Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 First Quarter Report
photo via Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
Twenty five percent of the 2017 season is in the books, and now is a good time to take stock and see what we have learned and can look forward to as we move into October. Let me caution you at the outset to be careful about drawing broad conclusions from what has transpired. Despite the apocalyptic pronouncements coming from the football media and elsewhere, the general outcomes of this season are still far from being settled, no matter how promising or dire it appears for individual teams. It is quite possible that teams that seem Super Bowl bound won’t even make the playoffs, and I would remind you that a few years ago the Steelers, like the present-day New York Giants, began the season at 0-4 and missed the playoffs on the last play of the last game.
The bottom line
The Steelers went 3-1, which is what might be reasonably expected given the assumptions entering the season. The surprise, as it often is in early portion of the year, is how the successes and challenges played out. A loss to the Ravens in Baltimore would have neither surprised or particularly disappointed anyone. Instead this win may have well been the most solid victory so far. Pittsburgh came close to a perfect record in the first quarter. However, 3-1 is good enough for first place in the AFC North with favorable tie breakers, and is still well positioned to compete for top seeding in the conference. But this might not be the best news of the first quarter.
The best news of the first quarter.
The good fortune they experienced in the preseason continued through this latest game and the early weeks of the season, in that they have avoided catastrophic or long-term injuries. This is not to say that players haven’t been nicked and have missed games, but it is possible that, with the exceptions of IR denizens Cameron Sutton and Keion Adams, the Steelers could take the field against Jacksonville next week fully loaded. When was the last time that was possible?
The wild card.
Three things could have happened with the whole kneeling controversy, two of them bad. The first is that it could have become a distracting nuisance. It is possible that it had an impact on last week’s performance in Chicago, something I am sure we will never know for certain, unless and until someone writes a memoir down the line that reveals information and perspectives that will otherwise not see the light of day if the Steelers have any say in the matter. Second, it could have been genuinely divisive. Third, and I believe this close to the reality of things, it has become an opportunity and rallying point for unity and growth. It may very well be that it has served as a catalyst that strengthened this young group in a manner that few other things could have done. Learning that the love you receive from some within the fan base is thin and not so unconditional can be maturing, particularly to those who have commonly been the objects of adoration.
There has been a slight role reversal this week. Throughout the first quarter I have been railing against the decision making of offensive coordinator Todd Haley. This week was the first that I was largely pleased with the offensive game plan and how it was executed. But now we have to talk Rebecca down from the ledge. [Thanks for your concern, Ivan. I’m okay. Really. Some nice people came and got me and wrapped me in my Steelers poncho and are giving me tea and medications.]
I believe we got caught up in the expectation that it would be the offense that would be carrying this team, at least in the early going. As we all now know, things didn’t turn out that way. In addition to Haley, things didn’t seem quite right with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the offensive line or Le’Veon Bell. And while the performance in Baltimore fell somewhat short of explosive, they went a long way in alleviating concerns about the offense’s potential moving forward. [Honestly, I don’t care who carries the team as long as someone does. But given the amount of money which has been invested in the offense, I think many of us were looking forward to seeing them be what we have seen at training camp…]
The definitive answer to the question as to whether his holdout hurt his, and by extension, the team’s performance is yes. And if you think about it, imagine what he would have started if he could have arrived without participating in camp and performed at a higher level. Players all over would attempt to use that as justification for them blowing off camp and other preseason activities.
Well, he’s back now, and as Homer points out, a week earlier than last year, when he missed the first four games due to a suspension. We can also, thankfully, put to rest the notion that Bell may have been ‘fixed’ (athletically speaking of course) by his doctors, leading to loss of performance.
