On Second Thought: Browns vs. Steelers

photo: Steelers.com

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?

The Defense

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.

Antonio Brown

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.]

Chris Boswell

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.

16 comments

  • I probably don’t need to leave a comment, since I took the liberty of leaving them within the article : ), but I will say that one of the things I love about your articles is how you help us all see the big picture. As fans we get so focused on the minutiae.

    Interesting conspiracy theory. One could argue that Antonio Brown paid Marcus Gilbert to do the deed. After all, given his history, no one would think twice. Except for Bob Woodward Ivan Cole…

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  • Still not sure how I feel about Ben being active yesterday. Turned out to be the right decision with how the game unfolded, but people would be screaming from the mountain tops if Ben had re-injured his foot. Me thinks Tomlin and Ben might have been playing a little opossum.

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    • I don’t agree that he was playing possum. I do think that the coaches realize that 50% of Big Ben is better than whatever is left of Mike Vick.

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      • What we’ve learned here is that Ben could get out of a sickbed on Christmas Day, take the cast off his foot, and still go 21 for 26, 300 yards and three TD’s. And he’s far, far better getting out of that sickbed than MIke Vick or Landry Jones are at 100%. And that’s not meant as a knock on them…..It just shows how good the Drama Queen really is. Don’t believe me? Ask the Diesel. Da Beard never lies.

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      • I agree. I think that the they wanted to keep Ben from playing if they could so that he would have a couple more weeks to heal. But they had to be realistic, it was a division game and an AFC game that could be big in tie breakers for the playoffs. So if Jones did OK , no problem and if not Ben could come in.

        I read things from a lot of people saying that they wanted Ben to be healthy because we need him for Seattle, but in the grand scheme this one was more important.

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    • I don’t like the idea of a QB that good being a backup, if they aren’t healthy enough to play then they shouldn’t dress.

      However, not every situation is clean cut, and if Ben really was ready but Landry has prepared all week then okay, give Landry his shot and if Ben doesn’t have to play all the better. As long as Ben can protect himself you can’t deactivate him. The Universe refuses to see Ben back up anyone.

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      • If I understood what I heard correctly, the problem was, it didn’t look like Ben would be fit enough to dress early in the week, and later in the week he spent most of his time in the training room and with the scout team. So he wasn’t really up on the game plan. It was the main reason they went to so much no-huddle.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Regarding the team surviving several ‘kill shots’. I know it won’t happen, Steeler Nation being what it is, but this season should provided enough proof as to whether Mike Tomlin is a good coach or not. There have been individual decisions to question — Did they stick with Vick too long? — but they only start a debate, none are open and shut against the man. Others will prefer to give credit to the assistant coaches. However, Tomlin has demonstrated that it is his will… his steel bands.. that hold the team together and moving forward. His ability to integrate other coaches into the system, to have players believe that the cliche of ‘next man up’ actually holds water in Pittsburgh, his convictions that seem unshakeable (he doesn’t live in his fears. we like to laugh about it but… the results are pretty good, eh?).

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    • I know man, you start the year with, “This defense is a joke, there’s no talent on it, everyone’s a bum, Fire Tomlin!” Move to “The defense is too good to have Antwon Blake starting, where’s Boykin? Fire Tomlin!”

      No matter what he does, unless he somehow wins a Super Bowl without Ben Tomlin will be the guy who can’t be good enough.

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  • You guys are preaching to the choir here. If you want a real time example of how things could have gone this season go to Dallas. Some in the Nation are like that parent or in law whose only comment concerning an otherwise wonderful Thanksgiving feast is go on and on about how the mashed potatoes were a little soggy. If the meal was perfect then its ‘Hopefully you do as well as this for Christmas’. Their power is in withholding approval.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Or the fans of the Ravens who are sitting at 2-7 after being one of the best teams in the NFL last season. If living in Baltimore isn’t bad enough, that has to be like Santa taking away Christmas.

      Thanks for putting everything into perspective and I for one feel really good about this Steelers team and where it is heading. The defense is ahead of schedule and the offense is amazing. This just might be the year where it all comes together.

      Liked by 1 person

  • If Arizona takes care of the Bengals next week, the AFC North crown may be back on the table.

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    • Toronto Steeler Fan

      This is highly unlikely even now, injuries notwithstanding.

      If we win out (go 6-0 from here to the end of the season), they would have to go 4-3 for us to have even records (not sure how the tie breakers would come out). I don’t see three losses for them right now given that the toughest part of their schedule is now over, and my guess is that we don’t go 6-0.

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  • “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.”

    There is a lot of truth to this.

    Heck, the 2013 Steelers started 2-6 and were a botched call on a field goal (and a BS call in OT) from the playoffs.

    Let’s also remember that these late season fades as we may be seeing from Denver and/or Green Bay are also nothing terribly new. During the final 5 or 6 seasons of Don Shula’s tenure, it seemed like the Dolphins would almost always make 6-2 or 7-1 starts only to finish 9-7.

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