The Case for the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part 3
by Ivan Cole
Remember the old days when the offense was the little brother with developmental difficulties? If he could only tie his shoes and not turn the ball over too many times, then the defense could probably do enough to get us the win.
Times, obviously, have changed. The defense really isn’t all that bad, in fact, quite good. But the offense!
Steelers’ broadcasters were referring to the offense as the Killer ‘B’s and it was just frustrating. As good as the Steelers ‘O’ is at this moment with no additions, we are still denied the mind blowing spectacle of what they could be at full strength. After all, Bryant was supposed to be one of those ‘B’s. So imagine: Behind the best offensive line in the league is the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver, plus Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Ladarius Green. It wouldn’t be fair. The league would probably have to conjure something akin to the Mel Blount rule for offense. Receivers would have to catch the ball with one hand only, or once in possession you would only be allowed to change direction once.
We won’t see that this season for certain, but subbing in a couple of second year guys (Jesse James and Eli Rogers) they seemed able to manage. There is some disappointment, but no one’s nose is really out of joint concerning the absence of Bell for the first three games. Rivals should be rooting hard for Washington, Cincy and Philly because if they get through that stretch with a winning record, watch out the rest of the way.
Running the no huddle as the base offense (in three speeds—‘muddle’, no huddle and two minute) it limits the defense’s ability to adjust and plays to Ben’s strengths. He has a mind boggling array of weapons even without Bryant and (temporarily) Bell. Have we mentioned Williams, Coates, Heyward-Bey, Nix or David Johnson?
Let’s get one thing straight at the outset. At this stage of things Ben Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in football. If you want to argue that a few players such as Aaron Rogers or Cam Newton or Russell Wilson are just as good, I will listen, but respectfully disagree. When you take into account the full range of tools at his disposal, the strength and accuracy of his arm, his physical mobility, the ability to improvise and buy time, his championship level experience and football IQ, you understand why sports columnist Michael Wilbon said that if he had to bet his life on a quarterback winning one game, it would be Roethlisberger.
Now understand. Remember what I said about the offense at the outset. Ben, growing as a talent himself, was driving an old Volkswagon bus, winning championships with free agent centers starting at guard and third stringers at running back. Today Steelers leadership, as signaled by team president Art Rooney II a few years back, have given Ben the Starship Enterprise (Galaxy Class). Meaning that you now have the best quarterback in the league with the best toolset as well. Keep Ben upright and the supporting cast reasonably healthy and 31 other teams have a huge problem.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh has a problem if they don’t keep Ben upright. If Ben goes down there is no Riker or Worf to step in. We’re talking Wesley Crusher here, who will be just fine, unless he gets a zit. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Landry Jones. In fact, I know I am. What you really hope for with Jones is to put things on automatic pilot and ask him not to screw up. That’s essentially what happened in 1976 when Terry Bradshaw was lost for a number of games. Of course, the major difference is, in those days the Steelers were a running team. Just hand the ball off. This is a passing outfit, meaning it is a lot more difficult to work around the quarterback.
So accept the fact that if Ben goes down the Steelers go from championship favorite to lovable underdog. Landry Jones, and frankly, almost no one else, can bridge that gap. But if Bruce Gradkowski can’t go, and you are really going to hate me for this, I think the best option is to bring back Michael Vick, who has both championship pedigree, better familiarity with the system and personnel, and surprisingly to his haters, probably is an advantage in the locker room.
We should pause for a moment and give thanks for how nice it is that we aren’t wringing our hands about this group and hoping that they don’t get Ben killed. We were fantasizing about this when Mike Munchak came on board. And though the assembly of this group wasn’t entirely his doing, he has raised their level of play and cohesion in the manner that we had hoped. Just like as it is not hyperbole to declare Ben the best quarterback in football, a completely defensible case can be made for this being the best offensive line.
This is a group that has three legitimate pro bowl caliber players, and probably two who would qualify as All Pro. Pouncey’s position is not speculative. He is almost certainly the best in the game. Because of his somewhat frustrating injury history and earlier off field issues, some fans tried to convince themselves there was no difference between having him or a career backup on the job. On the issue of leadership alone, his reinsertion is over the moon. DeCastro is rounding into just the Christmas pony Homer J said he would be. But the really big surprise is the play of Gilbert, who fans had written off early. Foster is a solid leader at left guard.
With Jerald Hawkins now on IR, it would seem that the rest of the group goes as follows. I am betting that Villanueva retains the starting position at left tackle for now, with Ryan Harris being the swing reserve. If Wallace is healthy he remains Pouncey’s back up with Chris Hubbard edging out B.J. Finney based upon experience and proven position flexibility. If they keep nine linemen, then Finney is included. Otherwise, practice squad.
Arguably this is one of the better duos in the league with Bell and Williams. And yes, I think that Bell is the best as well. The only problem I see is that I would prefer that given his age, Williams not have a full time work load, which he is likely to have over the course of the first three games. I like both Richardson and Toussaint, so I will be equally happy/upset if one is and the other goes. I am thinking they keep all four at least until Bell’s suspension ends.
With so much attention given to stopping the passing game, do not be surprised that Pittsburgh manages to run for a lot of yards. The running backs, especially Bell, will have a lot of work in the passing game as well.
Whether it’s how Kevin Colbert and the front office procures them, how coach Richard Mann prepares them, or how Ben makes them better, the Pittsburgh receivers corps has been a consistent treasure through a shifting cast of characters. Bryant will be missed, but not nearly as much as Pittsburgh’s rivals might hope.
As the case has been with this group over the past several years, their biggest challenge is that there are just a limited number of balls and opportunities to distribute. Coates, Heyward-Bey and Rogers will be competing for those limited touches. With opponents having to devote many of their best resources to stopping Brown, Bell and Wheaton, huge rewards are possible.
Don’t know how things will shake out beyond those mentioned but this group will be just fine.
Obviously this is the more intriguing and worrisome position group, perhaps on the entire team. The loss of Miller and Matt Spaeth plus the uncertain status of Green creates some significant question marks. I would argue, however, against panic based upon the following. Jesse James is not nearly as over his head as some fear. It is preferable he not be the number one guy at this time but ultimately his growth curve will be accelerated a bit and he’ll be fine.
I always felt that David Johnson was an underestimated and underappreciated talent. He will prove a solid blocker and receiver. Roosevelt Nix can function more as an H back than fullback and whatever they get from Green or Xavier Grimble is icing on the cake.
If they retain reasonable health the expectations from this group range from explosive to otherworldly. 30+ points a game is not an unreasonable expectation. If it is met it will almost certainly give them a playoff spot and likely a division title.