Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Fourth Quarter Report: Part Two
By Ivan Cole
The Steelers met the basic criteria for regular season success. In ascending order of importance, they achieved a winning record, earned a playoff berth and won a division championship. A higher seeding would be nice, but arguably, finishing strong and hot may be at least, if not more crucial to reaching the ultimate goal of a world championship.
It would be hard to imagine that, projecting forward from the summer, fans would be unhappy with an 11-5 overall record, and a division record that included an Ohio sweep and a split with Baltimore. At the time, the four-game losing streak seemed more troubling than it appears in retrospect. Though ugly on any level, the loss to Miami, at first glance a choke to an outfit of bottom feeders, turns out to have been the coming out party for a playoff caliber team on the rise. New England and Dallas are top seeds in their respective conferences, and Pittsburgh had to take on the Pats without Ben Roethlisberger. What was frustrating is that they were still winnable games.
.The Ravens had their own struggles, but will always be a tough out in Baltimore. Viewed from this perspective, it’s not nearly as disturbing.
Let’s also not forget the personnel issues. The line now is that the Steelers are a healthy team heading into the playoffs. This is true in the sense that the timing and focus of the injuries has been fortuitous, especially when compared to last season’s disaster. But that is not to say that the team was unscathed this season.
Ben’s injury, surgery and recovery happened to coincide with three quarters of the losing streak. Tell the wide receivers and defensive line how good a year it has been injury wise. Key contributors like Ladarius Green and Bud Dupree have only been available during the latter quarter of the season. And suspensions deprived the team of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant for varying lengths of time.
Happily, these challenges were largely offset by a number of positive developments that would have been difficult to predict in advance. The 2016 draft provided a level of immediate impact, from the season-long contributions of the top three draft picks, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, to the late emergence of Demarcus Ayers, that is very unusual for Pittsburgh. Relatively unknown bit players like Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Johnny Maxey, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney and Xavier Grimble also stepped up at important times.
You would think that team leadership would be praised from the hilltops, but this being Pittsburgh, the response was uneven. The call for heads to roll is never completely off the table. Jason Whitlock actually opined that he believed that Marvin Lewis was a better coach than Mike Tomlin. If you happen to agree, then our conversation is over. We’re just from two different planets.
This unit wasn’t always the high-powered scoring machine predicted during the summer. However, when your starting quarterback must have a surgical procedure, and the receiving corps sometimes, actually a lot of the time, featured Rogers, Hamilton and Grimble, just to mention a couple of realities, I think they are entitled to being given a little slack. We can now say with some confidence that when fully loaded with Ben, Bell, Brown, Bryant, Green and that O line, something we will not see this season, it will have frightening potential. And it’s not half bad now.
On the other hand, I have taken issue with some of the tactical decision making by Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and Ben. Limiting Bell to just ten touches in the Miami game would be a good example. But, particularly in Ben’s case, you have to take the good with the bad.
The second half of the Christmas Day game against the Ravens was the uneven nature of Ben’s season in microcosm. Bad decisions and bad throws at times, soaring brilliance at others. Which Ben dominates will likely be the difference between whether a Lombardi will be a possible exclamation point to this season, or falling frustratingly short.
Speaking of giving some slack, I believe it’s time to do so with Landry Jones. Unless you are assessing him by the unrealistic standard of being a potential heir apparent to Ben, he has shown himself to be a serviceable career backup who will likely make a good living in this league, and could evolve into a starter somewhere other than Pittsburgh.
Zach Mettenberger is a question mark and will, hopefully, continue to be so until sometime later in 2017.
Ben remains the one indispensable Steeler, if not always the most valuable or impactful. He does have to be present on the field of play and his errors kept to a minimum. This is true for this season and into the foreseeable future.
This may be the key star group for this season and beyond. Underrated relative to more publicized groups such as Dallas, this is the position group that, more than any other, makes the Steelers extremely dangerous going into the playoffs.
The ability to compete against Denver last season was due to the fact that the dangerous Bronco pass rush was not much of a problem. Not having Bell and Brown was. None of the defenses the Steelers are likely to face, with the possible exception of the Chiefs, are nearly as formidable, and the line is healthy and improved. With the key skill players available, the ability to keep Ben upright and clean, and opening running lanes for Bell, and if the self- inflicted problems can be minimized, then the offense will be difficult to contain.
Thankfully, I haven’t heard the calls this season for the team to trade center Maurkice Pouncey for a third-round pick and a ham sandwich. That has been proposed by fans in the past, minus the sandwich. David DeCastro has developed into the Christmas pony that Homer J declared him to be when he was drafted. Nobody complains about Marcus Gilbert anymore, and Ramon Foster plays well above his draft pedigree and his salary, not to mention bringing an additional, welcome element of leadership. But, really, none of this has been particularly surprising.
