Then and Now: The 2015 and 2016 Steelers

11292015-HAWKShighlights01We are coming up to the stretch run. Five more games to play, the division in sight but not in hand, and the Steelers are (perhaps) rounding into form. It sounded vaguely familiar to me, and I thought I would have a quick look at the situation a year ago.

One year ago the Steelers were 6-5, having just lost to the Seattle Seahawks. The team had been highly inconsistent during the season, but having to start a couple of backup quarterbacks is generally not a recipe for success. The defense, who had been showing signs of getting it together, gave up five touchdowns to Russell Wilson. The Steelers offense put up 30 points. The remarkable thing is they did so in a game in which they turned the ball over four times. But 30 points weren’t enough to counter a meltdown of massive proportions by the defense.

There are similarities to last year’s situation at this point, and some big differences. One similarity is injuries  to important players. Last year it was Le’Veon Bell, who was out for the season after playing Cincinnati a few weeks before. But other than that the offense was remarkably healthy. Markus Wheaton had the best game of his career after Richard Sherman devoted himself and his considerable skills to taking AB out of the game. Martavis Bryant had a touchdown. Ben threw to multiple receivers, including some old (Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth,) and some new (Roosevelt Nix and Jesse James.) All in all he receptions to nine different receivers, for a total of 456 yards.

This season Heath Miller is retired and Matt Spaeth is gone. Markus Wheaton is on IR. DeAngelo Williams is on IR. Darrius Heyward-Bey may soon be on IR, as the smart money is that he has a Lis franc injury.  We have Le’Veon Bell, thank heavens, because besides him and Antonio Brown there isn’t a lot of offense. There is a crippled Sammie Coates, although the jury is still out on whether the problem is physical or psychological at this point. There is Cobi Hamilton, who means well and has had a couple of nice catches, but he’s very much a work in progress. There is Eli Rogers, who is promising but hardly a finished product. And there is a gaggle of tight ends, some more useful than others.

And really, the best hope for reinforcements is probably the intriguing but mysterious Ladarius Green. One has to wonder if the Steelers would have signed him to that lovely contract had they known the ankle injury for which he has surgery in the offseason would keep him out many more months than projected. Or was it the headaches? Or does he actually have headaches? It’s just part of the mystery.

But after a slow start he had two huge catches in last week’s game, and the potential is really evident. Perhaps he and not Sammie Coates will end up being the replacement for Martavis Bryant.

The 2015 Steelers went on to win all but one of their remaining games. That one game was against the hapless Ravens, who were playing a bunch of rookies, practice squad guys, and a quarterback they had signed earlier that week. Or day, or something like that. Which is one of the infuriating things about the Steelers. You can’t ever really count on them to take out, with brutal efficiency, the teams they are supposed to.

To be fair, thought, they have given a pretty decent imitation of a team like that in the past two games. A better imitation, really, than the Patriots gave on Sunday against the lowly Jets, although in Patriot-like fashion they did actually pull out the win in the end.

In the meantime, the 2016 defense suffered a major blow with the loss of Cameron Heyward and proceeded to play perhaps their best two games of the season. It might be a combination of luck and playing a couple of pretty bad teams, but I tend to think it is more a matter of the rookies having enough game action to be able to play with more confidence. Here’s a question for the doubters—would anyone trade this year’s secondary, warts, penalties, missed assignments and all, for last year’s? I thought not.

As the doubters are quick to point out, we will find out a lot more about the defense after they play a good team. And they will get that chance on Sunday. The Giants have given up very few sacks, have some explosive playmakers, and a very good quarterback. It’s possible that any seeming improvement was illusory, but I am going to go on believing in it until it is proven otherwise.

Last year’s Steelers would have needed to win out to win the division, and of course they didn’t. But they had one big advantage this year’s team doesn’t—there was a wild card spot available. The likelihood of a wild card slot for two AFC North teams his season is about the same as my chances of winning the Powerball. And since I don’t ever buy lottery tickets, you can see my chances are even smaller than most. This season it is “win the division or go home.” And at the moment at least the division goes through the Ravens, curse it.

While the Ravens’ offense isn’t highly regarded, their defense is scary. It is distinctly better, due to the return of Elvis Dumervil and various DBs, than it was when the Steelers played them in Baltimore. The bummer is, it’s highly possible the season will come down to the Christmas Day game at Heinz Field.

It could be the question will be moot by then anyhow. Either the Steelers will have already lost a couple of games they should have won (or at least needed to win) or the Ravens will have fallen victim to one of the three rather tough teams on their schedule between now and then—the surprising Dolphins, the annoying Patriots, and the plummeting Eagles, who are losing at home to the not-very-impressive 2016 version of the Packers as I write this.

Other than the Giants and the Ravens, the record of the remaining teams on the Steelers’ schedule is 9-23-1. But the 2016 Steelers have shown they can go toe-to-toe with anyone, at least until the final few minutes or even seconds. The games against the Pats (with Landry Jones at quarterback and the game against the Cowboys proved that. And more to the point, they can crap the bed against anyone, as their embarrassing loss to the Eagles proved.

So the question is, can the Steelers maintain health, focus, and determination long enough to get to the post-season? Because as last year’s wild card game demonstrated so clearly, absolutely anything can happen on any given Sunday.

 

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