Fifth Quarter Report: 2016 Steelers, continued


Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

by Ivan Cole

The Team: Offense


Let’s re-establish a basic professional football truth at the outset. Franchise quarterbacks do not grow on trees. We don’t usually define them as such, but they tend to be generational players, as in if you are lucky, one will come along every quarter century or so.

Using the real history of the Steelers as an example, in the early 1980s, franchise quarterback Terry Bradshaw went away. About twenty years later Ben Roethlisberger came along. During the interim, there were no championships. Not a coincidence.

Remember that the man who was considered the goat of Super Bowl XXX loss, and who probably always will be so considered as such, was the quarterback. I mentioned in a previous post that the Detroit Lions have experienced a very long championship drought. That is due in part by the fact that they have never replaced Bobby Layne. Maybe Matthew Stafford is the answer.

There is some hope in that in relatively recent times there were two instances (Green Bay— Favre to Rodgers, and San Francisco—Montana to Young) where teams went smoothly from one franchise-caliber quarterback to another. And there are plenty of circumstances where promising talent (Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott) fell to the lower rounds, accessible to anyone.

The fact remains—if Ben goes away, we almost certainly have a problem.

Unfortunately, we have learned one other thing related to Ben this season, and that is, like Tomlin, he remains a polarizing figure in the perception of many. Intuition and cynicism tells me that this will eventually change when the league and its partners conclude that there is more money to be made presenting Ben as a redemptive figure, as opposed to one of controversy. Perhaps this will happen after Brady retires or declines. The case is similar with Tomlin. In both instances the naysayers will retreat when their views are officially judged as retrograde and unfashionable.

As for Ben’s performance—if I could offer one piece of unsolicited advice, it would be to have Le’Veon Bell teach him how to play chess. I really don’t have a problem with the nature of Ben’s decisions. He has demonstrated the ability to make them work. I do have a problem with the timing.

At an important juncture early in a critical game it is third and one and your choices are handing the ball to your All-Pro caliber running back or throwing a low-percentage bomb to a young receiver with two broken fingers. You choose the latter, which then puts the onus on your young defense with three rookie starters to play the role of the mature, steady ones and hold things together. I have a problem with that.

As for the rest of the depth chart, the issue isn’t finding a replacement for Ben, its finding a replacement for Gradkowski for now.

Offensive Line

With all due deference to the Killer Bs, the horse that the Steelers offense will ride to a championship will be the offensive line. At the beginning of last season, the major question, besides whether they could stay reasonably healthy, was whether Alejandro Villanueva could evolve into a player who could hold down the critical left tackle position. The other option was to be forced to resort to second option Ryan Harris. A secondary concern might have been depth.

As it turns out, they have nine players I would be comfortable seeing in the starting lineup at any time. It is easy to imagine how popular Villanueva’s story would be if the team had made the Super Bowl.

Wide Receivers

Richard Mann should get credit for a masterful coaching job with the wide receivers. They were in the uncharacteristic position of being the weak link of the offense. Going forward the potentiality exists for this group to have an embarrassment of riches and force some tough choices, but there are complications as well.

Antonio Brown continues to make the case that he is in the conversation for being the best receiver in football. His resumé and work effort would make it fairly crazy for the Steelers to do anything but lock him up.

However, the question has been raised as to whether AB will be tripped up by the minefield of fame. Wide receivers are the narcissists of football. And while he’s no Odell Beckham or Terrell Owens, he is displaying some issues that we have come to associate with that type of player. The challenge will be for the Pittsburgh culture to help keep him grounded—if it can.

Events conspired favorably for Martavis Bryant. For a while it appeared that the case could be made that they could do it without him. Today, I would think that the consensus would be it’s better to have him than not. Hopefully his issues are largely behind him and he’ll be back and part of a success story.

