Some Random Thoughts About the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers
This isn’t an analysis of yesterday’s game. I’m sure we will be doing plenty of analysis in the coming days and weeks because, alas, we will have plenty of time to do so. But for now this is just me downloading some of my mental hard drive after an amazing season. Sometimes the light really is worth the candle, even if it doesn’t illuminate a Hollywood ending.
Last summer, as Ivan and I sat at training camp watching the three-ring circus that is on display, free of charge, to all comers at St. Vincent’s, we agreed that this team had the potential to be something special. We weren’t wrong.
There are so many guys to love on this team. It’s hard to know where to start.
There are the last of the Super Bowl winning teams—the grizzled warriors. James Harrison, who played an unbelievable game yesterday. Heath Miller, who accounted for only five yards on the box score but who, as always, unselfishly blocked for other players, including Martavis Bryant for the end-around which was worth almost half the Steelers’ rushing yards. And naturally there was the ultimate competitor, Ben Roethlisberger, operating at some unknown percentage of usual while dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Let that sink in for a moment. Ben has been accused of being a “drama queen,” most recently by Brian Billick, who said to 104.3 The Fan in Denver last week:
There’s no one tougher than Ben Roethlisberger by far in the NFL, but he’s a drama queen.
He’s gonna come out on that field. That arm’s gonna be limp. It’s going to look like he can’t even lift it. Then he’s going to crank off a 60-yard bomb to Martavis Bryant. Then he’ll carry it back into the huddle, holding it like it’s in a sling, and then he’ll crank off a 40-yarder to Antonio Brown.”
My admittedly long-distance and limited observations of Ben Roethlisberger tell me that the worse he’s hurt the less he shows it. If I’m correct, Ben was hurting like crazy yesterday, and probably won’t feel really good for a while. And yet he went out there, made the throws he needed to make, looked a lot better than The Great Peyton Manning in the process, and in the end was undermined by a single turnover (not even his) and a very highly-rated Denver defense. The fact that the Steelers were even in the game yesterday is a testament to an incredible team effort, but it started with a heroic performance by Ben Roethlisberger.
Then there are the busts and the guys pulled off the scrap heap.
Those first and second round busts looked pretty good yesterday. Marcus Gilbert, despite a costly face-mask penalty, was a critical component of an offensive line that kept Ben mostly upright yesterday against two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.
And let’s not forget those notable busts Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. (How anyone can call any player, particularly a defensive one, a bust before they have even played a full season I’ll never know, but there were plenty of those folks to be found.) They were part of a very young defense who was viewed as a positive liability coming into the season, and they played like men.
By sometime in December the official motto of the 2015 Steelers had become “Next Man Up,” and sometimes the next man up was the third or fourth option. They didn’t necessarily play as well as the guy they replaced. It isn’t reasonable to expect they would. If I have to replace a soloist in a concert, someone I selected because I considered their voice to be the best suited for the job, with someone else, someone who, while prepared in general, hasn’t prepared for that particular piece in that way, I don’t expect them to do as good a job.
If Cody Wallace had the same talent and athleticism as Maurkice Pouncey, he would have been drafted a lot higher than the fourth round. He wouldn’t have been cut by the 49ers, the Jets, the Texans, Tampa Bay, and the Lions (twice) before ending up in Pittsburgh. He was the most penalized offensive lineman in the NFL this year. Would the offensive line have been better with Pouncey anchoring it? Almost certainly. But Cody Wallace was the Next Man Up, and didn’t take a single penalty in yesterday’s game. He played with passion and enthusiasm (which occasionally led to some of his many penalties) and gave it everything he had to give.
How about another frequently-cut undrafted player, Alejandro Villanueva? He attracted a lot of positive attention for his compelling personal story, but was, to put it nicely, highly inexperienced as an offensive lineman. Did he play as well as Kelvin Beachum? No. It would be entirely unreasonable to expect this, despite Beachum being undersized and barely drafted originally. Beachum, through relentless effort, had become a highly-regarded player in the all-important left tackle position. Villanueva was learning on the job. And despite the distinct disadvantage of, ironically, being over-sized (at 6-9 it’s hard not to bend at the waist as you take on a defender and thus lose balance and the ability to counter him) Villanueva played with the kind of heart and determination you would expect from a highly-decorated Army Ranger.
And perhaps the best story of all is kicker Chris Boswell. Since I wrote a piece about him last week I’ll just say Steeler Nation had fairly low expectations for him when he was hired last October. We mainly hoped he could kick the occasional touchback and convert more than about 75% of his field goal attempts. But even if we had expected the second coming of Gary Anderson Boswell would have surprised us. The Steelers now have a tough decision to make at the position.
I’m sure many other names will come to mind in the days and weeks ahead. Many of them come to mind now—Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Ross Cockrell, the list goes on and on, and I will undoubtedly have more to say about them as we painfully begin to contemplate next season during the Great Football Drought.
But for now, it’s enough. These Steelers entertained us, inspired us, frustrated us, and kept us on the edge of our seats. They did it with heart, guts, passion and a palpable love for each other. As they clean out their lockers this week I hope they realize that in the heart of Steeler Nation they are all champions.