Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 First Quarter Report
by Ivan Cole
Normally I would say that it was simplistic, even childish to assert that the actions of one person in the complex, team enterprise of professional football were responsible for the difference between a 2-2 reality and a possible 4-0 record. But there you have it. You might argue that 4-0 is a stretch, but not that much really. 3-1 was absolutely plausible.
However, it is also true that a focus this narrow loses sight of a big picture that is more meaningful and significant for the Steelers this season and beyond. There are some problems to be sure, but also a lot of promise, in some cases more than could have been anticipated a month ago.
If you were told at the beginning of training camp that the Steelers minus Shaun Suisham, Maurkice Pouncey, Martavis Bryant, Senquez Golson, Bruce Gradkowski, Mike Adams and Cortez Allen for the entirety, and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Ryan Shazier, Matt Spaeth and Dan McCullers in part would be 2-2 headed into October, would you take it?
If you were told that a defense that most thought would struggle, perhaps mightily in the early going was playing as well as it has, would you take that?
Perfectionists will bemoan the perceived lost opportunity in New England, what might have been absent the injuries, or the handful of botched plays, but c’mon. An expectation of 4-0, beyond being unrealistic would have probably been more of a setup for disappointment given our tendencies to overreact to both the good and the bad. It’s a very good record considering that the situation with injuries has been uncomfortably close to a worst case scenario. And the fact that we came away with a feeling of an opportunity lost rather than being outclassed by our biggest rival after losing the one player that all agreed we could not lose has to be taken into account in evaluating the first quarter of 2015.
Coaching and front office
Normally I include this category in order to be thorough, but the thought is that it’s much more about the players once you get in the stadiums. However, I think this aspect of things needs to be brought front and center. Decisions and processes that were set in motion weeks, months, and in some cases years ago are coming to fruition now in a manner that has contributed both to the early season success and the promise of this team. I won’t speak much at all of the Rooneys, GM Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, but their fingerprints are all over this.
Keith Butler:. The biggest question mark heading into the season was, what would be the outcome of parting ways with long time and beloved defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and replacing him with Butler? Did he have what it took to match, much less surpass what LeBeau brought to the table? This was a sore subject for some during the winter. The preseason performances didn’t engender much in the way of confidence.
It became something of a consensus that it was a good thing that the offense promised a high degree of potency, because they would need every bit of it to carry a defense that was likely to be quite weak for at least the early portion of the 2015.
It hasn’t turned out that way. Yes, they were unorganized and confused in route to giving up 28 points to the Patriots on opening night. But truth be told, many observers were expecting them to yield nearly double that amount. They sabotaged themselves, to be certain, but they did not seem to be completely outclassed. And as it has developed, that was the worst of it. Butler’s system is similar, but nonetheless, something of a departure from the past, with run defense and pass rushing being much more stout than it has been in recent years. They are, indeed, improving as forecast, but at a much faster rate and a higher level than most had hoped. I think we can feel comfortable about the defensive coordinator position and the wisdom of the process that enabled it.
Personnel moves: What has been little remarked upon is how deep this team has become. It is a young group to be sure, but not lacking in talent and potential. This, as much as anything explains how they have remained competitively viable even after absorbing the heavy body blows due to injury, suspensions and in one or two cases short term (we hope) below the line performance.
The additions of Mike Mitchell, Michael Vick, Arthur Moats and DeAngelo Williams via free agency, and Brandon Boykin and Josh Scobee through trade. The retention of Will Allen, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sean Spence and, yes, Cam Thomas, plus the maturation of Shazier, Jones, Dupree, picking up Cockrell and others off the street. Most of them have been greeted by shrugs or complaints by a portion of the fan base. Almost all are presently contributing in a positive manner. The one exception is a doozy, but more about that later.
This reflects a new level of flexibility in the team building process that varies from both past team practices that tended to be, for example, more conservative about trades, as well as ill-informed and ultimately, arrogant fan wisdom concerning the procurement and management of talent. Tomlin has said that most players that reach this level represent the less than two percent of elite in the sport, almost all of whom may be capable of contributing if placed in the proper circumstances. We see a version of this with New England. Are we seeing an evolution of how Pittsburgh responds to the challenges of the modern game?
Todd Haley: You would think after all the vitriol and bad energy directed toward Haley the past few years that someone would have the integrity to offer a ‘My bad’, as opposed to saying that Snoop Dog helped him get on the right track. The Steelers have arguably the best offense in football. Steelers Nation treated Haley like crap. Now we’re going to pretend it didn’t happen?
Having said that, I do have a bone to pick with the offensive coordinator with some of his play calling decisions—the bookends being the Brown reverse against New England and some of the decisions late in the Ravens game. Each are variations on a theme and a theory that I will go out on a limb to advance. Is it possible that Haley’s liability is that he has not played the game?
