At The Half: The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers
by Ivan Cole
This is the elephant in the room, not only for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, but for the NFL always. Whenever I engage in projecting what the team is capable of doing going forward, there is always the nod to humility, the ‘Lord willing, knock-on-wood’ homage to the fact of injuries rendering our hopes and dreams, plans, preparations and predictions null and void.
We have been carefully conditioned to demure when this pachyderm starts stomping around the room breaking furniture. It is considered cowardly and unseemly to speak of such things. Wimpy excuse making, right? If you are in anyway connected to the game as a player, coach, team official or ‘partner’ what else are you going to say? Clearly they don’t have a clue as how the injuries could be prevented or minimized. They’ve been trying. Bobby Mitchell, retired from the Washington franchise, was once quoted as saying that observing from the sidelines, he is surprised that the players are able to get up after every play, the level of violence being that intense.
I freely acknowledge that some of this is on me. I have become hyper-sensitized to the issue and it impacts my thinking. I mentioned in the game notes for the Bengals that I was the first in a room full of people to notice that Le’Veon Bell had been injured. The fact is I suspected it seconds before I saw him clutch his knee. How he collapsed to the turf and the ball fell out of his hands. And then, thinking about it over the last couple of days I realized that I was the first to realize that Ben had been injured. And Kelvin Beachum. And Maurkice Pouncey.
I also have developed an eye for when players have been hurt but manage to soldier on. We may lie to ourselves and each other, but the body does not, cannot. I notice how the bodies recoil or go limp from contact, how they fall, and linger on the ground, gathering themselves, buying time like a stunned boxer taking an eight count.
I invite you for a moment to take off your Steelers-colored glasses and consider how, besides the mundane championship aspirations of Cincinnati and a handful of other teams, Bell’s season ending injury benefits anyone with an interest, financial or emotional, in the NFL.
In the interest of being ecumenical, include Steve Smith Sr. and Reggie Bush to the list from this week’s games if you would like. Imagine the NBA without LeBron James or Stephen Curry. The NHL without Sidney Crosby. Yes, there would be professional basketball and pro hockey, but faded, the full flavor of the experience diminished. It’s the teams, yes, and the game as well, but it is also very much about the players.
Take, for example, Dallas and Pittsburgh. Here are two franchises with incredible national, even international followings, who were expected to generate a high level of interest this year as both had the makings of executing solid runs to the playoffs. But each have been crippled by key injuries to both their franchise quarterbacks and key playmakers.
Injuries part of the game? More than that. Injuries increasingly are the game. And the thing is, the league really is trying to mitigate against the violence, in part to stay one step ahead of the potential lawsuits, as well prevent its efforts to emphasize offensive production from being neutered, which in the case of the Steelers is exactly what has happened.
One is left to wonder what the body counts might be if all the various rule changes weren’t in place.
Are we approaching the point where the bodies and arms race are calibrated to the point that, like the line uttered by the computer in the 1980s Matthew Broderick vehicle “War Games” in reference to thermonuclear war, but applicable now to professional football—the only way to win the game is to not play.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. We have a defense capable of carrying this team deep into the playoffs. If we can keep the offense and special teams from screwing up, and perhaps, make some minimum contributions we’ll have a chance. Now lie to us and tell how you saw this coming.
The second quarter of the season was similar to the first in that the bottom line outcome (a .500 record) was the same. It was also similarly frustrating in that the issue in the two losses was not settled until the final moments. One is not a crazed and delusional homer to assert that it is possible that the record could be 7-1.
Some of the problems, like the suspensions and some turnovers, were self-inflicted, but so much was bad luck—injuries and the consequences of injuries. So we find ourselves in the peculiar position of being able to feel both hopeful and snake-bitten at the same moment. There are good things happening in the midst of horrible attrition.
Take Ben as an example. Injured but back. Played badly in his return, but will surely get better, assuming he can stay upright. It’s been that kind of year so far. They have to potential of getting to the Promised Land, provided everyone isn’t killed in route.
