Heading Into Overtime: Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Fourth Quarter Report

USA Today Sports/Charles LeClaire photo

by Ivan Cole

Mission accomplished?

If you had polled the community as the beginning of the season approached and asked what the goals for the regular season are, the most likely answer would be:

  1. Double digit wins—10-6 at least
  2. Better if they can qualify for the playoffs, and
  3. Win the AFC North.

Can we accept that two out of three ain’t bad?

Now let’s continue the thought experiment. If you added the handicap of the following:

  1. Loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for all of three games and portions of three others due to injury. Second string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski lost for the entire year.
  2. Loss of All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell for two games due to suspension, and then most of one game and the final eight games of the season due to injury.
  3. Loss of three offensive linemen, including All Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum for the season.
  4. Loss of number two receiver Martavis Bryant for four games due to suspension and all of one and most of one more to injury.
  5. Loss of placekicker Shaun Suisham and his replacement for the entire season.
  6. Loss of starting cornerback Cortez Allen and second round draft pick Senquez Golson for the entire season due to injury.
  7. Loss of the following players for at least one game or more: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Roosevelt Nix, Michael Vick, Daniel McCullers, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Shaun Spence, Terence Garvin and Will Allen.

This put the Steelers in the position of having to negotiate the season at times with chewing gum, duct tape and Landry Jones, Alejandro Villanueva, Ross Cockrell, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Robert Golden, Jesse James and Fitzgerald Toussaint playing key roles for extended periods.

10-6 and the playoffs. Yeah, this team and their coaches suck.

A trade?

So, as we enter the post season I propose a solution for the chronically disgruntled segment of the Steelers fan base. We trade you to Cleveland. It would be a perfect fit, really. Cleveland needs to find replacements for those fans who have checked into mental hospitals or thrown themselves into Lake Erie out of despair.

The ex-Steelers fans, now bleeding Brown and Orange, would have endless legitimate things to complain about, and an ownership group and culture which seems congenitally predisposed to fulfilling their greatest desire—fire, cut, trade any and every one at the drop of a hat. They can feel sorry for those of us who remain—our six Lombardi trophies slick with tears as we suffer from incompetent ownership, management, coaching and players, limping into the playoffs somehow.

And what would Pittsburgh get in return? Tough. What does Cleveland have that we would possibly want? I tried an Australian mango a few days ago for the first time. A little pricey but quite good. I am sure that there is at least one store up there that sells them. One would do.

The fourth quarter through clearer eyes

Lord knows it’s tough maintaining perspective when our passions are so heavily engaged, but with the crushing disappointment of missing the playoffs altogether now avoided and the body of work for the 2015 regular season completed, what does a fresh look show us?

A sweep of the last four games would have been nice, of course, but I suspect most of us would have accepted a 3-1 record as more realistic and sufficient. What tripped people up was the distribution. The assumption was that the one loss would come at the hands of one of the two division winners (Cincinnati or Denver) on the schedule.

With Baltimore and Cleveland already penciled in as wins in our minds, fans, in spite of the obligatory ‘trap’ game warnings, relaxed after the better than expected results from the first two games. And if we didn’t exactly go as far as making Super Bowl reservations, our focus turned to probable playoff match ups.

I think it unlikely that the coaches or players consciously looked past the Ravens. What happened on a more unconscious level is unknown. But Steelers Nation, despite some of the rhetoric to the contrary, almost certainly did. And then as people are wont to do, we blamed our hurt feelings on the failings, perceived or not, of others.

The loss to the Ravens was then inflated to something well beyond just a tough upset to a determined rival, but a betrayal, a disaster and the smoking gun that the Tomlin Regime lacks what it takes to do whatever. Though, as others have pointed out, this was the only game that Pittsburgh lost when positioned as favored, the storyline now takes hold that the team consistently fails against inferior opposition. And who, besides the Steelers, does that?

How about New England?

The Patriots, the one franchise that many Steelers fans envy as a model of competitive success, has some explaining to do. The lesser failure was losing to the Broncos, who were playing their second string quarterback. They then lost to a Philadelphia team which is so dysfunctional that they didn’t even wait for the end of the season to fire their head coach. And for the grand finale, they drop their last two games to divisional opponents.

