The Case for the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part 5
by Ivan Cole
As impressive as some of our position groups are, none have the potential and depth of talent as the linebackers. But it is also here that some of our pathologies as fans are on vivid display. So I am going to interrupt myself for a moment for a mini rant about fan expectations.
The player in this group with clear superstar potential is Ryan Shazier. Yet until the very latter portion of the 2015 season he has been labeled by some a disappointment, and potentially a bust (even though it was just his second season). Shazier’s problem, it would seem, besides the fact that he doesn’t seem to exactly match the standard physical template for an interior linebacker (which I think is partially responsible for fueling all the conversation of converting him to safety), is spotty performance (not poor performance, mind you) due to a series of injuries.The inability or unwillingness of observers to make that distinction can be a little maddening. It can make one think that you are saddling a flesh and blood human being with the expectations of the immutably resilient characteristics typical of a video game
or cartoon character. If it just happened occasionally with one or two players that would be one thing, but it is pretty much everyone. Injury, it would appear is an unforgivable sin. How dare they allow themselves to get hurt?
This has been the story with Jarvis Jones. A step or two forward on a performance level, then a couple a steps back due to an injury. One of them, the injury to his wrist, was pretty horrific. And now Bud Dupree and Artie Burns are in the crosshairs. It has colored how we have come to perceive Mike Mitchell. Senquez Golson? Jeez!
Jones’ progress has also been impeded by the presence of one James Harrison. You probably don’t recall that a couple of years ago there was grumbling by some as to why you would bring that over-the-hill-has-been back into the fold. Today he continues to refuse to play the role of being a mere shell of his former self.
So here is the dilemma if you are Tomlin/Butler: Place one of the great defensive talents of a generation in a glass case labeled ‘break in case of an emergency’, so you can give an emerging young talent the necessary reps to get him at the highest level possible as quickly as possible, or try to enjoy the best of both worlds while it lasts, even if it means slowing the perception of Jones’ development. Given the windows involved for Deebo, Ben and others, you know what the answer has to be.
A couple of more words about player development and expectations and I’m done for now.
The truth is, it is not common for a new player to come in and immediately contribute at a star or superstar level. Off the top of my head, I am thinking Ben, Heath Miller, Pouncey, Bell, Tuitt. Others, for a variety of reasons have taken weeks, months or even years to flourish—Polamalu, Antonio Brown, Heyward, Timmons, DeCastro, Harrison, Gay. I could go on, and on, and on.
I could go on about the fact that the Steelers haven’t had a top ten draft pick in years (Ben was eleven, and that is as close as we’ve gotten in over a decade,) the complexity of the systems, particularly on defense, and so on. I would also point out that a successful career in this league does not necessarily translate into a trip to Canton or the Pro Bowl. Ziggy Hood is still finding work.
I say this with the confidence that many of the players in the following two defensive categories will have folks nipping at their heals, [Freudian slip there, Ivan] challenging their competence, manhood and potential as players. Unfortunately, it’s what we do. You would think that shame at making the same mistakes so often would kick in, but apparently we just love playing this game too much.
The outside group
As I have already mentioned, Harrison has messed things up, in a good way. Perhaps Arthur Moats has as well. The fact that both are playing so well argues against anything but a platoon system on the outside, regardless of how Jones and Dupree are developing. It is even worse down the depth chart where promising talents like Anthony Chickillo and Travis Feeney will struggle to find a spot on the roster or a helmet on game days.
Deebo and Moats are earning their reps—no other commentary is necessary. Jones is like William Gay, in the sense that some fans have biased themselves so much against him that when he is playing well they simply won’t see it. Or they think it a fluke until such time that they allow the possibility that he might be better than they thought. This is not to say that with a contract coming up Jones doesn’t have some issues of consistency and just keeping up with being part of a talented ensemble on the rise.
All the impatience directed at Shazier last season is now catching Dupree, but don’t be surprised if before the season is over he makes a case, as Shazier has done, for being the best of the bunch.
The inside group
It still amazes to think that less than two years ago we were deeply concerned about depth at this position. Sean Spence and Terrence Garvin are gone. Jordan Zumwalt was cut. Thank God. Three less things to think about and we’ve still got issues to resolve concerning who stays and who goes.
Shazier, Timmons and Vince Williams are locks. If you are not super excited about Shazier, you haven’t been paying attention. Williams’ best ball is in front of him, I think. Assuming good health, this is the essence of who will be on the field in most circumstances, but there is more.
Don’t forget L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson, and Tyler Matakevich (this year’s camp and fan favorite, and did I mention he’s from my alma mater?) You can be forgiven if you find yourself hoping that one of them gets hurt so they can get stashed on IR.
When you think of what’s going on with this group, in combination with the D Line, you are talking about front seven play, which was very good last season, being crazy good going forward.