Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Fourth Quarter Report: Part One
by Ivan Cole
A perfect final act
The Steelers saved the best for last. This was necessary to an extent given the hole they had dug for themselves during the middle of the season. They could have made the playoffs losing as many of two (the right two) of the final four games, but the sweep not only provided the normal satisfaction associated with winning—each game represented different challenges confronted and overcome that will strengthen this team in both the short and long term.
Though favored, Buffalo represented the perfect opportunity for the type of stumble that could have created a tone of ongoing inconsistency and uncertainty whitch might have resulted in as much trepidation and heartburn heading into the playoffs as joyful anticipation. Ben Roethlisberger did his best to crystalize that nightmare scenario with mistakes that undermined otherwise excellent play by his teammates and provided hope for a desperate opponent that needed all the help it could get.
But Ben’s mistakes could not negate the brilliance of Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line. Two things were established in this game. First, Bell is an extraordinary talent who drew comparisons to Jim Brown without eliciting eye rolls from football purists with long memories. Second, despite the obligatory next-man-up talk, having Bell available and healthy for the playoffs could be a difference maker. It contributes to making Pittsburgh the team that no one wants to face in the post season.
The concerns going into the Cincinnati game were of a different nature. The Bengals couldn’t derail the season based upon the results on the scoreboard, but, as was true last year, they were capable in character and temperament, as I wrote at the time, to drag the Steelers with them into Football Hell by drawing them into a ruinous war of attrition.
Vontaze Burfict, missing due to suspension in their early season encounter, was singlehandedly responsible for Bell and Antonio Brown not being available in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs. Sure enough, the tone of this contest reflected the ugliness of last season’s Wild Card playoff, and the inspired Bengals established a large early lead.
What happened next was the source of great satisfaction for Steelers Nation. The Steelers mounted a second half comeback and won the game, applying a dagger to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes in the process. They escaped without significant injuries or fines, but, nevertheless, were also able to inflict enough damage to Burfict that he was forced off the field of play at one point. Finally, in a difficult to believe exclamation point, the winning points came courtesy of an encore of the meltdown that doomed the Bengals last year, as well as an ill-considered desecration of a Terrible Towel that may add a curse to the considerable list of difficulties faced by this franchise.
Baltimore on Christmas Day was the main event, the one game that the team and the Nation both most needed and wanted to win. What we were treated to was an instant classic. Great atmosphere, great uniforms, a last second victory with Brown providing the heroics, a division crown and a place in the playoffs.
The Steelers didn’t have to win the finale against Cleveland, and there were other considerations, such as avoidance of injury that took precedence over doing so. But they did anyway, with Landry Jones, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers (forgot about him, didn’t you?) leading the way.
The fifth quarter
Pittsburgh now joins eleven other teams who have the opportunity of adding an entire fifth quarter (wild card, division, conference, super bowl) to their season. One of the disadvantages of privilege is that it can sometimes cause a lack of appreciation of the joy and wonder associated with January football.
For twenty organizations and their fan bases, the 2016 season ended with the year itself this past weekend. Living as I do in the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area, it can be a dark, depressing, even ugly time. The atmosphere is thick with regrets and recrimination, frustration and envy. Where for Steelers Nation the playoffs are likely one of the top subjects of discussion this week, for others, particularly in Washington, where there was anticipation until the last that they would be participating, on the streets it is as if professional football does not exist. It is all too raw. Perhaps by the weekend there will be some embrace of the playoffs as a diversion. For now, the discussion will center around scapegoating, who needs to be fired and the beginning of the off season conversations concerning free agency and the draft.
On the other hand, we know that for a significant portion of the Pittsburgh fan base the current excitement and good feeling is strictly provisional. An early exit (and by early exit it is meant anything short of the Rooneys hoisting a Lombardi) can result in a rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the call for firings and executions of biblical proportions.
Let me suggest, therefore, while the good feelings last, that we look at what was accomplished and what was learned this season.
What can we say about the leadership team of the Rooneys, Kevin Colbert and the rest of the front office, head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff?
An 11-5 record and a AFC North Division title, the team’s 12th consecutive non-losing season (17-1 for the century). They lead the league in division titles during the Super Bowl era. Mike Tomlin’s ten-season career as a head coach includes ten years without a losing season, 103 victories, seven playoff appearances, five division titles, two conference titles and one world championship.
Because we don’t have an agreed-upon consensus of what constitutes greatness, whether Tomlin’s resume qualifies will most probably remain a matter of dispute. But any suggestion that it is merely mediocre, or even worse, bad, is a good functional example of how living in a bubble makes one delusional.
The season was marred by a four-game losing streak, accompanied by the expected histrionics. Now that the season is complete we know that they lost to three playoff teams, including the number one seeds in each conference (including one of those epic Tom Brady vs Landry Jones match-ups) and the Ravens in Baltimore a couple of weeks after Ben had knee surgery.
A fair criticism of Tomlin’s teams is the occasional lapse into playing down to one’s competition, or, as Tomlin himself will state, they kick their own butts via errors of their own making. On the other hand, what has also been consistently true about Tomlin’s teams is that they do not give up on themselves or their coach, as exemplified by the current seven game win streak, and in particular, the come-from-behind efforts in the last three games.
Although, as has been cautioned so many times, we are still years from a proper reckoning, the 2016 draft class has distinguished itself with its early impact upon the fortunes of the team. As pointed out elsewhere, it has been decades since three rookies, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, made it on the starting lineup on defense. It shall also be noted that as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd draft choices, this class is relatively free of underachievers or late bloomers. Then, just once you thought you had your mind wrapped around how good this group could be, Demarcus Ayers emerges late and shows that he could have a quality future with this team.
There’s more. It took a while to fully recover from his infirmities, but we can safely remove the white elephant label from tight end Ladarius Green. Not all free agent acquisitions work out, but the mistakes are usually quickly corrected. DeAngelo Williams allows us to put LeGarrette Blount in the rearview mirror, and Ricardo Matthews shows that not all free agent defensive linemen from San Diego are bums.
Then there are undrafted free agents who, like Eli Rogers and B.J. Finney, perform beyond their projected promise. Whether it is selection, coaching or a combination of the two, the ability to identify and develop those whose potential is not obvious is a telling characteristic of the great programs such as New England and Pittsburgh.
The greatest achievements in this regard would be, in my estimation, those of Alejandro Villanueva and Ross Cockrell, two players recovered from the trash heap of other teams and developed into high quality starters for a division champion team.
So successful has this developmental process been that it has contributed to the perception that the Steelers have come away relatively unscathed in the injury department. To be sure, this year is nowhere near the nightmare that was 2015, but let us not forget that Green and Bud Dupree have only been recently available. Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Senquez Golson, Ryan Harris, Jerald Hawkins, Shamarko Thomas and Cody Wallace are out. D-Will, Ben, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Robert Golden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Chris Boswell, Ramon Foster, Javon Hargrave and Marcus Gilbert have all missed games due to injury. Bell and Martavis Bryant have missed them due to suspensions.
Into the gap have stepped players like Rogers and Finney, Chris Hubbard and Cobi Hamilton, Xavier Grimble and Anthony Chickillo.
As Tomlin has said recently, the “Standard is the Standard” is just words unless and until someone takes it to heart and can manage to apply it in real and meaningful ways. That isn’t done without quality leadership.