The first of two excuses made by their apologists is that they have been devastated by injuries. Poor babies! We wouldn’t know anything about that. The second is even more preposterous—that they were in such fear of a Steelers team they have already beaten this year that they took a dive to scuttle Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes. In so doing they lost their number one seeding, and in this last game got their franchise quarterback banged up. Yeah, that makes sense.

How about this—this is the NFL, ladies and gentlemen. It’s tough to win, tough to maintain an edge. Can one team be named that didn’t lose this season to what was deemed an inferior opponent when they played? Yet when the Steelers do, it is considered a crime against nature.

Getting back to perceptions, part of the problem is, our expectations of how the season should unfold is rooted in the past. Our evaluation of how the Steelers’ fortunes would play out were based upon assumptions that no longer hold. Every year some teams like the Pats or the Browns do as well as expected. Others do far better, like the Panthers, while others do much worse—Ravens and Colts, for example. Still others such as the Chiefs and Packers vacillate wildly.

Before the season began, a prediction that the Ravens would sweep the Steelers, particularly with Ben missing one game and Bell the other, would not seem at all outlandish. And how is losing to Ryan Mallett more peculiar than the Ravens losing to Charlie Batch at home during a Super Bowl run?

Was the October loss at Kansas City a matter of the Steelers succumbing to a team with a losing record, or was it an instance of going on the road against a playoff team who after a shaky start is now the hottest team in football? Losing with who is, in essence, your fourth string quarterback, with the outcome in doubt until the final two minutes? It’s a matter of spin, isn’t it?

Leadership

The running theme this year has been the stocking and development of the lower portion of the depth chart and the contributions of these players to this team clawing its way into the playoffs.

The Browns game was a good representation of how this has worked out. The recently (and I mean this week) returned Ross Ventrone pins Cleveland on their one yard line with his coverage of a punt. Anthony Chickillo forces a fumble on a kickoff that is recovered by Brandon Boykin. And let me contradict myself when I said that the situation at running back is a déjà vu of last year’s playoffs. Actually it is not. Last year we lost our number one back in the last game of the season with a shaky situation with backups. This year DeAngelo Williams is the backup. And it is a testament to the difference a year makes that we feel more stability and confidence with what is essentially the backups to the backup in Toussaint and Todman than we did last year.

How all this adds up in the minds of some as deficiency with the front office and coaching is beyond my comprehension. Again, the issue may be one of perception.

PaVa and others argue that we just don’t have the personnel, and that has to be the point of focus for the off season. My argument is, perhaps we do, but a great many of them are on IR, or otherwise dinged up. Is the problem a dearth of frontline talent or is the problem depth?

This makes a difference between trading up to attempt to make targeted infusions of high end talent, which PaVa favors, as opposed to continuing with more of a best player available approach.

At root the line divides between those who believe the issue revolves around a lack of talent in combination with systems deficiencies, which suggests problems with personnel procurement, and in turn leadership issues, as opposed to a lack of time, a development concern with a new system of defense, for example, and young talent, further exacerbated by injuries to top level players, slowing their development and the need for a longer curve for those who are lower level draft choices or free agents.

I favor the latter explanation. If I’m wrong, then the Steelers’ problems are that they are stubborn and ossified in their approach. If I am right, then by taking the approach that we don’t have enough and the solution lies outside of the building, so to speak, we are flirting with becoming Cleveland. Or, if you prefer, Philadelphia, where change is invoked as a superstitious elixir that supposedly cures all ills.

Quarterback

Any questions going into the season about the state of Ben’s abilities as well as his durability for the foreseeable future have been put to rest. Another set of issues have come to the fore, most notably in the fourth quarter, about Ben’s style of play. Tunch Illkin has summarized it nicely as high risk/high reward, speaking to Ben’s ability to execute high precision playmaking. However, it also comes with a margin of error that can be potentially devastating.

The question heading into the playoffs is whether Ben possesses the discernment to up the level of focus necessary to minimize the errors, either by improving the level of his execution or taking a more conservative approach in service of the higher value of maintaining ball security.

Fortunately, the situation down the depth chart was not a concern for the first time this season. Hopefully it will remain that way until the off season.