Coaching and front office
They have had their hits and misses exposed during this time, and to my eyes the former have far outnumbered the latter. While it is thoroughly unrealistic to interpret “the standard is the standard” to mean that you can plug any old player into the breach and expect to get the same results, for the most part the minimum level of talent and effort has been present in order for the team to be capable of playing winning football, though they have fallen short at times.
And, as has been the case in recent months, they are not standing pat. As they attempt to upgrade the return game, they have apparently terminated the Dri Archer experiment as I write this.
Let’s not overlook the possibility of being 1-7 at this point. If you are perverse enough that anything short of a perfect score on personnel matters leaves you desiring to engage in maximum criticism, then the point is conceded and have at it. But I believe that on balance the stewardship of the team culture by Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and their staffs is a key factor as to why the team is still in the hunt.
Though it was mentioned during the report for the first quarter, it is even clearer now decision making surrounding Keith Butler is at least as worthy of the high praise that was showered upon the acquisition of Mike Munchak last season. Smart move to not let him go.
Lost in the disappointment of the Bengals game was that, prior to when Ben gifted Cincy the ball not once, but twice on Pittsburgh side of the 50 late in the game, the defense had held one of the best teams in the league to 6 points.
There exists a certain purist mentality that takes offense to how this accomplished. Not enough three and outs, too much progress between the twenties. The questions come constantly—why do they allow other teams to dink and dunk on us? The answer is that the dinks and dunks, frustrating as they may be, don’t really hurt us that much at the end of the day.
If your template for defensive success is the Steel Curtain of the Seventies, or even of ten years ago, with its crushing level of dominance, then yes, they fall short. But it is worth questioning that given how the game is structure these days whether that sort of situation is even possible today.
And let’s not forget that we weren’t wrong in assessing that this is a young and growing unit that has not come close to peaking yet. But most importantly, as Bob Labriola has pointed out, they have shut down the big strike plays that were killing the defense over the past several years.
In the second quarter they stood toe to toe against offenses led by Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton and held their own despite being stabbed in the back by three different Steelers quarterbacks. The team won two of those games, and should have won all three.
In my mind the least remarked upon and under-appreciated play in this quarter is that Daniel McCullers, aka Shade Tree, successfully defensed a pass. That’s right. In Kansas City, near our own goal line, he dropped into coverage and knocked down a pass. There should have been some sort of ceremony. In my mind the only thing that might possibly top that is if Villaneuva caught a pass at mid field and took it to the house.
McCullers also started his first game at the nose this past week and we got a glimpse of an alignment that some had been talking about months ago. Moving Steve McLendon to the outside didn’t make me forget Stephon Tuitt, but was preferable in my mind to Cam Thomas.
Tuitt was missed, especially in the Chiefs game. Meanwhile, Cam Heyward continues to play out of his mind. It would seem to me that the ideal would be to have six roughly interchangeable parts on this line, particularly because the conditions thus far have demanded high energy for a number of plays per series. At the moment, when healthy, they could have five.
What the defensive line is looking to achieve in terms of depth the linebackers have accomplished. They have eight good ones and the rehabilitation of this unit seems close to complete.
The comment I have heard time and again during the first half of the season is that Bud Dupree appears to be ahead of schedule and is coming along nicely. On the other side the biggest issue for Jarvis Jones is that James Harrison refuses to go to that other side of the hill as scheduled. This raises the question that if he maintains his level of performance throughout the remainder of the season, is parting ways with Deebo a settled issue?
For the inside group the concern was the time it took for Ryan Shazier to get back on the field, raising questions in the minds of some about his physical durability. An alternative view might be that instead of having to rush him back and have him play hurt like many players in this league do, the presence of Sean Spence and Vince Williams gave the team the luxury to be able to wait.
Though they are not equally gifted, Timmons, like Heyward up front, ideally would be on the field for virtually every snap. And though I much prefer the Dupree/Harrison combo on obvious passing downs, I really am comfortable with any of these eight players at any time.
