The Case for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers

via Post-Gazette/Bob Donaldson photo

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.

The spooky factor

Beware the September panic

The Front Office

The Offense

The spooky factor

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.

Beware the September panic

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?

The Front Office

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.

The Offense

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.

Quarterback

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.

Running backs

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.

Wide receivers

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.

Get it?

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.

Tight ends

Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Will Johnson, Jesse James. What could those guys possibly do?

Offensive line

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.

18 comments

  • Great analysis, Ivan. Your points are far more realistic than the Chicken Little assessments which predict the demise of the franchise over the cuts of Chickillo and Grant. At best, they are players with potential who at best, might be decent to good players in 2018. Btw, we all know now they were signed to the practice squad.

    Your point about trades/free-agent acquisitions is well taken. Recent history has yielded many seemingly innocuous players who made significant contributions. Does anyone remember Velasco, closely Adams, Cedric Wilson, Will Allen II, William Gay II, Jericho Cotchery, Jeff Hartings, Mwelde Moore and probably many others I’ve forgotten. These moves by the FO have strengthened the roster far more than the best draft imaginable.

    Most fans have absolutely no clue how hard it is to build a SB contending roster. I have seen predictions over the last three weeks everywhere from winning the SB to going 3-13. I like my rose colored glasses. More often than not, the Steelers find a way to reward the optimistic fans. The FO nearly always disappoints those who believe injuries result from poor coaching, poor technique and injury-prone draft choices. They are the same group who believes it is possible to hit the bull’s eye with every draft choice. Lose the first two games and heads must roll because all is lost.

    I prefer your brand of intelligent optimism. Tomlin, Colbert and the Rooneys have earned that optimism and trust. (Anyone remember when Haley sucked, lol?). I’m looking forward to the part II and most of all, Thursday night.

    Like

    • I was reading comment after comment from different sites where people were so upset about Chickillo and Grant, swearing that they would absolutely be claimed by someone. I saw someone on Twitter calling Dave Bryan names because he said that Chickillo would be added to the practice squad,He was an idiot because Chickillo was ABSOLUTELY going to be claimed off of waivers.

      It’s the same thing every year when cutting down. No one seems to realize that 32 teams are cutting people that they would like to keep and develop.

      Now that the season is starting, we can shift gears to every team out there is coveting our practice squad guys and that the loss of any of them will spell disaster. (we need a sarcasm font)

      Liked by 1 person

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    There is so much to work with here, it is like the embarrassment of riches at WR. I will start by saying, as usual, great article, then I will work to some of the points, not that I am in disagreement with them.

    Charlie Batch: I would like to pretend I was with you on the Batch Bandwagon but I suspect I was backing “pencil legs” Dixon. It is an irrational point but I was always concerned that his legs were too thin to last in the NFL. Having thought that I took a look at Teddy Bridgewater’s legs and thought, Dennis Dixon. Apparently I was wrong again.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vick on the field in the 4th quarter if the Steelers have a big lead. Keep Ben healthy and keep Mike fresh. It might mean more work for the defence but they have some growing to do.

    I like Tyler Murphy. The Steelers WR corps is amazing. I don’t think they have had such a dynamic corps of receivers in the team’s history and I was around to watch Swann and Stallworth. That is just how good I think this group could be. The scariest part to me is that I could see Coates being as good as Bryant and Murphy being as good as Hines Ward. It is still early days and the weight of my my Black and Gold eyeglasses are heavy on the bridge of my nose but I do believe these things are possible. If the o-line and Ben can stay healthy, this should be a legendary unit.

    The only fly in the ointment, as far as the offence is concerned, is health. The number of injuries this season is ominous. I fear this team may battle mightily all season only to run out of warm bodies in December. Like the Charlie Batch vs Dennis Dixon debate, I hope I am wrong.

    Like

    • “”the weight of my my Black and Gold eyeglasses are heavy on the bridge of my nose” LOL. Love it! My feeling is, nobody can predict things like injuries or how well and quickly a unit is going to mesh. Why be miserable in the meantime? And for that matter why be miserable at all? (Well, I have to confess I am a bit miserable after a horrible loss which includes the injury of several key players, but that is surely rational.) In the meantime, Go Steelers : )

      Liked by 1 person

  • I think that there are two players who will surprise people this year.

    That’s a good point about Wheaton looking ordinary, I believe we would all be excited about his potential if he wasn’t so overshadowed and overlooked. He is going to be a very good receiver.

    I heard/read something about Johnson saying that he is the #3 running back. I’m a fan of Will Johnson. When he carries he knows where the lead stick is, he puts plenty of effort into his running,he can block, and catch and he always seems to get positive yardage, Plus he is faster than he looks and is a strong runner between the tackles. I’m betting that the reason Nix was kept as fullback was so that Johnson can concentrate on running back and tight end. Haley said that he was with the tight ends during all of camp because he already knows the ins and outs of being a running back.

    I think that both of these guys will be overlooked somewhat by the other teams just as they are overlooked by the fans.

    Like

    • I agree with you on both points. Hope no misconstrued my words to think I was speaking poorly of Wheaton. Great weapon. And, yes, Will Johnson is underappreciated.

      Like

      • I sure didn’t think you were speaking poorly of Wheaton, I think it was a good observation. He is surrounded with so much talent that it’s hard for him to be noticed.

        Like

  • That last comment was mine.

