Approaching the Finish Line: Steelers Down the Stretch
by Ivan Cole
Life got in the way so I never got around to doing a third quarter report on 2015 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With three games still remaining in the regular season as I write it remains to be seen if this will be a story of triumph or tragedy. It remains almost equally possible that this team could appear in the Super Bowl or miss the playoffs entirely. But regardless of the outcome it is likely to go down as a remarkable year. And I think some long term trends that will define the franchise for years to come have been revealed.
Earlier in the year I revealed a premonition that this might be a special year for the Steelers. That seemed like so much wishful thinking in October, but amazingly, in December the potentialities not only remain in place, but is being verified from a number of different quarters. Now that we have most of the body of work for this season under their belts three things stand out about the Steelers.
Not nearly so flawed
That was the assessment by the friends of the team prior to the start of the season. The offense would be okay, and it would have to be because the defense would be unpalatable early, but would, hopefully, settle into something more tolerable toward the end of the year. Thirteen games have been played this season and opponents have only scored 30 or more points on the defense twice (one win, one loss). They held the opposition to under 20 points a game six times (four times under 14 points), with one of those occasions being a loss. It’s fair to say that for the first two months of the season, while the offense sputtered due to injuries and suspensions, the defense was the rock that held it together enough for the Steelers to have the opportunity it currently enjoys. Does it remind anyone of the best Pittsburgh defenses? No. Not yet. But I bet even Stevie Wonder can see the potential here.
Coping with injuries
Earlier in the season we were freely using the term “snake bitten” to describe the injury challenges this team has faced. This after a couple of somewhat more favorable seasons on this front after team president Art Rooney II declared that the Steelers needed to get a handle on these things. Subsequently, even with the myopia that afflicts Steelers Nation, we have come to the realization that injuries have become a pox on pretty much every house in the NFL. With that in mind, what stands out about the Steelers is that many of their top of the line players were effected (the franchise quarterback knocked out of four + games, two All Pros and the starting left tackle still sidelined), they have handled it better than most. And, in spite of these losses, they are still being touted by some as the best team in the league. Certainly the most dangerous.
Tomlin teams are December teams
As Anthony Defeo of BTSC wrote last week, the Steelers under Mike Tomlin (the 2009 ‘unleash Hell’ misfire excluded) have been playing their best ball during the month of December. And just like you would want the Pirates to be playing at their best in September and the Penguins in April, timing is important. Nitpickers and know nothings will ask why don’t they play that way all the time. Occasionally they do. Three of the six Steelers Super Bowl Champions, and more notably, the two Super Bowl losers, were good wire to wire teams. But three other winners (one each under Noll, Cowher and Tomlin) struggled throughout the season and triumphed late. What may be even more noteworthy is not just those teams who become winners after early struggles, but those that salvage respectability after terrible beginnings. The textbook example is the 2013 season. The Steelers began with four losses, then recovered sufficiently that another team’s missed field goal in the last game of the season kept them out of the playoffs. Compare it to this season’s Baltimore Ravens, whose solace is the prospect of a high draft choice.
Front office and coaching
Honestly, how do you like the Steelers brain trust now? Let’s put aside for the moment that there are four legit All Pro caliber players (Roethlisberger, Pouncey, Brown and Bell) and a slew of pro bowl potential players on the roster that regularly picks in the lower half of the draft. The story of this season is not them. It’s about DeAngelo Williams, Mike Mitchell, Alejandro Villanueva, Ross Cockrell, Chris Boswell, and, perhaps even Brandon Boykin before it’s all said and done. It’s also about wisely bring back Will Allen, Will Gay and Matt Spaeth. And, yes, I haven’t forgotten Josh Scobee and Jacoby Jones. Which just goes to show that no one’s perfect. But only a Scrooge would not acknowledge that the hits have far outnumbered the misses, or would use the few misses as the foundation for an overall negative assessment to Steelers leadership.
I think it is fair to say this season they have needed every single roster spot in order to succeed. The fact that they have is a testament to the ability to procure, develop and place talent where it can contribute in a positive manner. Only a very small number of franchises can lay claim to that level of genius. The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of them.
