Staying Out of 2nd and 98

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Peter Diana photo

Steeler Nation, viewed as a whole, could be said to be bi-polar. One week we’re going to the Super Bowl—the next week we are going to be just bad enough to miss the playoffs and still not get a top-of-the-first-round draft pick.

But when you begin talking to individual fans the general attitude varies tremendously, from the “Black and Gold colored glasses” wearers to the Bob Labriola “I live in my fears” type of fan. Some fans even appear to be downright annoyed when their alleged team does well, disappearing from the commenting flow when there isn’t enough to gripe about.

Steeler fans aren’t any different than any other fans this way, of course. As many of you know I also follow the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the gloom and doom on BucsDugout is palpable as it seems about 97% of the commenters there are convinced the Pirates can’t possibly beat the Cubs in a one-game elimination match, assuming Jake Arrieta pitches it. And you can bet that he will, unless some of his major organs shut down between now and tomorrow evening.

You could say it isn’t an unreasonable conviction. Arrieta just posted the best post-All Star break ERA in MLB history. So there’s that. And the Pirates haven’t been one of the few teams who have gotten to him, either. Since the All-Star break, he’s given up nine earned runs over 107 1/3 innings. My math skills aren’t the greatest, but I believe that comes to about one earned run per almost 12 innings. Furthermore, since June 21st Arrieta has allowed two home runs—and hit two. Impressive stuff.

Grantland even wrote an entire article on this very subject, The Cub-ler-Ross Model: How Pirates Fans Can Deal With Wild-Card Angst. In it, author Ben Lindbergh details the five stages of coming to terms with your fears—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Give it a read—it’s clever, and worth your time even if you don’t care about baseball.

Nonetheless, the current odds on the matchup are about 49% for the Cubs, 51% for the Pirates, according to Fangraphs. So in other words, Pirates’ fans expectations don’t align well with the reality of what could actually happen in any given game.

I subscribe to an email list call footballguys. It is for fantasy players, but even though I don’t really get into fantasy football and don’t have a team this year at all, since I missed the draft of the one “for fun only” league I usually do, I kept the subscription, especially since it’s free. It’s very easy to scan the list rapidly to see if any Steelers players are mentioned, or those of that week’s opponent. Sometimes I’ve found useful tidbits there, especially as I don’t pay much attention to Twitter, including the Twitter feed on our sidebar.

But the other reason I find the list worthwhile is Joe Bryant, the guy who runs it, does a weekly feature called “Random Shots.” In it he dumps all the stuff he comes across in his research that amuses or intrigues him but doesn’t pertain to the main purpose of the site. If you don’t know the site I recommend checking it out just for the Random Shots.

They range from laugh-out-loud funny to touching human interest stories to commentary such as this, appended to a picture of Ben on the way down for the last time during the Rams game:

If I owned an NFL team, I’d ask my franchise quarterback to always wear a knee brace on his forward leg. For reasons just like this. No piece of protective gear handles everything. But I have to think it would’ve helped.

As I did research on this, I found I wasn’t alone. Robert Kraft asks Tom Brady  to do the same thing.

And while I was at it, I’d wear shin guards like Cam Newton too.

It was one of those random shots which gave me the post title, as follows:

I have no idea what was actually going on there, but my guess is, the guy in the booth who enters the number for the down length first entered a nine, discovered it was actually called as eight, and didn’t manage to get the nine deleted. It makes for a stunning image, though, and sums up the feelings we as a fan base tend to have after a loss.

After last Thursday night’s loss Ivan Cole skipped Denial and went straight to Anger. As he said, “52 Steelers played well enough to win the game.” If the tenor of the callers to sports radio is any indication, he isn’t alone.

The reason I have difficulties going straight to anger is, you know Josh Scobee would have given almost anything to make both those kicks he missed. And perhaps that was the problem. You notice he made both of the earlier kicks, when not nearly so much was riding on them.

It seems clear the problem is psychological. His kickoffs were fine, even if he didn’t boom them all through the back of the endzone as Justin Tucker did. Only one was returned, albeit for 25 yards. (A report briefly circulated that he had pulled a quadricep muscle during the game, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of that, and it wouldn’t account for the two missed kicks at New England, anyhow.

So I wasn’t angry, just as I wouldn’t have been angry at a running back who fumbled the ball because an opposing lineman ripped off the arm he was carrying it in. I would, however, question the coaching staff if they then put the one-armed running back out on the field again.

And, of course, they didn’t. Wisely, they looked for another kicker, found one, and hired him.

Sometimes you have to go with what you have, of course. Mike Mitchell played most of last season, as it turns out, with both groin muscles torn. He got shots every week in a place no guy wants to hear about to manage the pain and keep going, but the Steelers apparently didn’t feel they had a better option.

In retrospect you wonder if they would have been better served to just throw Shamarko Thomas out there and make him learn on the job. But Mitchell kept them in games well enough to win the division, and after all that’s the whole purpose of the exercise. And nobody wants to waste the remaining Roethlisberger years, because as Ivan has pointed out, after him comes the barren wasteland years, unless the Steelers get exceedingly lucky.

Not many teams have a top-five quarterback, by definition, although if you add up the names in the various top-five lists it does come to more than five. But more to the point, not very many teams have a quarterback who can essentially carry the team. Some teams have up-and-coming youngsters who may or may not actually pan out. Several, like the Bills and Browns, have sprinkled their roster liberally with first round picks and yet are playing journeymen quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick Josh McCown et al.

Which makes it all the more important that everyone on the team does their part to keep the Steelers in the running until Ben can come back this season, because one way or another they need to make it into the playoffs. If that means you have to replace someone on the team who is hurting your chances, you cut your losses and try someone else.

