On Second Thought: Browns vs. Steelers
by Ivan Cole
Did the Steelers just turn a corner?
This was a good win for everyone except, perhaps, Landry Jones. There are at least two major reasons for that which will be examined here. The first has to do with what distinguishes this from all but one other the game played this season.
Ugly but Easy
Would you have preferred a pretty loss? How about a pretty win where everything is in doubt until the last five seconds when someone makes or misses a field goal, for example, while you’re mainlining your anti-depressant/sedative of choice?
This is my way of saying that easy is good regardless of how it’s achieved. Would it have been more honorable if we had vanquished a foe who proved better able to capably defend themselves and their interests? I guess. But what, pray tell, do you believe makes bad teams bad? And there wasn’t any debate over whether the Browns are bad. They did their thing this afternoon, and as I write this there are buses heading toward Cleveland on the Ohio Turnpike with much self-medicating going on, while Browns fans gaze at Lake Erie with covetous eyes. Just jump in, allow yourself to slip beneath the surface and all the pain goes away. To which I say, better them than us. [And to which Rebecca says, Hold on, Clevelanders! There’s always baseball season!]
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.
It has been said time and again that unless you are so bad you lose contact with the race altogether, what happens during the first two months of the season really doesn’t matter that much. This appears to be something that many of us are destined to unlearn and relearn yearly; something for which the marketers at the NFL must be grateful. Even though it occupies a much more condensed timeline than baseball or basketball, it is still about making the playoff run at the end.
There are teams like the Bengals and Panthers who have guaranteed their inclusion into the tournament based on their performance to date. But today’s Patriots/Giants game should serve as a reminder that a team whose overall resume has been mediocre but gets hot at the right time can derail the most magnificent of runs by the more consistently successful.
The teams which have been impressive are not scary at this point. Other teams who seemed so invincible a few short weeks ago—Green Bay and Denver for example—look to be moving in the wrong direction. Still others that we thought might be major forces this year, such as Seattle and Kansas City, never seriously got on track. Maybe they will, maybe not.
Where does this put Pittsburgh? A two game winning streak heading into the Bye. And has any team needed to reach this oasis more? They have survived not one, not two, but several potential kill shots—two on Ben alone. We are not talking about the loss of so-called rank and file players, although there have been enough casualties there as well. No, they have lost multiple All Pro caliber players, and have not spent one second this season at anywhere near full strength on offense. Yet their offensive production individually and collectively is often prodigious and record setting.
Their loses have been frustrating in a sense but in no way implausible; nothing like last year’s games against the Raiders or the Jets. While a precious few players are lost for the duration, others will now have an extended opportunity to rest and heal for the stretch run, most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If nothing else, Roethlisberger demonstrated today that he can and will be present and accounted for in Seattle in two weeks, something that was unclear as recently as a few hours ago. Watch this week as the Steelers likely rise in the power rankings and probably remain there until at least the first week of December. The fact is, Pittsburgh’s chances are at this juncture are as good as anyone’s.
The other reason this was a good win is that Steelers Nation will be able to enter the holiday season in a state of relative optimism. I have to be careful to call it ‘relative’ because of that talent we have to find something to stress about. I’m guessing clock management will be top on someone’s list. But the fact is if you have a sour taste in your mouth this Thanksgiving, you really can’t blame the Steelers for that. You’ve got other issues.
A ‘Hit’ on Jones?
If you are of a conspiratorial bent, then you might find plenty to chew on concerning the unfortunate injury that befell Landry Jones. Someone (well…actually, it was me) thought there was something fishy about this afternoon’s scenario.
As Bill Steinbach and others pointed out, if Ben wasn’t healthy enough to start, he shouldn’t have been active at all. Having him as a backup made no sense. Regardless of what Ben’s actual condition was, letting him attempt to play just appeared unwise. Cleveland was a weak team, and though I wouldn’t go as far as others who felt a victory should have been a fait accompli even with a backup (even with Landry) it seemed the smart move for a home game just before the Bye.
