The Case for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part Four—The Offense
by Ivan Cole
Editor’s note: Ordinarily I would have put up a post today with an opponent preview, but the truth is, nobody knows who the heck the Cleveland Browns are at the moment. The one thing we can be sure of (I think) is that they would like to make a statement on Sunday. They will have at least one fewer playmaker than expected to do so, though, as Myles Garrett, their top-of-the-first-round pick, the man who asserted that one of his top priorities was to “chop down” Ben Roethlisberger, got injured in practice and is almost certainly out, at least for this week. Hopefully this doesn’t give the offensive line a false sense of security. So instead of reading my wholly unsupported speculations about what the Browns will look like on Sunday, you get the privilege of reading more of Ivan’s brilliant writing:
Where things currently stand
I have been asserting throughout that everything about this season, from the outcome to the methods that might be resorted to achieve it would deviate from what many of us had come to view as normal. Usually by Labor Day the deal is mainly done with the 53-man roster and practice squad set. But in the interim between my setting down these words and the time they reach your eyes significant changes could well have occurred. So, with the understanding that this may still be a work in progress rather than a definitive preview of the 2017 season let’s bring a few things spoken of previously up to date.
Shock and awe
A few hours before the roster deadline I glibly mentioned to Rebecca about the upcoming “bloodletting”. There was no real secret here. A perfect storm was brewing, involving a new, onetime orgy of cuts mandated by the league, an embarrassment of riches in many position groups with little pressure release in the form of substandard performances or significant injuries in terms of numbers or severity, and a brutal sense of urgency emanating from team leadership. The train wasn’t just moving, it was about to jump into warp.
Nonetheless, even with that foreknowledge, when it went down Rebecca used terms like “shocking” to describe it all. Starters and star quality players were acquired. Steelers starters and former high draft picks traded. Steady, contributing veterans along with promising young talent unceremoniously waived. All the moves made sense, particularly if you understood that the bias was about now, not later, what are you doing today, not what might you be able to do tomorrow. Based on that logic, players such as Johnny Maxey, Steve Johnson, Senquez Golson, David Johnson, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers, Colin Holba and Knile Davis are gone. [Although Steven Johnson is now back, for the moment.] For now, earning spots and a chance to be a part of Steelers championship lore are Terrell Watson, Kameron Canaday, Justin Hunter, Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Tyson Alualu and Joe Haden.
Though unforgiving in its singular focus on the goal of a Super Bowl, the process was not without Steelers compassion. Ross Cockrell and Sammie Coates were not orphaned, they have new homes. Fitz Toussaint was brought back via the practice squad. However, if I were Dan McCullers, Xavier Grimble or Jerald Hawkins, among others, I would be sleeping with one eye open over the next few days.
Whatever is driving this sense of urgency with the team it is not concerns about job security in leadership. GM Kevin Colbert has joined head coach Mike Tomlin in receiving a contract extension. Like Tomlin, this was a move that was accepted and celebrated as wholly appropriate. This can be easily summarized by noting that all but one of this year’s draft choices made it on to a championship caliber team. The last two seasons had similar results supported by wise free agency decisions. We might also acknowledge an off season with complete stability among the coaching staff.
The NFL is in trouble (cont).
National syndicated columnist George Will just joined the conversation concerning CTEs. Timed to appear at the point when fan optimism and enthusiasm is at an optimal level, this marks a mainstreaming of the issue, and its most challenging statement may have been contained in this line:
Many will make increasingly informed choices to accept the risk-reward calculus. But because today’s risk-averse middle-class parents put crash helmets on their tykes riding tricycles, football participation will skew to the uninformed and economically desperate. But will informed spectators become queasy about deriving pleasure from an entertainment with such human costs?
An interesting statistic appeared this summer that can summarize both the past challenges and future potential facing the Pittsburgh offense. The Killer Bs (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and let’s throw in Martavis Bryant) have only been on the field together for 9 percent of the snaps made by the offense over the past few years. If you count Bryant then the snap count for 2016 would be zero. If you don’t then the vast majority of snaps for the two games with the Pats last season, as well as their previous two playoff appearances qualify.
Is it unreasonable to aspire to 50 percent or higher this year? And if that can be achieved can better results be expected? It’s simple but fragile, just keep them on the field. But I do have one other concern.
I am developing a reputation of being something of a crank when it comes to offensive decision making, both Ben and Todd Haley can exhibit what I would politely term self- limiting behavior. Brett Favre had that problem, which is why I was never a big fan. Just saying.
The Offensive Line
Let’s be clear. The Bs aren’t the key, this unit is. Now recognized as one of the best, if not the very best in the game. Most of the readers of this site have been around long enough to step back and acknowledge what a paradigm shift this is. With due respect to Brown, Bell and others, next to Ben, Maurkice Pouncey may be the most important key to the success of this offense, with his other line mates not far behind. Hopefully gone are the days where fans can safely suggest in public that the team might be better off trading Pouncey for a third-round draft pick and considering themselves fortunate.