Roethlisberger said something interesting this past week in the form of a confession of sorts. He said he needed to do a better job of taking what the defense gives him, as well as not focusing solely on Antonio Brown and spreading the wealth a little more. Perhaps he over did it a little and contributed to AB’s tantrum over a legitimate opportunity in the Ravens game, but on balance what was on display was an offense that was a little less dramatic, more old school Steelers, if you will, but less inclined (save some penalties) to undercut themselves due to making low percentage choices (the Bryant pass excepted). What resulted was a performance that was far more impressive than the optics might indicate when you consider the quality of the defense and the stakes.
Obscured by the all the drama surrounding Bell and the offense generally has been the journey of Martavis Bryant. Having missed all of last season and the lion’s share of the off season due to the terms of his suspension, it was far from certain that he could regain form, and if so, how quickly. It’s looking promising at this point, both in terms of his performance on the field and his apparent stability.
The Baltimore game went some ways in silencing their critics, I suspect. Of greater importance is that because of some injuries along the way, B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard put in a good deal of time during the first quarter of the season. The good news is that few people noticed.
T.J. Watt isn’t the only impressive first year story on this team. JuJu Smith-Schuster is impressive in both quality and style, and James Connor along with Terrell Watson may give Pittsburgh its most impressive running tandem since Jerome Bettis was still in uniform.
As much as I would like to, I can be only so critical of the man given his great hustle play in Chicago, but Vance McDonald has obviously got an advanced case of the Ike Taylor Syndrome. Shouldn’t he be in a hospital or rehab facility? [I hear that Taylor has donated a large sum of money to his alma mater to study this killer. Probably too late for McDonald, though.]
They have had their problems giving up splash plays, but (surprise!) these have been running, not passing plays. But overall, they have been the grown-ups that have largely kept the ship afloat during these early days. They haven’t had that many failures, and both the offense and special teams can share some credit as enablers. Generally speaking, pressure on the quarterback, sacks and turnovers have been on the upswing from a similar period last year. And they, more so than the offense, have had the greater challenge in creating chemistry with a lot of strange new parts.
Throughout the team what is different from previous years is the lack of a feeling of dread when they must resort to playing ‘that guy’. I think it is more clearly on display with the defense. You may not have noticed, but the starting defensive line played a whole game together for the first time in Baltimore. There has been some conversation about the deeper meaning of James Harrison, William Gay and Arthur Moats not getting much playing time. It may not be more complicated than young players like Watt, Anthony Chickillo and Bud Dupree playing well. Mike Hilton is becoming what we had hoped the luckless Senquez Golson couldn’t manifest. J.J. Wilcox appears to be an upgrade over Robert Golden as a backup. The older veterans get to preserve their bodies and are available during the stretch run later, when younger players hit the wall and experience and guile have maximum value.
They played a key role in the first two wins, and were, arguably, the losing difference in Chicago (fumbled punt and blocked field goal leading to 10 points). The biggest long- term impact is that we appear to be back to square one in finding a replacement for AB for punt returns, and poor Eli Rogers has been banished to Palookaville.
The big picture.
Here is what we have learned:
• The AFC North isn’t all that good at the moment. If you pray at the altar of high seeding being the path to the Lombardi, then this is great news. On the other hand, if you believe that being battle hardened is more important then watch out for whomever emerges from the AFC West.
• New England may not be the boogieman we keep making them out to be. They came very close to being 1-3, play in a weak division and their last two championships are noteworthy because of what their opponents did to screw up. Like Pittsburgh, teams around the league are just now coming into their personalities, but perhaps we would be better served focusing in on the Week 6 opponent (the Chiefs), rather than the Pats.
• The belief was that first half of the season would be relatively easy compared to the latter half, but the upcoming second quarter could well be the most challenging. The weakest opponent are the Jaguars, who are wildly inconsistent, but convincingly thumped both the Texans and the Ravens. Kansas City may well be the best team in football. The Bengals have been on an upswing, and will certainly be at their best when they come to Pittsburgh. Detroit is a solid playoff caliber team. Matching the first quarter record could be a considerable achievement. 6-2 at the Bye would look really good.