2016 Pittsburgh Steelers First Quarter Report, Part 1
by Ivan Cole
I have been doing these quarterly reports for several years now, and the first quarter is always the most challenging in the sense that the analysis has to cut through at least three powerful areas of bias.
The first is the notion that the past equals the future. The tendency is to believe that teams are either going to simply pick up where they left off, the previous season, or even during the preseason, not recognizing that the landscape both within the teams and among their opponents has changed, often significantly.
Second is the nature of team development as influenced by both the economics of the league and the rules laid out by the collective bargaining agreement. The rules instituted about the number and types of practices allowed creates an environment where many teams have simply not matured into their full potential in the early weeks of the season.
Commentators during Sunday night’s game made this point, which has been driven home by Tunch Ilkin and others—that the incorporation of young, low cost players with established stars can result in a distorted, and in some cases even an inferior product. For instance, note the tackling and time management issues across the league in the early weeks of the season.
Then there is the early season hyperbole exhibited by both the media and fans. Wins and losses which are taken in stride during October or November are signs of the apocalypse in September. A two game winning streak means you should go ahead and make your Super Bowl reservations. A two game losing streak means fans write off the season and start thinking about the draft and whom to fire. The task of achieving a sense of perspective has to work against these issues.
The Big Picture
Before diving into the specifics of where the Steelers stand after the first quarter, here is a partial review of what was being said as the season began and after the results of the first couple of weeks.
The Arizona Cardinals were going to the Super Bowl. Or was that Carolina? Denver has quarterback problems that would probably derail their efforts to repeat. The Rams were so bad that Jeff Fisher would probably not survive the season. Washington had turned the corner and was a contender; woe is Dallas without Tony Romo and Minnesota without Bridgewater. Philadelphia didn’t have a quarterback. New England and Pittsburgh would struggle early without Tom Brady, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant respectively. The Bengals were the class of the AFC North. The Colts were back. Jacksonville is on the rise.
After the first two weeks, Pittsburgh is the class of the league. Buffalo is toast, as is Washington. Baltimore and Philadelphia are getting fat off of chumps. What’s wrong with Seattle? The Giants are the class of the NFC East. Minnesota? Atlanta? Obviously there is some sort of mistake here.
And today? Arizona is going someplace that starts with an ‘H’, but it is not Houston. Carolina may join them there. The Patriots experience the Zombie Apocalypse as the Bills rise from the grave and eat them in their home stadium, but Brady is back, so Cleveland might want to consult with the Chiefs to learn what they can about how to deal with facing really good teams a week after they have been humiliated.
Fans in Atlanta, Minnesota and Philadelphia are thinking Super Bowl. Jacksonville has to leave the country to win a game. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are tied atop the AFC North.
Hmm. Let me suggest that we’re just getting started folks.
Getting the bad stuff out of the way first, it is a testament as to how bad things were last year that it can still be said that, relatively speaking, the Steelers aren’t in that bad a shape injury-wise.
To review, we began the season without the services of 2015 first round draft pick, OLB Bud Dupree (IR- designated to return), without 2016 major free agent signee TE Ladarius Green (PUP), without 2015 second round pick DB Senquez Golson, and without special-teams ace F Roosevelt Nix and well-used backup C Cody Wallace. All of them have been MIA for the entire season so far. WR Markus Wheaton was also unavailable to begin the season, but has been present for the last two games.
Joining the ranks of the injured for at least one game thus far has been ILB Ryan Shazier, G Ramon Foster, S Robert Golden and WR Eli Rogers. Probably set to join the list may be T Marcus Gilbert, OLBs Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickello and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. Add the suspended players Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, and standard-is-the- is-the-standard-next-man-up-talk aside, this a fairly compromised group.
And if one needed proof of the difference of having the front line players available, one only need look to the Chiefs game, and specifically Bell’s 42 yard run with Maurkice Pouncey leading down to within the ten-yard line. I double down on the assertion that the fate of the season may lie with the quantity and quality of the weekly injury reports.
It was nice seeing the profile on head coach Mike Tomlin prior to the Kansas City game. It covered some of same ground that was laid out in these spaces a couple of weeks ago. As for the first quarter, we can point to the response to the ugly Philadelphia loss, and how what can appear to be an unqualified negative can be transformed into a positive.
Taking the short term view, 4-0 would always be better than 3-1. But though no one could dispute that the 2016 version of the Steelers was a hardworking, earnest group, they also clearly lacked that ‘chip’ on their shoulders that is often a necessary ingredient for championship caliber play.
A few players on the current roster definitely have it—Ben, Deebo, AB, Cam Heyward, but that is not nearly enough. And up until the season’s third week there was nothing to incite it. Pittsburgh was on top of the power rankings and becoming a darling of the pundit class. And then came a thoroughly humiliating butt whipping in Philadelphia.
What came next was crucial. Would they react to their circumstances like men or middle schoolers? In the latter case the possible responses would be denial, finger pointing, self-doubt, all laced with a dose of panic. Instead, was ownership and a re-commitment to mission that resulted in Redemption Sunday, or perhaps Unleash Hell 2.0.
By the accounts of local media, this is no longer just a very talented team, but a talented and angry team. This is a good thing, especially if they can keep it up. Much better in the long run than being 4-0.
To be continued. In Part 2 Ivan goes through each unit individually.