Hate him if you want, but with the achievement of both his 90th victory and the assurance of a ninth non-losing season, good luck with any thoughts that increasingly weak complaints about his leadership will gain any traction in the near term. He is no small part of the reason that Pittsburgh is a preferred destination for many players, not a small competitive advantage.
His staff seems pleased to be here even though many of them could probably be head coaches elsewhere. There are no off field issues with this team. None. His teams remain consistently motivated and focused. They are now the least penalized team in the league. He and his team will eat an injustice rather than become distracted by the drama. In other words, he runs an utterly professional outfit.
On the other side of the equation there is what? Clock management? And..so what? Humor me. How many games would we have won this year if we had 30 more seconds or another timeout? Talk about reaching.
What were we complaining about concerning the defense in recent years? Bad tackling. Inability to stop long runs or longer passes. Not generating turnovers. The secondary was ‘terrible’ and the linebackers weren’t what they used to be.
Let’s start at the supposedly weakest point, the secondary. The approach is clearly unsatisfactory to those of us who would prefer the comfort of piling up a bunch of three and outs, but as was pointed out earlier, only three teams have scored more than 25 points against the Steelers thus far, and all the offensive juggernauts are behind them at this point. Half of the opponents have scored less than 20. Three ten or less. Not 1976, but not chopped liver either.
So, let’s imagine what the situation might have been if Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson had not been lost to injury, not non-performance mind you. As I have pointed out previously, for many of us injury is considered a form of non-performance and not forgivable. Think of Ryan Shazier, who is doing just fine when he plays, but irritates the hell out of some due to his absences.
The point is, whatever shortcomings this unit may display could have more to do with circumstances due to injuries and development curves than an absolute absence of talent. So imagine the Steelers are more patient than many of their fans, and it turns out that Cortez, rather than being finished, returns healthy and to form. Imagine also that Golson and Doran Grant make developmental leaps as well as Cockrell and Robert Golden. Consider Shamarko Thomas a bonus. Now how does it look?
The linebackers are looking to be an embarrassment of riches, from the youngest, Bud Dupree, to the oldest James Harrison, who wants to play out his contract which has one year remaining. Anyone have a problem with that? I would say hats off to Joey Porter in particular for the development of this group.
I wouldn’t say that Brett Keisel is forgotten, but the play of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt is such that he is not really missed. Steve McLendon has been solid and Daniel McCullers promises to be more than an oddity. Actually, Villanueva has replaced him as the big man on the team anyway.
The decision to move on to Keith Butler looks better every day.
The truly exciting thing about this defense is that their best days as individuals and a unit are still well in front of them. Harrison and Will Allen could be said to be in decline. And wouldn’t we all want to decline like they have? Beyond that only Lawrence Timmons, Mitchell and Gay could be said to be at their peak. The rest haven’t maxed out yet. This late season run should help.
This side of the ball didn’t follow the predicted script and fire out of the gate. But, better late than never, they hit their stride in the third quarter in spite of the absence of Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum and injury hiccups for Heath Miller, Ben and Spaeth. What has been impressive is that for almost any other team these types of losses might pull the entire enterprise off the rails. Instead Pittsburgh is averaging 30+ points a game for the first time in forever. Their toughest test lies ahead in the form of the number one ranked Denver defense. If the ‘O’ keeps rolling then the rest of the league may have to order diapers.
Remember the Ben/Todd Haley soap opera? Well, these two are apparently finishing each other’s sentences now. Could you double that order of Depends?
On the quarterback front, Ben, as many predicted earlier, is now playing the best ball of his career, and the widespread recognition of that is slowly arriving. The only area of concern is keeping him upright and healthy. And herein lies the problem. In one respect the decision to not fine Vontaze Burfict (though I now understand has been reversed) for what looked to me to be a fairly transparent attempt to jack Ben comes as no real surprise. The rules for the Steelers in these matters have been so consistently on a different level that Steelers Nation may be disgusted, but no longer surprised by such outcomes.
