Next Man Up — Believe It
Mike Tomlin has always made a big deal of the “next man up” attitude. I have always thought this was a necessary concept for the team, but not terribly rooted in reality for the fans. Injuries to good players are going to cost a team because backups are backups for a reason. They lack either the talent or the experience (or both) to be a starter. Or so I thought.
Perhaps more than any season in memory, the injury bug bit the Steelers. It bit hard and often. Yet somehow, someway players stepped in and performed at levels I did not think were possible.
Yet despite the injuries and because many fans are all in with “the standard is the standard,” Steeler Nation is rife with fans who proclaim, ANYTHING SHORT OF WINNING THE SUPER BOWL IS FAILURE.
These fans are long on bravado, short on discernment. This year, the team executed the next man up philosophy at a level I thought was impossible. To say the Steelers failed or that they accomplished nothing is ignorant. The fact that they went as far as they did was a triumph of good coaching and motivated players. The failure to win a Super Bowl does not equate to a failed season.
Like many here at Going Deep, I’m proud of the year we had. While finishing the season with a loss is less than satisfying, 31 teams finish just so every season. Some Steeler fans seem to take pride in not settling for less than a title. While that is the goal for all fans, players and coaches, the refusal to acknowledge your team’s growth and perseverance amounts to a petulant failure the team’s achievements.
No fan likes to lose, yet there are many who, because of where they live, family tradition, loyalty, stubbornness or just plain masochistic delirium, root for a franchise mired in futility, due to ownership’s accursed (unlikely) or incompetent (yep!) attempts at running a pro football team.
Here in in Steelerland, we know no such issues. We have won the most Super Bowls and have the best record of any team since the NFL-AFL merger in in 1970 by 21.5 games. Pittsburgh could stay home for a year and a half and Dallas wouldn’t catch us. We’re 25 games better than third place Miami. Only the Niners have as many division titles as the Steelers (20). We are spoiled by success.
This 10-6 team with a playoff win did not underachieve. In the loss to Denver, the Steelers were missing three Pro Bowlers on offense with a fourth, our HOF quarterback, playing with a bum shoulder, his third serious injury of the season.
We were also missing our left tackle, replaced by a guy who has been an offensive tackle for a year. We had a shot and almost pulled off an improbable win against the number one seed, who is headed to the Super Bowl.
This team did not flop—and we have a right, perhaps a duty, to be proud.
There were obvious triumphs. Big Ben proved, if he hadn’t already, that he is the toughest QB in the NFL. No he didn’t always play his best. There were a few inopportune picks, but he held this team together, despite injuries which would crush other players and other teams.
He grew as a leader. He shook Bryant out of his funk in a respectful, but pointed way, exhorting him to elevate his game when more from him was needed. He consoled Fitzgerald Toussaint after a big fumble in the 4th quarter of the Denver game. Big Ben has evolved into quarterback, leader and teammate.
Coach Tomlin is revered by many, but belittled by many. I think Tomlin grew this year, as well. Ben has plenty of grit, but don’t underestimate the toughness this coach imparts to Ben and every player on the Pittsburgh team. I believe Coach T is one of the better coaches in the league, but I especially love the way Tomlin coached this year. He was less inclined to play it safe. Controversial? Yes. Aggressive? You bet.
I want my coach to go for it. Some in Steeler Nation deride him for “not living in his fears.” There are plenty of NFL head coaches AND coordinators who do live in their fears. We have all seen coaches who get conservative with a lead, kick a field goal on 4th and one, play way off the receivers in the last two minutes.
If we’re going down, we’re going down swinging. I embrace the attitude–it fosters pride and confidence. Was there anything better than the “win or lose” decision in the San Diego game with six seconds left? Le’veon Bell took the direct snap, was stopped, but kept working, and scored on the last play. It was a huge road win. It was a message to the team and a message to the league. You NEVER see a NFL coach do that—at least I can’t remember a similar call. I love this kind of ball. Let’s go win a ball game!
Did Tomlin’s “don’t you blink” attitude reinforce the success of “next man up”? I think it did. You can’t measure it, you can’t prove it, but a lot of guys played better than expected. “Next man up” succeeded like never before.
The superb exploits of the Wizard of Boz and Alejandro Villanueva have been much praised and well documented. All Boz did was kick way better than Hartley and “That Kicker” and as well as Suisham. Since Boz is younger and has a lower cap number, chances are good he’ll took Sweet Cheeks’ job.
Villanueva’s play in relief of Kelvin Beachum was nothing less than than astounding. I saw nothing but disaster when Beachum went down. The left tackle must literally have Ben’s back. I really felt despondent as the thought of Kelvin’s absence. Remember Jonathan Scott, Mike Adams and the Marcus Gilbert experiment? Yeah, so do I. This could have gotten so ugly. Ali had been an offensive tackle for about five minutes. He stepped in and protected Ben pretty well.
