On Second Thought: Is There Hope for the 2016 Steelers?

jhThe title of this post may seem odd to those of you who read yesterday’s game commentary, which contained choice items such as:

  • I’m afraid I see another of Ben Roethlisberger’s precious remaining years going down the tubes.
  • I begin to fear we’ve seen the best of Ben Roethlisberger already.
  • It’s been tempting this season to think that unfortunate circumstances have conspired to pull the Steelers down. But they are second in the AFC North, could well be third after tonight’s game, and it’s pretty clear that unless something remarkable happens to the AFC West, in a bad way, there are going to be no wild card spots for an AFC North team. Yes, a lot can happen in seven games, but probably not that much.

So the short answer to the question posed by the title would appear to be “no.” But since this makes for an awfully short article, and since I prefer to contemplate good possibilities than fear bad ones, let’s see what can be dredged up by, well, going deeper.

The Steelers’ identity as a team was long based on punishing defense and just enough offense to outscore the thoroughly disheartened opponent. Or so I’m told. Even within my time the 2010 defense was almost historically good.

But the punishing defense faded away and has not (yet?) been replaced, although Lord knows they’ve tried. When you use a goodly chunk of your first and second round picks on defensive players, you do so in the hopes that they are going to assume the mantle of the great Steelers who have gone before. But in some ways this may be unrealistic.

After all, even the most alluring prospect can come a cropper, whether through injury, lack of motivation, substance abuse issue, or any of a host of other reasons. Furthermore, the Steelers haven’t chosen from among the cream of the crop for a very long time. But I think there may be another factor in this as well. I’m wondering, in short, just how important Troy Polamalu was to what the Steelers were able to do in the 21st century Super Bowls era.

It may seem absurd to ascribe so much importance to a single player, even a clearly generational talent like Polamalu. But I’m pretty sure the reason that the Steelers jumped so quickly to take Ryan Shazier, a player many thought was a real reach in the first round, is that they saw a guy who could perhaps have the same function in the defense—as a wild card opposing quarterbacks would always have to account for.

And of course the 2010 version of James Harrison, in conjunction with pre-contract LaMarr Woodley, was a pretty formidable obstacle for opposing defenses. Not to mention Potsie and Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith, and Casey Hampton when he was mad. But I just have a feeling about Troy, one that I can’t confirm without some research, and I promise to do said research soon.

At any rate, the feeling around these parts has been for some time that it was going to take a while to rebuilt the defense, and that the offense was going to have to carry the team until that process was more or less complete. And it looked like they had the horses to do it.

Ivan Cole and I have been opining every summer since about 2014 that the Steelers offense looks unstoppable. And sometimes it is. But it often looks more like a 1975 Pinto than the sleek late-model BMW we were expecting.

It’s the inconsistency that is so frustrating. One week Ben throws for five touchdowns with no interceptions and Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl. Two weeks later the Steelers head to Miami and make a relatively unknown running back look like the reincarnation of Barry Sanders and a not-particularly-impressive defense look like the 1985 Bears.

So what can we expect going forward? Who knows? But I’m going to look some more at Ben’s games back from an injury and see if there is any hope to be found there. Or anywhere else, for that matter. And of course “past results don’t guarantee future performance.” But maybe that’s good, given how many sub-.500 teams are on the schedule, and how many of the games are on the road…

The first thing I wondered was how many of the teams in the Ben Roethlisberger era were ever below .500 (beyond, say, the first couple of weeks) and if so how things turned out. Here’s what I found.

The first such was the 2006 team, which spent the entire season with the exception of Week 1 below .500 until Week 15, when they finally pulled it up to .500. Which is how they ended the season.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Steelers again has a losing record at any point in the season. Although they were 1-2 at Week 4 they went on a tear and won their next five games. It was great until they lost the next five, returning them to a losing record. While they won the final three it was too little too late, and they didn’t make the playoffs.

The 2011 team was at .500 after the Week 4 game, but started winning again and never flirted with .500 again. They were unfortunately losing players at a great rate, including the high ankle sprain Ben sustained, and limped to Denver to painfully lose the Wild Card game.

The 2012 team was 2-3 after Game 5, but won four in a row. The rally sputtered, though, and they ended up at 8-8 after the losses accumulated in the latter half of the season.