The reason I go there is that there are two things that Haley (and others frankly) seem to lose sight of. First, better to fail with your best players attempting to do what they do best. This was something, to their credit, they did attempt to do on the failed fourth down pass to Antonio Brown in overtime against Baltimore, though I would have chosen Bell. Against the Pats it was also Brown, but it wasn’t what he does best. The second is realizing that the most demoralizing thing you can do is not to outsmart an opponent but to out execute them, even when they know what’s coming. In other words, Lombardi 101. Sometimes the simplest thing is the best thing.
In that sense I am in agreement with Elpalito, who argues that he would rather fail on the back of Le’Veon Bell, and by extension the arm of Ben or the hands of AB, than to hope to outfox the opponent.
Mike Munchak: Speaking of taking things for granted! Pittsburgh’s offensive line minus its best player took on an excellent defensive front in St Louis, full of first round talent, and essentially came away with a draw. The expectations for this group have risen dramatically. We gushed about Munch last season, and it now appears those emotions were justified. I guess the best thing that could be said is that nobody gushes about the line’s performance or their coach anymore, they just expect good work. That’s different.
Richard Mann: It may be the brain trust is just really good at identifying receiving talent. It may be that when it comes to receivers Ben can make chicken salad out of chicken crap. But every year that Mann has been here his position group has been the strongest on the team.
Joey Porter: I felt confident that Peezy would be an asset, given his emotion and dedication, when he joined the staff last year. This year I think he has established that, judging from the performance of his charges he is probably a pretty good coach as well.
Summary: So, it hasn’t been perfect. Sometimes the tendency is for coaches to try to be a little too smart for their own good. And then there were the communications glitches on the defensive side during the first game. But let me say a thing or two in defense of the staff.
To think, as some obviously do, that you can significantly reduce practice time without an actual impact on some aspect of performance represents unclear thinking. There are those—Tunch Ilkin comes immediately to mind—who contend that the quality of the first games of the season have suffered as a consequence.
The one saving grace is, all are performing under the same handicap. As has been reported on this site, many of the complaints leveled at the Steelers’ staff such as perceived dissatisfaction with clock management is echoed across the league. That being said, a sizable amount of the credit for any success the Steelers enjoy this season must go to the coaching and front office leadership.
Our fans have a disturbing habit of being very quick, often too quick, to criticize, but stingy, overly conditional and, I would opine, controlling with praise. The staff is excellent.
I wonder how good this offense can be once it is in position to put all of its key pieces on the field. Maybe we’ll know this season. But a key question will be how close Ben will be to being at 100 percent even after he returns. This is a group that is capable of stopping itself, but it is also a group that proved that even without two All-Pros in the lineup, (Bell and Pouncey) they could be, as some have predicted, borderline unstoppable. Here are some of the highlights of the first quarter:
Quarterback: As was pointed out in the preseason analysis, short of a catastrophic season ending injury (and we came awfully close), obtaining Michael Vick allows for the possibility of the loss of Ben being survivable. Given the circumstances—only a month in the system, rusty, few reps and a short week—I felt Vick acquitted himself well. AB could have helped by catching a well thrown pass that normally would have been a touchdown. And Heyward-Bey almost dropped a well thrown ball as well.
Prior to that Ben had finally, through his performance, proved to the world that he deserved to be viewed as being part of the absolute top tier of current NFL quarterbacks, and, with deference to Terry Bradshaw, is likely to be the best to ever wear a Steelers uniform. And did Ben look to you on Thursday night like someone who was going to miss six weeks?
And since I am ever the optimist, here are two pieces of positive spin on Ben’s injury. First, two of the three Super Bowl seasons the Steelers have enjoyed in the past decade involved Ben missing a minimum of four games due to either injury or suspension. So we are covered in terms of successful precedence and superstition. Second, giving Vick game experience, as opposed to mop up duty, can only help the team in terms of confidence and depth if they are fortunate enough to be in position for a playoff run.
Wide receivers: You would have hoped Antonio Brown could plateau at the level of play that he has displayed the past two seasons. But by all appearances he hasn’t even peaked yet. He’s not borderline unstoppable, he’s unstoppable period. The other big story here is that Heyward-Bey has become more than just a special teams asset and veteran presence. Sammie Coates will probably develop into a player capable of fitting right in with this group, but how will he manage to get any touches, especially if Bryant can manage his off field issues? It’s life and death now for Marcus Wheaton to get targeted, and there’s nothing wrong with his game at all.
Running backs: Remember when we were lamenting the nadir of the Steelers rushing attack? Now there just aren’t enough balls to go around. Bell’s back. And if he weren’t we would be just fine, though not as good, with Williams.
