Thoughts from the Missing in Action: Steelers vs. Colts
I have been able, mostly holding my head in my hands, to watch the games over the past month, but haven’t been paying attention to much else. But it probably doesn’t require much imagination to get a sense of the topics, tone and tenor of what the conversation has been like in the Steelers community recently. Through semi-fresh eyes, here are some observations coming off Thanksgiving Week’s action.
The really big picture
During the Super Bowl Era (and for that matter the entire history of the franchise) the Steelers have made it as far as the conference championship game fifteen times, with an overall record of eight wins and seven losses. The bad news is that if the 2016 squad is fortunate enough to make it that far, its 6-5 record will be tied with the 1984 team for worst record after 11 games. The good news (and a note of caution to Dallas Cowboys fans) is that the team with the best record, the 10-1 2004 team, did not make it to the Super Bowl., much less win it. There was also a 9-2 team (2001), and a trio of 8-3 teams (’72, ’94, ’97) which also failed to get past the challenge of the AFCCG.
Let’s not forget that while Mike Tomlin is, rightfully, criticized when his teams fail against inferior opponents during the regular season, the knock on his predecessor, Bill Cowher, is that his teams did the same thing, but in the playoffs. It should also be noted that Chuck Noll’s record in this regard is only slightly above .500 (4-3).
The point to be made here is that win/loss records need to be kept in proper perspective. The most important thing, and perhaps the only important thing, is that enough games are won to qualify for the playoffs. And while it is generally preferable to have a higher seed than not, it does not in any way guarantee success throughout the tournament. The New York Giants, for example, won two Super Bowls in the past decade with teams that struggled early in the year and barely clawed their way into the playoffs, while dominant teams like Pittsburgh (’04), Indianapolis (’05) and New England (’07) ultimately failed.
The 2016 campaign, like all the others, will come down to how those teams who are still in contention perform going forward in December and, hopefully, January. The Steelers are a success in respect to the fact that they have done what was necessary to both be in contention and still in control of their own destiny. The margin for error may be more narrow than we would like, but to need one that was any broader would not bode well for the team’s bottom line prospects. While, technically speaking, the absolute value of wins and losses does not change, it is often the reality that when they occur does matter. The impressive starts for teams like Minnesota, Philadelphia and Denver don’t resonate so much now. What does Dallas’ record profit them if they stumble in the coming weeks? How much do the earlier struggles of the Steelers, Giants, Washington or Seattle matter if they continue to finish strong?
The losing streak
“Pittsburgh has a problem if they don’t keep Ben upright.”
“So, accept the fact that if Ben goes down the Steelers go from championship favorite to lovable underdog. Jones, and frankly, almost no one else can bridge that gap.”
This is what I wrote in my preview of the 2016 season. So, if you told me back then that Ben Roethlisberger would undergo knee surgery and five games later Pittsburgh was on top of their division and in control of their playoff destiny I would be nothing short of delighted. If you told me that Landry Jones went toe to toe with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and lost, I would say ‘Duh’! If you added that the outcome would be in doubt in the last two minutes I would likely do cartwheels. Further, if you then shared that the Steelers lost to the Ravens in Baltimore on the week that Ben returned to lineup, and then to the team with the best record in the league, my reaction would likely be a shrug. The loss that seemed truly sketchy was to the Dolphins. And though Pittsburgh engaged in more than a little self-sabotage, you also must acknowledge, if you have been paying attention, that Miami has proven it is a much better team than most believed earlier in the season.
What is frustrating is that each of those four losses were winnable games. If the Steelers had managed to win just one, the outlook would probably be radically different than it is currently. For now, it probably means that if a championship is to come this season it will likely have to be accomplished without the benefit of a bye and will involve one or more big playoff wins on the road. Not ideal, but hardly dire.
Injuries, Part One: The wide receiver holocaust and other challenges
You could almost argue that Cam Heyward is as essential a piece to the success of a young, emerging defense as Ben is for the offense. So, it is more than an encouraging sign that after Heyward was lost for the year the unit responded by giving up a total of 16 points in two games.
Standard is the Standard talk obscures the fact that the loss of key talent and leadership are big blows for a team that is still in the process of trying to find its way and learn how to win collectively. I would have gone further to assert that Cam was one of a handful of players that the team couldn’t afford to lose if they wanted to make a creditable championship run. But the reality is that they have remained remarkably competitive despite losses that might be thought to be crippling.
Mention to the average Steelers fan six months ago that the top two receivers after Antonio Brown would be Eli Rodgers and Cobi Hamilton, and the honest and understandable response would have been ‘Who?’ This is not a knock on either Rodgers or Hamilton, who have performed well. But they are not Martavis Bryant, or even Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, or even Sammie Coates. The absence of these players should make it so much easier for opponents to shift more resources to neutralize AB, which makes his Thanksgiving performance even more remarkable.
The absolute best news besides the wins to come from this week’s games is that the team managed to escape without being gashed any further by injuries.
Ladarius Green is coming on line, and it appears that his inclusion will prove to be both timely and worth the wait. As it becomes clear as to why the team invested in Green’s talent, it causes me to lament the fact that we have been denied the spectacle of witnessing this offense fully loaded. While opponents have not been successful in stopping Ben, Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the mind reels when considering the addition of Bryant and DeAngelo Williams, Wheaton, Hey-Bey, Coates and Green, all in reasonably good health.
While Green has received the lion’s share of the attention, just as timely and impactful has been the quiet return of Bud Dupree. He is already showing flashes of picking up where he left off at the end of last season and then some.
The upside of playing two games in five days is the mini-bye that follows—ten days to heal up and hopefully get a couple of other players on line for the final push for the playoffs.
In defense of the defense
In retrospect, I believe it is time to acknowledge that Dick LeBeau wasn’t just being an old fuddy duddy concerning how quickly it takes young players to not be liabilities in a defense. We might keep two things in mind when evaluating this defense. Remember that it took a couple of years for the transition from the Arians to the Todd Haley offense to fully manifest, and something similar may be in progress from the LeBeau to Keith Butler system. In fact, the interdependence of a defensive system may be more difficult to achieve and more important to its success than the offense.
Secondly, barring injury or other setbacks, the best days of young players like Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, Dupree, Ross Cockrell, Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickillo, and even players who you might be tempted to believe have peaked or plateaued, like Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Dan McCullers may be in front of them.
The one improvement they won’t be able to make is at backup quarterback. Landry Jones is no Charlie Batch, or Byron Leftwich, or even Dennis Dixon. We are going to have to live with that for now. You tell me; which of the up and coming young every-down players would you pass on to get what would likely to be, at best, a slight upgrade in the form of a young backup? In my opinion, the best solution we can hope for given the circumstances might be to get a humbled veteran, like a Colt McCoy, RG III, Tony Romo type (emphasis on ‘type’, more so than the actual) who, like Batch and Leftwich, would rather serve in heaven than rule in hell. If you get your ego out of it, backup quarterback is one of the great jobs in football.
You can’t have it both ways. Some want to deprive us the luster of two victories in five days by pointing out that the Colts were depleted by injuries, and the Browns are..well..chumps. True enough. But you can’t, on one hand, run around like Chicken Little talking about trap games and the sky is falling, and then get all dismissive when they actually beat the pants off these teams like they are supposed to. I suspect is the real problem is they didn’t humiliate them to the extent that you were hoping or expecting.
The Steelers won two away games in five days, suffered no significant injuries, were competent and occasionally stellar in all three phases, are in sole possession of first place, have control of their own destiny and will get some rest before the final sprint to the playoffs. You could ask for more, but this is pretty good.