The Case for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers, Part Two
by Ivan Cole
[Part 1, which is the introduction and the Offense, can be found here. Part 2 should have gone up before the Patriots game, but I forgot to post it. My apologies to Ivan. But his predictions have held up remarkably well so far, I think you will agree!]
Okay. If you recall, I did say that this would be an optimistic look at the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers. So now it’s time to really get optimistic and talk about the defense. Actually this is not as difficult a task as you might imagine. There are three factors at play here which, when thoughtfully considered, would allow you to believe that what was on display in the preseason was not nearly as bad as it appeared.
The starting eleven:
It appears to me that group will be Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt on the line; Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones/James Harrison at linebacker; Cortez Allen, William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen in the secondary.
I don’t recall that group being on the field at the same time during the preseason. There is a significant downside to that. Defense, like the offensive line, is ensemble work. Coordination is important, such that it is not just about individual reps but group reps as well.
Since they don’t have any previous track record as a group it may take some time to mesh. Trying to figure that out while Tom Brady is trying to skewer you might look a bit ugly, but we have to take the long view here. Meaning we hope to see Brady again in January.
One of the hardest concepts for some fans to comprehend is that it’s not how you start, it how you finish. It’s not about who is ahead at the beginning or middle of the race, but who is in front at the end. Now, you obviously have to be competitive in the beginning in order to have a chance to win at the end, but often the most relevant question is which competitors can get better through the course of the season.
The really optimistic news about the Steelers defense is that, barring injury, most of its players can be dramatically better in the latter weeks of the season than they are likely to be in September. Timmons, Harrison, Will Allen, Heyward, McLendon, Golden and Gay are the players whose performances will be most consistent throughout the season. Because of age Harrison may actually drop off a bit if he is overused earlier.
Given their relative unfamiliarity with the system even though they are veterans, Mitchell and Moats could improve more. You might even slip Heyward, Vince Williams, Garvin, Cam Thomas, McLendon, Blake and Cortez Allen into this category as well.
And then there are those who will likely make dramatic leaps; Jarvis Jones, Shazier, Tuitt, Shamarko Thomas, McCullers, Spence (who in practical terms is a second year player), Ross Cockrell and Bud Dupree. If they stay healthy and don’t lose their collective confidence it’s hard to imagine them not getting better, and dramatically so.
One of the biggest ‘X’ factors of this season has been what will be the real impact of the transition from a Dick LeBeau led to a Keith Butler led unit? I have contended all along that unless the Steelers leadership is really, really dumb, we won’t know the answer to that until opening night.
In my imagination, if I am Butler/Tomlin, I would want to lure Belichick to think like Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone character in the movie The Untouchables; “You got nothing!” And then you unleash Hell, or the IRS (same thing?).
Belichick/Brady are too smart to fall for that but are probably uncertain of what exactly they will see, which is likely the best you can hope for under the circumstances. The good news on a big picture level is that the expectations are so low at this point, many are thinking of a repeat of the last disaster that happened in Foxboro. As a result, anything above rock bottom will be considered a moral victory.
On the other hand, a competitive performance against the world champions and Hall of Fame quarterback might be the psychological springboard to greatness for a young impressionable group. I believe the current personnel moves reflect that mindset.
A lot of good news here, starting with Cam Heyward being named a team captain. Leadership comes in many forms. And while Timmons and Harrison are effective leading through their actions, there is something to be said for a defensive leader who can wear his belligerence on his sleeve as well. Joe Greene, Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter were those kinds of leaders, and Heyward is too. I also don’t believe that Heyward has peaked as a player. The leadership role may provide a spur to make that additional leap.
If, indeed, the role of the defensive line has changed to a more attacking mode, then this is great news because the starters are all better at that sort of thing (particularly McLendon) than in the old system.
But as highly as I regard Heyward, to me the most intriguing member of this group is Tuitt. His size, speed and instincts says potential All Pro to me. And like so many players that Tomlin prefers (perhaps reminding him of himself) he’s precocious. He should have only been graduating from college this past spring. Talk about growth potential.
