Steelers 2016 Third Quarter Report
by Ivan Cole
In their review of the Steelers victory over the New York Giants, Post-Gazette reporters Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac noted that the last 33 seconds of the Dallas game is the difference between the Steelers’ current circumstances and being 8-4 and considered in the driver’s seat for a league title.
Those 33 seconds also, less importantly, stand as the reason that Pittsburgh doesn’t have a spotless third quarter of their 2016 season. The point being made here is how seemingly small factors, rather than just the big ones, can turn a season for better or worse. Those 33 seconds, all other variables remaining constant, are the difference between anticipatory speculation concerning playoff seedings and January football and the current reality of the December Playoffs where any, and perhaps all contests carry the weight of elimination.
There is a sigh of relief from most of us since we measured the Giants as being the most dangerous opponent we would face in December besides Baltimore, but look again. If there is one thing we must keep reminding ourselves, it is that the sands shift very swiftly in today’s NFL. What looked like a relatively easy schedule months ago looks different today.
The Steelers will be facing a desperate Buffalo team fighting for its playoff lives at home. They will then travel to Cincinnati to confront a team fighting for their professional lives from the coaching staff on down. Seeing Pittsburgh as their chief tormentor and (probably rightfully) a principle cause of their downfall, we must not be surprised if faced with a measure of hatred and resolve that can be challenging and dangerous, particularly regarding injuries. What do they have to lose?
The Ravens, like the Steelers, are awake now, never a good thing. With the division title on the line, the possibility of it also being a playoff elimination game, the game is on Christmas, and the fact that being Steelers vs Ravens a scrimmage in a parking lot would be must-see TV, God knows what might go down on that day.
Finally, there is the possibility of facing a Cleveland team who may be just as desperate as the others for a different set of reasons. As always, the professional lives of many involved will be at stake, but also there is this matter of the ignominy of a particularly shameful kind of perfection. The Browns specialize in having bad seasons, but 0-16 is really special. You might want to give some thought to what they might be capable of to avoid that fate.
Three of the four remaining opponents could bring some powerful psychological leverage to bear when facing Pittsburgh, but the Steelers’ advantage is that they are the most talented group in each case, are playing their best ball at the moment, and because of their relative youth have legitimate upside potential. This is to say, they can get better. They may not have peaked.
If you are like me, you might have allowed yourself to get caught up in the goal of scoring 30 or more points a game. Speaking for myself, I need to break out of that sort of thinking. When you have a reliable weapon such as Le’Veon Bell, who can, metaphorically speaking, nickel and dime you to death, that is as effective a path to victory as any you would want, particularly at this time of the year. It may not be as explosive, but with the defense on the rise, shootouts are not the only path to victory.
The outlook hasn’t changed here. This position is both the key to ultimate victory and the Achilles heel which could bring the whole thing crashing down in a heartbeat.
The bad news for 31 other teams is that Ben Roethlisberger is showing no ill effects of his mid-season injury and surgery. Nor are there any signs of the mental errors, bad decision making or mechanical glitches that characterized earlier stretches of the season. And if that weren’t bad enough, his toolbox, the weapons available to him, is both expanding and refining. All that could change in the blink of an eye, of course, but for the moment Ben is playing lethally, both as a talent and tactician and leader of the offense.
Todd Haley recently declared them the best in the business. We could get distracted with comparisons to others, but it would be completely missing the point. What everyone in Steelers Nation from Art Rooney II on down knew is that if you could keep Ben upright, clean and, as a bonus, give him the time to improvise, there were championships on the table to be had during the effective remainder of his career. And the very act of achieving that could possibly expand the size of the window of opportunity, extending Ben’s career.
It is somewhat amazing to me that this is being accomplished without much notice. At this stage, we can declare the O line as being highly competent, and though not completely unscathed by the injury bug, fortunate in the sense that they have been the ‘right’ kind of survivable losses. The starters are healthy and performing at or, especially in the case of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, above expectations. Cody Wallace and Ryan Harris are lost, but B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard have gained our confidence.
Together they have collaborated to make both Ben and Bell virtually unstoppable, which has also opened the door for Antonio Brown and made space for effective contributions from lesser lights. In the past, defenses could do things to neutralize the offensive stars. For that to happen this year an answer must be found for Mike Munchak’s crew—otherwise they can only hope that the Steelers offensively self-destruct.