However, Ben insisted he could go, and head coach Mike Tomlin stated that they would leave the door “ajar” (wink, wink) for Roethlisberger. Ben would dress but would not start, meaning he could not play unless something happened to Jones. Of course when most of us heard that our thoughts immediately defaulted to ‘incompetence’, not injury.
So what happens? Just moments into the game, Marcus Gilbert who is the team’s Jedi Master in the art of injuring your own teammates—just ask David DeCastro—just happens to take out Landry. The door that was ‘ajar’ is now wide open and in walks Ben, who coincidentally happened to be in the neighborhood, in uniform and on the active list. Michael Vick was in street clothes and according to league rules strictly a spectator. The only other possibility was Heath Miller. And though we all love Heath, our love is nowhere near that unconditional.
(Later in the game, Brett Keisel is being interviewed on the sidelines, and volunteers that Ben is so competitive that when he’s not winning he resorts to “whining”.)
So Ben, reluctantly I’m sure, enters the fray in an attempt to fill the gap created by his fallen teammate. [Oh, it was reluctant all right. I think he broke the world record for leaping off a bench and grabbing a football.]
Now Rebecca will tell you that she held her head in her hands in dismay at the possibility that Ben would now be in harm’s way. But I suspect that she and thousands of other Steelers fans already had their heads in their hands not knowing quite to expect with a Jones vs Manziel face off. As I remember it, when Ben took the field the first time it appeared to me that most fans were prostrating themselves and expressing their ‘dismay’ at the top of their lungs. [Most fans are not as caring as I am, and as concerned about a father and family man. And about the rest of the season…]
And then the Steelers made do with this back up situation by setting records, and in spite of the best efforts of some to mess up, generally eviscerated Cleveland. Funny how these things turn out sometimes.
Come Home Dri. All is Forgiven.
On paper it looked like replacing Archer with Jacoby Jones would be a no brainer. And now it is. Right now I say we swear off players name ‘Jones’ for a bit. And if somehow they decide to bring Dri back I think he deserves a certain grace period from the ‘get rid of him’ crowd. Don’t you?
They gave up nine points. And six of those probably don’t occur if the offense hadn’t coughed up the ball and given Cleveland a short field after the defense had been on duty for over nine minutes.
In going over the performance with Homer J we reached consensus on the following:
- Solid defensive line play by Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steve McLendon and a surprisingly mobile Daniel ‘Shade Tree’ McCullers.
- Big plays and intimidation from Lawrence Timmons, what appears a returning to form for Ryan Shazier.
- Impressive, disruptive play from Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree.
But even with all that, the most impressive group was the secondary. Mike Mitchell might be stylistically infuriating to some, but you absolutely can’t argue with the quality of his play as he added yet another key interception as the highlight. Will Allen also initiated a turnover. I don’t believe that Antwon Blake was even targeted today.
If not sabotaged by misplay by the offense of special teams, they show the capacity for championship caliber defense. And the original thought that they would be doing their best work later rather than sooner still seems to be the case.
You take away Maurkice Pouncey and Le’Veon Bell. You’ve had Martavis Bryant only part of the time and Ben has only been available in pieces. But you still have Antonio Brown. And sometimes, amazingly, that’s more than enough. You want to be upset about the flip in the end zone, but then he sticks that landing and you just come off seeming like a killjoy. One is only left to wonder, a little sadly, what it would be like if this offense had been able function at full strength. [Luckily, Ben made him promise not to do it again, so we don’t have to be the killjoys.]
He showed another chink in his armor by botching an extra point attempt. But perfect might be too amazing to deal with.
In summary, 6-4 is a nice, hopeful place to be heading into the Bye. With the Seahawks and Broncos struggling, the Ravens and Browns drowning and Andrew Luck likely to be out, the path ahead does not appear nearly as daunting as it might have a couple of months ago. If the worst is over with the bad luck then we can look forward to quite the ride for the last third of the season.