The timing of Markus Wheaton’s injury may have made him a big loser here. But if things don’t work out for Bryant, or complications develop with AB his stock goes way up. Injuries also scuttled a big opportunity for Sammie Coates. On the other hand, Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rodgers in particular made the best of their opportunities. Darrius Heyward-Bey’s edge remains special teams, while Demarcus Ayers has earned a closer look next season.

If you have been keeping count, that’s eight players for what is likely, at most, to be six slots (and probably just five) on the team. If you are the Steelers front office, that is what we call leverage.

Tight Ends

There is not a lot of conversation surrounding tight ends coach James Daniel, but I believe he really deserves some attention this year. You lose one of the best tight ends in team history in Heath Miller, along with veteran Matt Spaeth. Then there was the injury situation with Green, leaving him to make it work with second year player Jesse James, UFDA free agent David Johnson and Xavier Grimble. Who? At no time during the season did the blocking and receiving from this position group seem to be a liability. To the contrary, it was a strength.

Running Backs

The offensive MVP was hands down, in my opinion, Le’Veon Bell. If I weren’t a Steelers fan I would go out of my way to watch Bell play. He is that kind of a talent. As far as the questions that were on the table this season, his groin injury leaves the door open just a crack concerning his durability.

I am inclined to believe that his personal issues and the potential effect on the team are behind him. Of the Killer Bs, he has proven to be least distracting. Art Rooney’s response to whether the team intends to pay him reassures me that the Steelers aren’t crazy.

As for the rest of this group, with a healthy Bell and Roosevelt Nix it doesn’t take much to fill things out. They will likely need to add someone, as DeAngelo Williams’ contract is up and it would appear he won’t be re-signed. It would certainly be nice to have someone with a bit more of a proven track record than Fitzgerald Touissaint…

to be continued. For Parts 1 and 2, click here and here.



  • Lots of fans out there were either too young or have just plain forgotten about the years between Brad and Ben. They will be in for a rude awakening in a few years unless the Steelers luck into a Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott type of late round pick.


    • So true, Bill. I’m hoping Kevin Colbert has something up his sleeve, but I don’t see how. Either they sell the farm to trade up for another Ben (if they’re lucky and he pans out) or they luck into someone nobody else puts too much value on or the long night begins…


      • Honestly, Rebecca, I don’t know that Colbert has “something up his sleeve.” I doubt it. Remember, Colbert and Cowher were set to take some offensive guard in 2004 when Dan Rooney steered the conversation to Roethlisberger.

        Overall, I agree with Ivan. I “got into it” with some one on Twitter after the Christmas game who was ripping Roethlisberger. Now by the look of his profile picture, he was old enough to remember the days between Ben and Brad. Either way, I couldn’t believe it. Yes, those two picks by Ben WERE dumb, but my lord, his play in the 4th was flawless.

        The point is, franchise quarterbacks ARE are.

        And it is even RARER when you can find them back-to-back.

        Joe Montana-Steve Young; Brett Favre-Aaron Rogers; Peyton Manning-Andy Luck.

        Can anyone think of any others? I can’t


  • Let me pose one question here regarding franchise quarterbacks.

    First, let’s acknowledge Ivan’s essential point that the Steelers went 20 years between Bradshaw and Ben without a quarterback and had no titles because of it. No argument there.

    The question is, is a franchise quarterback necessary for winning a title?

    For years and years I argued on sports bars in favor of Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart based on part that you didn’t need a great QB to win a Super Bowl, only a good one. Having a great one certainly helped, but the Jim Plunkett’s, Jim McMahon’s, Jeff Hostletler’s and Mark Rypien’s seemed to prove my point.

    But the game changed. The last non-franchise QB’s to win Super Bowls were Brad Johnson in 2003 and Trent Dilfer in 2000; so the logic seemed to be reinforcing itself as we moved into the second decade of the 21st century.

    But let me pose this question – Does Denver’s success last season change things?

    No offense to Peyton Manning, but in his last season he was little more than a game manager, and by the Super Bowl things were such that the Broncos were calling running plays on 3rd and 9 because they trusted their defense more than Manning.


  • The sarcasm comment was me


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