The key questions revolved around whether Alejandro Villanueva could grow into a competent full time starter at the critical left tackle position, and whether they could develop quality depth. To this point, Villanueva has received what is normally the best compliment an offensive lineman can be accorded—he hasn’t been noticed much at all. He, along with subs Finney and Hubbard, have caused Ryan Harris, Cody Wallace and the departed Kelvin Beachum to be forgotten men.
I guess Steelers Nation has grown accustomed to the presence of offensive line coach Mike Munchak because he is not gushed over as much this season. Credit must be given for the conversion of what was reliably one of the weakest position groups on the team to what may the strongest in the league.
The Buffalo game established that Le’Veon Bell does not currently take a back seat to any running back in this league. If he can put his health and personal issues firmly behind him, he is on track to being a generational talent. His availability for the playoffs for the first time in his career greatly enhances the chances of a team that fell just a little short without him (and Antonio Brown) last year.
DeAngelo Williams was also absent at playoff time last year. He performed very well earlier this year while Bell was serving out his suspension. There has not been much opportunity for both players to be healthy and available at the same time. There is no hard evidence to support it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some package of plays exists that exploit the simultaneous presence of Juice and D-Will on the field.
Richard Mann’s unit has been the deepest on the team in recent years, with the normal problem being that there weren’t enough helmets or balls to go around. This season they had to dig all the way into the sub-basement to find players.
It was known that Martavis Bryant would be unavailable for the year. But who knew that list would expand to include Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey, sometimes all of them at once?
Amazingly, Rogers and Hamilton stepped into the gap admirably, providing some support for Antonio Brown. Then Ayers rose from practice squad purgatory and performed above the line as well.
This raises the long-term question—which of these guys do you let go?
The presence of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth has been missed, but honestly, has the production gone down? Tight end would have been reasonably assumed to be the weak link in the Steelers offense this season even if Green were healthy throughout. Instead, the committee at that position which includes Jesse James and David Johnson has been a welcome and unexpected source of consistent strength. Each of the four have made huge plays both blocking and receiving during the fourth quarter that have contributed to winning efforts.
All of this has proven to be necessary given the injury/suspension induced weaknesses at wide receiver. Who would have guessed that this group would be the source of so much excitement top to bottom?
The operating assumption throughout has been that in 2016 the defense would be the weak link that might take the team down. Though in certain respects they performed well early in the season, they gave up too many rushing yards, could not generate much of a pass rush and, in spite of significant infusions of new talent, the secondary’s problems seemed intractable, much as that of the offensive line’s when their rebuild began.
Cam Heyward was as close to being the indispensable player for the defense as Ben was for the offense, and then he was gone. It all looked hopeless.
And then the youngsters began to grow up.
4-0 in the fourth quarter is a great record. 4-0 without Heyward and Stephon Tuitt for three of the four games is downright amazing. The rapid ascension of Javon Hargrave is relatively old news. What was provided by Ricardo Matthews, Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton, and the pride of Mars Hill, Johnny Maxey is more noteworthy.
A few lost souls are still calling for Ryan Shazier to be switched to strong safety. But all it took was a run of good health to cause us to believe that it is an injustice that he wasn’t voted into the Pro Bowl.
Lawrence Timmons may or may not be around next season, but you can’t say with a straight face that it is because he’s over the hill. This is particularly true given that resident dinosaur James Harrison is mulling a return in 2017 and no one is grumbling about that.
Bud Dupree’s return and the obvious upgrade in his game reveals an athletic, aggressive group that could be dominant for a long time
The big story of the 2016 defense are the signs that the secondary may be ready to take a similar step up in the way the offensive line did over the past few years. After the understandable rookie growing pains, Burns and Davis are emerging as stars in the making. Their development obscures the ongoing growth of Ross Cockrell (the Villanueva of the defense).
All of this has allowed Mike Mitchell to play a more settled game and William Gay to function as the savvy veteran. It has also salvaged Carnell Lake from being at the front of the pink slip line in the eyes of the fans.
There have been some difficulties with returns (Bengals) and kickoffs (Ravens), but it should be remembered that many of the recent injuries (Hey-Bey, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, Anthony Chickillo) impact special teams more severely, while special teamers are also being called upon to fill the gaps on offense and defense.
The quality and character of the playoff run may have some effect on what follows, but I feel comfortable about the following:
- Barring catastrophic injury or other unknowns, the Steelers are evolving into a deep, talented team with a need for tweaks, rather than the filling of major holes.
- Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have earned the right to demand and get super elite money. Pay them and move on.
- The foundations of the offense and defense, their lines, are set.
- The defense is on the cusp of being elite with the defining issues being depth in the front seven and maturity in the secondary.
- On offense, it will be about health, character concerns (Bryant) and the beginning of the search for Ben’s heir.
- The biggest losses may be free agency and retirement among the coaches.
Forget all the shortsighted noise, this group has the potential of being very good for a very long time.