Running backs

The final proof of the wisdom of obtaining DeAngelo Williams was demonstrated in the fourth quarter. Neither production nor durability was an issue—the injury was bad luck. Whether his story is done for the season remains to be seen. Now, unless an unanticipated move is made, it will be the turn of Toussaint and Todman going into overtime.

Tight ends

Healthy as a group after a shaky third quarter. Their value best symbolized by Heath Miller, both catching a touchdown pass and also preventing two interceptions against the Browns.

Receivers

Antonio Brown finished demonstrating that he is anything but a one hit wonder. He also effectively stood in the gap, compensating for the continued loss of Le’Veon Bell, the inconsistency of Ben, and a comparatively underperforming quarter from Martavis Bryant.

Offensive line

The thing with this unit always is that you usually notice them when things aren’t going well. They weren’t noticed much in the fourth quarter. Ben generally had enough time, the running attack generally had enough room. Their biggest challenge came in the form of the Denver defensive front and they weathered it well.

Defensive line

The best news here was the return to form of Stephon Tuitt, who bookended the quarter with his critical interception in the Bengals game, which also inadvertently led to other challenges for Cincinnati, and his two sacks against Cleveland. The Pro Bowl snub of Cam Heyward was understandable on one level, but still unfair given the consistent quality of effort, leadership and results.

Linebackers

James Harrison’s goal line interception may have been the biggest play by this group in the fourth quarter. Most importantly, I have grown comfortable with having any of the eight players in the rotation on the field, something that was not true for me earlier in the season.

Defensive secondary

There is a bias of perception concerning this unit in particular and the defense in general that needs to be outed. There was complaining and moaning about these guys throughout the Cleveland game, yet in the end they only yielded 12 points and no touchdowns. William Gay also had a bookend type quarter with interceptions against the Bengals and the Browns. Robert Golden, Ryan Shazier, Will Allen and Arthur Moats were responsible for key turnovers as well, and Mike Mitchell and others might have had more if not struck with Ike Taylor disease.

In a number of statistical categories such as turnovers and sacks it is the best performance since the Super Bowl season of 2010. They have been positive difference makers in every win of this quarter, and their lack of turnovers and sacks was probably the difference in their one loss. Three out of four isn’t bad.

Room for improvement with communications, tackling and other issues, absolutely. But they have done better than we have been giving them credit for. And no telling how well they would do if the offense wouldn’t dig big holes and throw them in there.

Special teams

Another unit that is usually only noticed when they are doing badly. The fact is, the Steelers haven’t been gashed much with long returns, blocked kicks or other field flipping phenomena throughout the season or specifically in the fourth quarter. Especially after Josh Scobee and Jacoby Jones were purged from the lineups. Chris Boswell has missed a couple of kicks, but not nearly enough to be labeled inconsistent. His kickoffs are another matter, but it’s hard to whether that is strategic or not.

Jordan Berry is setting team records in pinning teams inside the twenty yard line. There weren’t any positive splash plays from this unit this quarter besides the fumble this past Sunday, but I can live with it if a lack of negatives is also part of the picture.

The best news, of course, is that as the regular schedule comes to a close and the calendar switches to 2016, the story of the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers is not yet complete. Overtime and the sprint to February begins.

12 comments

  • I’ll give my two cents on the talent debate. Generally, I agree with Ivan. We have sufficient talent to contend for the Super Bowl, but are hamstrung by injuries. Injuries, including those in alarming numbers, however, are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Teams who make a run must be either incredibly healthy or incredibly deep. I think one more draft will help, providing more depth at DB, TE, and OL. I think the splash players are on the roster, but have yet to develop that far. Hopefully, Bud Dupree and Shazier are those splash players on defense. Heyward and Tuitt are already there. Willie Gay is also there. I see no need to alter a formula, BPA, which has brought us so much success.

    With all due respect to those who think otherwise, this current re-building effort has been outstanding. No losing seasons and now, back to back playoff appearances despite the loss of Keisel, Polamalu, Taylor, Clark, Worlids, Hampton, Sanders, Wallace and Charlie Batch. I’m sorry, anyone thinks we should have done better are delusional.