    Like

  • So much good stuff here. I agree completely with Cold Old that it’s a month worth of things to think about. Like Rebecca–and Scarlett O’Hara–if I have to be miserable, I’m going to put it off until tomorrow when I have to think about it. For now, I’m with you. Let’s be optimistic.

    What I would love, LOVE, to see this season is the Steelers really using Vick. Not in the 4th quarter, not because Ben is hurt or struggling, but as part of a plan. I won’t pretend I have any idea what that plan is. Just him trotting onto the field when no one expects it, to screw with defenses like they’ll see from the NFC West for example. Changing everything, I hope, just by having Vick out there instead of Ben.

    Two reasons why this won’t happen? Vick himself. A few years ago I watched a lot of Eagles football in the preseason and early season and he was a revelation at first. I’d never watched him in action before. Wow. What talent, I thought. He’s amazing. And he is. In certain specific moments. But then….the red zone fumbles and interceptions. How can someone so good be so bad at times? It amuses me now to remember that I said to someone, “And we thought Ben was wildly erratic at times! Vick is a heartbreaker.” A talented man, indeed. But in my small sample of his playing skills, not a sure thing when it looks like a sure thing. He scares me. I want to see the Vick who is, as he’s often described, dangerous in a good way, not the bad way. Maybe as a backup, with the pressure off, he would make better decisions? Older, wiser? Or more desperate? in the split second after I’d be thrilled to see him take the field, I’d be terrified. But that’s Steelers football….

    Then there’s Ben’s ego. Can he stand there and watch Vick take over his team for a few plays? Share the glory? I never quite trust that Ben is doing what is best for the team over being a hero. I don’t think that opinion is worth any explanation, just a feeling I get from time to time, and I’m not enough committed to it to do more than air it out. Something about him has always rubbed me the wrong way even when he seems to be saying all the right things. I wouldn’t want any other QB, but that doesn’t mean I’m able to wholeheartedly love him. Weird stuff, this watching from the couch. Sometimes we think we see personality but then again actors and artists are rarely able to hide their real selves even when they’re speaking lines written for them or under layers of paint. I’m not, by the way, pretending to know something or predict something. Again, just airing out a thought.

    One of these days I’ll remember why I couldn’t make an account here and give myself a real name when I’ve tried in the past, but for now I’ll sign off as Earthling. I also wholeheartedly want to thank both Ivan and Rebecca for making this a safe space to think. I love all of your articles, I think about them for days. You’re doing a bang up job. Now get Hombre de Acero to do his 5 Burning Questions here and you’ve combined the very best of thoughtful analysis.

    Like

    • Interesting take on Ben wanting to be the hero to the detriment of the team at times. I have had that thought a few times when he is trying to extend plays under duress when the high percentage play would be to throw it into the upper deck of the stadium.

      Like

    • Thanks for your thanks : ) This is just the sort of place we wanted to create, and it makes me very happy to think that, so far at least, we’re succeeding.

      Now in re Ben’s ego – you may be absolutely correct about this, but I have another theory as well.

      There are some people, and I freely admit I am one of them, who have a lot of trouble delegating. because of one of several assumptions: 1) you can’t trust that the person you delegate the task to will actually do it; 2) you can’t trust that the person you delegate it to will do it the way you do (in other words, as well), or 3) you just aren’t able to relinquish control. As a person who has trouble with this, I don’t really want to attribute this to ego, although in fact that may be exactly what it is. But it is also due to some unfortunate experiences in which the person to whom I delegated a task in fact either did not do it or did not do it in a satisfactory fashion. This naturally makes one more reluctant to trust someone the next time. I’ve gotten better through the years, but my default is still “Okay, I’ll do it.”

      It may seem strange to view Ben scrambling or hanging on to the ball as equivalent to delegating tasks, but I think they both boil down to some extent to a trust issue. Perhaps one of the things Haley has done for Ben is to patiently help him see that he doesn’t always have to be the hero. What we’ve seen in the last few seasons is perhaps Ben learning that he can rely on his teammates. This interpretation is bolstered by the time he has spent working outside of the regular team activities with his receivers, and part of this is possibly because he has seen how the chemistry he and Antonio Brown have developed has paid off.

      This is all pure speculation, of course. But if you can’t speculate on a sports site, where can you?

      Like

      • I really don’t see it as BR trying to be the hero. I think he’s simply doing what his body has allowed him to do since high school. He will extend a play with a defensive end draped over his body because he can and because it has worked more often than not — not because he’s trying to be a hero. I saw it for 3 years in college and it is the same now.

        Big Ben is the starting QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He gets paid the big bucks to be the focal point of the offense – to make everything work. What’s right for the Steelers is for Big Ben to play the best way that he can. I would have a hard time believing that bringing a backup QB in ‘for a different look’ would benefit the team at all.

        I find the labelling of Big Ben as egotistical or a diva to be a strange Pittsburgh phenomenon. He mentioned a few broken bones early in his career – in disagreement with his coach – and he was slapped with a label.

        Like

  • Hey thanks for the thoughts. Your perspective on Ben is one I haven’t seen before and expanded my thinking. Really good post, worthy of a name attached to it..:)

    Like

  • Always good to read your optimistic yet measured perspective

    Liked by 1 person

  • Somebody has to make the predictions round here.. Yes, the Steelers are going to win this season’s Super Bowl. Great read! Really appreciate this site, it feels like home.

    Like

  • Pingback: The Case for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers, Part Two | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: Game Recap: Steelers at Rams, Pas de Trois | Going Deep:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s