McCullers has been a bit of a disappointment to me thus far, but it will be a while before the jury comes in on him. It’s much too early to think much at all about Walton. As I write this I know nothing at all about the new acquisition, Lyons. And it appears that Cam Thomas is this year’s winner of the William Gay Player We All Just Love To Hate But Couldn’t Possibly Be As Bad As We Think award.
There is much to be excited about with this group, starting with the new coaching configuration featuring Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter. Last season we were excited about the addition of Porter in terms of the passion, championship pedigree and fidelity to the Steelers way he brought. All that is still in play and I think he may be demonstrating that he can coach a little too. I believe he’s perfect in mentoring a young group in how to become Steelers linebackers.
The conversation has to begin with Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. Timmons is the rock upon which the championship hopes of the flagship position group of the franchise rests. Appropriate given that he is the first draft pick of the Tomlin Era. After sacrificing for years to help shore up needs at other places in the defense, he has established himself at the top of his craft. Given his age, there is no reason to believe that he won’t remain at that peak for years.
Much is being made of the value of Harrison’s presence as mentor and role model, along with Porter, for the young Steelers linebackers. All true. But he also serves as a teaching moment for a lot of fans as well.
Exactly a year ago many fans were writing Harrison off as being too old to be of any value to the team. This, yet again, reflects upon the temptation that all of us have to lean toward the simplistic in our thinking. Yes, as a general rule, an age odometer reading will trend toward significant to catastrophic decline once players reach age 30 and beyond. But when moving to specific cases, things can vary dramatically depending upon genetics, work habits, individual will, the position played and the actual wear and tear on the body to that point.
Harrison also stands as an important challenge to our assumptions about what a successful developmental timeline and path looks like. Like Brett Keisel and a number of other players, Deebo took several years to become an overnight sensation. This is something to think about when one is tempted to rush to judgment on players like Jones and Shazier.
The key question concerning Harrison is how or whether he holds up for the entire season. His conditioning is not an issue, but a physical breakdown on the order of what happened to Keisel last season is not out of the question.
The interesting question with Arthur Moats is whether we are looking past him too quickly as just a placeholder until something better comes along or develops? I tended to think that way about James Farrior.
Most of the rest of this group are very young, talented, with tremendous upside potential. Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier are players who were progressing quite nicely but are being irrationally criticized by some fans and media because, at bottom, they ‘allowed’ themselves to be injured. The unspoken ultimatum is ‘stay healthy or else we declare you a failure’.
Vince Williams seemed to me to be a project that was thrown prematurely into the fire because of injuries to others. I think if the original schedule were to be followed he would be getting really good just about…now. In practical on-the-field terms Sean Spence is entering his second year, with a leap expected. Don’t even think about rendering a judgment on Bud Dupree this season.
With declarations that the current draft class may be a bust as I write this, let’s try a bit of perspective on Anthony Chickillo. In spite of the glowing early reports from training camp, with a Defensive Player of the Year and two first round draft picks in his position group, it was a considerable uphill climb for Chickillo. He would probably have needed help in the form of injuries and failures on part of some of his competitors, plus a lights out tryout to make it. Jordan Zumwalt cooperated on the injury front and Chickillo managed to beat out Howard Jones. But to make it the remaining distance he would probably have had to beat out Terence Garvin on special teams, and that didn’t happen.
Let’s start with the safeties since that is the most interesting area of this position group going into the opening game. Why Will Allen over Shamarko Thomas?
Two factors increases Allen’s value; his familiarity with Cover Two from his time with Tomlin in Tampa Bay and a veteran presence in the face of Tom Brady. There need be nothing particularly wrong with Thomas for Allen to be the better choice to start in this circumstance.
And with the uncertain health status of Mike Mitchell, Allen could be the most valuable member of this secondary this season. Ideally a three man rotation with Thomas coming on strong toward the end of the regular season seems right.
William Gay, Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake make up the veteran core of this group. If Allen can successfully reboot to where he was at the end of 2013 at minimum, than this group is more solid than some might expect.