    Liked by 2 people

  • In re the “trade up for targeted talent” vs. the “BPA” debate, it’s hard for me to see how it is even a question, unless a once-in-a-generation talent like Troy Polamalu is available and you’re pretty sure he is going to turn out to be that. Every team has misses, even in the first round. Even in the top of the first round, depending on the team. *cough cough Browns cough cough*

    I have much more to say, but I think I’ll save it for a pre-draft post. With all due respect to PaVa, I only wish the answer was that simple…

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  • I think we can safely say mission accomplished for this year. It don’t take much for a team to go from great, to good, to sucky….I feel confident we have good leadership in place and the talent is there. BPA in the draft and maybe a couple of FA signings, nothing new here. Look at the Ravens this year. Their leadership borrowed the Steelers team building blueprints to be able to compete with the Steelers. Ask a Ravens fan if they would take ten wins and a chance in the dance. I visited the Dawgs by Nature site. Quite entertaining and I am still waiting for that Billy Manzel pic. Those fans have been down so long it probably looks like up to them. Without trying to be too much of a homer I think it is safe to say that the future looks bright for us Steeler fans. Whatever happens on Sunday I am thankful for our Steelers and for this very entertaining and informative site. Thanks to Rebecca, Ivan and to all your contributors. Good stuff.

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  • HawaiianSteeler86

    Rebecca, I agree with all your comments. The Steelers did not win the division but battled through the gauntlet to make the playoffs. I say mission accomplished in spite of the numerous incurred injuries to front line players. Steeler’s front office and coaching staff’s best performance since 2005. It would all have gone for naught without the help we got from that Bills DB knocking the potential winning reception from a streaking Jets receiver on the second to last play on the final Jets drive.

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    • I was driving into the parking lot for Akaka Falls when I read your comment. (Or, more accurately, I was riding in the car my husband was driving.) Where are you located, if you don’t mind saying? (I’m just here for the next two days – I’ll actually watch the game in a sports bar someplace near the airport…)

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      • HawaiianSteeler86

        I live in Waipahu on Oahu. I used to work on retrofitting some of the bridges from Hilo to Akaka Falls (1999 – 2003). I would love to meet you, but I guess it will have to wait for another time… I really enjoy reading your blog. I hope you had fun on your trip to the Big Island. Aloha!

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  • HawaiianSteeler86

    Should have been – Ivan, I agree with all your comments. I also agree with Rebecca’s comment regarding trading up for “His Hairness”.

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  • Spot on, as per usual, Ivan.

    As for the perceived lack of talent, that’s a function of parity and the salary cap. There simply aren’t enough quality players available and affordable to go around. You can complain about the weaknesses in the defensive backfield, but remember they lost Keenan Lewis to the salary cap. Had they kept him, one or two others would have had to go. So little money, so many needs.

    The Steelers are a popular, successful team, a “public team” as they say in Vegas, and that puts a premium on their players. If a guy is good enough to play for the Steelers, he gains a certain je ne sais quoi, and other teams will covert him just a bit more during free agency. Other teams want Steeler guys and may overpay or overbid. The saving grace is that many Steelers restructure their contracts and take home town discounts to stay in the ‘burgh. But salary cap and drafting late in the first round put pressure on the top of the Steelers’ roster. You can’t ever draft a top three cornerback in the bottom half of the first round.

    It’s sort of like being a little kid, stuck in a chilly bedroom on a cold winter’s morning with a blanket that’s too small. Either your toes are gonna be cold, or your ears. Something’s not gonna be covered adequately. And with this team, we all know it’s been the secondary. But every team has its weaknesses, and that’s why so many articles have been written about the two six seeds – Pittsburgh and Seattle – being more than just dark horses in the playoffs.

    It’s been a rewarding season, but Homer would really like to see a victory on Saturday, just to quiet those jerks who complain that Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game since 1812 or whatever. The hell with them. Let’s have a victory just to shut them up.

    Liked by 1 person

  • It will be a rewarding season when the Steelers win the Super Bowl this February. If you ain’t first you are last.

    Starting to get fired up again after the travesty that took place in Baltimore not long ago.

    GO STEELERS!

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  • PS. If Coach T doesn’t at the least win a playoff game this Saturday evening. I am lighting the match under his seat. We are a spoiled fan base and proud of it!

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    • Fever, just don’t light a match under Homer’s seat Saturday night. There’ll be BBQ and chili and stuff, and you might set the whole place on fire.

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