With the losses of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth it has been hard to imagine this group being a strength of the offense, even with the most optimistic forecasts concerning newcomer Ladarius Green. However, taking care to point out that I don’t believe that Miller/Spaeth/James can be an apples vs apples comparison to what is evolving with Green/James/Johnson/Grimble, as Green transforms from potential white elephant to ‘oh now I get it’ type contributor, a Martavis Bryant/Rob Gronkowski type hybrid that can create heartburn for defenses who are struggling to come to terms with Ben, Bell and AB, this tight end group has become a four-headed monster that can neither be ignored or completely handled.
I saw an account where someone made a credible statistical comparison between Le’Veon Bell and Jim Brown, and they were real close. I think that’s all that needs to be said about that, besides keep him healthy.
The stats are down relative to the most recent seasons, but all things considered, Brown impresses because he’s doing it largely without a supporting cast that could effectively deflect some of the defensive attention away from him. This is not intended to take anything away from Eli Rodgers or Cobi Hamilton, but they are essentially free agent rookies who were thrown into the fire. They have performed well and are part of the group of young players who are improving in leaps and bounds with experience and reps. With Green and the other tight ends giving defenders yet one more thing to worry about beyond the three B’s, the youngsters may find opportunities to be difference makers.
I invite you to consider what this offense might have looked like this season (and could look like next year) with Martavis Bryant and a healthy Markus Wheaton or Sammie Coates added to the mix. And if you want to get really sadistic, throw in Darrius Heyward-Bey and DeAngelo Williams. Unfortunately, we won’t see it this year, but there is enough there to take this team as far as they need to potentially.
The growth and youthful transformation that is partially on display with the offense is a full-fledged phenomena with the defense. As Homer J has pointed out, it appears the team is going to realize its money’s worth with its top three draft picks—Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave. As good as the offense is, if the last three performances are indicative of a defensive unit that is gelling and capable of functioning at a higher level, then they will likely be the championship difference maker for this team.
You kinda wanted to just write off the season when Cam Heyward was lost for the year, but this unit did not collapse, and the defense in general has improved. Stephon Tuitt stepped up both in performance and leadership. Ricardo Mathews (and Green) continue to reassure us that Cam Thomas was not necessarily the template for free agents from San Diego. But the best story has been Hargrave, a third round pick who started this season strong and continues to improve.
150-year-old outside linebacker James Harrison is proving that being a mere shell of his old self is still better than most linebackers out there. He has also stepped into the leadership void left by Heyward. You can feel the trio of Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and William Gay stepping up in this regard as we get into money time.
The next best news has been the return of Bud Dupree, out of the picture for so long that he seemed forgotten and not thought of as being a contributor to the effort this season. All Ryan Shazier needs is his health. The improvement of Anthony Chickillo has been pleasant to watch.
I am a contrarian as it relates to Jarvis Jones. His demotion in my mind is about Harrison, and how good he still is at this point in his career, and the likelihood that they were preserving him for the stretch run. You simply can’t allow a resource like that go to waste over appearances and some misguided notion of fairness.
The criticisms of this group have become considerably muted recently. The biggest compliment being paid to Artie Burns is that he’s not being targeted much despite his rookie status. Teams are going after Ross Cockrell more often, not with a great deal of success. As a tandem, they could be on track to be the best pair in the Tomlin Era.
Sean Davis probably made the most significant contribution to the loss to the Cowboys*, but can be singled out for winning plays in the following three games. As I write this he is playing the best ball of anyone on that unit and seems to have relegated Robert Golden to where he is best suited, special teams.
Mike Mitchell to my mind is the best example of a player who is doing a better job of just doing his own job. William Gay’s role is fading, which is what you would want to see from a young group of talent on the rise. And, just a thought, we may still hear from Justin Gilbert and Senquez Golson (not this season for the latter, obviously) before all’s said and done.
I am on record as feeling that problems that occur elsewhere on the team have a way of trickling down to special teams. Heyward-Bey being down was probably a much bigger deal for special teams than the offense, for example. Same for Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas.
But by far the biggest special teams story is this unexpected Randy Bullock saga. What we feared was the return of the ‘S’ word. What we got was Boswellian. Hopefully the difficulties of the real Boswell are temporary and minor. I can skip the drama.
*in fairness to Davis it should be noted that he was trying to strip the ball out and the receiver ducked his head, resulting in Davis’ hand hitting the facemask instead of the ball. He was heartbroken after the game, or so I have read.