Here is the real success story of this defense, particularly when viewed from the perspective of getting the most out of the material available. Think about it—they are allegedly the least talented position group, with the most injury issues on this side of the ball. A bad combination of factors, in theory. What if during the summer you knew that Cortez Allen would be on IR, Will Allen would also be out, Shamarko Thomas would have issues of one sort or another, and so would Brandon Boykin. Available in their place would be Robert Golden, Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell. Who?!?
I don’t know about you, but I might be thinking that Heinz Field would be smothered in the pungent odor of burnt toast. That they might need a super computer to do the stats. 52-49, that’s the Steelers game, right?
Folks have been wanting to hate on Blake, but he battles, he hits a ton, and that goal line interception against the Bengals would have put him in the conversation for player of the game if it had been a victory. Some don’t like Mike Mitchell’s style, but it also evident why they wanted him here. He is not the gentleman Troy Polamalu was—who could be?—and the ostentatious nature of his belligerence will surely get him in trouble sometimes, like it did this past week, but I can assure you, coaches would rather have the problem of toning that kind of thing down than having to ramp it up. And there is also the matter of two interceptions.
And, once again, who is Ross Cockrell, and how many fans in Buffalo will be self- medicating themselves into oblivion this winter wondering how and why he got away? Remember when nearly everyone hated William Gay?
Has anyone been happy with the state of secondary since Rod Woodson left? But given the current state of affairs, and with Doran Grant coming off the practice squad and Senquez Golson still out there in the wings, is it possible that the situation in the secondary is better shape than many of us have assumed?
To be fair, the offense that was advertised to appear in 2015 has not and will not materialize. Our best offensive lineman (Pouncey) has yet to play a snap this season. Our starting left tackle is on IR. Our All Pro running back, after serving a suspension, is also now on IR. We have had to use every quarterback on the roster. Not a good sign, though it stops the conversation as to why we are ‘wasting’ a roster spot on a third quarterback.
The second best receiver served a lengthy suspension and missed another game to injury for good measure. For one quarter last week, they were back together, and that’s ignoring that two of five offensive line starters were not there and quarterback was rushed back into action. Otherwise we were at full strength.
It would have been nice to experience what that offense would have been like. Maybe next year.
But once you recalibrate the expectations there can be good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the second half. I would argue the current situation isn’t too dissimilar to that of 2008 when we won our last championship.
Two of five offensive line starters, including the best of the group, were missing most of the year. They were down to their third running back most of the season. When considering the quality of the surviving starters as well as that of the replacements, this year’s team is in much better shape. They won’t be the juggernaut we were hoping to see (a genuine shame), but they will be capable of playing winning football, particularly if the defense can maintain their present level of performance.
I think both Michael Vick and Landry Jones have been judged more harshly than they deserve. Vick’s shortcomings are real—that’s why he’s a backup—but it should not be forgotten that there was a winning effort in San Diego with him at the helm, and the Ravens loss was in no way his fault. Jones accomplished against the Cardinals what you hope a third string quarterback could do, and more. Against Kansas City he was saddled with a starter’s responsibilities and he couldn’t overcome his talent and experiential liabilities.
As for Ben, he probably came back at least a week too soon, but given the circumstances it’s a chance you have to take. At the end of the day we got more than we expected and should be grateful for that.
The second quarter of the season started with the Immaculate Extension and ended with Bell being driven out of the 2015 on a cart. Heartbreaking. With DeAngelo Williams as featured back we are downgrading to be sure, but we are going from great to good, as opposed to just serviceable.
Wide receivers and tight ends
These are the areas least impacted by the injury bug and other troubles. With Bell now gone they will receive greater emphasis.
Still solid to the point where you barely notice the losses.
What a difference a quarter makes. Although Jordan Berry has had a couple of hiccups, we have a level of comfort with the kicking game that approaches in most ways, and exceeds in some, what we had last season with the Suisham/Wing duo.
Will the addition of Jacoby Jones make a difference in the return game? Perhaps. But what this team needs the most going into the season’s third quarter is a period of reasonably good health. If they can have that I think everything else will take care of itself.