seeing is an organization with a real sense of urgency. With a core of experienced championship caliber players in the locker room, there was a time when the Steelers could afford the luxury of any number of young players developing over the course of months, and often years. They are less able to justify doing that today. They have to give every effort to win now.
This would be my reasoning as to why rookies like Doran Grant and Anthony Chickello were jettisoned in favor of players who may be able to contribute at a higher level immediately. Anticipate some fans wanting to argue that this year’s draft class should be viewed as at least a partial failure. This is just a matter of people finding what they are looking for.
No draft class could deliver the group of DeAngelo Williams, Michael Vick, Josh Scobee, Brandon Boykin, Ross Cockrell and Jordan Todman. In the meantime, if they clear waivers, some of these players may be back. Even the solution to the punting competition reflects a pushing of the envelope that represents a significant difference.
The bottom line is a team not content to wait out its growing pains. It’s difficult to say how this will all shake out, but if it doesn’t work it isn’t of a lack of trying by the front office.
Perhaps the best indication of the perceived strength of the Steelers offense is that the loss of players of the caliber of Le’Veon Bell, Pouncey and Bryant through a considerable chunk of the early portion of the season is considered more of a nuisance than a catastrophe. Ben’s response to a question concerning the issue of depth at running back was “Empty set”, and it wasn’t necessarily a joke.
Coordinator Todd Haley got through the off season and preseason being essentially bullet proof. This is a huge departure from every other year he has been here. The impact of the suspensions and injuries are such (assuming the worst is behind us) that the offense may not fully hit its stride until October, but having down the chart players carrying more of the load and the reps that come with it can have many positive aspects down the line as well.
While I am not totally sold yet on the idea that the defense will be a disaster, I think it would constitute what Tomlin has called “Football justice” that the offense take on the responsibility of carrying the team until the other unit gets its act together. The offense can do more than just score a lot of points in shootouts with opponents. It can also bleed teams via time of possession and field position. Wear down the defense and cut out portions of the opposing offense’s playbook and game plan. The defense certainly carried the offense in 2008. It would only be fair to return the favor, if necessary.
Controversy has served to obscure one of the most interesting good news developments of the off season. Steelers Nation doesn’t reach a 100% consensus on much, but it has been pretty much universally acknowledged that if Ben goes down stick a fork in us because we’re done. Except. It’s no longer true.
Let’s be clear. I am not saying that Michael Vick is the equal of Ben Roethlisberger, but he doesn’t have to be. Look beyond the troubling ethical issues, the impact of being away from the game for years for the wrong reasons and his age and you are still left with a very, very good quarterback, and arguably giving the Steelers the best one-two punch at the position…ever. Add some packages to the offense that take advantage of the unique aspects of his skill set—left handed, quick and highly mobile—and you have a recipe for heartburn for defensive coordinators.
I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t a theory I want to see tested. Vick being on the field can only mean generally one of three things, all of them bad. Either Ben is injured, rendered ineffective or the team has become desperate for reasons unknown. But, probably more so than any time in over 40 years, if the situation forced it, Vick has the potential, particularly with this offense and with sometime in the system under his belt, to take this team to a championship on his own steam. Hopefully we are only speaking of an unnecessary extravagance.
Just like the controversy surrounding Vick disguised some very good football news with the quarterbacks, the focus on Le’Veon Bell’s suspension has drawn our focus from some good news in this room as well. Currently, Bell is solidly in the conversation for being the best overall running back in the NFL. Let that sink in for a minute.
Three Steelers who have played the position in the past 50 years have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis). As good as those guys were they weren’t considered the best at their craft at the time.
That group would include the likes of Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, OJ Simpson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, those sort of guys. With the caution that Bell has quite a way to go to fulfill the potential, it has to be noted that he is tracking to be in the conversation with the latter group of runners. And I will add this; from what I saw this year at training camp compared to last year, he’s gotten better.
More good news. No one was going to miss LeGarrette Blount’s personality and character, but it seemed to be a good bet that we would feel a little twinge for the lost talent. Enter DeAngelo Williams. LeGarrette who? It’s a measure of how good Bell is that we would feel deprived to have to settle with Williams as the feature back for two games. A gold star to the front office for this one.
Wasn’t Dri Archer supposed to be banished in disgrace by now? More good news.
Yes, we probably need another back, but for security blanket purposes only. If Bell and Williams stay healthy, how many carries would you imagine this guy would get? Remember two years ago when there was a crisis at running back?
Oh, and I almost forgot Will Johnson and Roosevelt Nix.
I guess we should get around to talking about Antonio Brown, huh? The only reason there is any controversy over whether or not he is the best receiver in football is his size. Yet having said that he may legitimately be only the third best player on this offense.
What is infuriating about Martavis Bryant is that he is tantalizingly close to being part of the conversation with Ben, Brown and Bell. Or his story may be a tragedy. Markus Wheaton is doing just fine, but he suffers in comparison and it has the effect of making him look just ordinary. As for Darrius Heyward-Bey, I wish his hands were better, but there are times when he will remind everyone just why he was a number one draft pick. Reasons include the fact that as fast as the other receivers are, he’s the fastest. Sammie Coates may have a way to go, but he’s way ahead of where Bryant was this time last year. But the guy I fell in love with was Tyler Murphy.
Empty set. They can make that work. Really.
Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Will Johnson, Jesse James. What could those guys possibly do?
Unfortunately it’s not realistic to simply hope that injuries can be consistently avoided altogether. So, relatively speaking there are positives that can taken from Pouncey’s injury.
It happened in August as opposed to October. It was a broken bone rather than a mangled joint. The position group is coached by Mike Munchak. You come away with the feeling that they are alright. If so then in spite of the early challenges they may be in the thick of things in January.
Part Two addresses the defense and special teams.