Fifth Quarter Report: 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers—Team Overview
by Ivan Cole
The biggest question to be answered this past season was whether the Pittsburgh Steelers were, indeed, Super Bowl contenders. The answer is contained in the title of this piece. To make it into the fifth quarter of an NFL season, the playoffs, is always a good thing. They came within 60 minutes of making it to the big game.
There will certainly be those who will insist that this makes all the difference and is not good enough. But you won’t hear that argument in this space. It could be said that the fragility of Le’Veon Bell’s groin may have been the difference. Close enough.
A quick summary would be that, in spite of significant challenges, Pittsburgh improved their roster via both the draft and free agency, upgraded from a wild card playoff qualifier to a division winner, and progressed one level deeper into the post season. These are all signs that the arrow, as they say, is pointing up.
What this means as we project forward cannot be answered at this time. We don’t know, for example, who is staying, who is leaving and who will be new. There are answers to questions and issues that were raised prior to and throughout the 2016 season that will help to define the condition of the team and its challenges in 2017. These will be the main focus of this report.
This is an X factor that can cripple and derail the best laid plans. It is generally considered bad form for team officials to say much in this regard because it invites accusations of excuse making. However, team president Art Rooney II did not completely avoid the topic in his assessment of the season, and I am not bound by the agreed-upon stoicism that those on the inside practice.
It speaks more to how badly things went in 2015 that 2016 seemed to be a more forgiving year. But let’s briefly summarize: The incumbent placekicker (Shaun Suisham) and the 1st backup quarterback (Bruce Gradkowski) suffer career ending setbacks. The franchise quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has in-season knee surgery. The top defensive player and team leader (Cameron Heyward) goes on IR.
The top draft pick from the previous season (Bud Dupree) and top free agent acquisition (Ladarius Green) both miss most of the season due to injuries. Also lost to IR were the current #2 receiver (Markus Wheaton), the two most experienced offensive line backups (Ryan Harris and Cody Wallace), the least experienced (rookie Jerald Hawkins), and defensive backs Senquez Golson and Shamarko Thomas. Seen enough? Sorry, there’s more.
Missing at least one game, and in several cases multiple games due to injury, were starting offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert, Nos. 3 and 4 wide receivers [Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey,] backup running back DeAngelo Williams, placekicker Chris Boswell, defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, Ricardo Mathews and Javon Hargrave, linebackers Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Jarvis Jones, Steven Johnson, James Harrison and Anthony Chickillo, defensive backs Robert Golden and Sean Davis. And I know I missed someone. [That would be rookie No. 1 pick Artie Burns, who missed a big chunk of training camp and the preseason with an injury. There are probably more..Ed.]
Oh yes, and although they are, technically speaking, not injury issues, Le’Veon and Martavis Bryant missed 19 games between them due to suspension. But otherwise the team was perfectly healthy.
If something approaching perfect health is the bottom line criteria for team success, then it would be unlikely that the Patriots, Steelers or Packers would have gotten very far this season.
It’s tempting to play the ‘what if’ game in relation to injuries, but, really, the truly bad news is that we have to come to terms with the likelihood that these injuries [and, alas, possible suspensions] are not so much a matter of bad luck but, given how the game has evolved, the new normal. Therefore, the success of teams may increasingly depend upon how well they navigate current challenges with the totality of their much-too-small rosters.
This brings us to some good news about 2016.
Has anyone considered that “the Standard is the Standard” may represent the wave of the future in terms of the NFL? It certainly defines New England in the present day. Keeping in mind and honoring the rule of thumb that draft classes must not be judged too soon, this year’s group made immediate and significant contributions to the team, and there were none who could be pointed to as failures.
The top three picks (Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave) all eventually became full time starters, with Hargrave beginning immediately at a high level and the other two improving from being occasional liabilities to team strengths. Tyler Matakevich joined the ranks of solid special teams contributors.
And after looking all the world like the next iteration of Dri Archer, Demarcus Ayers showed that he could have a productive future with this team, particularly if he can be a positive factor in the return game. The closest thing to disappointments were Hawkins’ injury and Travis Feeney being poached from the practice squad.
Ladarius Green’s injury situation has been a disappointment, but when healthy, his play has not. He, along with defensive end Ricardo Mathews and boomeranging tight end David Johnson, speaks to a productive pipeline of free agent talent from the San Diego Chargers.
At the bottom of the roster there were unexpected but necessary help coming from the likes of Xavier Grimble, Cobi Hamilton, Johnny Maxey and Eli Rodgers. Credit must be given to the scouting and other aspects of team personnel, as well as coaches that manage to help these players reach the point where they can succeed.
At the other end of the spectrum there were few disappointments or disasters. My vote for the greatest of these would be safety Shamarko Thomas, who many had hoped would be the performance heir to Troy Polamalu. That doesn’t seem likely to happen, and with the rise of Sean Davis, the window may well be closing.
Of course, a lot of folks would place Jarvis Jones in this role. He has not impressed to the degree that other first rounders Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree have to this point. He is not tracking to be a superstar, which those two are. But in my discernment ‘bust’ is just too harsh an assessment, particularly given the fact of his injury history, and his positioning relative to the great story surrounding James Harrison.
Fans are particularly unforgiving when it comes to injury. They have been poised to throw Shazier on the trash heap because of injuries. There was even grumbling in some quarters about Bud Dupree. I think Jones will continue to find work, either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere and will be, at worst, solid.
Just like the Standard is the Standard was turned into a club by some disgruntled fans to disparage the team and its leadership, the 30 point per game average had come to serve a similar role in 2016. However, there was a significant change in the dynamic that, if we had thought it through would have changed how we viewed the performance standards.
For years, the rock upon which offensive success rested was Ben and the wide receivers corps. They compensated for the sins and limitations of the offensive line and the running game. With those two areas strengthened, it was expected that the offense was in position to soar. But this season the wide receivers, because of injuries and suspension became the weak link, though, stubbornly, the expectations didn’t change. When reliance shifting to Le’Veon, the point production expectations should have changed. They didn’t. Consider that as we review.
to be continued. To read Part 1 click here.