My guess is that Cockrell, whom they had liked but couldn’t get previously, made Doran Grant expendable. Like the linebackers, the combination of the weight of numbers and the bias toward experience over potential in a win now environment may have weighed against Grant.
Fans often see it differently. Because the warts of experienced players are more visible, new, untested players always appear to be more attractive. Folks loved Isaac Redman until he actually had to play consistently.
The third side of the ball usually always suffers as an afterthought at this time of the year, but the news was particularly compelling this summer. And if you still want to talk synchronicities, injuries involving special teams played a role in 2008 as well. Remember the James Harrison long snapper experiment (disaster)?
Maurkice Pouncey’s injury deservedly got big headlines, but the potentially more catastrophic loss was that of Shaun Suisham. One of four big gold stars goes to Kevin Colbert in replacing Suisham with Josh Scobee (the others being DeAngelo Williams, Michael Vick and Brandon Boykin). Whether he matches Suisham’s productivity in a northern clime and the challenging conditions of Heinz Field remains to be seen, but it will be a surprise if he turns out to be a disaster. [note from Rebecca—despite the two misses on Thursday night, I think we still have to reserve judgment. Scobee had been quite a good kicker until last season, and I’m guessing he just needs to get his confidence back. I hope he does it quickly, though…]
A competition of this caliber at almost any other skill position would have attracted more notice. Besides some inconsistency, Brad Wing did quality work and was actually a football player and well liked among players and fans. Jordan Berry’s work was quite good as well, but in these situations a relative tie usually goes to the incumbent. It can be argued (I do) that Wing’s trade value tipped the scales against him. By choosing Berry they get a high quality punter and a draft pick. Whereas with Wing they just would have ended up with a very good punter.
None of the newcomers to the team this season came with the skills to challenge the incumbent punt and kickoff returners. Forget about what he can do as a running back or receiver. If Dri Archer could provide a viable alternative to Antonio Brown as a punt returner he would earn his money in my estimation.
With Robert Golden returning as captain, the core group of Greg Warren, Garvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ross Ventrone and Antwon Blake, you may actually begin to see something of a recognizable personality to this group that matches that of Danny Smith.
A few things to remember as we begin to enter another year of football.
The best laid plans and all that… Regardless of how the players, coaches and executives plan it out and prepare the season may turn on the following:
Injuries. Maybe the Steelers might have still punched out in the first round of the playoffs last season if Le’Veon Bell hadn’t been hurt. Could Suisham’s injury during a meaningless exhibition game on a bad surface in Canton, Ohio lead to the difference between making the playoffs or not, or even winning the Super Bowl or not? Who can say? Of one thing we can be certain. More injuries are coming. We can only hope that we can survive them.
Wild Cards. There was also the matter of LeGarrette Blount leaving the team unexpectedly. Anything from a malfunctioning alarm clock to an ill-timed bout of the flu to a snowstorm could play a significant role in the fortunes of a season.
Competitive balance. We often forget, as the saying goes, that they pay the other guys too. The line between success and failure is so finely drawn that the fate of a season can come down to the outcome not of a half a dozen games, but to the outcome of a half a dozen plays. Which is one of the reasons I’m not that much into predictions.
Luck. A bounce of an oddly shaped ball, a piece of turf that gives way, a gust of wind, a ligament that tears from no contact, can make or break a season.
Intangibles. The relationship a team builds over the course of a season is mysterious and difficult to predict or influence in a premeditated manner. How is it that one team can be so resilient while another of similar talents and personalities can be so brittle? Just to cite one example of how that comes to play in the journey.
So, with the odds definitely stacked against us and the outcome in large measure out of the total control of even the key participants, it might be good to remember that it really is about the journey. It’s football season, and that’s a lot better than the alternative. Yes, it sucks when you lose (and we will lose from time to time, and sometimes even more often than that) but there will be next week, and if we’re fortunate, next year.
Remember this is supposed to be fun. And you know what? With the proper attitude, it is, regardless of the outcomes. There are unhappy people out there with screwed up priorities and agendas who will leech every bit of joy and positive energy out of your body if you let them. Don’t.