Fifth Quarter Report: 2016 Steelers, Defense ‘n at
by Ivan Cole
The Team, Part Three: Defense and more
Defensive line coach John Mitchell fired a lot of people up last spring singing the praises of Daniel McCullers. He wasn’t necessarily wrong in doing so. Big Dan did improve. It’s just that no one could have anticipated how big a first impression the rookie Javon Hargrave made.
I believe that it is just the nature of Pittsburgh’s defensive system as it relates to the obvious impact of the lineman which prevented Hargrave from being named the rookie MVP. The learning curve is no less demanding than anywhere else, yet the Gravedigger hit the ground at a high level [how often to rookie defensive linemen start?] and did not waver throughout the season.
I am excited about what a Heyward/Hargrave/Tuitt line can be going forward. The talent, attitude and growth potential could portend great things. And if they stood pat on this group, I have no problems with the backups (Mathews, McCullers, Walton and Maxey) as well. I don’t think it’s wishful thinking to believe that apart from Mathews, their best days are still ahead of them as well.
Who didn’t think we would be reciting James Harrison’s football obituary now?
The good news is that this possibility doesn’t come as a result of performance issues with the position group. The biggest problem with the linebacker group this season has been Joey Porter. What questions there are here are more business related—specifically, what do you do with Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones?
I’m sure many reading this see it as a straight forward set of issues. But given his age, it is prudent to anticipate that the chances are high that Deebo may need considerable assistance getting through a full season at a high level. Would Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo or some rookie or veteran unknown be able to fill that gap better than Jones? And while Timmons is definitely older, I don’t believe for one minute that he’s done playing at a high level.
But I think we can at least agree that, led by breakout seasons by Ryan Shazier and something of a cameo by Bud Dupree, the high level of Steelers linebacking play is back regardless of how things shake out with the rest of the group.
The secondary remains the group with the most unresolved questions, but the group who also experienced the most dramatic improvement. Their greatest promise and their sins are one and the same. They are young. For the most part the formula for improvement here is simply to have them grow up. The intriguing question heading into next season will be what, if anything, might the team get from Senquez Golson?
Yes, they struggled some, with an explanation. It can be argued that injury difficulties always create problems with special teams, because they must often be syphoned off to fill gaps in other areas.
But last season some of their top performers (Rosie Nix, Hey- Bey, Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas, Anthony Chickillo, Vince Williams) were, themselves, injured. The tendency is to assume that plugging any body into this group will yield the same results, but that is to believe that the sole criteria is for special teams to be a place to stash offensive and defensive reserves.
This is partly true. But it is also true that whether or not one is selected as a reserve is often determined by special teams play as a stand- alone consideration. Therefore, I am inclined to give them some slack.
Chris Boswell has proven he is not a robot. Besides that, I can’t remember when I have had such confidence and comfort in the team’s kicking game.
The most optimistic image that I take from the 2016 season was watching Artie Burns sitting on the Steelers bench after losing to the Pats in the AFCCG, slamming his helmet in frustration.
The chip is some real or manufactured setback or misfortune that individuals cultivate consciously or not to drive them to greatness. The lingering stench of poverty, being told that they would never amount to anything, being passed over in the draft, whatever. It drives you to obsessive behavior, and to disregard the fact that on balance, life is pretty good.
For many of the young Steelers, especially the rookies, their last game may be their chip. The promise of gain can be a great motivator, but anger and the hatred of losing drove players like Joe Greene and Hines Ward. It might be what this team needs to push them over the top.
Otherwise, I would suggest that the future looks bright.
The Tomlin/Colbert/(Art)Rooney team has built a solid contender. This is not an outcome that was demonstrably clear a few years ago. But with a very few vestiges of previous times remaining—Dan Rooney, Ben, a few others—any rational person must concede credit on this point. They have clearly re-established themselves as the class of their division. Only New England (for the moment) has a superior claim.
You have to search hard for significant weaknesses. The challenges can be condensed to three going forward.
1) Addressing the normal off season business issues of contracts and the addition and deletion of players via the draft and free agency. Here the organizational culture of success and support, as well as Tomlin in particular, provides an advantage in that Pittsburgh is a desirable destination.
2) The ongoing seasoning of a young team.
3) A run of good luck with injuries.
Let’s use the offense as an example. Given their relative personnel stability for the current cycle, imagine being able to consistently put this group on the field:
- An offensive line consisting of the current starters and any four from the following group (Finney, Harris, Hawkins, Hubbard and Wallace).
- A healthy Ladarius Green and a more seasoned Jesse James as the core tight ends.
- AB and Martavis as No. 1 and 2 receivers, with the rest fighting it out for helmets.
- Bell, Nix and whomever.
- Ben and a backup who can manage the team against quality opponents part or all of a few games if necessary.
With the possible exception of the backup quarterback, there is little or nothing to add to the ingredients on hand. 30 points a game? Not at all unreasonable.
That would be a very good thing.