This will be the third season this group has been together under the exceptional leadership of Mike Munchak. Pouncey and David DeCastro are on Hall of Fame tracks,there can be pro bowls in Marcus Gilbert’s future. Ramon Foster is as much a team leader in his own right as is Pouncey. You could be forgiven if you thought of Al Villanueva and B.J. Finney as just nice human-interest types who you hoped would stick around for a couple of years as journeymen. Chris Hubbard has evolved into Trai Essex 2.0, a highly valued jack of all trades. Only Jerald Hawkins disappointed. If you have to go down eight slots to find a negative I think they’re okay.
This is a group that is capable making all three of the Steelers top runners look like superstars (Bell already is), and can, with minimal assistance keep Ben clean and give him time in the passing game, which we all know is absolutely lethal to opposing defenses. A point of interest is the ongoing evolution of Villanueva, who is far from being a finished product.
This position group has been a subject of discussion based upon what is an inconvenient truth. Given current resources, Ben Roethlisberger is the one player on this team that is indispensable. If he goes down for an extended period or in a season ending manner then the Steelers go from Super Bowl favorites to plucky underdogs.
You would love to have an insurance policy in the form of a veteran backup, preferably with a playoff pedigree like Michael Vick or Byron Leftwich, or even that savvy veteran, Charlie Batch, who can coax a victory or two out of guile and moxie. In this regard Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs don’t qualify. Nor do they show immediate signs of being that young, raw talent that, given the proper opportunity, could emerge into instant stardom. There is a confluence of three storylines here that each have contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction. They are:
Many years there is that one guy that Steeler Nation just loves to hate. The feeling is that if we could just cut or kill this guy that all obstacles to the Lombardi would be eliminated. For years it looked like Will Gay would retire the trophy, but then somehow the trance was broken and he has become beloved. Today, Landry is it. But is this fair? The national consensus of the regular season matchup between the Steelers and the Patriots in 2016 was of well-played game with an outcome that was not secured until late despite the fact that it was a duel between Tom Brady and Jones. Jones and the Steelers lost, but who doesn’t against Brady? Landry didn’t win the game, but he didn’t lose it either, which is what you would want from a backup in that circumstance.
Destined to be a training camp darling given his intriguing back story, some fans undoubtedly allowed themselves to imagine Dobbs as another fourth-round wonder similar to Seattle’s Russell Wilson, or the more recent Dak Prescott. Though there is much potential here, he currently is too raw to unseat the hated Jones at number two, much less function in the same area code as Ben.
What to do if this is, in fact, Ben’s last season? Fans remain in ignorance, or perhaps denial as to what a generational player and his passing means. When Ben hangs it up have those ashes ready and be prepared to rend those garments. You may have quite a wait for a satisfactory replacement. That realization may be behind some of the energy associated with the current push. But consider this as well; if this team solves the championship puzzle once then the pieces are in place for multiple successes, enough to not only insure Ben’s place as the greatest Steelers quarterback ever, but to challenge Brady’s legacy as well. But Ben probably wouldn’t care about anything like that. What do you think?
Le’Veon Bell, who is signed and in the fold, is the best in the business at his position. Three questions going forward: Can he stay healthy for the whole season? Apply that same question to rookie James Connor and fullback Rosie Nix. Can Terrell Watson continue to impress against top flight competition as opposed to down the roster personnel? If all the answers are yes, then the Pittsburgh running attack takes a backseat to no one, including its own passing game.
As impressive as the running game could be, it won’t be able to overshadow what could be developing among a receivers corps that is operating on all cylinders. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in football. Bryant at his best is more spectacular. Everyone who has seen him with their own eyes knows that if he can stay healthy JuJu Smith-Schuster is a special talent. As Homer says, he is a Lynn Swann/Hines Ward hybrid, if you can imagine that. Eli Rogers is showing a second year leap. Justin Hunter would be a star receiver on most other teams. Darrius Heyward-Bey is likely the fastest of the group, and would be really dangerous if he didn’t have a touch of the Ike Taylor Hands of Stone syndrome, for which there is currently no cure. However, his greatest value is on special teams, and maybe most importantly, as a leader in a room with young (Smith-Schuster, Rogers) and fragile (Bryant) talents.
I pushed back against the complaints that this position group was deficient, but apparently, I was wrong. Of all the moves made thus far, the one I have hated the most was the cutting of David Johnson. My position on Vance McDonald is wait and see. More growth and consistency from Jesse James and Xavier Grimble would be welcome, of course. It is the least strong unit of the offensive, but that is not to say that it is a weak link.