On Second Thought: Steelers vs. Browns
Lazarus rising (a nod to Homer)
PaVaSteelers turned to me at the end and said, “I didn’t expect this.” And to be brutally honest, neither had I. My plan for today was a perfunctory “Second Thought” piece, followed by a very nice post mortem of the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers season.
Let me be clear now. I wasn’t drinking any of the Kool Aid that essentially said the loss in Baltimore was proof positive of the dysfunction of the Tomlin regime. I wasn’t that angry.
But any real hope for a positive outcome and a playoff berth today meant I had to place my faith in Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills. Uh, no. I wasn’t going to consciously court that particular variety of misery.
Bill S. and Homer were also present, one of the few times that the four of us were in the same place to take in a game this season. Appropriate, in that this was the last game of the regular season (the playoffs are promised to no one), and it was just good manners to come to the funeral and pay your respects while the plug is being pulled. Not that improbable events don’t occur on the last day of the season. We had borne witness to such a thing two years earlier.
At the end of the 2013 season the Steelers, after losing their first four games, were amazingly still in the running for a playoff spot, but a combination of events that would make Rube Goldberg proud would have to transpire to make it happen.
The easiest part would be to defeat the Browns at home, which Pittsburgh accomplished. Also the Miami Dolphins would have to win, which they did. And in the most unlikely occurrence of all, the Bengals would have to defeat a Baltimore Ravens team whose playoff chances also hung in the balance that day.
We stayed in the sports bar watching as Cincinnati did just that. It was a joyful moment as we celebrated the Steelers’ victory simultaneously with the Ravens being struck dead. We parted company happy in the knowledge that the only remaining obstacle to the promised land of the playoffs was a victory by the Kansas City Chiefs, at home, in the late game against San Diego.
Then Ryan Succop happened.
So the expectations for today started out low, and became lower as Antonio Brown fumbled early. Stuck on the season long notion that high entertainment value involves cliff hangers and angst, the Steelers didn’t gain control of the game until the fourth quarter. Meanwhile Buffalo had been leading throughout against the Jets.
But we’re Steelers Nation. We know this is what God does to those whom He/She intends to shatter. And yet Pittsburgh and Buffalo each kept getting turnovers, and scoring, in the case of the Bills, just enough points to stay out of reach. Time and opportunity was rapidly shrinking for something to go catastrophically wrong.
And then I saw something both strange and wonderful. As the desperate attempts in the final seconds by the Jets to save their season were failing, a television shot of celebrating fans in Buffalo showed three overjoyed black and gold clad Steelers fans within their midst.
Not far away in Cleveland, the Steelers got word of their entry into the playoffs from the wild cheering of Steelers fans in, yet, another enemy stadium. Finally, we ran out of reasons to be sad or cynical.
But we are nothing if not resourceful. So let us review some of the bad things that we can all have heartburn over as we prepare for the first stage of the post season.
DeAngelo Williams and the Running Game
There has existed an easy consensus that the one player the Steelers could not do without is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I am currently unaware of any attempt to develop a depth chart in this category, but D-Will would certainly have been on the short list for number two. After a few weeks of successful bullet dodging on the injury front we rolled snake eyes. We are unclear as of this writing if we will experience a bout of déjà vu, with our playoff hopes resting unsteadily on the inexperienced legs of Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Brett Favre. That’s who I’ve figured out Ben reminds me of, particularly in Favre’s later years. A great talent who gives with one hand and takes away with the other, while we are left to helplessly hope that the giving hand is more proficient than the taking one.
Why worry about getting a first down when there is an opportunity to swing for the fences? It worked once today with Darrius Heyward-Bey, which only served to encourage him. Why exploit single coverage when you can attempt to thread the needle with double coverage? We’ve been subjected to this insanity for the third week now, and to be blunt, it is killing us. We may be left with no choice but to pray for the giving hand.
Keith Butler’s Self-Esteem Academy for Wayward Quarterbacks
Bottom feeding and marginally employed quarterbacks need love too. And though at first glance Butler’s “bend but don’t break” defense seems to be all too compliant, it deserves a closer look.
First of all, the defense has to battle two quarterbacks—that of the opposing team and their own. Second, in spite of it all, the Steelers end zone was not actually violated by the Browns.
What it all means is that there will be comfort gained by facing a second string quarterback this week. The Steelers have had their hands full with third and fourth stringers lately. But more to the point, they are probably not good enough to counter Roethlisberger. That is the real problem.
And the good news?
Whatever It Takes
The Tomlin Era mantra has been “The Standard is The Standard,” but the Chuck Noll mantra may be more apt for this team. “Resilient” is anything but a cliché when applied to this group. They have found a way, week to week, game to game, quarter to quarter, play to play to get it done.
10-6 is what almost everyone said was necessary and desirable to achieve playoff status. And that is what has been done. Certainly few if any would have predicted that this record would only be good enough for the last wild card slot, or the cliff-hanging, ulcer-producing method of getting there.
But I couldn’t disagree more vehemently with those who might argue the team doesn’t deserve their spot. They managed to accomplish exactly what was necessary to achieve the first portion of their goal. Opponents may still be reticent about playing Pittsburgh. Not because they are so overwhelming as to be unbeatable, but because in the final analysis to do what is necessary to succeed regardless of the obstacles is a quality that is almost as dangerous, perhaps even more so, in the current circumstances.
Really. Who do you think is more worried this week? Doesn’t mean that Pittsburgh will win, but you can be certain that the Steelers are almost certainly a team that the Bengals did not want to face unless and until they absolutely had to. No worries about altitude or chicanery in the first round. I’ll take it.
A Special Year?
I have abandoned the notion a number of times myself, but how many times has this team been written off and left for dead? The Baltimore game was just the latest instance of a team that appear destined for disappointment and failure.
And yet, here they are. The personnel losses have been too great, the defense too weak, the mistakes too plentiful. And now they are a flawed sixth seed who can’t possibly win.
And Lazarus could not possibly rise. The post mortem will have to wait.