But here’s the thing; in knowing that you can go after Ben in a manner that would never be tolerated with a Tom Brady of a Peyton Manning, and not be either flagged in the moment or even fined later, you create the incentive for defenders to push the envelope in attacking him. And, therefore, create a greater chance for injury.
[And Rebecca reminds everyone that Mark Barron did not receive either a penalty or fine for the hit on Roethlisberger. Here’s what the NFL’s own website said at the time:
Barron appeared to stumble on his own and did not appear to be blocked to the ground before the contact. Barron told reporters in St. Louis that “I tripped over somebody’s feet and on my way down I caught a piece of his leg.” If anything, his actions fit the description of a “lunge” followed by a forcible hit to the passer. Referee John Hussey’s crew did not call a penalty. Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating and now a Fox analyst, said he believes that one should have been called. The NFL routinely reviews coaches’ tape of all games and frequently issues fines for plays that weren’t penalized during the game.
And yet, no penalty, no fine. But it’s Roethlisberger which makes it okay… </rant/>
Staying with the quarterbacks, we learned that though Landry Jones wasn’t as bad as we feared, that doesn’t mean you want to see him on the field any time before next August. Intuition tells me that Michael Vick is similar to Byron Leftwich in that he may be of greater value in the locker room than on the field. A respected (among the players) veteran presence who has leadership experience at a high level. And given his recent activity with the Pennsylvania Legislature probably a better citizen now generally than he will probably ever be given credit for by many.
But the bottom line remains the same—Ben goes down, so does Steelers Nation.
The interesting thing about the running game is Bell’s absence probably has more to do with a reduction of the entertainment value of the Steelers ground attack than it does for its competitive effectiveness. Williams, so far, has been everything that we had hoped Legarrette Blount could be as a complement to Bell, with none of the toxic side effects. The concern with Williams as the season wears on is whether the 32 year old can hold up. So far so good.
The other impact of the absence of Bell is that Antonio Brown gets a bigger share of the stage, and he has proven he’s definitely up for that challenge. Richard Mann’s receiver corps continues to be one of the great stories of sustained excellence.
Emmanuel Sanders is doing pro bowl caliber work at Denver. Jerricho Cotchery is doing great, significant work with the undefeated Carolina Panthers. Nate Washington is still getting a starters paycheck in Houston. Mike Wallace is, well, somewhere. In spite of those players having moved on, is there any doubt that the Steelers receivers are the best group in the league?
Brown’s greatness and Martavis Bryant’s potential and performance is well documented. In the third quarter Markus Wheaton has been catching up. Darrius Heyward-Bey continues to contribute effectively after filling in significantly earlier in the year when Bryant wasn’t available. And the only problem with Sammie Coates is that there aren’t enough balls and helmets to go around.
The big surprise at tight end was Jessie James washing off the stink of his Hall of Fame game debut and establishing himself as a solid heir to Miller.
But I think my favorite story on this side of the ball is the play of the offensive line. You lose your All Pro center, your rising left tackle, a pair of developments that coach Mike Munchak called unique to his experience, and the unit play has suffered to the point that Marcus Gilbert gave up a sack in last Sunday’s Bengals game. It was his first of the season. Villanueva is causing people to say ‘Kelvin Who?’ And have you heard the rumors that Pouncey may be back before the end of the season?
There have been a couple of skunks at this picnic, both from this side of the ball. Jacoby Jones accomplished the near impossible. He transformed Dri Archer into a sympathetic and desirable figure. Still, despite his best efforts, Jones had no chance in overtaking Josh Scobee in terms of the enmity and trauma foisted upon Steelers Nation.
On the other hand the kicking game as handled by Jordan Berry and the surprising Chris Boswell has been solid, very good actually. And, as we all know, the misfortunes of Jones has led to one of the more entertaining moments of the 2015 season as Antonio Brown returned to fielding punts.
It would be a genuine shame for the Steelers to not have the opportunity to see what they could accomplish in the playoffs. A run of any kind would be an important developmental step for this generally young team. And, frankly, if this league is about entertainment, the act coming out of Pittsburgh may be one of the best bets going.