2013 was worse, as the team spent the entire season below .500, sometimes considerably below, before rallying and winning the last three games to bring them up to 8-8 once again.

Since then they have never been below .500, until now.

Of course, none of these are encouraging examples. I wondered what the defensive and offensive rankings were, according to Football Outsiders. I decided to encompass the entire career of Ben Roethlisberger to this point. And so that we had something to compare them to, here are the same figures for the Patriots, who could fairly be considered a model of consistency, the Ravens, since they are the Steelers’ traditional rivals, and the Seahawks, since they have had changing fortunes during this time span.

The “Record/Results” column is the win-loss record for each year, including the playoffs if any. The results are color-coded. White means they missed the playoffs. Blue indicates they made the playoffs but didn’t win a game. Green is at least one playoff win. Red is a Super Bowl loss, and Steelers Gold is a Super Bowl win.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-10-58-24-pm

I think this is actually pretty interesting. The Patriots are certainly a model of offensive consistency, but vary tremendously in how well their defense performs. And yet it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. The only year they missed the playoffs altogether they still went 11-6. It was just a crazy year.

The Ravens were consistent in making the playoffs and winning at least one game for the first five years of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco’s tenures. And oddly, one of their less impressive years in the rankings was the year they won the Super Bowl. (The Football Outsider rankings are, however, only regular season rankings. It doesn’t take Joe Playoff into account.) The only year the defense was worse was last season, when they went 5-11. Funny how that works.

The Seahawks also curiously managed to both make it to the playoffs in 2010 and win a game, despite ranking 29th on both offense and defense. Since then they’ve been a bit of a juggernaut on both sides of the ball.

The point I’m making, I suppose, is there isn’t a single formula for making it to the Super Bowl, despite the old canard “defense wins championships.” But it’s pretty evident that the Steelers function best with a passable offense and a great defense. I don’t know whether it is in the DNA of the organization, whether it is because of playing in the rough-and-tumble AFC North, or just happenstance, but somehow it feels as if the Steelers aren’t comfortable as an offense-first team.

Can we take anything encouraging away from this?  I suspect it depends a lot on whether the people such as local radio personality and Post Gazette writer Paul Zeise are correct. Zeise, in a column provocatively titled Under Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, the Steelers Might Be Hopeless argues that Colbert and Tomlin clearly don’t know what they are doing in terms of player selection, because the defense isn’t getting better and isn’t ever going to get better while they are in charge of drafting.

It’s a sort of rehash of the old “Mike Tomlin won with Bill Cowher’s players” approach. It might be a difficult one to put to rest if the defense continues to look like it’s under construction, at least four years after the start of the rebuild.

Everyone associated with the organization, it seems, keeps insisting that the defense is close, just not quite there yet. And really, I think that’s where most of the hope for this season resides. Injuries have meant that young players haven’t gotten the reps they need, and critical players have been on the bench. But it is still entirely possible that everything will come together in a seeming instant. Players like Cam Heyward will finally be healthy. The young ones will have gotten a lot of game experience and the game will start to slow down for them. And all of a sudden they will start putting together complete games.

The offense is more puzzling, although I suppose it goes to show you can scarcely overstate the importance of a healthy and well-protected Ben Roethlisberger. They too have had players come and go with injuries, but arguably the two most important ones aside from Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, haven’t produced as expected, especially in Brown’s case. It’s hard for AB to produce, of course, when the defense is draped all over him, but the opportunities this should have opened up for other guys haven’t consistently materialized, except perhaps in the case of Lev Bell, who looks like a better receiver than about 9/10s of the actual receivers in the league.

So is there hope or not? Perhaps the secret lies in a word I’ve used several times—consistency. The Steelers haven’t been consistently anything this season. If they can somehow pull themselves together and start consistently putting a good product on the field, for all four quarters, they still have a chance to be something like the team everyone was predicting to be one of the Super Bowl contenders.

Assuming, that is, that the Ravens don’t also put it together and hang on to the division lead, because as I noted yesterday it’s hard to see a wild card spot for an AFC North team right now when three of the four AFC West teams have seven wins at the moment.

But if the Steelers continue to blow hot one week and cold the next, they are going to be hitting the golf course in early January. And that would be a crying shame.

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