All this being said, though, it’s easy to forget several things which will, I believe, help us to maintain some perspective when viewing the current situation:

  1. Michael Vick has had essentially no first-team reps up to this point. Last week’s sole practice was basically a walk-through, as Mike Tomlin very sensibly decided to make the one practice in a short week non-padded, which takes care of one of the three weeks they have to go without a padded practice. (Under the “new” CBA you can only have 13 padded practices during the entire regular season.)
  2. The offense was forced to adjust to a left-handed quarterback with a very different skill set, also in one practice on a short week. As a result about three-quarters of the playbook was thrown out to make the game plan.
  3. A young, growing defense lost one of their big playmakers after Week 2 and has continued to make major steps forward in most areas anyhow. The biggest shortcoming of the past few years defensively has been “splash plays”—sacks, pressure, forced fumbles, and interceptions. Last year and this after Game 4 the Steelers had the following:

Defense through Game 4

Obviously there is plenty of room for growth, but this represents improvement in every category, especially given the first game this season was against the Great Tom Brady. [Update: I originally posted an incorrect version of this, showing only 9 sacks—this is even more awesome!]

So I believe that if we look at the situation as it stands for the Steelers this morning we actually aren’t in anything like 2nd and 98. We’re still very much in it in the division, although it would be thoughtful of the Bengals to actually lose once in a while. And looking at the next several opponents, they are scarcely unbeatable. There are a tremendous number of playmakers on this team, and yes, on both sides of the ball.

And there is a reinforcement coming with Martavis Bryant’s return to the team, although he may not appear in Sunday’s game. I’ll probably have more to say on that later, but the short version is, the Steelers are going to make him earn his place on the roster. Wisely so, in my opinion. There’s no better way to make him see what he could be losing than to not have it given to him as a birthright. This is possibly an even easier call since he will have had essentially no reps at all with Michael Vick and no experience in a Vick-led offense. In the end, though, if they think it gives them the best chance to beat the Chargers, I expect he will play.

I haven’t seen an injury report for this week, or post-game for that matter, although I believe Marcus Wheaton left the field during the game. But Ryan Shazier and Daniel McCullers both practiced yesterday, which would also provide another big boost. And I’m seeing lots of reports that Ben is on schedule to return for the Chiefs game, which would mean he was only out for three games. If this is true, and Ben is truly ready to play (unlike the infamous Sprain Game he played in San Francisco in 2011) this would be huge news. It would represent the very best-case scenario.

I may be still in the Denial phase, but I like to think I’ve gone through to Acceptance. The Steelers are highly unlikely to win all of the upcoming Ben-less games, but I think they will be competitive in any they may lose and may even pull off an upset or two. They almost did last Thursday.

I concluded my game notes from which I wrote the recap with this remark— “What it is to have a reliable kicker.” I had a moment of covetousness as I saw the entire Ravens team watch Justin Tucker kick from 52 yards, secure in the knowledge the game was in the bag. What we now have in a kicker, we don’t actually know. I would vote for just getting touchdowns, and hope to ease him in.

But in life, and the NFL, you play the hand you’re dealt, unless you’re the Patriots and have an extra deck of cards secreted up your sleeve. The Steelers’ coaches are working on a plan to win with the cards they now hold. So for the moment I’m going to assume the situation is a much more manageable 2nd and 18, or even 8…

12 comments

  • Great post, Momma. I, too, see reason for hope. It’s one of the reasons why the opinions and comments of a large section careen from Super Bowl (a al post 49er win) to “fire the OC or Coach” (a la after most losses), are so tiresome.

    This team is on its way to returning to Super Bowl contention. I don’t know if that will happen this year, but it will happen this year or next, barring catastrophic injuries. The defense played better in game four than I thought it would this year. The defensive line is close to spectacular. The return of Shazier should improve the run defense immensely. Sean Spence played well, but he is not Shazier, who’d inane in the first two games. The secondary is shaping up after a rocky start in New England. So much so that Boykin cannot get on the field. They are playing far better than I would have predicted three weeks ago.

    Your defense of Vick makes sense. The lack of reps with the first team and a short week would not be in a success recipe for Vick in a huge rivalry game.

    My only real concern is the new kicker. Since I believe this team can contend this year, I would have gone with a safer choice. Nick Novak, Connor Barth, Caleb Sturgis, Shayne Graham and others are out there. I’d just be looking for somebody who can make a 41 yard FG with the game on the line. That said, I’ve learned to trust the Steelers when it comes to judging talent. That said, I’ll be holding my breath on Boswell’s attempts until he proves himself.

    Using Rebecca’s yardstick, I’ll call it 2nd and 6.

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    • In re the defense – all true, and Sean Spence was even on Peter King’s Special Teams players of the Week for his snuffing out of the fake punt. (Scobee was on the other side of the list IIRC : (

      And as for the kicker, I think the Steelers are over used kickers, and willing to kick the tires on a young guy. (For that matter, if they believe Ben will only be out another couple of weeks that could certainly make them even more willing to take a chance on a long-term replacement for Suisham, as sad as that would make me. But then I cried when Daniel Sepulveda was cut, too…)

      And check out the sacks chart – I just updated it, as I realized it was wrong…

      And as for the “fire the coach” business, I think we can all be grateful that the Steelers bosses don’t have the kind of itchy trigger finger so much of the fan base does. That’s what makes the Browns so weird (and perhaps now the Dolphins) – it’s like the team is run by a fan site.

      Liked by 2 people

  • Can you imagine the Steelers run by the “sky is falling” Pittsburgh fans?

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  • lets not even go there…

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  • Go Cards!

    I believe Ben is going to be back sooner rather than later, definitely hoping the big guy makes it back for the game at Kansas City. Then Michael Vick leading our team will just seem like a bad dream we had to endure on the way to our seventh Lombardi trophy.

    Like

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