Offensive line: When is the last time you saw a complaint about Marcus Gilbert? Or anyone else on the O line? As is the case at this level, they’ll win and lose individual battles, but whatever concerns there are about the offense line is usually not part of it. And that’s new.
Tight ends: Solid, but not spectacular, which is what you would expect.
We expected a work in progress, and so it is. But I suspect most were also expecting some ugliness that never materialized. The hope was that they would be adequate by season’s end. They’re adequate now. Elite, eventually, may not be out of the question without having to add too many new pieces. Unfortunately, they won’t be given time to grow up. With Ben down, they have to grow up now. In spite of their inexperience and flaws they basically have answered the bell the past three weeks.
Defensive line: The difference between the Butler and LeBeau defenses is best seen here. The defensive linemen are more active and Pittsburgh has the combination of athleticism to make that work in the persons of Heyward and Tuitt. Some depth may help here eventually, and it remains to be seen whether McCullers and others step up this season. But Cam and Stephon Tuitt seemed on track to lead at the highest levels on the field either this year or very soon thereafter.
Linebackers: Before his injury Ryan Shazier played well enough to shut down the criticism over whether he was deserving of his high draft status. Questions about his talent should end, but there will be continuing concern about his durability. His loss has allowed for a spotlight to shine upon Sean Spence who, to my eyes, has improved from last year as well. Putting football aside for a few seconds, we would do well to remember Spence’s story and view it as an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit.
My expectations for Bud Dupree weren’t high given this is his first year, but you can see the promise already. Play among this group is generally solid enough that we can say that this season will be the James Harrison victory lap. Deebo’s late sack of Joe Flacco, putting an exclamation point on a victory would have been a nice story, except…well, we’ll get to that later.
Secondary: It has become our habit to dismiss this group as the special needs unit of the team. But I’m finding it harder to be indiscriminately negative about these guys as the season unfolds. What is it about the play of Mitchell, Will Allen, William Gay and, now, Ross Cockrell that we find so objectionable? That they’re not Troy Polamalu and Mel Blount? Who is? One thing I do like about this group is how they hit. They have figured out how to bring a high level of physicality without attracting penalties. Not the easiest thing to do in this new offensive friendly environment. Lawrence Timmons had a lot to do with it, but they did their part to put tough guy Steve Smith Sr. on the bench the other night. These things pay dividends over time.
Could it be that the story of the 2015 Steelers is that their season was derailed on a high school field in Canton, Ohio? We’ll see. To his credit, Scobee doesn’t miss all the time, only when it’s important. Perhaps it’s indicative of how fortunate, even spoiled, we have been with the mostly solid work of Jeff Reed, followed by the even more reliable performance of Suisham. It’s pretty amazing when I thought no one could replace that special spot in my heart occupied by Ryan Succop, but…
Ol’ Josh may be destined for a place in the same witness protection program that, no doubt, is housing Neil O’Donnell and Tommy Maddox. Two pieces of good news in this regard. Certain things, often tragedies, can serve to unite people. Years from now when Steelers Nation are at each other’s throats over the coaching, draft picks or whether Steely McBeam should be electrocuted or strangled, someone will say “Scobee” and everyone will immediately bond. We’ll all laugh about this someday, but probably not this year.
For now we can be pretty sure that Pittsburgh will probably remain among the league leaders in two point and fourth down conversion attempts. However, beyond this and a bit of a dip in the last game by Jordan Berry there isn’t that much bad to say about special teams. Remember a couple of years ago when it seemed that you could count on this group to give up at least one big play in punt or kickoff coverage per game? That simply doesn’t happen anymore. Golden, Ventrone, Garvin, Thomas, Heyward-Bey, Spence, Warren, Williams (Vince) and company have been very solid.
Funny how it has seemed almost subtle, but how do you judge a team when it has missed at various points its franchise quarterback and number one backup, best offensive lineman and running back, one of their best receivers, linebackers and defensive backs, their place kicker and his replacement, and still seem viable?
You are left to wonder what this team might be when it is complete and a bit more mature. The good news is that they have managed to win the two games they were supposed to have won, and in the case of the Rams, did so under duress.* We are seeing current stars delivering in the persons of Ben, Antonio, Le’Veon, and Cameron Heyward and future stars emerging in Shazier, Tuitt, Dupree and Wheaton. There have been pleasant surprises in the form of Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams, Vick and Cockerell. We can anticipate immediate help in the form of Martavis Bryant and eventually, Pouncey. And perhaps the light will come on even for Cortez Allen, Shamarko Thomas, and McCullers.
This team is entertaining and their promise is undeniable. If they survive the second quarter of the season, watch out.
*To be fair, the Steelers were slight underdogs against the Rams on the road, and they lost Ben partway through the game.