I’d like to thank Ali, his parents, the US Army Rangers, and Mike Munchak. Analysis of line play is not my strong suit, but I know Ali was decent. Decent, under these circumstances is phenomenal.
I underestimated DeAngelo Williams. While I liked the signing and thought it was a major upgrade over Dri Archer, Ben Tate, etc., I wasn’t all that sure that a 32 year old running back had that much gas in the tank. Boy, was I wrong. When he was in the lineup, he was better than most starting backs. In the ten games in which Williams got more than five carries, he rushed for 100 yards or more four times and over 70 yards in three more. Had he not been hurt for the playoffs, with no disrespect to Fitzie, DeAngelo may have carried the day in Denver.
Staying on the injury riff, (and how can you not?) what about Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. Early in the season, they were unbelievable. Unstoppable. Then they both got injured. Shazier hurt a shoulder, causing him to miss four games, immediately after his break out game against the Niners. After he got back, he wasn’t quite the same and suffered a knee injury that he played with. Finally, late in the year, he was reasonably healthy and had a great game against the Ravens in week 16 and an even better game against the Bungles in the wild card game. Tuitt was a beast until he sprained a knee in the Arizona win. He missed two games, but it took several more games before he returned to form.
Had not these budding All Pros been injured, the defense might well have improved more quickly than it did.
I could go on. Cockrell, who was just re-signed, was snatched off the Buffalo scrap heap and made a solid contribution. Boykin played well and like everyone else, I’m perplexed why he didn’t get more time earlier in the season. Bud Dupree managed something that Joey Porter, Cam Heyward and Troy Polamalu could not do. He played a lot of meaningful snaps as a rookie.
Most of all, this defense played a whole lot better than I thought it could. For me, the season never goes quite the way I imagine. Had you told me in August the injuries the offense would suffer, I would have trashed my 9-7 projection and gone with 6-10.
I thought we were probably a year away, especially with the secondary situation. I figured the offense would carry us, but the defense was not good enough help us win games. It turns out that, at least in August, those who were predicting a Super Bowl were far more accurate is assessing the talent than I. Our maligned defense played much better than we had a right to expect.
Remember “What are we going to do? Worilds retired.” No way could Moats and Rookie Dupree can hold down the left side. Jarvis is injury prone, Deebo is old and we have no pass rush. Shazier was injury prone and probably a bust. Obviously, Butler, Olsavsky and Joey coached these guys up really well. Deebo helped get them in shape. Timmons, Moats and Deebo pitched in and coached up the young guys.
John Mitchell did his usual great job with a much younger front three. Keisel was gone. Time for Heyward to lead. He did. Tuitt improved vastly. McLendon and McCullers held their own.
Secondary coach Carnell Lake had the toughest job of all. He got no help from the draft. Golson was hurt and Grant wasn’t ready. But Gay played solid and, amazingly, Cockrell and Boykin contributed. Blake was awful, but he kept trying and did make some nice plays and tackles. The DBs bent like a tree in a Category One hurricane, but they didn’t break often.
The defense won the Rams game when Ben went down, allowing only two FGs. They gave the offense every chance to beat the Ravens in week 4, but That Kicker, Mike Vick, and AB didn’t make it happen. (I know, AB is the best and had only three drops all year, but I can still see Vick hitting him in the numbers for a TD that was just plain dropped). The D gets a piece of the win over the Chargers by holding them to 20 in San Diego. They certainly did their job against Cincy in the first game, surrendering only 16 points. They also played well enough to beat the Ravens in the second game, giving up just 20 points.
In the playoffs, we held the Bungles to 16 points and Denver to 23. It wasn’t the Steel Curtain, but we managed to beat Cinci, or least let them beat themselves, and had a decent shot at beat Manning.
Had we been totally healthy, I know we could have done it. If we had been moderately healthy in the playoffs, a healthy Ben and AB and a healthy Deangelo and/or Le’veon, I think we win. Of course, there’s no way to prove it, except maybe go out and win it next year with similar talent.
So here we go, into the long interregnum that is the off season. Outside Going Deep, Steelerland will get stupider and stupider waiting for training camp. The bitterness over the loss of a chance for the 7th Lombardi will eat at many fans. There will be coaches to fire, players to cut. The bust label will be hung on Golson, Grant, Shamarko (who might deserve it), maybe others. Carnell Lake will be attacked by at least a platoon of naysayers. Draft articles will abound and no one will get our first round pick right.
It’s like the seasons. You can’t enjoy summer unless you endure the winter of their discontent. And I’ll be there, trying not to watch the car wreck of articles on salary cap minutiae and which punt returner, just released from prison, we ought to sign because he runs the 40 in 4.2 seconds. I’ll fail because Steeler news, even bad or stupid Steeler news, is my off season drug of choice.
But as I trudge on through the muck of the “no football” season, I’ll stop from time to time and remember this 2015 team. Thrill and chills. Horrors. Elation. Many anxious moments; a lot of disappointments too.
But, damn, those Steelers had some heart.